Normative Ethics and the Right to Privacy

Recent advances in technologies have prompted a new consideration of e-mail, use of e-mail, and its relation to ethics. Millions of users in all parts of the world use e-mail to communicate with each other. In many instances, e-mail is the only way for people to stay connected with their friends, relatives, and family members.

Those who use e-mail always expect to have a certain degree of privacy. However, they cannot guarantee that after their death, their parents or relatives will not have access to their messages. Neither deontological nor utilitarian perspectives justify parents’ willingness to access and read their deceased son’s correspondence. It is a direct breach of the personal right to privacy, which does not lead to any positive outcomes.

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In 2005, Susan Llewelyn Leach published a story of deceased US marine Justin Ellsworth and his parents. According to Leach (2005), after Justin’s death, Ellsworths decided that they had the right to access and read their deceased son’s e-mail correspondence. They requested the right to his e-mail from Yahoo!, which refused to give out the young man’s password (Leach, 2005).

Ellsworths sued Yahoo!, and the court ruled that Yahoo had to provide Justin Ellsworth’s parents with access to his e-mail account (Leach, 2005). It goes without saying the decision enraged and horrified e-mail users, who always expected to have a certain degree of privacy in e-mail communication (Leach, 2005). It appears that, after death, families can be granted access to their deceased relatives’ e-mails. The most important question is whether or not it is ethical for a third party to access and use deceased persons’ e-mail correspondence.

Deontological and utilitarian ethical theories can shed light on the relevance and implications of e-mail use in the technological age. Utilitarianism (consequentialism) focuses on the consequences and outcomes of particular behaviors (O’Donohue & Ferguson, 2003). Based on utilitarian ethics, “one should act in such a way as to increase the total amount of happiness for society in general” (O’Donohue & Ferguson, 2003, p.29).

Put simply, whether or not an act or decision is ethical depends upon the consequences, to which this act or decision may lead. Unlike utilitarianism, deontology focuses on the rights and rules and disregards consequences (O’Donohue & Ferguson, 2003). Duty is the main focus of deontology (O’Donohue & Ferguson, 2003). Deontological ethics claims that individuals must act so as to turn their acts and decisions into a universal law (O’Donohue & Ferguson, 2003).

E-mail is a frequent object of discussion in literature and a matter of serious privacy concern. Privacy is usually defined as individual interest in controlling and handling personal data (Clarke, 2006). Ethical scandals involving e-mail correspondence are not uncommon (Anonymous, 2005).

The current state of legal science does not provide an answer to the question of whether e-mails must have the same degree of privacy protection as personal data and telephone conversations (Claburn, 2009). However, it is clear that neither deontological nor utilitarian ethics justifies accessing and using personal e-mail by a third party.

From the deontological perspective, the court’s decision to give Ellsworth’s parents legal access to his e-mail is a direct violation of his privacy rights. The fact of death does not affect this right; unfortunately, Justin Ellsworth is no longer able to protect his rights in court. From the viewpoint of utilitarianism, the court’s decision can become an important precedent and a role model for thousands of other parents to follow.

However, no one knows what can happen, once parents and family members discover what is written and stored in their children’s e-mails. Moreover, e-mails will never help parents to revive their children. Accessing and using someone else’s email is feasible and ethically justified, only if a crime or crime intentions are involved. Even then, e-mails should be used reasonably and within the limits needed to resolve the crime.

It is not clear what exactly Ellsworths wanted to achieve, when they asked the court to give them legal access to their son’s email. What exactly did they want to know? Did they feel that the e-mail correspondence would give them a sense of being close to their son?

Unfortunately, parents do not always realize that their children are personalities, with their own inner worlds, interests, desires, and secrets. Justin Ellsworth’s parents should not have been given access to his email. In light of these ethical and legal controversies, legal experts must focus on the analysis of e-mail use, its effects on privacy, and its implications for ethics.


Rapid advances in technology have turned e-mail into a routine means of communication. Millions of people in all parts of the world use e-mail to stay connected with their parents, family members, relatives, and friends. Those who use e-mail always expect to have some degree of privacy. E-mail companies and providers devise complex strategies and implement policies to preserve users’ anonymity. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that accessing and using someone else’s e-mail is a serious violation of privacy.

The latter is an individual interest in controlling and managing personal data. Justin Ellsworth’s parents should not have been given access to his e-mail correspondence. Neither deontological nor utilitarian ethics justifies the use of e-mails by a third party. It is a violation of the individual right to privacy and an act that may lead to unpredictable results. In light of these controversies, legal experts must focus on the analysis of e-mail use, its effects on privacy, and its implications for ethics.


Anonymous. (2005). E-mail ethics, risks, and responsibilities. ITS Times. Retrieved from

Claburn, T. (2009). U.S. court weighs e-mail privacy, again. Information Week. Retrieved from

Clarke, R. (2006). Introduction to dataveillance and information privacy, and definitions and terms. Roger Clarke. Retrieved from

Leach, S.L. (2005). Who gets to see the e-mail of the deceased? The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

O’Donohue, W. & Ferguson, K.E. (2003). Handbook of professional ethics for psychologists. NY: SAGE.