A Second Story


This case deals with a graduate researcher's multiple obligations and the conflicts of interest these obligations create.







Deborah is a graduate student in the field of historic preservation; she has taken many classes and has considerable technical knowledge. Her adviser suggests that she should now apply these skills to a preservation project in the local community. Therefore, she is excited when a local African-American pastor calls her about a preservation project. Reverend Howard is interested in preserving a house that his church owns. The house was built by Jesse Stewart, a legendary black abolitionist, who happens to be a former church member.

Through discussions with Rev. Howard, Deborah learns about the complicated history of the house. At Stewart's death 75 years earlier, surviving relatives tried to sell the house to the church to be used for charitable purposes. Toward this end, the church made an offer on the house. Unfortunately, for racially motivated reasons, a third party executor of the will secretly sold the house to a local Caucasian man, John Smith. The executor took this action without notifying the church or receiving consent from Stewart's surviving relatives.

Through preliminary research, Rev. Howard had documented that the Smiths owned and modified the house for 75 years. During this time, John and his wife, Maude Smith, destroyed many relics left by the abolitionist. After many years, they even succeeded in eventually hiding the true origins of the house from the local community by hiding the original deed and highlighting false rumors about the original construction of the house. At the death of Maude Smith, her children decided to sell the house. Aware that Rev. Howard and his congregation were trying to create a monument to Stewart and that their house had been built by this legendary figure, they gave the church the opportunity to buy the house.

Rev. Howard brought the offer to the church body, and they unanimously agreed to buy the house, even though the church would have to take out a loan. After finally gaining rights to the house, a new Board of Trustees was formed, consisting of church members and Rev. Howard, to oversee the restoration and preservation of the house. As spokesperson for the Board, Rev. Howard asked Deborah to research the history of the house and institute steps to restore the house to its original state. The Board plans eventually to open the house as a public museum.


Deborah's research consisted of a physical investigation of the house as well as interviews with the surviving members of the Smith family. Although the Smiths sold the house to the church, they are hesitant to work directly with the church Board. They are apprehensive that the Board of Trustees wants to change "their" house, of which they are still very fond. However, when Deborah approaches them, they seem willing to work with her. They appear to be more comfortable talking to her because she is not a church member. The Board, aware of the Smiths' ambivalence, appreciates Deborah's ability to act as a go-between.

During the physical investigation of the house, Deborah discovers that the Smiths added a second story. She follows up her investigation with tape-recorded interviews with Smith family members. During the interviews, Deborah asks when the Smiths constructed the second story. The Smith family says that the house has always had two stories; they cannot remember a time when the upper level was not present. When Deborah explains that many of the second story architectural and construction details suggest a much later date, the Smiths seem mildly offended at the implication that they are lying, but they do not change their story.

After the tape-recorded interviews are completed, Henry, a family member with whom Deborah has developed a strong rapport, pulls her aside. Henry says that he now remembers his mother once saying that she would not move into that "tiny run down shack" until the upper level was added and the house was made respectable for a white family. When Deborah asks if he will repeat this statement for the tape recorder, Henry refuses. He insists that his mother would have had no part in an interview such as the one Deborah is conducting, and out of respect for her, he does not want his mother's comment to be used in Deborah's research. He tells Deborah that the only reason he is even telling her is because the physical investigation suggests an inconsistency. As her friend, he wants her to know the reason.


After gathering all her data, Deborah begins to write the conservation plan. As a preservationist, she wants to recommend to the Board that the upper level be removed. To Deborah, this plan would be the most honest representation of history to the public. Unfortunately, the information from the physical investigation conflicts with the tape-recorded interview and does not justify this recommendation.The preservation code clearly indicates that unalterable changes should not be recommended unless there is clear evidence showing that possible historic fabric is not being unnecessarily destroyed. Using this guideline, Deborah does not have enough evidence to recommend demolition. If Deborah reports Henry's comment, she could recommend removal. Yet using his comment troubles her because he specifically withheld consent.


Deborah knows that Rev. Howard has always suspected that the second story is an addition and would like her to recommend demolition. Rev. Howard and the rest of the Board, are eager to tear down the upper level, not only because it would be costly to restore on an extremely limited budget but also because they want to "cleanse" the house of the Smiths' impact in a tangible way. However, the Board of Trustees is not the only party that will view the report. The Smiths have asked for a copy of the interviews and final report as compensation for their participation; both Deborah and the Board had agreed to this request. If the report includes Henry's comment and recommends demolition, Deborah knows that Henry will be angry and hurt. The Smiths have expressed willingness to do further interviews with Deborah and possibly even give her relics of the original house. As the only contact between the church and the Smiths, she does not want to hurt chances of further cooperation from the Smiths by alienating Henry.

Discussion Questions

  1. Deborah's actions will affect many people and groups. Who will be affected? What are Deborah's responsibilities to these parties? (Consider parties mentioned in the scenario as well as any others that may be affected.) What conflicts of interest do these responsibilities create for Deborah?
  2. Although Deborah does not have a contractual obligation to Henry, he spoke to her in good faith. Does she have an obligation to abide by his wishes? Explain.
  3. Deborah assumes she is the only person besides Henry with the knowledge that the upper level is not an original feature. Assuming he is unwilling to come forward, does Deborah have a responsibility to inform the church? Why or why not?
  4. Rev. Howard showed Deborah preliminary research that indicated that the Smiths deliberately destroyed historical artifacts and deceived their neighbors about the origins of their house. Deborah feels that these actions threaten the public's understanding and interpretation of history and hinder public recognition of Jesse Stewart and his struggle to end slavery. Does Deborah have any responsibility to ensure that further deception by the Smiths does not occur? Explain.
  5. Deborah feels that she must make a decision. She must decide whether to include Henry's "off the record" comments in her report to the church. Are there any creative alternatives she has not considered? What would be her best course of action? Are there any alternatives Deborah may need to bear in mind?
  6. How could Deborah have avoided this situation?
  7. Should the preservation profession institute any changes to help preservationists avoid situations like Deborah's? What changes, if any, would you suggest?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000.

. . A Second Story. Online Ethics Center. DOI:. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-4-2000/second-story.

In this case, it is very important to sort out the ethical questions facing Deborah and more general questions about what would be a desirable outcome. If, in fact, a second story was added to the house and it is the desire of the church, its new owner, to preserve the house in as close to its original form as possible, then removal of the newer section of the house would be a desirable outcome. Furthermore, if the background information about the motivations of previous owners of the house is reliable, we might add that justice is on the side of the church as well. However, as a graduate researcher and consultant in the field of historic preservation, Deborah must focus more specifically on her role in this controversy.

It is noted that "the preservation code clearly indicates that unalterable changes should not be recommended unless there is clear evidence." The rationale for this provision would seem to be that once an unalterable change is made, there is no going back. That is, if it turns out that the unalterable change is a mistake, the preservation project fails in a fundamental respect. In the present case, if the second story is destroyed and it later is confirmed that it was part of the original house, the effort to preserve the house in its original form fails. So, recommending the removal of the second story is a matter of crucial importance for the preservation project.

The case also indicates that, absent Henry's testimony, Deborah does not have enough evidence to recommend demolition. Should Deborah include his remarks to her in making her assessment? This question can be approached from two vantage points. The first focuses solely on the evidence; the second focuses on Deborah's relationship with Henry and the likely consequences of including his remarks in her considerations. I will explore these in turn.

Will the inclusion of Henry's remarks make the evidence strong enough to recommend removal of the second story? Here, I think, it is important to distinguish what Deborah believes is the case from the strength of available evidence. Given the rapport between Deborah and Henry, it is likely that Deborah believes that Henry is being truthful with her. Whether this means she also believes he is accurately recalling what his mother said is another matter. It is possible that Henry, though well-intentioned and sincere, has a mistaken memory. It seems important for Deborah to try to look at matters from the perspective of a preservationist who has not had a personal relationship with Henry. She could go to her adviser to discuss the question of evidence. She need not identify Henry as someone who has confided in her. She can put her questions quite hypothetically: "If someone in the family were to tell me privately that he or she had good reason to believe that a second story was added, could that count as strong evidence in favor of the hypothesis that a second story was, in fact, added? How would this claim be affected by the denials of other family members? Does it matter whether the family member would be willing to make his or her statement publicly?"

My guess, but it is only that, is that her adviser would say that the family member's remarks should not be regarded as evidence in themselves. However, they might well provide one with strong motivation to search for additional physical evidence that the second story was added to the original house. Absent further physical evidence, demolition of the second story should not be recommended. The adviser could also point out that, if clear evidence appears later, the second story can be removed. But if it is removed now and clear evidence shows up confirming that it was part of the original house, the mistake could not be undone.

In making her assessment, Deborah should also consider including Henry's remarks from the vantage point of her relationship with him and the likely consequences of relying on his statement in making her recommendation. As noted, absent Henry's statement, the evidence is not sufficient to warrant recommending the removal of the second story. If she allows Henry's remarks to affect her recommendation but keeps Henry's remarks confidential, she will not be able to show others that a recommendation to remove the second story is sound. However, I have also suggested that even the inclusion of his remarks will not, by itself, warrant this recommendation.

Given these facts, it seems inappropriate for Deborah to reveal Henry's remarks to others. He requested confidentiality. Although he is not Deborah"s "client," respecting someone's request for confidentiality carries some moral weight in itself. Even when one cannot appeal to a professional code of ethics for support, confidentiality should not be breeched without good reason. A likely consequence of making Henry's remarks public would be the sort of breakdown in communication and relationships predicted in the concluding paragraph of the narrative.

Deborah might be disappointed with the conclusion that she should not recommend the demolition of the second story of the house, but she should not view this conclusion as necessarily ending the matter. Her report should include not only the final recommendation, but also the reasoning that led to the recommendation. Assuming that there is some evidence that the second story was not part of the original structure, she certainly can include that evidence in her report. Not recommending that the second story be demolished is not equivalent to strongly recommending that large sums of money be invested in preserving the second story - or, at least, not in a way that could not be undone should stronger evidence show up later.

Author: Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

Question 1

This case deals with Deborah's multiple obligations and the conflicts of interest these obligations create. To fully understand the issues of this case, it is first necessary to catalog Deborah's obligations. While this step will not automatically distinguish which obligations are most important, it will help to clarify the problem. The following is a list of parties to whom Deborah has some obligation:

Rev. Howard and the Board -- Rev. Howard and the Board are Deborah's clients. She has a responsibility to act in their best interest, to help educate and inform them in the area of her expertise, and to be sensitive to their cultural needs as expressed by the Preservation Code of Ethics. She also clearly has a responsibility to research and record her findings to the best of her ability and to recommend a preservation plan that is consistent with her unbiased professional judgment.

The Smiths and Henry -- As their interviewer, Deborah has a responsibility to accurately report the Smiths' responses to her questions. As an interviewer she must also respect their privacy, not coercing or tricking them into answering questions they do not want to answer. In addition, she must not mislead them about the use of the taped interview.

The public -- As a preservationist, Deborah has a professional responsibility to accurately portray the historical nature of the house, clearly indicating what is original, new, restored, or simply unknown.

Church members -- The resources for the acquisition of the house as well as the restoration come from the church members. Deborah has a responsibility to wisely use the money with which she has been entrusted.

A larger African-American community -- Preservationists have had a somewhat unpleasant historical relationship with many African-Americans. In many instances, preservation legislation has lead to the destruction of African-American communities as historic downtowns have been gentrified. In addition, preservationists have historically focused on the more accessible histories of European-Americans, leading many people to view preservation as the documentation of white history exclusively. As a preservationist, Deborah should consider these historical issues and attempt to mitigate and/or rectify the harm that has occurred.

Other preservationists -- As a member of a profession, Deborah has an obligation to uphold the integrity of the field. Beyond performing her job honestly and following ethical guidelines, that means that she should address all of these parties tactfully. Whatever action she chooses should be carried out in a way that represents the field in a professional manner.

From this list of Deborah's obligations it appears that there is a distinct conflict of interest between her obligations to the Henry and to the Board. She must choose between including and not including Henry's comment. While her obligations to the other parties listed are very important, they will most likely inform, but not dictate, Deborah's course of action.

Questions 2 and 3 focus more specifically on Deborah's obligation to Henry and to the Board. By analyzing these obligations further using theories of moral philosophy, it is possible to decipher the relative importance of each of these obligations.

Question 2

During the interviews, Deborah asked permission to tape-record her conversations with the Smiths. When they gave permission, there was a very clear spoken contract that what they said during the interview would be recorded, transcribed and used in the final report. The spoken contract concerning the tape recorder also has an inverse implicit contract: The Smiths do not give permission to use their unrecorded comments without further consent. This agreement is made explicit when Henry refuses consent. In fact, it appears that Henry may have chosen to discuss his memory of his mother's comment after the interview, specifically because the tape recorder would no longer be on.

One could argue that there was no contract obligating Deborah to remain silent, therefore she should include Henry's comment. That would be taking a very narrow and technical view. It would probably not pass the "New York Times" test, which states that one should consider the reactions of a reasonable public before pursuing a questionable action.Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1989). In addition, it would not honor Deborah's obligations to the preservation field.

Henry has a right to have his request honored, to expect Deborah to keep their verbal contract. From the standpoint of respect for persons, therefore, it appears that Deborah has an obligation to respect Henry's request and not to include his comments about the second story in her report.

Question 3

Deborah has an obligation to the Board of Directors and their representative Rev. Howard to help them make informed choices about their property. Like Deborah's obligation to Henry, her obligations to the Board can be framed in terms of respect for persons. Respect for the moral agency of the Board members means that she must not hinder them in making free and informed choices about both their money and their property. This line of reasoning dictates that Deborah should inform the Board of Henry's off-the-record comment.

Respecting the Board's right to make their own informed choices should also lead Deborah to realize that many of her concerns about consequences are misdirected. While it is possible that the Smiths will become angry and refuse to work with the Board if Deborah discloses Henry's comment, Deborah's responsibility is to inform the Board of these perceived consequences. The right to make the decisions about the house and about a future relationship with the Smiths should be the Board's, not Deborah's.

From the preceding two questions, it becomes clear that both Henry and the Board have a valid claim. These claims must be compared to assess the importance of each. Philosopher Alan Gewirth has organizes the rights of the individual (and organizations) into three tiers. The first and most fundamental tier is that necessary for survival. As quoted in Engineering Ethics, the first tier of rights is "life, physical integrity, and metal health."Charles E. Harris, Jr., Michael S. Pritchard and Michael J. Rabins, Engineering Ethics. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995). Neither of the two parties in this case can claim that Deborah's decision will interfere with these rights. The second tier, the right to maintain meaningful fulfillment, includes the rights "not be deceived or cheated, the right to not have possessions stolen, and the right to not be defamed, and the right to not suffer broken promises."Ibid. From this tier it appears that both parties can make a claim. Henry can claim the right not to suffer from the breaking of a promise. He might also claim that he has the right to not have his words stolen, but it seems that he should have been more cautious about disclosing the information about the second story. The Board, on the other hand, has the right to not be deceived. Deception includes withholding information that they have a valid reason to be told. The last tier includes rights to self-improvement such as "the right to property, the right to self respect, and nondiscrimination."Ibid. At this level, it appears that the Board also has a claim. Henry does not want his comments revealed out of respect for his mother. Unfortunately, his mother would not have wanted her comment disclosed to Deborah because she was concerned that her family would not be seen as respectable if it was common knowledge that they lived in a house previously owned by an African-American. If Henry withholds this information, the Board will not be in a position to make an informed decision about the preservation of the house. While Henry feels the need to respect his mother's memory, he does not have the right to do so if it will violate the Board's rights.

From this analysis, it appears that the Board has stronger claims than Henry, and it appears that Deborah should tell the Board about Henry's comment. This disclosure will violate Henry's rights, and everything should be done to lessen the impact.

Question 4

While the preceding two questions were based on respect for persons, we should also look at a utilitarian view. Using a utilitarian argument, we need to look at the consequences of Deborah's actions and pick the solution that creates the greatest good. If Deborah keeps Henry's comment to herself, Henry and the Smiths will not have to witness the partial demolition of their childhood home. Henry will also feel that he is respecting his mother. Unfortunately, this action will mean that the church members spend money restoring and maintaining the second story. This money will not be available to be used for other benefits to the local community and the public at large. Additionally, the public will not see the most accurate representation that Deborah can give of Stewart's history.

If Deborah chooses to inform the Board of Henry's comments, Henry will feel betrayed. He may not trust Deborah or preservationists in general. However, in light of the negative impacts if Deborah does not inform the Board, Henry's mistrust seems less important. From the utilitarian approach, it appears that the greater good will be served if Deborah does inform the Church.J. Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999).

Question 5

Using both the utilitarian and respect for person approaches, it appear that Deborah should choose to tell the Board of Henry's comments. This argument is based on Deborah's view that there are only two alternatives. In fact, this view limits many other alternatives that Deborah should consider before resorting to telling the Board. A better approach would be to follow a contingency plan like the one outlined below.

First, Deborah should privately explain to Henry the consequences of keeping his comments a secret. She could discuss the fact that the church will spend money on an unnecessary part of the restoration and the church's right to make decisions about the property. If he is receptive, she could also discuss how his mother's actions and attitude have resulted in a loss of history for many people and ask him to help rectify this wrong. If she can convince Henry to come forward, she can honor all her obligations. This would be the best solution.

If it is not possible to convince Henry to come forward, Deborah should attempt to expand her search. She should attempt to find historic pictures of the house or other residents of the town who might have a recollection of the original house, research biographical accounts, and look for an increase in the house's recorded worth in deeds, censuses, and other historic records during the first year that the Smiths owned the house. If surviving relatives of Jesse Stewart are still living, they should also be interviewed. Finally, Deborah should do a further detailed inventory of the materials that make up the second story. It may be possible to find some physical evidence that confirms a later construction date.

This additional research will be costly. Deborah should first explain that she believes that the second story was not original and discuss the extent of her further research with the Board. As discussed in Question 3, the Board should be allowed to make informed decisions about the use of their money.

If further research does not bring new evidence to light, Deborah must decide whether to tell the Board of Henry's comment. However, this action should be approached cautiously. Simply including Henry's comment in a report that she hands to the Board and the Smiths seems to be a fairly tactless approach. It does not seem to respect the fact that her actions violate Henry's rights. Nor does it seem to hold up her professional obligations. Most importantly, this course of action would damage relations between the Board and the Smiths. It would not be in the best interest of the Board, nor allow them to be in control.

A better approach would be to relate Henry's comment to the Board privately before the report is written. The Board could then decide whether they want to keep this information confidential (possibly to be used after Henry's death) and/or whether to go ahead and demolish the second story. The Board may suggest that Deborah leave out the comment but still recommend demolition. If this happens, Deborah should inform the Board of the preservationist guidelines and of her responsibilities to uphold the integrity of her profession. As a preservationist, she cannot recommend demolition without thoroughly documenting that historic fabric is not being destroyed. Finally, if the Board decides that she should include the comment, Deborah should discuss the decision with Henry. She should show her concern for his rights and make him aware that she did not make the decision lightly. In every way possible, she should attempt to retain the good will of the Smiths.

Question 6

Deborah's situation is a result of her inability to foresee the possibility of conflicts of interests. In hindsight, Deborah should have been more careful about promising a copy of the report to the Smiths. While it may have seemed like a friendly gesture at the time, it clearly led to a difficult situation. She should have discussed with the Board and the Smiths other alternatives such as giving the Smiths a copy of the interviews or having a plaque hung in the museum to honor the Smiths' contributions. Additionally, Deborah should have made it very clear to the Smiths and especially to Henry that her obligations rested with the church. She could have let the Smiths know that what they said during the interview, whether on the record or off, was "fair game."Taft Broome, Jr., personal communication, July 24, 1999. This might seem fairly heavy-handed, but it is more appropriate than allowing conflicts of interest to arise.

Finally, the preservation community may be able to take actions to alleviate these types of situations. The preservation code of ethics, while addressing the responsibility to one's employer, does not discuss responsibility to the public or to others involved in the documentation process. The profession should probably discuss these obligations and formulate policies to use when conflicts of interest arise. The profession also might formalize the interview process. They could look to other professions such as psychology and anthropology for insight into dealing ethically with research participants. This research may lead to formalized consent forms and prescribed procedures or it may lead to profession guidelines. In either case, the result would help preservationists avoid situations such as this case discusses.


  • The preservation code clearly indicates that unalterable changes should not be recommended unless there is clear evidence showing that possible historic fabric is not being unnecessarily destroyed. Using this guideline, Deborah does not have enough evidence to recommend demolition.