Skip to main content


ICC 650
Box 571014

37th & O St, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20057

maps & directions

Phone: (202) 687.6400



What are the Civic Obligations to Provide Personal Data for Common Good Statistical Information?

Some time ago, I mused about a notion of “data ethics,” in a set of posts that was focused most on the obligations data collectors and data analysts had to the persons who data they were handling. Most of principles that I discussed had to do with protection of the privacy of individuals whose data were being collected and assurances that no individual harm could come directly from their provision of personal data.

This post takes a different perspective on personal data. It ruminates on the question of what obligations do residents of a society have to provide data to produce statistical information for common good purposes.

Most countries of the world have some system of institutions that collect data from individuals, aggregate them to produce statistical summaries, in order to inform the populace about its own characteristics. These generally inform about the welfare of the national population and various subgroups. For example, they describe the income distribution of households, educational achievements across subgroups, labor force participation, incarceration rates, agricultural production levels, cost of living changes, and a host of different attributes.

These basic indicators collectively provide the nation with a sense of how it’s doing. They inform us how the benefits of the society are shared across different subgroups. By comparing the same indicators over time, the country can judge whether things are getting better or getting worse.

Indeed, such indicators are a foundational component of a democracy. They help the people judge whether the performance of elected officials merits the continuation of their service or whether the country needs new leadership.

In these days of data breeches, we are reminded nearly daily of misuse of personal data to harm individuals, profiteering from personal data without full consent of those who supplied the data, and numerous other events that heighten our concerns about personal privacy. One is tempted to react to these events by avoiding sharing any personal data with anyone, as a way to maximize one’s own privacy protections.

However, obviously, none of the statistical indicators that the democracy needs to guide decisions of residents would be available to the nation if individuals chose not to agree to supply their personal data for such statistical purposes.

So, in parallel with our discussions about protecting our own privacy, I’d like to see us all engage in a discussion about what civic obligations we have to contribute to common good statistical indicators. When asked by a government statistical agency to participate in a survey that produces such statistical indicators, for what reasons to people frame the request as an unwarranted intrusion into their private lives? In what way, can such requests be viewed as a chance for public service to the common good?

9 thoughts on “What are the Civic Obligations to Provide Personal Data for Common Good Statistical Information?

  1. Individuals will probably respond to requests for personal data that is to be used for the common good according to an individual’s current stage of moral development (referring to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development).

    Stage 1: provide the data in order to avoid being punished (thus not providing data unless there are sufficient penalties).

    Stage 2: provide the data in order to obtain something (thus not providing data unless there are sufficient quid-pro-quo inducements or the personal benefit derived from personally promoting the common good has been adequately communicated).

    Stage 3: provide the data in order to be considered a good citizen (thus providing the data for a “pat on the back” or in order to conform to an internalized sense that providing data is part of being a good person).

    Stage 4: provide the data in order to obey the law (thus providing the data if a law requires such provision).

    Stage 5: provide the data because one is a good citizen (thus providing the data if such provision is part of a social contract).

    Stage 6: provide the data in order to benefit others (thus providing the data if the benefit of the data to others has been adequately communicated).

  2. By virtue of the origins of clinical data with individual patients, and because these … privacy, and statistical challenges associated with data aggregation and provides … to patient clinical information by supporting strong obligations for data stewards.

  3. I think what comes to play here is the distrust and this situation is worsened by the constant failure of government and its agencies to come up with a solution. First, the government should focus on law regarding data breach and data piracy. Secondly, they need to campaign and build trust for data sharing. Finally, they should allow the citizens to choose and control the data they share, i.e. A person can opt out from identifier data to be displayed such as name, ssn and insurance number, whereas he can show his data about income, property and other things.

  4. Bill, I’ve been looking for demographic breakdowns (nationally or globally) and haven’t found anything more precise than something along these lines: “Only 10-15% are capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for stage 5 or 6 (post-conventional morality). That is to say, most people take their moral views from those around them and only a minority think through ethical principles for themselves.”

    Kohlberg’s Stage of Moral Development is a model that has been used by school teachers and Sunday School teachers as a reminder to pitch moral lessons to appropriate age levels. In my current field, motivations for philanthropic giving are often pitched at Level 6 (which makes sense since that is the ideal motivation for philanthropy), but one still has PBS and others offering inducements that fit with Level 2 (since the lower levels still come into play even when someone also operates at higher levels). Still knowing a breakdown of the proportions of potential donors who respond at different levels of moral development would be useful, at least for mass appeals such as annual fund mailings. For higher levels of giving, major gift officers gain a sense of what motivates individual philanthropists assigned to their portfolios.

    In diplomacy, the public approach often involves pitching to Stage 6 while privately pitching to Stage 1. Thomas Schelling’s work on deterrence and compellence (see Arms and Influence) fits well with this model. George Herbert Walker Bush was a master at this (as President and as UN Ambassador, often developing personal relationships and then pitching to Stage 3). Knowing the stage at which a decision maker operates can be useful.

    I’ll continue to look for demographic research relevant to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. In the meantime, I recommend pitching to all six levels (or at least having six types of pitches in one’s toolbox or arsenal).

  5. I have found several assertions (but not the primary source) of the following:

    Kohlberg estimated that only 20 to 25% of the adult population attains the postconventional level of morality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

Connect with us via: