Can We Fix the System?

The Tonanwanda Town Meeting we had in class was a great learning experience.  I was struck by the unique perspectives that each individual interviewee brought to the table.  Hopefully we all gained greater insight into the complexity of the situation and the way forward for Tonawanda.

Nearly all of the speakers highlighted stronger and more compassionate involvement by the local government as a common need.  While state and federal agencies such as the DEC and EPA must do their jobs and enforce the laws, the people need to feel the support of their towns and communities.  Real solutions to complex, inherently local problems do not come from bureaucracy.  Rather, solutions may come when local officials, who understand the pros and cons of both regulation and industry within the local context, use their power to care for their citizens.  A great example of this was the actions of Berks County Commissioner, Mark Scott, against Exide in Toxics in the Air, Worry on the Ground.  On behalf of his constituents, Scott protested the new permit issued to Exide by the Pennsylvania DEP.  While not it does not necessarily fix “the system,” intercession by local leaders can greatly ease the burden on individuals or community organizations like CACWNY.  As Kimlyn Bender observes in “The Mask,” “Ethical renewal must be a grass roots movement.”

The question still remains, “Is the ‘system’ broken?”  The same question came up again and again in our Tonanwanda Town Meeting.  How are we to think about the system of environmental regulation in our country?  What about the system of science, in general?  The many voices we heard expressed a wide range of opinions on this topic.  Is anyone right?

At its core, the environmental system is broken because all of our systems are broken.  Why?  Because humankind is broken.  We are inherently self-serving.  We have a propensity for wrongdoing as thinkers such as C.S. Lewis and Nitin Nohria have observed.  Borrowing a term from Golding, Bender asserts that our “‘essential illness’ is…rebellion.”  This brokenness is nothing new.  The rich and powerful have always exploited the poor and powerless.  The prophets of the Bible’s Old Testament are filled with indictments against the injustice to which humanity is prone.  In the 8th century B.C., Isaiah writes

Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.

Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.

They do not bring justice to the fatherless,

and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

(Is. 1:23, ESV)

From a Christian worldview, we have no hope to fully fix our brokenness or cure our sickness on our own.  Utopia, the perfect ‘system’ will not come about by our power.  The only hope for true renewal comes through humbly asking for help from the God of the Bible.  If we truly want a true solution to our ethical problems, “we must seriously reconsider the necessity of religion for morality” as Bender states.  As a Christian, I don’t hope for complete change of humanity in this life, but rather see my responsibility to humbly serve and love others as I have been loved.  My focus must be making a difference in the lives of those around me, not necessarily “changing the world.”

So how does this all apply to Tonawanda?  It seems that we must not put all our eggs in the basket of “changing the system.”  This sort of utopian goal is ultimately paralyzing, because we see the impossibility of complete change as long as man’s heart is evil.  Rather, action should focus on the real, specific people around us, rooted in love for them. In his book Ethics, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a great example of ethical heroism in WWII Germany) writes that ethics must focus on concrete reality not abstraction.  He shows us that we can’t just sit back and “think great thoughts” (Scheider 2012) about ethics, worrying about how we can change the system.  In the end, we must focus on the real ethical demands before us.  For Tonawanda and other communities, the real change will take place as the local community works together.  Surely we, and they, can seek broader changes where we are able, but we can’t let big goals blind us from real, local actions before us.

Ask yourself – “Are there concrete, specific ways in your scientific endeavors that you can better care for or love the real people affected by your work?”

Ethics in Earthquake Engineering

The headlines blare:

Italian Seismologists Are Going to Jail for Not Being Able to Predict the Future

Scientists aghast over Italian quake verdicts

Italy Orders Jail Terms for 7 Who Didn’t Warn of Deadly Earthquake

These are just a few of the articles about an interesting ethical dilemma in the civil engineering and geosciences world that hit the news again yesterday.  It is particularly interesting to me since earthquake engineering is a branch of my field of geotechnical engineering.

If you’re not familiar with this story, it starts in 2009 when Italy experienced a series of small earthquakes.  The public began to be nervous because of the increased seismic activity and specific predictions of a larger quake by a local man without training in seismology.  A commission meeting of Italy’s foremost seismologists was called to assess the risk posed by these small tremors.  They decided that the likelihood of a large earthquake was still very small and issued no safety warning.  Some of the commission members gave encouraging messages about the earthquake risk, trying to allay public anxiety.

Six days later a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing about 300 people.

The Italian court just ruled against the seven men in the commission, sentencing them to 6 years in jail and invoking large fines.  The inability of seismologists to predict earthquakes is not being questioned.  Neither are their calculations.  Rather the verdict rests not on the failure of these men to clearly characterize the risk and communicate that risk to the local government and the public (Bergeron 2011).  The scientific community, specifically in seismology, has been in an uproar, calling the decision ridiculous and claiming that it will chill scientific discourse and earthquake research.

In the context of our class, it is interesting to ask – did the seven men act unethically?

It seems to me that the commission acted out of a utilitarian perspective, which lies behind the probabilistic methods that they used to assess the earthquake risk.  From this view, the balance tips decidedly in the direction that the commission chose.  The increased risk of a large earthquake was very small and could not be used to justify the costs associated with evacuations and lack of production for an indeterminate time period.  Their decision in a utilitarian context is quite defensible and moral.

However, the lack of clear communication regarding the increased risk suggests a power differential and an absence of true care for the public by the commission, possibly in the broader seismological community.  Rather than attempting to be responsive to the public’s concerns, the commission white-washed the situation, likely assuming that the public could not understand the subtleties of the science.  In one sense they were right.  Most people have an extremely hard time understand tiny probabilities like 0.01%.  The difficulty of performing a duty, however, does not absolve one from doing it, or at least making an attempt.  As pointed out by seismologist Greg Beroza for a 2011 Stanford Report article, the seismology community must learn to do a better job at helping the public understand these risks.  He and groups of international experts have called for regular “seismic forecasts” in earthquake-prone areas.  Beroza is quoted in the Stanford article, “We have to do our best to communicate what we do know about earthquake probabilities.”  Eventually, the public would get used to understanding these probabilities, just like following the weather, he claims.

The key component of this approach is that an avenue of communication, and with that a relationship, would be opened between the scientists and the public.  Seismologists and other scientists in similar situations must not assume that they should decide how much information the public can “handle.”  In doing so, they may endanger the public, and as this case shows, expose themselves to extreme scrutiny.  Through the lens of care ethics, the commission acted immorally, not in its assessment of the risk, but rather by unclear communication with the public.

BUT does a violation of care ethics, a moral misstep of this sort, justify criminal punishment?  I don’t think so.  Without knowing all the details, it does not seem that they broke the law or even acted outside of the standard of care within their professional community.  The seismology community should assuredly try to learn from the mistakes made by this commission and improve its communication with the world.  It should not have to pay by incarcerating seven of the very men who are best equipped to help situations like this from occurring again.

Something’s missing

I appreciate the even-handedness of the discussion of moral theory that we’ve had in class.  We’ve all been given some more tools to better assess the ethical decisions and dilemmas before us, and better yet to understand the philosophies that others bring to the table.  We’ve seen that none of these theories are foolproof, yet each provide a useful perspective on our moral decisions.

I find myself drawn to the concept of Care Ethics.  It moves away from the cold, calculating ideals of many other theories to a place where moral decisions are made with both our head and our heart.  While it may be relatively new as an “officially” articulated moral theory, it seems that care ethics has been around in practice for a very long time.  It seems to embody the way that many people actually make decisions whether consciously or not.  Care ethics also seems very close to the Christian idea that only “faith working through love” counts for anything (Galatians 5:6).  Actions are to be guided by love, which is really just a stronger form of the “care” ideal.

However at a deeper level, something is missing from the discussion.  Care ethics, at least as presented by van de Poel and Royakkers, is lacking justification for its claims.   It champions the moral significance of our relationships with other people.  People have dignity and thus care for them is at the heart of moral action.  It must be asked, why are relationships good?  From whence comes humankind’s inherent dignity?  Similar questions arise with utilitarianism, duty ethics, and virtue ethics:  

  • What definitions of good, evil, pleasure, pain, and happiness are to be used within the utilitarian rubric?
  • Why is Mill’s freedom principle morally right?
  • On what basis do we accept Kant’s concept of good will as true or moral?
  • Who defines what is virtuous or not?
  • How does one judge what is virtue to begin with?

The answers to these and many other questions regarding the starting points of moral theory are not philosophically self-evident.  They don’t answer themselves.  They beg for the existence of objective moral truths or force us to acknowledge that at the very core our moral judgments are based on a relativistic foundation.  In their discussion of moral theory, van de Poel and Royakkers don’t tackle the question of existence of absolute vs. subjective truth.  And maybe they didn’t intend to.  Similarly this class has whetted our appetite to the intriguing world of moral philosophy, and its job is not to answer these questions.  But I do believe as we wade through the world of moral philosophy, we must all struggle with these epistemological issues – what we believe and how we know it to be true – before or at least concurrently with our striving to choose an appropriate moral worldview or lens.  If not we will ultimately find ourselves confused about the most basic assumptions of our moral framework or stuck in the morass of relativism.

Ethics in the Consulting World

This week’s readings on organizations have made me reflect on my experience working in a mid-sized geotechnical and geoenvironmental consulting firm.  While some of the statements by Harris et al. and Alford resonate, I’m not sure that all types of companies and engineers fit within their paradigms.

For example, I’m not sure that every organization/company is feudalistic.  In general, my experience in consulting was not that way.  I rarely if ever felt like a vassal in under the thumb of an all-powerful engineering manager.  That’s not to say things were perfect, or that politics weren’t present.  But we had a relatively fluid structure and significant amount of autonomy within the firm. Because of its size, our firms owners were also the primary managers and also the principal engineers.  This meant that there was no real separation existed between the engineering staff and the managerial staff.

I was also intrigued by the distinction between managerial and engineering decisions made by Harris et al.  In the context of consulting engineering that I was exposed to,  it really difficult to think of many situations were this type of dilemma would have come up.  Our typical job was provide geotechnical recommendations to an outside client.  If they chose to ignore these recommendations, the client could do so, for good or for bad.  During the design phase of projects, we would provide both general and specific recommendations as required by our contract with little managerial consideration, aside from engineering judgment calls – more about this in a minute.  On the construction end of a project, the managerial and the engineering are often separated among different firms.  Managerial duties fall to the construction company or manager while engineering duties are performed by separate firms with contracts directly with the owner or sometimes through the construction manager.  The final decision falls to the owner with the combined advice of the other professionals on the project team.

Geotechnical engineers, arguably more than any other branch of civil engineering, must make engineering judgment calls based on limited data.  Are these ethical decisions?  Can they be examples of the engineering vs. managerial conflict presented by Harris?  At least sometimes, yes.

Let me give an example.  My firm was asked to provide construction observation and materials testing services (a lucrative and badly needed project) for a new shopping center being built by a good client of ours.  Design recommendations had been provided by another firm and included bearing foundations directly on the shale bedrock present on the site.  Based on nearby experience, this shale was known by our firm to be expansive, meaning that it could cause serious structural issues to the buildings in the future.  We did not have data showing that the conditions were problematic, but in our best engineering judgment could not go along in silence with a project we felt was doomed to problems in the future.  We tried convincing the client to change the design but that proved cost-prohibitive for them.  In the end we decided to turn down the work based on our engineering judgment and the managerial consideration of the potential liability incurred by being part of the project team.  The managerial concerns of pleasing a client and potential profits were superseded by concerns rooted in engineering.

The legal quandary faced by whistle-blowers, which Alford describes, also has a parallel for many small consulting firms.  These firms often face lawsuits on projects where they did nothing wrong, aside from being associated with a project where something went awry.  Both parties are in a relative sense the little guy in our expensive legal system.  While the lawsuits may come for very different reasons, neither party has the financial wherewithal to weather long lawsuits that rarely decide in their favor.  In their position as defendants, it is almost always cheaper to settle the case by paying up than fighting it in court.  The question begs: Is it unethical to implicitly admit wrongdoing by settling just to save money?  More importantly, what can be done about our system to remedy these situations?

A New Chapter – Engineering Ethics

So I’m off on another chapter in my short and sporadic blogging career – a class in engineering ethics.  I’m actually quite enthused about the class and its pedagogy.

I was inspired earlier today by the stories of Palchinsky and Cuny told in the first chapter of Harris et al. (2009).  In addition to being top notch engineers, these men devoted much of their lives to helping people.  They observed need within their workplace or world and then acted within their capabilities as engineers to alleviate that need, in both cases to their own ultimate peril.  We too seldom in engineering are encouraged to consider the plight of those who have received less privilege than ourselves, or how our engineering decisions can have an impact to change those circumstances.

Another point in the Harris book also struck me, regarding the importance of case studies in fields like engineering.  Our problems are real and use oriented.  They impact real people and are inherently not abstract.  Yet too often we approach ethics from an ivory tower with moral theory and philosophical posturing.  The study of real case studies helps us to break that temptation and live in the concrete reality of complicated situations in a messed-up world.  I’m especially excited about exploring this through the two case studies in this class.  Pedagogically speaking, I’m intrigued by the idea of plunging students into a case like that in Tonawanda and am curious to see how this immersion-type learning actually works out in person.