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.