After Thursday’s class, I began thinking about the boundaries of our ethical responsibility. Do they exist, and if so, where? Do we have obligation to every issue and problem we face? That option is paralyzing. Is there a caring, ethical, yet tenable, path forward?
Let me throw out the concept of spheres of influence to help with this dilemma. I’ve heard it expressed something like this: We have more moral obligation the closer a person or situation gets to us, both in terms of physical location and intellectually. Our greatest duty is to those in our closest communities and diminishes as one goes progressively further out. This never excuses me from neglecting danger or harm immediately before me, regardless of whether it falls within my expertise or not. Following this principle, I can’t walk right past the person in great duress but I may not have to step up to face every issue. Going out to wider “spheres,” my responsibility narrows depending on my expertise.
Zooming out to the national or global scale, my biggest personal responsibility for justice and ethical issues is related to my professional expertise of slope stability, for example. In this way I’m not ethically bound to confront water pollution issues such as those in DC but I should be ready to do something about landslides killing people.
For ethical problems outside my sphere of influence, I can still learn, becoming an educated member of the public. In doing so, I can help others be informed about important issues and possibly advocate for justice. For example, my wife and I are concerned about the state of agriculture in our country and the perils of agribusiness to us and our people. On a large scale, this issue lies outside of our sphere of influence. On a local scale, we can make decisions such as buying local food that are within our influence. On the other hand, this issue might be an important moral issue for another scientist, say in agriculture, to be active in confronting.
I see this general framework as a way to act ethically without “passing the buck” yet at the same time not becoming paralyzed by the myriad ethical issues that face us each day.