Spheres of Influence

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.

6 thoughts on “Spheres of Influence

  1. On so many issues, you are the public, and surprisingly, you might be able to do more good in that role than in your work. Your freedom and passion can lead you great places…if and when you want to get involved.

  2. I agree that we are the public most of the time. In fact, despite being a civil engineer, I am closer to being part of the public on the DC lead and TCC cases. In my examples, I didn’t really talk about the middle ground of being active in our local communities on justice and ethics issues. The good that the public activists in the TCC case have done seems to be a good example of this. Are those folks bound to act? Maybe, maybe not. Is this issue within their sphere of influence, even if it’s not their so-called expertise? Probably, yes. Is there room for going above and beyond our moral and ethical “duty”? Absolutely! I believe that seeing the different levels of responsibility that we have is what frees us from feeling like we must respond to every issue. In that freedom, we can respond to those issues close to us physically, or close to our heart.

  3. Great points. I think that the ability to influence an issue is independent of expertise. Granted, a non-expert’s impact might be different from an expert’s, but that doesn’t mean that the former is necessarily weaker or less effective than the latter. Sometimes, the oposite is the case. The two can work in a complementary way as well. Of course it is impossible for a single individual — experts or non-expert — to take on every problem in the world. Your post made me think that an additional parameter to consider in prioritizing one’s duties is, from a professional standpoint, one’s social contract with the public. If there are segments of the public (locally, nationally, or internationally) that have placed (directly or indirectly) their trust on an expert to protect and promote their wellbeing, this expert has a clear moral responsibility to carry out his/her work ethically and to avoid abuses of power. When such a relationship of dependence is not part of the equation, however, one might still feel a moral obligation to get involved, but deciding to do so or not is a personal call.

  4. To clarify / revise my thoughts slightly, I was trying to help us/myself parse the situations where I must act from those where it is not an obligation. This is subtly different from assessing the impact or ability to good in a situation. A so-called expert may or may not have a greater influence towards solving a problem, but if it is his/her field then action is required, especially if a professional social contract exists like you mention. That does not mean that the expert will do a better job at addressing the issue. For example, a structural engineer may see an unsafe building, try to do something about it through official channels, and make slow progress. At the same time, a concerned citizen with no technical training may be able to push to get the problem fixed quickly. The engineer obviously has an obligation to society to act even if it’s not his project but he is not as successful. Hopefully this simplistic example helps with the distinction that I’m trying to make.

  5. I like the idea you mentioned about how we have more responsibility to be involved within our sphere of influence, which is usually in closer physical or intellectual proximity to us. For me, it is easy to imagine myself doing some great thing to help suffering people in a third world country somewhere once I have “more time” and “more money”. Those kind of thoughts I think can actually stop me from noticing problems all around me that I could help with right now. So delineating our sphere of influence can help us be more involved in more issues. It will help us see what we can do here and now.

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