Oppressors in social issues are often characterized along racial, gender, class and political lines. However, these traditional lenses may, at times, obscure fully understanding the thoughts, mindsets, and actions that lead to irresponsible, negligent, unethical, immoral and illegal actions. In the case of the Flint Water Crisis, and other similar crises, where those in power are charged with protecting the public, it is important to understand the root-cause of their failing. Likewise, it is important to understand who the victims are and understand their suffering first-hand. While an understanding can be gained through research, it is often constrained and even biased by the dominant narrative.
In this case, it may benefit us to look beyond traditional social and political lines of demarcation to understand what possessed those in power to hold onto their positions of power at all or any costs. We need to ask, what drives power actors to do, or not do, what they ought? How should social and economic factors be considered, weighted and balanced? To date, five different government officials have been indicted, and the common denominator is that each held and misused high-level positions of power. Each seemed to choose to act in their own best interest rather than in the best interest of society.
An often-overlooked element, which may represent the real crisis among the ‘power elite,’ is a lack of a guiding moral ethic, a plumb line that, regardless of the personal or professional fallout, they would not cross. The Flint water crisis illustrates a desperate need for governing officials, at all levels, to operate transparently by a set of values and norms rather than depend solely on the law. But where do these values, norms, and standards come from? Who sets these standards and who do these standards benefit? Once in place, how do citizen gain voice or agency to hold those in power to these moral and ethical standards so that the best interest of society is considered before a crisis reaches criminality?
Once a crisis becomes a legal issue the ‘ethic’ defaults to liability and plausible deniability, not the public good. While legal justice may prevail in the end to the point that one feels vindicated but in most cases cannot and does not erase the hardship, suffering and loss that has transpired. It’s time that we set aside the most obvious divisional lines, and to look at how power unchecked, regardless of the social stature, corrupts.
The Flint case serves as a useful case from which we can explore the role and importance of an ethical framework for traditional professions and professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc.) and government workers who have a specific and stated obligation to the public. Lessons learned from the Flint case can be applied in other disciplines or areas of inquiry. An emerging socio-technical ecosystem that is of interests to me, and that needs such a framework (e.g. guiding values, ethics, norms, and laws, etc.) is cyberspace, as it touches and shapes the lives or more than half the world’s population.