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Ethics: A reflection of power and privilege

I come from a privileged background in many respects. Both of my parents work in higher education, and both my sibling and I are (still) pursuing post-undergraduate degrees. The value put on all the information and connections constantly swirling around in my head was never in doubt.

Sometimes, when I discuss ethics, thinky-thoughts happen…

Simply being in the context of a graduate seminar focused on ENGINEERING ETHICS is a reflection of much of my privilege. In my mind, the theory and application of ethics also reflects power. Who, for example, has the power (sometimes conflated with authority) to make decisions? Who has the power to interpret these decisions and enact changes? Where does this power come from? Do these choices and changes apply equally to all the different potential stakeholders in any specific process or site, or are some people and groups, in the words of Orwell, “more equal than others”?[1]

What happens, then, we as private/professional individuals and as the faces representing and interacting with organizations follow different sets of ethics?  How do these different codes compare to each other, and what do we do when they clash?

These questions are part of what brought me to this specific space, drawing upon all of the inherent privileges of being a graduate student at Virginia Tech. I was able to make the decision to enroll, not because some committee agreed that this course would be part of a plan of study (but here’s hoping it gets approved as such!), or because an advisor told me to, or because I needed so many credits and I heard this was an easy course that wouldn’t ruin my GPA.

I made this decisions based on my own curiosity and interests, and waited anxiously for the start of the semester. I’ve wondered previously (usually internally) about the lack of discussion in STEM courses; the material each semester, no matter the course, is typically presented with the unspoken “This is content. Apply the math. Don’t ask questions – unless it’s about the process (e.g., math or logical sequence of events).” This leaves out all the OTHER steps of the process, the context that these math problems are situation within in a “real-world” problem.


Lead Awareness and You (Us?)

One example of this comes from the Lead Awareness Week brochure that was part of our readings. I went down a bit of a rabbit hole trying to find information regarding “How Do I Know if I Have a Lead Water Service Line?” Granted, there WILL be difference between the materials available online in 2002 and 2016, but what I found reflected back some of the power and privilege issues that I was muddling through earlier in my post.


The brochure’s options for determining this information were:

  1. Hire a licensed plumber
  2. Check the city’s record of building permits (via phone)
  3. Check the records of materials in distribution system (again, via phone)

I will try to briefly tug out a few of the issues with this informational system, and why they might impact the people who obtained these brochures.

Option 1: If you hire someone, it is a generally accepted practice that you will pay them for their time and expertise; we observed this exchange as the intro to Trust (which, now that I am thinking about it, might be an in-class reading assignment; in either case, it’s up as part of the course Scholar resources). If you do not have the money to pay a plumber to just check something for your own piece of mind, you aren’t going to spend that money; there is a different level of imperative NEED involved with FIXING an obvious problem instead of investigating to FIND a potential problem.

This also might mean that you need to be there in-person during the inspection. Which might require you to take off from your previously scheduled life – work, school, any other plans you might have made. Again, there is not necessarily flexibility in scheduling to deal with potential, instead of realized, problems. This also might explain why people value new, shiny things and immediate fixes over maintenance.

Options 2 and 3: I lived through 2002, so I remember what I will happily refer to as life “pre-facebook” – cell phones were becoming more ubiquitous, but typically, calling a phone number meant that you were tying up the phone line (for the ENTIRE HOUSE) and potentially your dial-up Internet Access while you tracked down information and waited on hold for the next customer service representative. Again, this also presupposes access to a phone to make the call. In my current existence, I don’t HAVE a home phone, just my cell; if the battery dies during a power outage, guess what – NO PHONE and NO INFORMATION. And, again, finding information can be a time sink.

Something that they did not mention was the possibility to head down to their offices personally to inspect the city records. This requires access to transportation, their ADDRESS, and potentially cold hard cash to make copies of records.

I looked at the current DCRA website to try and find an “easier” search method. There is no a direct link to look up this information; I ended up using the search function for the site itself to look for records. Here are some screenshots of what I found; nothing explicitly states that if you are looking for building permits specifically related to water issues, go HERE.

Instead, information seekers are left with a hodgepodge of clues about where to look and how much it might cost. If you are a new homeowner (or a home renter), you might not necessarily know (or have any way of finding out) how many building permits went into constructing your home; you might know the age of the structure, but not the timeline and history of everything and what permits were issued. What if you are looking for information from the wrong resources? There also seems to be a gap in this list for permits between 1995 and 1997 – I wonder where those are? Just for kicks, I created a Google Map of the various sites listed (I think. I made some guesses as to locations, as full addresses were not actually listed) to show the type of journey you would be making if you visited every record storage site.

I share this personal journey of “Huh. I wonder how I would even start looking?” with you to demonstrate the technical information-gathering skills you would need to be “lead aware” for your own home. This is time-demanding labor. This is resource-intensive labor. And this is seen as something to be pushed off onto the public, because “If you want to know, you could always find out.”

Ethics isn’t only about knowing right or wrong. It’s not only about doing right. It’s about recognizing the larger context of the work being performed, its impact, and owning responsibility for that impact (even beyond the original intent).

[1] George Orwell’s Animal Farm


As a final note, I am constantly tinkering with my blog set-up and trying different means to communicate in an accessible fashion. If you have any thoughts or suggestions regarding accessing any materials I post, please feel free to get in touch!

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