Research Paper: Water Landing Is Relevant for Understanding Ethics

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¶ … Water Landing" is relevant for understanding ethics in several ways. The Darley and Latane experiments that tested the reason why people help or do not help others in distress were done in conditions where there was no directing authority for the group or individual. This mimics the environment that an engineer works in, where they must make ethical decisions on their own despite the presence of others. What these experiments found is crucial for understanding the engineer's responsibility. For one thing, the idea of "diffusion of responsibility," where a crowd of bystanders inhibits action, is crucial. Slater says, "The more people witnessing an event, the less responsible any one individual feels and, indeed, is, because responsibility is evenly distributed among the crowd."

This is significant for engineers since they work in a team environment where there is the potential for diffusion of responsibility. This diffusion effectively and dangerously relieves the individual of a sense of moral action, and must be resisted. First, there is a stunning fear accompanied by indecision. One result of this is that the engineer must act quickly in reporting an error, otherwise he or she may feel paralyzed and fail to act later. Second, the engineer cannot resist getting involved when there are issues of public safety on the line. They must act decisively, laying aside whatever mental conflict prevents them from speaking up. It is better to err on the side of precaution.

The other important finding Slater discusses is that social etiquette compounds the situation. People are often uncertain whether or not an emergency is true or false. This uncertainty makes them pause. She says that "emergencies are not fact, but conscious construction, and this may be why we fail."

Slater points out that social cues are as crucial in human decision-making as material evidence. In other words, people often look to others first in a group setting, and would rather stay silent than act impolitely. This is important for engineers to understand. It is better to act ethical, even if there is a personal social cost, than to follow group opinion which may be wrong and harmful. Conforming by social mimicry can be hazardous and unethical, for example, when it comes to hiding faulty designs. Politeness is less important than the welfare of people, and so it is important to speak up even if one goes against the tide.

A poignant example of the ethical dilemma posed in conditions of social cuing and diffusion of responsibility is Roger Boisjoly's account of the events before and after the Challenger launch disaster.

His speech at M.I.T. details the clash between engineers and managers. Boisjoly demonstrates a commendable dedication to safety and responsibility despite the resistance of management. His accounts of the meetings show the callous attitude of management when faced with solid design data that threatened the Challenger launch. Repeatedly he was reprimanded and demeaned for his asserted hunch that hot combustion gases could compromise the primary seals on two field joints at lower than average temperature. At one point even, a superior chastised him for "airing the company's dirty laundry," but Boisjoly refused to buckle or waver.

His concern heightened step-by-step as he realized that his expressed fears about inadequate seal resiliency were being downplayed for reasons other than safety, and ultimately his recommendations were overridden. Boisjoly seems to have done everything in his power to alert management of the perceived problem. His careful research efforts and note journaling allowed him to substantiate his claims. He made his position clear through repeated statements, acting assertively rather than hanging back passively and accepting the diffusion of responsibility. He pushed through frustration, ignoring politeness. His decision to testify against his company's decision, even as they attempted to discredit him, demonstrated moral resolve. He boldly rebutted his superior when he deceitfully claimed the engineering position was not unanimous.

Management implied that he was damaging the company by telling the truth. His behavior showed the admirable characters of someone with real ethical integrity by contrast to the lax and careless attitude of the company managers toward the risk of seal erosion. This essentially led to punishment and the deterioration of his health.

Boisjoly's speech indicates the sacrifice someone must endure in some circumstances to stand up for truth and safety. While extreme, the account demonstrates how tragedy occurs when safety information is ignored, and how tragedy can be averted if safety information is treated with moral responsibility. His concluding statement that the engineer must leave with "conviction that you have a professional and moral responsibility to yourselves and to your fellow man to defend the truth and expose any questionable practice that may lead to an unsafe product" is instructive.

Following on the assessment of Boisjoly's speech, we can refer to the advantages and drawbacks of professional codes of ethics. Ethical codes such as the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers are valuable.

They establish clear principles for general ethical behavior in the field of engineering, upon which public safety depends. One of the most important emphases of the code is that engineers are not simply responsible for themselves, but also for the welfare of many others. The guidelines reach into the social sphere that must be part of the engineer's awareness. They underscore how vital a duty it is for professional status to adhere to rigorous moral standards when judging one's sphere of competence, speaking truthfully to the public, and acting faithfully toward one's company and one's profession. Upholding standards regarding disclosure of information and refraining from deception, for example, are important. The general stress on honesty and serving public interests is wise, as is the emphasis on accepting personal responsibility and promoting positive engagements within the profession so as to uphold the integrity of the whole. There are no real surprises in the code, except perhaps the addition of a sustainability clause in the Professional Obligations section.

The drawbacks to such codes are their generality. They cannot begin to identify specific instances, which must be left up to the informed judgment of the professional engineer. They perhaps do not stress sufficiently the need for continuing education and personal research that behooves the engineer in keeping up with changes in areas such as technology. Furthermore, the NSPE and AIChE codes do not address many cultural issues related to interactions with fellow colleagues or clients. For example, the AIChE codes simply states, "Treat fairly and respectfully all colleagues and co-workers, recognizing their unique contributions and capabilities."

Later it says, "Never tolerate harassment." While the codes are solid in terms of setting guidelines for professional advancement, they do not adequately address particular interactions with the required specificity. As a result, the engineer must seek additional guidance outside of the codes to firm up their moral thinking and to ensure that they are acting toward their co-workers and toward the public in an ethical way given the particular context. The AIChE code for chemical engineers is nothing more than a brief resume of the larger code and seems to add nothing to it. Finally, the code does not enact behavior, the engineer does. So codes are only helpful insofar as the engineer internalizes them and acts upon them.

Building on the codes and returning to the initial discussion of examples, a number of roadblocks in ethics can be discerned. The pull of business interests is a potential roadblock. As the Boisjoly example shows, there may be a conflict between management and engineering, with both sides looking at a problem from different perspectives. The engineer should stick to the code of ethics and insist on presenting accurate data within his or her range of expertise. It is essential for engineering that deceptive information or action be eliminated and full disclosure of risks be made. Another challenge is in professional… [END OF PREVIEW]

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