Part 1. Values and Value Judgments
Part 2. Ethical Requirements on Action
Part 3. Moral Character and Responsibility
Part 4. Privacy, Confidentiality, Intellectual Property and the Law
To understand a person's character one must understand the whole configuration of ethically relevant considerations that influenced his actions. Knowing that a person often broke the law might lead one to conclude the person was dishonest. However, if the individual habitually hid people from unjust persecution by a tyrannical government, then the person could well have been an honest person in circumstances that justified lying to law enforcement officials. If a person's apparent bravery and willingness to risk his life in battle derived mainly from an obsession with killing and maiming people, then the quality would not be the virtue of bravery, but merely the successful redirection of a character defect in a socially acceptable way.
The concept of moral integrity is central to the assessments of character, but it is not one more character trait. Roughly, "moral integrity" is the ethical coherence of a person's life and actions. People's values may be expected to develop over the course of their life, so moral integrity is not simple persistence in maintaining value commitments. The coherence of a person's life is a narrative coherence, that is, to understand a person's character and his moral integrity one needs to understand the place of each apparent ideal within that person's life story. Often this requires understanding both the ethical and religious tradition of that person and his formative life experiences.
A loss of integrity can be forced upon a person. One example is Sophie, in the book and film Sophie's Choice. She faces a true dilemma in being forced to choose, in the presence of her two children, which of the two is to be killed. Being forced to betray one of her children is fatal to her moral integrity and sense of self. This is an extreme case but it illustrates that circumstances as well as personal resolve are factors in maintaining moral integrity.
A more common situation is that in which a person is called upon to respond to a situation in all of the obvious responses threaten to betray some relationship or trust. This can happen when someone is called upon to make a grave health care decision on behalf of a family member which the decision maker is unprepared to make in a way that he feels the ill person would have wanted.
In developing or reviewing policies and practices in a work situation, it is important to be alert to mismatches--or even conflicts--between the skills, and virtues of key actors and the skills, and virtues that others need in those key actors. Even well-meaning people can respond badly when they have not thought through how they will fulfill potentially conflicting responsibilities simultaneously. For example, a devotion to the progress of scientific research might interfere with a health care provider's responsibility to secure the best health outcome for his patients, or with an engineering faculty member's oversight of her graduate student's education.
The moral sense of responsibility, in which one undertakes to achieve some future state of affairs or maintain some present one, should not be confused with the causal sense of responsibility for some existing or past state of affairs. (Recall the example of the storm which was said to be "responsible for" deaths and property damage. This was causal responsibility not moral responsibility. Attribution of responsibility to the storm means only that the storm caused particular outcomes. As we saw, storms do not have moral responsibilities and are neither responsible nor irresponsible in the moral sense. They are causal but not moral agents, so their actions are not subject to moral evaluation.) Moral responsibilities of a moral agent may derive from their causal responsibilities, however. If a person has caused a difficulty, there is reason to think that the person has some moral responsibility for remedying the resulting situation. If you break something, you have some responsibility for fixing it or for cleaning it up and replacing it. However, people often find themselves faced with a responsibility not of their own making. If an infant or young child breaks something, someone else must clean it up. There is much discussion of the fact that if pollution of the environment is not adequately addressed in one generation, subsequent generations find themselves responsible for cleaning up the contaminants that another has left.
Characteristically, the achievement of the desired outcome involves some exercise of discretion or judgment. This is what distinguishes a responsibility from other moral requirements. An obligation or duty specifies what acts a person is required to perform or refrain from performing. Notice that this difference is reflected in the difference between the expression "responsible for (some end)"--such as responsible for the safety of some device, responsible for the welfare of some person--as contrasted with "obligated to do or refrain from doing certain things." Often what the obligation states rather specifically the acts one is expected to perform or refrain from performing. Contrast a professional's responsibility for the well-being of her clients with a professional's duty or obligation to be truthful about her qualifications or anyone's obligation to refrain from assaulting people.
The relation between an obligation and a responsibility is actually somewhat more complex and overlap. To see how, notice that the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) after saying that engineers shall "Hold paramount [that is, take as their primary responsibility] the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties" goes on to say "Engineers shall at all times recognize that their primary obligation is to protect the safety, health, property and welfare of the public." Consider the obligation stated in this last passage. It is stated in the form I described, that is as obligation to do something (in this case protect the safety). The obligation is stated, not in terms of the precise acts one is to perform or refrain from performing but in terms of what one is to protect which specifies more what one is to achieve, preservation of the safety etc. of the public. This illustrates that an obligation may be specified in terms of what one is to achieve rather than what acts one is expected to perform, in which case the obligation is interdefinable with a responsibility. The obligation to refrain from taking bribes specifies what acts are forbidden whereas the obligation to protect the public safety specifies what you are to achieve rather than what acts you are to perform. Therefore, the obligation to protect safety may be expressed as a responsibility for public safety. The terms "obligation" "duty" can be used to some matters of responsibility. To emphasize the important distinction between moral requirements that can be rather precisely specified in term of what acts one is supposed to perform or refrain from performing and responsibility for achieving some end the terms "obligation" and "duty" will be used only for requirements that rather precisely specify the acts one is supposed to perform or refrain from performing. The term "responsibility" will always be used when only the outcome to be achieved is specified and hence considerable discretion and judgment is required to figure out just what to do.
Moral responsibilities derive either from one's interpersonal relationship to a person whose welfare is in question, or from the special knowledge one possesses such as professional knowledge that is crucial to an aspect of another's well-being. Examples of the first sort include the responsibility of one friend for another and of a parent for a child. Notice that a person can have this first kind of responsibility without having any particular knowledge that helps him fulfill the responsibility. Examples of the second sort are the responsibility of a health practitioner to stop and give aid to an injured person who may be a stranger, and the responsibility of an engineer to ensure public safety and thus safeguard many individuals whom the engineer will never meet. One person's responsibility for another's welfare may combine both elements. For example a healthcare practitioner may have a significant personal relationship with a patient who also is dependent on the practitioner's knowledge for adequate care. Since few relationships and knowledge are shared by everyone, most moral responsibilities are special moral responsibilities, that is they belong to some people and not others. The is no generally accepted category of "human responsibilities" as there is human rights or (by derivation from human rights) human obligations.
Professional responsibility is the most common type of moral responsibility that arises from the special knowledge a person possesses. Mastery of a special body of advanced knowledge, particularly knowledge which bears directly on the well-being of others, distinguishes professions from other occupations. In modern times it is simply not possible for a person to master all the knowledge that is relevant even to her own well-being. Because society looks to members of a given profession to master and develop knowledge in a particular area, the members of a profession bear special moral responsibilities in the use of the special knowledge vested in them. A state environmental protection division employs an environmental engineer to decide whether plans for construction of a power plant meets the regulation requirements of the Clean Air Act, that is, whether the plans provide sufficiently for reduction of such pollutants as sulfur dioxide and the nitrous oxides and thus whether a building permit should be issued. Engineering knowledge is required to be able to make this assessment. Neither the public nor administrators can make that assessment without such knowledge.
Although some moral demands on professionals are adequately expressible in rules of conduct specifying what acts are permissible, obligatory or prohibited, there is more to acting responsibly. A good consulting engineer not only avoids taking bribes, checks plans before signing off on them, and the like, but also exercises judgment and discretion and takes care to provide a design or product that is safe and of high quality. Judgment and discretion are necessary to provide such designs and products. Moral agents in general and professional in particular must decide how best to achieve good outcomes in matters entrusted to their care.
Not only does responsible behavior require more than the performing specified acts, but the person with the responsibility need not be the one to perform the acts that are necessary; this person need only see that someone else does. Thus the question "Who will be responsible for the lead screening program?" does not ask who will do the screening tests, but rather who will see that the program is carried out.
Now consider the differences between a moral responsibility and an official responsibility--that is, a responsibility that someone is charged to carry out as part of her assigned duties. The description of a job or office specify some of one's official responsibilities. One could argue that there is a prima facie moral obligation to keep one's promises, and when one takes a job one implicitly promises to perform the obligations or "duties" that go with that job. One, is therefore, morally obliged to fulfill those responsibilities because one has promised to do so. In this way official obligations and responsibilities, then, can become moral responsibilities and moral obligations to the extent that one freely takes on a job or office. Moral responsibility, however, does not reduce to official responsibility. Indeed some official responsibility or obligation may be immoral. "I was just doing my job," or "I was just doing what I was told" is not a generally valid excuse for unethical behavior on the part of an adult.
The notion of official responsibility is central to the attribution of decisions to organizations rather than to the people in them. For example, people may say that the Ford Motor Company made the decision to rush the Pinto into production, rather than that particular people, such as Lee Iacoca, then president of Ford, made the decision. This way of thinking about decisions turns on the idea that an organization is a "decision-making structure" and that the actual person or people who make a decision act carry out their official responsibilities and obligations according to the values and criteria handed down by the company. Organizational values specify all of the goals to be achieved. The technical skills and scope of authority are held to specify the scope of actions that the agent is to take in achieving those organizational goals. The agent's own values or the values of the agent's profession, religion, or culture are all assumed to be irrelevant to what the agent will do in "doing her job." Therefore, on this model doing one's job is unaffected by the character and values of the person doing the job. Any decisions that a person makes in her official capacity are attributable to the organization rather than the individual.
As John Ladd has argued, official responsibilities differ significantly from moral responsibilities, in that they attach to job categories and impersonal roles rather than to particular people in particular circumstances, with histories and human relationships that are unique to them.
The scope of one's official responsibilities are specified by one's position, one's job description, apart from one's larger insights into the situation. One person's official responsibilities exclude another's. This exclusionary feature makes official responsibility quite unlike moral responsibility. Two friends of the same person may both have a moral responsibility to see that he does not drive while intoxicated, for example.
If a supervisor were to say to an engineer, "It is not your job to think about safety questions," this might be true as a statement about official responsibilities but would not mean that the engineer lacked any moral responsibility for raising safety concerns. Although a person's job description may not include some matter, she may have a moral responsibility in that matter, especially if it is a responsibility of her profession.
For a case based on real life events and involving an engineer's responsibility for safety, consider the following:
Clean Air Standards and a Government Engineer
Hillary is an engineer working for the state environmental protection division. Hillary's supervisor, Pat, tells Hillary to quickly draw up a building permit for a power plant and to avoid any delays. Hillary believes that the plans are inadequate to meet clean air regulations, but Pat thinks that these problems can be fixed. Hillary asks the state engineering registration board about the consequences of issuing a permit that goes against environmental regulations, and finds that one's engineering license can be suspended for such action. Hillary refuses to issue the permit, but Hillary's department authorizes it anyway. -- adapted from NSPE Board of Ethical Review Case 92-4
Did Hillary's actions fulfill her professional responsibilities and obligations? Did Pat?
What other information would you like to have and what difference would it make to your assessments?
The Responsibility for Safety and the Obligation to Preserve Client Confidentiality
The owners of an apartment building is sued by their tenants to force them to repair defects that result in many annoyances for the tenants. The owner's attorney hires Lyle, a structural engineer, to inspect the building and testify for the owner. Lyle discovers serious structural problems in the building that are an immediate threat to the tenants' safety. These problems were not mentioned in the tenants' suit. Lyle reports this information to the attorney who tells Lyle to keep this information confidential because it could affect the lawsuit. Lyle complies with the attorney's decision.
-- adapted from NSPE Board of Ethical Review Case 90-5
What, if any thing, might Lyle have done other than keep this information confidential? Which, if any, of those actions would have better fulfilled Lyle's responsibilities as an engineer?
What other information may be needed in order to make this decision?
A selection of cases and decisions by the Board of Ethical Review [BER]. of the National Society of Professional Engineers [NSPE] are on the on the WWW in the WWW Ethics Center for Engineering & Science (2). The NSPE BER descriptions of cases are based on real events but are shorn of ambiguity, presented as completed stories rather than as open-ended problem situations and focus only on the actions of licensed engineers in each case. Moral responsibility, unlike official responsibility, cannot be simply transferred to someone else. This feature of moral responsibility is expressed by saying that it is not alienable. If an engineer in charge of a project assigns to another member of the team the responsibility to make certain safety checks and the subordinate fails to do so, the engineer in charge will bear some responsibility for the failure, especially if the engineer in charge had reason to know that the subordinate was not reliable or did not have the relevant competence.
There is some danger that in emphasizing the professional responsibility to work for the well-being of a client--rather than just emphasizing the rights of the client--we encourage paternalism on the part of the professional. Paternalism derives from the Latin word for father (pater). Acting like a parent toward those who are not your children may or may not be justified in particular circumstances.
Paternalism may be roughly defined (following Gert and Culver) as infringing a moral rule of conduct toward someone or infringing that person's rights (such as the right of self-determination) for what the agent believes is that person's own benefit. Paternalism in the treatment of clients most commonly arises in professional contexts where the professional have a face to face relationship with those whose well-being they seek to ensure and in professions where practitioners are in positions of greater power than their clients. The question of paternalism often arises in medicine and health care with respect to the treatment of patients. Because many engineers in industry must protect the safety and health of anonymous members of the public rather than identified clients, and usually do not occupy positions of greater power than the clients they do have, paternalism is not a frequently discussed topic for engineers in industry. However even for such engineers in industry, the issue of paternalism can arise in connection with "idiot-proofing" as we shall see in Chapter 3. Issues of paternalism often do arise for engineers and scientists in connection relationships among co-workers and educational contexts.
THE CASE OF THE Meager FIRST AID SUPPLIESTo say that some act counts as paternalism does not yet tell us whether it is justified or unjustified paternalism. However, paternalism does need justification; the burden of proof is on the side of those who claim that a given act of paternalism is morally acceptable. Furthermore, the responsibilities of a professional to look out for a client's welfare in the area of the professional's expertise need not conflict with any of the client's rights, especially if the professional explains the pro's and con's of the situation to the client rather than simply making a judgment which is left unexplained.
The first aid kits in some of the teaching laboratories at contain only band aids. When some members of the engineering faculty tried to have more adequate supplies put in the kits, they were told that if the kits contained more supplies those supplies might be misused in a way that would cause injury. Anyone who is needs more than band aids, they were told, should go to the health service for treatment.
This example illustrates that if one is determined not to put anything in peoples hands with which they might harm themselves, they will not be able to do themselves much good either.
Because paternalism involves the infringement of moral rules, it needs justification. If the rule infringed in a given case was not an absolute moral rule then other moral considerations may show that the act of paternalism was, on balance, justified--that is, it was right to do it in those circumstances.
As Annette Baier has argued, trust does not always have an ethically sound basis. Someone may trust another whom she has successfully threatened or otherwise coerced into doing her bidding. Baier's general account of the morality of trust illuminates the strong relation between the trustworthy and the true. A trust relationship according to Baier is decent if, or to the extent that, it stands the test of disclosure of the basis for each party's trust. For example, suppose one party trusts the other to perform as needed only because the truster believes the trusted to be too timid or unimaginative to do otherwise. Or suppose the trusted fulfills the truster's expectations only because he fears detection and punishment. Disclosure of these premises will undermine the trust relationship. Knowing the truth will give the trusted person an incentive to prove the truster wrong, or give the truster the knowledge that if undetected defection or betrayal becomes feasible, the trusted will likely defect or betray. Telling the truth about the basis for trust is an operational test of whether the trust is rooted in trustworthiness and a confidence in the other's trustworthiness. If the trust relationship cannot withstand having the truth told about it, it is corrupt.
Although explicit discussion of moral trustworthiness is relatively recent, both professional ethics and the philosophy of technology have given considerable attention to concept of responsibility. Being trustworthy is key to acting responsibly in a professional capacity, or being a responsible person in the virtue sense of "responsible." Therefore, the literature on responsibility, which has been extensive in recent discussions of professional ethics, provides at least an implicit discussion of many aspects of the morality of trust in this professional practice.
Since being a responsible person means being able to take responsibility for one's own actions, it is closely connected to rights of self-determination. Foremost among these are rights to one's person--body and mind--although property rights have often been argued (e.g., by John Locke in the seventeenth century) to derive from one's rights to one's body and the fruits of one's labor. If a person's rights to his body and mind are not respected, the person's actions are not his own in an important sense. If, for example, people were to be drugged, it would effectively undercut the fulfillment of their moral responsibilities, personal and professional, and so undercut the rest of moral life.
As we saw earlier human rights reflect moral claims without which it is difficult for people to act as moral agents. Often included among these basic rights are rights of privacy. However, privacy is a notion that is given more attention in individualistic cultures than in others. In fact, as was mentioned earlier, some cultures do not have a word for this notion.