The ethical bright line

Though I have thought about the corrupting potential of politics, I haven’t been really afraid of becoming corrupt myself (family members have expressed concern about this, however). I feel I am secure enough in my sense of self, and not particularly motivated by money or power, so I am at a pretty low risk for getting caught up in ethically questionable doings. And so the quote of the day from Friday (yes, posted a little late) gives me pause.

The quote comes from Raynard Kington, Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a man with a fascinating and variegated career, who happened to become the chief ethics officer at NIH during a serious scandal a few years back. He says,

The hardest part of Washington is knowing where you ethical line, your bright line is. Because it’s not so bright when you cross it. When you get up close to it, it looks rather gray.

He suggested we decide where our line is in advance (of coming to Washington, presumably). He explained that knowing your bright line is the “most difficult thing to prepare for” and that “it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life if you cross it.” Even if no one knows, “because you probably won’t get caught. But you’ll know.”

And yet, it’s hard for me to even imagine what ethically-challenging situation I’d be faced with, let alone plan my choices. I may just have to wing it.

  1. #1 written by Adam R September 18th, 2007 at 22:45

    Hi Joshuah, let me try to imagine your ethically challenging situations for you (as an engineer)…

    1) Weapons development, specifically development of weapons of mass destruction or other weapons that seem biased towards aggressive rather than defensive use.

    2) What if one of your engineering project has a small risk of failure, but a failure could kill someone. However, eliminating this risk would put you over budget, put a lot of pressure on you, and may prevent you from proceeding with your next project (which is going to save the world!)

    3) You see scapegoating within your organization. Your boss ruins the career of one of your peers to cover his own ass. Do you call your boss on it?

    Are any of those interesting to you? I took a “professional ethics” course as an undergrad, which primarily focused on case studies (and BS ethical analysis). Anyway, the case studies were really interesting. You might be able to find something like that.

    You may also be interested in this website: Breaking Ranks: http://breakingranks.net/

    Finally, I wrote a pretty long response at my own blog, (including substantial quotes that I’ve been wanting to transcribe for awhile): http://e-vigilance.blogspot.com/2007/09/ethical-bright-line.html

    -Adam R, Pgh

    RE Q

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