A quote in an obituary for long-time NASA chief James Beggs, who died this week at the age of 94, shocked me into realizing once again how alien basic ethics have become to our leaders in business, government, politics…hell, just about anywhere. And once again, I’m wondering what good I’m doing, and why I bother.
Beggs had overseen more than 20 successful space shuttle launches, but he was on administrative leave due to an investigation of his conduct when the Challenger launched and exploded in 1986. As we have discussed on Ethics Alarms, a landmark example of failed ethics and decision-making caused the temporary leadership of NASA to ignore dire warnings from two engineers and send the shuttle and its precious human cargo up in dangerously cold weather. Indeed Beggs called NASA from his exile that fateful day to express his concern about icing. He resigned from NASA in 1986, about a month after the Challenger disaster.
Beggs was reluctant to criticize his former agency’s culpability in the accident, but he was adamant that “they shouldn’t have launched.” “Whether I would have done anything different at the time, I’ve thought about that,” he said. “I think I would have, but that’s pure conjecture.”
Remarkable. How often does a critic of a past decision have the intrinsic fairness and integrity to say that? The Wuhan virus landscape has been polluted by extravagant and unjust second-guessing from the start, as everyone from politicians to pundits to plumbers are just certain that they would have known how to handle an unprecedented situation with significant unknown factors and substantial risk. They would have reached a different, quicker,better approach than the individual who actually had to make the call.
It’s a disgusting spectacle, and an unethical one. The “right” decision can always be made to seem obvious after the fact; critics cannot possibly know what their state of mind would have been at the actual time the decision had to be made by someone else. Beggs’ acknowledgement of that, in a situation where he could have credibly second-guessed his colleagues without equivocation, demonstrates the character of a decent and ethical professional determined to do and say the right thing even when opportunities are present for personal gain.
That story, in turn, reminded me of…Wendell Willkie. Continue reading