Afternoon Ethics Flotsam And Jetsam, 9/16/2019: Ethics Movies, Clowns And Harvard Professors

…As I prep for a CLE road trip…

1. I finally saw “Doubt,” the film adaptation of the John Patrick Shanley stage drama about a parish priest suspected of child abuse. It’s an ethics film, and unlike many ethics films, made a profit at the box office.

I had seen the play on stage, and found it didactic and contrived; the film did not, I’m sure because the cast was so excellent. Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the priest were all wonderful, especially Davis, whose single scene in which she runs down a series of desperate arguments and rationalizations to justify allowing her son to be molested—maybe—is an ethics cornucopia. Unlike the stage production I saw, the movie benefits by having its protagonists appear less sympathetic than its apparent villain.

This goes on the ethics movie list, which is due for an update.

2.  Yet another ethics movie of more recent vintage is 2019’s “The Challenger Disaster,” a fictionalized recounting of how the decision was made to allow the doomed space shuttle to launch despite the warnings of Morton Thiokol engineers.  I wrote about this depressing ethics case study here , in a tribute to the primary Cassandra in the tragedy, Roger Boisjoly, and here,  about his troubled colleague, Bob Ebeling. The film’s hero appears to be an amalgam of the two. Here is an excerpt from a review on The Engineering Ethics Blog:

Even if you are pretty familiar with the basics of the story, as I was, the film is almost agonizing to watch as the launch time draws closer….The focus is always on Adam [the fictional hybrid of the engineers opposing the launch]: his belief going in that the truth is always a sufficient argument (it’s not, as it turns out), his doubts that he’s done enough to stop the launch, and his retrospective descriptions of what went on in the hours leading up to the launch…. the generally underlit atmosphere symbolizes Adam’s darkening mood as the critical conference call comes and goes, and the decision is made to launch. After Adam drives home that evening, he just sits out in the driveway in his car until his wife comes and gets into the seat beside him. …Later, during the  hearings that Adam and his fellow engineers attend, they come forward out of the audience and interrupt the proceedings after they hear a Morton-Thiokol manager lie about his knowledge of the seal problem. After the hearing, a sympathetic commission member finds Adam and reassures him that there are whistleblowing laws to protect him from repercussions of his testimony.

While it is never good to kick a man while he is down, I wish the film had taken time to show in more detail the intensity of the ostracism that forced the real-life Boisjoly to resign from Morton-Thiokol after his participation in the hearings made him persona non grata at work. … Boisjoly made a new career out of giving talks to engineering students about his experiences. …For a complex, historically accurate, and thought-provoking take on the Challenger disaster, I cannot think of a better medium than “The Challenger Disaster”  for conveying the seriousness of the emotion-laden decisions that have to be made at critical times. It is not a fun movie, but it’s a good one. And I hope it does well in video-on-demand release, because engineers need to see it.

Also lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, military officers, government officials, journalists, students… Continue reading

Saturday Ethics Warm-Up, 3/2/2019: Road Trip Epiphanies…And The Washington Post’s “Note” On The Covington Fiasco

Hi, everybody! It’s good to be back home!

I was torn whether to mention in this morning’s post that I would be Northern Virginia-bound from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area (Washington County) for most of the day. Who knows what banned and lurking commenters would seize on that intelligence to raid the forum here while I was unable to moderate, as occurred yesterday?

1. I wonder if most lawyers have the same reaction… The Pennsylvania lawyers I spoke to all seemed to share the same impression of the Michael Cohen testimony that I had. Why would anyone believe someone like that? What is the point of Congressional testimony by a convicted liar and disbarred attorney? No one disagreed that Cohen couldn’t be a witness in any proceeding, not would his testimony be admissible. How could anyone see this as anything but a transparent and  base effort by Democrats in Congress to try to smear the President with ad hominem slurs and unprovable allegations by someone obviously trying to somehow improve his own, self-made, miserable position? The lawyers are also concerned Congress is weakening the crucial attorney client privilege by encouraging a witness to breach it.

2. Ethics Corrupter: Nancy Pelosi. How dare the speaker of the House insult the President before the public by saying, “Do the country a favor, don’t run in 2020?” The democratic Congress continues to lead the effort to strip the President and his office of all the respect and basic deference they both must have for the government to function. Her snide condescension is unprofessional and nauseating….as well as bizarre, coming after the Trump-led economy just had its best month of growth in a decades—just as he promised it would. Given the state of her own party right now, a plea of “Do Democrats a favor, don’t run in 2020” would be more logical.

3. Engineering ethics. My GM rental car was keyless. It’s cool and all, but why? Congress is trying to pass new safety regulations because keyless cars are killing people. Drivers leave them running without realizing it, and sometimes poison themselves or other with carbon monoxide. They also may be easier to steal.

What, exactly, is the problem that keyless ignition was needed to solve? The “improvement” adds to the cost of cars, and appears to be a classic example of fixing something that ain’t broke, just Americans like gadgets. I have attacked the “if it saves one life” idiocy of the anti-gun lobby, but that’s because guns have very valid uses. If a completely gratuitous change in engineering and technology kills anyone without conferring some counter-balancing advantage, then that change is irresponsible and reckless.

4. Not good enough—not even close. The Washington Post, which is being sued by lawyers for 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann for its role in focusing partisan hate on a student who had in fact done nothing wrong, issued an “Editor’s Note” on the episode late yesterday. Here it is in its entirety: Continue reading

The VW Scandal: Huge Consequences, Simple Ethics Lessons, Ominous Implications

VOLKWAGEN

In case you were too distracted by the Pope, you probably noticed that Volkswagen has been caught red-handed in a massive scandal involving cheating on the emissions testing of 11 million diesel-powered cars sold in recent years. The costs to the company may be as much as eighteen billion dollars in the US alone. This is by far the biggest of the many automotive scandals—the fiery Pinto, GM’s deadly ignition switches, Toyota’s self-accelerating cars or Ford-Firestone’s exploding tires—in scope, if not in public policy impact.

Diesel is more popular in Europe than in America, in large part because of environmental testing standards. Gasoline engines emit more carbon dioxide, diesel engines, which are more efficient fuel-wise, emit far more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than gasoline engines. Since the introduction of the US Clean Air Act of 1970, NOx emissions are subjected to more stringent controls than CO₂ emissions here, while across the pond, CO₂ is more tightly controlled than NOx. Thus diesel automobiles make up one third of the passenger vehicle fleet in Europe, but are a relative rarity in the U.S. The sales of diesel cars has been on the rise in recent years, however. Now we know why.

Volkswagen, which manufactures many of the beasts, devised and installed a code functioning as a “defeat device” to sense when one of its diesel vehicles was being tested for nitrogen oxide emissions. test. Once a test was detected, the software would reduce torque and NOx emissions, while under normal conditions, that is, when the vehicle was not being tested for emissions, the car would be guided by a separate program that would increase acceleration, torque, and fuel economy.

Clever! Also unethical and, obviously, illegal. Continue reading