Ethics Quiz: Second Thoughts About An Ethics Hero Emeritus

challenger-shuttle-disaster-crew

I periodically read random posts here from years ago, to check and see if I would make a different analysis today, and why. It almost never happens, which is good: though I may not trace all of the steps in every post, the systems, methods, models, values and priorities I use to assess various events and scenarios are established and consistent. I also check older posts when I am uncertain about a new version of an issue I have addressed before. Again, I am almost always struck by how closely my thinking then matches my approach now. I am also often struck by the fact that I don’t recall writing the earlier post at all. There are over 6000 of them, so I don’t feel too senile.

Today, however, I read this NPR story, about a previously unnamed engineer at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol who had been interviewed, with a promise of not being named, by NPR after the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, 30 years ago. Now Bob Ebeling has finally come forward publicly, and allowed his name to be attached to his tragic story.The night before the launch, he and four other engineers had tried to stop it, because the weather was too cold—it was the coldest launch ever— and their research told them that that the rubber seals on the shuttle’s booster rockets wouldn’t function properly in the extreme temperatures. They begged for the launch to be postponed, but their supervisors and NASA overruled them.

That night, Ebeling told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.” It did.

“I was one of the few that was really close to the situation,” Ebeling told NPR. “Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome…NASA ruled the launch. They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.”

Thirty years ago, when Ebeling didn’t want his name used or his voice recorded,  he said he feared losing his job but that,”I think the truth has to come out.” After the interview, the investigations, and the law suits, he left the company and suffered from depression and guilt that has lasted to this day. He told NPR that in 1986, as he watched that horrible video again on TV, he thought, “I could have done more. I should have done more.”

Reading and listening to the NPR story, I agreed with him. He should have done more. I was about to write a post from that perspective, when I realized I had not only written about another engineer who had tried to delay the launch, but inducted him into the Ethics Alarms Heroes Hall of Honor. His name was Roger Boisjoly, and of him I wrote in part…

Six months before the Challenger disaster, he wrote a memo to his bosses at Thiokol predicting”a catastrophe of the highest order” involving “loss of human life.” He had identified a flaw in the elastic seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets: they tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather.  NASA’s shuttle launch schedule included winter lift-offs, and Boisjoly  warned his company that send the Shuttle into space at low temperatures was too risky. On January 27, 1986, the day before the scheduled launch of the Challenger, Boisjoly and his colleague Allan J. McDonald argued for hours with NASA officials to persuade NASA to delay the launch, only to be over-ruled, first by NASA, then by Thiokol, which deferred to its client.

And the next day, on a clear and beautiful morning, the Shuttle’s rocket exploded after take-off, killing the crew of seven and mortally wounding the space program.

My ethics verdict then? This:

“Can we accurately call Roger Boisjoly an Ethics Hero, even though he didn’t stop the launch? I usually don’t like to call people heroes for doing their jobs. If Thiokol and NASA had behaved ethically, competently and rationally, we would not know anything about his memo or him. He did the right things, as his duties demanded. He alerted management to a deadly problem in plenty of time to address it. When they went forward, he argued and protested, until the decision was final. Afterwards, he told the truth to investigators, so the decision-making problems could be addressed. In his world, in that bureaucracy, this—doing his duty, doing the right thing—took courage. He knew, I am certain, that his career would suffer as a result of his actions. Yes, that makes Roger Boisjoly an ethics hero.”

If Boisjoly was a hero, then so is Ebeling, though Boisjoly spent the rest of his professional life lecturing at engineering schools around the world on ethical decision-making, trying to prevent future disasters.

So please help me resolve a Present Jack vs. Past Jack conflict, by considering this Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Are Bob Ebeling and Roger Boisjoly really heroes?

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As the Cancer of Corruption Spreads, a Diagnosis and Treatment

A sign in Africa, which corruption continues to ravage. We ignore its warning at our peril.

Last week, three more disheartening cheating scandals were in the spotlight, in completely separate areas of our society: legal education, the military, and college sports. The signs that the cancer of corruption is spreading through America’s culture with increasing speed are frightening, but being frightened isn’t constructive. Working to eradicate the cancer is. Last week’s revelations:

  • The American Bar Association publicly admonished Villanova Law School for a pattern of misrepresenting—inflating—GPAs and LSATs of its applicants and admitted students in order to receive a higher ranking, which in turn would attract more and better applicants. The scandal broke in June, and the ABA was lenient, stating that the school had reported its own misconduct (the responsible parties had been discovered and dismissed). Is Villanova alone, or is it just the first law school in this increasingly competitive environment to get caught? If a law school cheats, what kind of lawyers will it produce? Continue reading

The S.E.C.’s Betrayal and Why Regulation Can’t Cure Unethical Cultures

Your SEC at work....

I awoke this morning to read that a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission official has credibly claimed that the S.E.C. destroyed thousands upon thousands of records of enforcement cases in which it had decided not to file charges or to launch full-blown probes. The case records dumped included prominent Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and SAC Capital.

Here’s is how Rolling Stone concluded its excellent report on the scandal:

“Forget about what might have been if the SEC had followed up in earnest on all of those lost MUIs(“Matters Under Inquiry”). What if even a handful of them had turned into real cases? How many investors might have been saved from crushing losses if Lehman Brothers had been forced to reveal its shady accounting way back in 2002? Might the need for taxpayer bailouts have been lessened had fraud cases against Citigroup and Bank of America been pursued in 2005 and 2007? And would the U.S. government have doubled down on its bailout of AIG if it had known that some of the firm’s executives were suspected of insider trading in September 2008?” Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Attorney Greg Adler

Vincent Cardinalli had been running a remarkably lucrative and heartless scam for years in Santa Clara, California, filing phony lawsuits against innocent citizens for towing and storage fees on vehicles they no longer owned or, in some cases, never owned. He was aided by a commissioner who routinely sided with him in the suits while ignoring obvious signs of a swindle. Cardinalli’s salad days ended, however, because a young lawyer decided to do his own investigation, on his own time, and uncovered enough to send the crook and his crooked son to jail. Continue reading

Summer Rerun: “Ending the Bi-Partisan Effort to Destroy Trust in America”

[TV is full of reruns these days, and sometimes I am grateful for them, for it gives me a chance to see episodes of favorite shows I had missed for some reason or another. Back in early March, I posted the following essay about the origins of America’s current crisis of trust in our government, and how it might be cured by our elected leaders. Since then, the crisis has deepened, and as I was doing some routine site maintenance, I reread the post. It is still very timely (unfortunately), and since far fewer people were visiting Ethics Alarms in March, I decided to re-post it today, with just a few minor edits. I promise not to make this a habit. Still, trust is the reason why ethics is so important in America: if there is a single post of the more than 700 I have written here since October 2009  that I would like people to read, this is it.] Continue reading

“Welcome to AshleyMadison Stadium!”

In an inspired bit of P.R. wizardry, the adultery-facilitating website AshleyMadison.com has made a serious bid for “naming rights” for New Meadowlands Stadium, the just-completed new home of the N.F.L.’s Jets and Giants. The site’s founder, Noel Biderman, has sent a letter to the CEO of New Meadowlands stating that they “are prepared to make a preliminary offer … of $25,000,000 for the Naming Rights for a five-year term” and would match any higher offer by other parties.

The N.F.L. isn’t going to let one of its stadiums be named after an adultery website, as Biderman well knows. But maybe Biderman has done the N.F.L. a favor by slapping it across the face and giving it a chance to avoid the venal, values-abandoning path that Major League Baseball adopted more than a decade ago when it allowed teams to sell naming rights of its new parks and stadiums to the highest corporate bidder, turning venues for classic sporting contest into billboard for banks, fly-by-night dotcoms and worse. Continue reading

The Ethics of Unethical Ethics Teachers

An essay by lawyers Joel Cohen and Katherine A. Helm begins with this story:

Noted ethics philosopher and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell once was questioned by the Harvard Board of Governors about having an extramarital affair with a student. When faced with the hypocrisy of being an ethics professor engaged in immoral conduct, Russell argued his private affairs had nothing to do with his professional duties. “But you are a Professor of Ethics!” maintained one of the board members. “I was [also] a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge,” Russell rejoined, but “they never asked me why I was not a triangle.”‘

The authors use the anecdote to explore the issue of whether proven ethics miscreants like Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich and disbarred class action lawyer William Lerach ought to be lecturing, speaking, or otherwise being listened to in regard to their opinions and advice on ethics. After all, acting teachers are often indifferent actors, and the best baseball managers weren’t much as players. Why should ethics be any different?  Continue reading

Essay: Ending the Bi-Partisan Effort to Destroy Trust in America

Both the Pentagon shooter and the Texas I.R.S. attacker were motivated by a virulent distrust of the U.S. government, the distrust mutating into desperation and violence with the assistance of personal problems and emotional instability. We would be foolish, however, to dismiss the two as mere “wingnuts,” the current term of choice to describe political extremists who have gone around the bend. They are a vivid warning of America’s future, for the media, partisan commentators, the two political parties and our elected officials are doing their worst to convert all of us into wingnuts, and the results could be even more disastrous than the fanciful horrors the Left and the Right tell us that the other has planned for us. Continue reading