Catching Up: Professional Ethics And The Challenger Disaster

Because of non-ethical matters in the Marshall household, I missed posting about the January 28 anniversary of the Challenger disaster, as it is labeled among the thousands of Ethics Alarms tags. I have written about and alluded to the completely avoidable explosion of the Space Shuttle in 1986 many times (you can check here), and there may be no other incident that so perfectly encapsulates the complexities of professional ethics, especially in a bureaucracy. In 2016, I offered an ethics quiz on the topic.

In 2020, Netflix presented an excellent, if extremely upsetting, docudrama on how the fiasco unfolded, “The Challenger Disaster.”

I have used the tragedy in my legal ethics continuing legal education courses to force attendees to consider what might make them decide to breach legal ethics and place their careers at risk when an organizational client is hell-bent on what the lawyer knows, or thinks he or she knows, will be disastrous. Legal ethics rules are different from engineering ethics, though the latter has caught up considerably since the Space Shuttle explosion, and in part because of it. However, I view the ethics conflict in parallel situations in both professions the same, as well as situations in medicine, organized religion, the military, and government. When would, and should, professionals decide to do everything in their power to stop the consequences of a terrible decision when it is outside their role and authority to do so?

In my legal ethics seminars, a majority of lawyers ultimately say they would have done “whatever it took” to stop the Challenger’s launch, whatever the consequences, if they knew what the engineers knew. They said they would go to the news media, or chain themselves to the rocket if necessary. Of course, saying it and doing it are very different things.

Here is the most recent incarnation of my Challenger disaster legal ethics question, which I presented to government lawyers a year ago. What would you answer? It is called “The Launch.”

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In 1986, Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at Morton Thiokol, the NASA contractor that, infamously, manufactured the faulty O-ring that was installed in the Space Shuttle Challenger, and that caused it to explode. 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 sending the Shuttle into space at low temperatures was too risky. On January 27, 1986, the day before the scheduled launch of the Challenger, Boisjoly 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. Another engineer, Bob Ebeling, joined Boisjoly and begged for the launch to be postponed, only to be overruled.

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

Question 1Should one or both of the engineers have “blown the whistle”?

  1. They did.
  2. Only the engineer who was sure that it would be a disaster.
  3. No, that’s not their role, their decision, or their call.
  4. After the explosion, but not before.
  5. I have another answer.

 Question 2: How are the ethical obligations in such a situation different for government lawyers than engineers?

  1. Government lawyers have to disclose when human life is threatened, engineers don’t.
  2. Engineers have to disclose when human life is involved, government lawyers don’t.
  3. Lawyers get kicked out of their profession for blowing whistles, engineers just get blackballed.
  4. There is no difference.
  5. I have another answer.

Ethics Quiz: The Dying Patient’s Denial

Let’s start off today’s ethics adventures with a quiz…

The New York Times this morning has an odd choice for its placeholder in the spot typically reserved for editorials: an essay by Dr. Daniela J. Lamas, a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The piece endorses lying to patients “for their own good.” The op-ed—that’s not what the times calls such essays any more, but that’s what it is and they are—is fine, raising a legitimate ethics issue for readers to ponder, hence the use of it here as an ethics quiz. The placement and timing is suspicious, however.

This could be called a “conspiracy theory,” I suppose, but such theories are germinated by a genuine and deserved development of distrust. Since I do not the trust the Times to report the news objectively and ethically, but believe with good reason that it manipulates its reporting and choice of opinion pieces to advance a progressive and usually partisan agenda, I suspect that this op-ed was given such prominent placement to plant the idea that doctors—like You Know Who—and health care “experts” are justified in using incomplete facts, false certainty and disinformation when communicating to the public regarding the pandemic, vaccines, masks and the rest for “the Greater Good.”

Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Let’s Have An Open Forum!”

I have not read all of the contributions to last night’s Open Forum (my Zoom presentation went fine, by the way; I hate it), but I was pointed to this comment, by Humble Talent, by many, and they were right. Heck, it earned the honor just by the sentence, “I feel like more and more, we find ourselves an army of hammers in search of nails.”

Here is Humble Talent’s Comment of the Day on honesty, politics, and the state of things, from “Let’s Have An Open Forum!“:

“If everyone woke up one day and found themselves unable to lie, the Soviet Union would fall by noon.”

—-Unknown (Although I always attributed it to Solzhenitsyn, if anyone knows who said this, I’d appreciate the assist)

I feel like more and more, we find ourselves an army of hammers in search of nails. Every problem, every emergency, every poorly worded tweet, is taken as an opportunity to circle the wagons and hammer down hard on prior positions in what can only be described as a masturbatory exercise of a scale never before seen.

One of the great lessons in my young life was that even when people have essentially the same access to information, different people will put that information through different filters, and can come up with *wildly* different takes from that information… They aren’t *necessarily* being dishonest, they could merely be wrong, or biased, or stupid… Never discount stupid… And it’s important to treat those arguments as if they were genuine statements of belief and no matter how wrong, biased, or stupid the argument might be, if the point is to convince someone to listen to you, then you have to approach the conversation with a basic respect for the other person, and not immediately blast their argument. I’m not always good at that. It’s a personal flaw.

I’ve realized that my argumentation has shifted, and I don’t know if it’s a function of the weariness I feel towards political gamesmanship right now, or if it’s just the right response to the kind of arguments I’m facing, but I find myself more often than not repeating what someone has just said to me, while paraphrasing it for clarity or removing euphemisms and asking “Do you really believe that?” Continue reading

What Destruction Of Public Art? What Slippery Slope?

I woke up today wondering  whether those who blindly applaud the carnage of the George Floyd Freakout are lying, frightened or ignorant. The late post last night on Commentary Magazine’s manifesto quickly attracted a comment from Rationalization #64 Land, where John Yoo’s Rationalization, “It isn’t what it is,” holds sway. Implicitly denying the editors’ substantive list of the mob’s acts, “Adam” wrote in part,  “Art must be propagandist or be chopped away? (What art? Where? Who? Propagandist? How?)”

The growing movement to “chop away” at the memorials and statues to men, women and events whose interaction with history and culture no longer conform to what most or many Americans consider admirable (or politically correct) has been growing for years, with the clash of protesters in Charlottesville over a Robert E. Lee statue being only the most publicized of incidents around the country. “What art?” If a citizen is so ignorant of current events,  he shouldn’t be registering an opinion until he educates himself.

Almost on cue (protesters have been very accommodating of late in confirming past Ethics Alarms analysis), a George Floyd mob in D.C. pulled down a perplexing piece of public art, the statue of Albert Pike (above), an obscure Confederate diplomat and general who wrote alternate, bellicose, lyrics to “Dixie.” Writing this morning about why the D.C. police stood by and permitted the vandalism, Althouse wrote,

[W]hy isn’t mainstream media delving into the details of why the police are not acting to protect city artworks and to restore order? Where’s the journalism?! My hypothesis is that the media want to help Joe Biden get elected, so they’re presenting a rosy picture of the protests and refraining from any negativity about the Democratic politicians who control the cities where the disorder rages. I’m sure the journalists realize that at some point the majority of Americans will prioritize their interest in law and order, but — I imagine — they hope to hold us back from that tipping point.

The second question I am musing on is when and whether there will be that tipping point, or if, in the alternative, a critical mass of oblivious or dishonest “Adams”  will keep the public somnolent until it’s too late to tip, with disastrous consequences. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Ick Or Ethics? The Nauseating Social Media Meme”

Not for the first time, a commenter has done a more thorough job fisking a problematical statement that I have. Actually, I didn’t even try to dissect the memed screed below…

…I  asked whether it was truly unethical, or just signature significance for an arrogant political correctness junkie.  Ryan Harkins took on the greater challenge, and as usual, did a superb job.

Here is Ryan’s Comment of the Day on the post, Ick Or Ethics? The Nauseating Social Media Meme…

Today I am wearing a shirt that reads:

Inconceivable. Adj.
1. Not capable of being imagined or grasped.
2. Not what you think it means.

The problem with memes like the above is that it is disingenuous. What do you mean by love? Do you mean philia? Eros? Caritas? Squishy feel-goodness, for which I don’t know a Latin equivalent? In general, especially given what I’ve observed of the people who post such memes, I don’t think “love” means what they think it means. I certainly don’t think they see love as selflessly willing the good of the other, but maybe that’s because I’m cynical and see this meme as not willing the good of someone else, but trying to proclaim one’s own virtue.

What is meant by inclusion? Is there nothing someone could ever do to warrant exclusion? Or is there a little asterisk pointing one to the fine print, where we don’t include the scum of the earth, like religious white men, sex offenders, and Trump supporters?

I don’t have much to say about empathy or compassion. Equality always begs the question: “Equal how?” Because again, people keep using that word, and I do not think it means what they think it means. Equal before the law? Equal in dignity? Equal in socioeconomic status? Equal in success? Or how about created equally, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, including (but not limited to) life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

I have no problem with dignity, but what about diversity and community? There is unavoidable tension in the community when there is diversity. We might not like that fact, but it is there. As soon as you have two people of different opinions in the room, there is tension, and by and large what we’ve seen is that people are less and less tolerant of tension. I wouldn’t say they are less tolerant of differences of opinion, as long as those opinions keep to themselves and don’t bother other people. It is the tension that people are finding unbearable. Maybe it is because we are no longer equipped to have our opinions or viewpoints challenged. But I also have a hard time believing anyone believes in community, when so many are nose down I electronics (as I am as I write this) and all my friends belong to the same echo chamber as myself. Continue reading

Ick Or Ethics? The Nauseating Social Media Meme

I have a long-time friend whose spouse has the above Facebook meme as a social media avatar. As a result, I have serious reservations about having any further interaction with either of them.

Once again, I am bedeviled by the phenomenon of public virtue-signaling, a non-virus epidemic that mostly manifests itself among smug progressives. There is no question in my mind that such ostentatious declarations are obnoxious and nausea-inducing, and thus offensive. But are they unethical?

The last time I addressed this issue was when these signs, mercifully short-lived, starting popping up on my neighbors’ lawns.

Then, I see that I was adamant, writing in part, Continue reading

Ethical Quote Of The Week: James Carville

“Last night on CNN, Bernie Sanders called me a political hack.“That’s exactly who the fuck I am! I am a political hack! I am not an ideologue. I am not a purist. He thinks it’s a pejorative. I kinda like it! At least I’m not a communist!”

Political consultant and long-time Clinton acolyte James Carville on Snapchat with former CNN reporter Peter Hamby.

You have to love this. Yes, I think it’s a remarkably ethical statement from Carville. He is, unlike so many of his fellow operatives and strategists, not pretending to be someone and something he isn’t. He has delivered welcome honesty where we almost never receive it. Carville is loyal to those who pay him, like a lawyer, like lobbyists, like so many members of Congress. His candor also solved the long-time mystery (to some) of how the supposedly progressive Clintonista could be happily married to Mary Matalin, a prominent Republican strategist and mouthpiece. Now we know: he and she are true soul mates in cynical Washington. Their mutual missions are facilitating political warfare and skulduggery, for pieces of silver. The honesty is so refreshing!

And Bernie is a Communist. The public needs to know it, and cheers to Carville for ripping off the bandaid.

Comment Of The Day: “Titanic Ethics”

Michael West has written a remarkable Comment of the Day in several respects. For one thing, it is a comment on a post that is almost eight years old, a record for Ethics Alarms. For another, he becomes the first commenter to comment on the same post under two different screen names. Finally, there is the fact that his point is one with historic validity, yet seldom if ever mentioned by the many critics of James Cameron’s  epic yet intermittently ridiculous film, including me. Follow the tag: there are a lot of  references to “Titanic” here.

One note in prelude to Michael’s essay: the cruel misrepresentation he alludes to can be partially laid at the now dead feet of Walter Lord, who wrote the influential and popular account of the Titanic’s sinking, “A Night To Remember.” It is an excellent account, but he decided to use Charles John Joughin as comic relief, and the  movies, including the one based on his book, distorted his portrayal, which itself seems to have been unfair.

Here is Michael West’s Comment of the Day on the 2012 post, “Titanic Ethics”

How about every Titanic movie’s depiction of Charles John Joughin?

Verdict: Unethical.

Joughin was the lead baker on board the Titanic. Built big and stout as a bull according to most who met him.

When he first heard the Titanic was going to go down, on his own initiative, he rallied the baking crew to gather what bread they could to distribute ample loaves to every lifeboat anticipating they may be afloat for awhile before rescue — something like 40 pounds of bread per boat. Several witnesses and his own testimony recount that he took multiple trips to help guide passengers from below decks up to the boat deck. He proceeded to a lifeboat, which he had been earlier commanded to be a crewman for (either tilling it or rowing, I’m not sure), only to discover another crewman had taken his spot. He didn’t protest, though he could have, so he helped load that boat and then went back to find more passengers below decks. After realizing there’d not be enough life boats and that many people would have to swim for it, he began to throw as many deck chairs into the water as he could as flotation devices, later he mentioned he hoped he could possibly find one of them after the ship went under. When the ship made its final plunge, he found himself standing on the back of the Titanic riding it into the icy waves. In the water, which was so cold, most people died of hypothermia within fifteen minutes…most much sooner than that, Joughin treaded water and swam for a remarkable one and a half to two hours before finding the upside-down collapsible commanded by Lightoller. Naturally, given Joughin’s luck thus far, the collapsible had no more standing room, so he had to float to the side for a bit longer before another lifeboat came by and picked him up. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Now THIS Is A Level 8 Apology!”

In this concise but rich Comment of the Day, Isaac takes on the challenge of re-writing the wildly inadequate and unconvincing apology offered by the Catholic priest who was pressured to recant his negative comments about Islam in a Sunday service.

The apology offered three days later by the chastened priest, Fr.Nick VanDenBroeke:

My homily on immigration contained words that were hurtful to Muslims. I’m sorry for this. I realize now that my comments were not fully reflective of the Catholic Church’s teaching on Islam.

 

Here is Isaac’s alternative, his Comment of the Day on the post, “Now THIS Is A Level 8 Apology!”Continue reading

Gallup’s 2020 Trust In Occupations Poll

I usually cover this interesting poll when it comes out in early January; somehow I missed it this year., and am getting it in right under the January wire. The results don’t change much from year to year, as you will see,  and this year was no different.

As the have for many years now, nurses, once again, top the list. Continue reading