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

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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Presenting the Ethics Alarms Heroes’ Hall Of Honor

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Today, the anniversary of September 11. 2001, American minds should be occupied with thoughts of gratitude for heroes, the often anonymous and unknown people we may pass in the street every day, as well as the justly famous and celebrated, who make our lives and many others better by living their own selflessly and well. They are our salvation, role models and neighbors, and they teach us the lesson that all is never lost, and hope is always thriving, as long as there are good and courageous people who will do the right thing, no matter what the cost, when fate turns to them.

This seems like a propitious time to dedicate the Ethics Alarms Heroes Hall of Honor, the list of the Ethics Heroes Emeritus whose stories have been told here (and on this site’s predecessor, The Ethics Scoreboard.) Every current member of the Hall is now deceased, like the brave men and women who died this day, 12 years ago. Each of them, in a unique way, teaches how human beings can rise above the vicissitudes of mere survival, self-interest, personal benefits and the base desires of the species  to live  meaningful and virtuous lives. Some accomplished this over decades, some with one brilliant and transforming act of distinction.

There are currently 32 members enshrined in this virtual Hall. Obviously, it is far from complete. They are just symbolic representatives, worthy ones, of millions more who once breathed the same air we do today, and like those who perished twelve years ago, face the prospect of being forgotten over time, as we all go about the consuming task of getting from one day to another. Each one of us, I believe, is capable of emulating their example.

Here are the thirty-two members and their stories, as of this date,

September 11, 2013... Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012)

Roger Boisjoly’s death was originally just reported locally when he died in Utah last month at the age of 73. Only now is the media reminding the public of Boisjoly’s life, his tragic role in a national tragedy, and how he tried and failed to avert it.

In 1986, 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 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. Continue reading