Ethical challenges in a technological environment: The perspective of engineers versus managers

Science and Engineering Ethics 5 (1):55-72 (1999)
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Abstract

In his article ‘Better Communication Between Engineers and Managers: Some Ways to Prevent Many Ethically Hard Choices’1 Michael Davis analyzes the causes of the disaster in terms of a communications gap between management and engineers. When the communication between (representatives of) both groups breaks down, the organization is in (moral) trouble. Crucial information gets stuck somewhere in the organization prohibiting a careful discussion and weighing of all (moral) arguments. The resulting judgment has therefore little (moral) quality. In this paper I would like to comment on some of Michael Davis’s interesting and thought-provoking insights and ideas. A company which implements Davis’s recommendations at least shows some sensitivity to organizational moral issues. But it might miss the point that moral trouble can also result from a common understanding between managers and engineers. Organizational members sometimes tend to be myopic with regard to safety issues. This paper: 1.  describes different meanings of safety Managers and engineers, as Davis mentions, are sometimes willing to compromise quality, but do sacrifice safety. It is my contention that safety—in the sense of putting people’s lives on the line—will always be compromised, and that the discussion is about the ways to negotiate the risks./li 2.  focuses on a shared understanding of the situation and its implications for safety Using examples from a case study I did on behalf of a commercial airline,2 I will try to show that it is not always the communications gap between managers and engineers which poses a risk to the stakeholders involved, but a common understanding of the situation. 3.  focuses on a ‘timely concatenation of both active and latent failures’ as a cause for accidents I will argue that—in spite of our efforts to strengthen ethical consciousness and organizational practices—there will always be accidents. They are part of the human condition, since we cannot completely control the complexity of the situations in which they occur. One can, however, make them less costly.

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