Ethical Action is not Moral Certainty

“With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on…” — Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

Roger Boisjoly was a Thiokol engineer who found “large arcs of blackened grease” on the solid boosters recovered from successful shuttle launches. He identified a correlation between cold temperatures and leakage of hot gases from the O-Ring seals in the solid boosters.

In January 1986, based on Boisjoly’s analysis and forecasts of cooler temperatures than ever experienced during a shuttle launch, Thiokol recommended the shuttle Challenger not launch.

NASA could not proceed over the contractor’s objections. “Appalled” by Thiokol’s recommendation, NASA held a private caucus with Thiokol management. A senior Thiokol executive was asked to, “take off his engineer hat and put on his management hat.” (Rogers Commission, 1986)

As a result, while still expressing concern, Thiokol withdrew their objection for lack of definitive proof. The age old argument for ignoring risk. By definition, no risk is certain.

Space Shuttle

Challenger exploded during launch killing all seven aboard.

In the aftermath, Boisjoly testified before the shuttle commission which is why we know all this.

As a result of coming forward, Boisjoly experienced such a hostile workplace he was granted sick leave and then extended disability.

In 1988, Boisjoly was awarded the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. He is a role model of ethical action.

The most important thing to learn from his example is that ethical behavior is not about being right or infallible.

Despite his expertise, in[sight] and integrity lives were lost. At points he respected the chain of management even though he clearly disagreed with their decisions.

However, when it became clear he had, against his best efforts, contributed to tragedy, he stepped forward despite the consequences.

Human judgment is fallible but we must act to create the most benefit and least harm in accordance with the principle that others have as much right to joy, fulfillment and dignity as we do ourselves.

If harm results from even our best efforts we must take responsibility.

No one is perfect and there are always mitigating circumstances but there are also no excuses.

[NOTE: The Boisjoly Case Study is borrowed from Engineering Ethics: An Industrial perspective by G. Baura.]

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