Electronic Design

Questions Of Ethics, Morality, And Fairness Get Complicated

I don't care if you lie, cheat, steal, or play fair. It's up to you and you wouldn't take my advice anyway. But I can spell out some of the ideas involved and hope they help clarify your decision making.

Ethics is giving up benefits to yourself to provide benefits to someone else. Morality is ethics, as well as depriving yourself of benefits for some principle other than for someone else.

Fairness is a set of ethics rules in a competition. We compete in promotions, proposals, R&D, sales, politics, games, and courtship. In many of these there are explicit rules. Sometimes these are enforced by law, but in many cases ethics prevails.

I'll give you a few anecdotes. I used to be a consultant to Arbuthnot, one of the entrepreneurs of a medium-sized high-tech company. I helped sell a very complex but very fast machine to a large company to replace their existing slow machines. My part of the fast machine was a material-handling system to feed raw material and remove finished parts as fast as the machine made them.

Then I awoke in the middle of the night to realize that if installed on the customer's slow machines, the fast material-handling system would permit those slow machines to speed up. The very expensive fast machine would be unnecessary.

I told Arbuthnot. He said forget it. His business was fast-machine technology, not material handling, and he wanted nothing to interfere with that order. His personality could charm birds down from trees or tear strips off his employees (his own expression). I got the strip-tearing treatment on top of being required to be a crook, so I was upset.

I called the customer's chief engineer, swore him to secrecy, and told him the problem. He ran to his boss, who phoned Arbuthnot, who threw me out.

For years, I asked people what I should've done. Finally I concluded that I shouldn't have blown the whistle. Instead, I should have just quit.

(Incidentally, Arbuthnot talked his way into saving the contract and sold and built the fast machine. Then the project was abandoned because they had no fast material-handling system. He certainly wouldn't use mine!)

The National Science Foundation once asked me to comment on a proposal by a group of "medical ethicists" to study engineering ethics. They would interview engineers and then write a guidebook.

I replied that philosophers had written books on ethics ever since Aristotle. All big companies and engineering societies had Codes of Ethics. Except at IBM, I'd never known engineers to pay any attention to them. Their book, written at the taxpayers' expense, would sit on a shelf with all of the others.

If they knew how to solve engineers' ethical problems, they should spend the money on a hotline so an engineer in a dilemma could call them for advice. I received a form letter of thanks for my response. A year later, the same thing happened all over again!

I've also told the story of how I was a consultant to two large companies in utterly different kinds of business. But both planned for me to work on electro-rheology. It was clear to me that the two had non-competitive uses for the technology. I put the chief engineers from both companies in touch. They identified themselves and their different interests and authorized me to continue for both of them. In that situation, ethics won out and I won out.

To meet the crooks I've dealt with, go to www.ljkamm.com/adventur.htm.

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