Opinion guest column

Are we willing to be honest about ethics?

Moral thought brings tough choices

Nothing would excite me more than to see individuals, institutions, businesses, and governments placing more emphasis on ethics. I applaud MIT President Rafael Reif’s recent article in The Tech “Ethics education at the Institute” requesting that we enhance our ethical awareness. However, as beneficial as placing a higher emphasis on ethics might prove, we must also accept that a keener perception of ethics would place a much greater responsibility on the Institute. The consequence of a serious inquiry into ethics will be a heavy burden to bear.

For example, Fossil Free MIT is working hard to convince MIT to divest from fossil fuel companies. Once students, professors, and staff start questioning the ethics of investing in fossil fuel companies, one cannot help but scrutinize the more direct relationship that we have with these companies. If we are unwilling to invest funds in fossil fuel companies, how can we continue to let fossil fuel companies invest in us, while also training students for careers in the fossil fuel industry? It only takes a short walk through the Earth Resources Laboratory, housed in Building 54, to spot a plaque thanking Shell for generous donations to help with recent renovations. Chevron regularly holds interviews on campus, scouting for soon-to-be MIT graduates. Professors and students in the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences Department (course 12) are directly responsible for developing future technologies and methods for discovering the last remaining oil reserves around the world. Reserves, which if exploited, will lead to a further increase in mean global temperature and, most importantly, severe global consequences for all living creatures. As Patrick Brown recently pointed out in his opinion piece in The Tech, we are already facing a 5° C increase in temperature if we exploit existing fossil fuel reserves. How can we in good conscience train students to discover more oil?

Divesting is a wonderful gesture, but anyone concerned with the ethical behavior of the Institute must see it as just the beginning. If not, it quickly becomes a high-five to fossil fuel companies reminding them that, at best, we pose the faintest threat to their future and will only consider ethical changes when under direct pressure or when our public perception is at stake. I support Fossil Free MIT, but I also believe that divesting is not enough. Divestment must be the beginning of a much longer journey for this Institute and Rafael Reif has started us down that path by encouraging us to think more about ethics.

So, what might real change regarding ethics look like? Consider an individual who many of us will be able to relate to — Lewis Fry Richardson. Richardson, a twentieth century English mathematician and meteorologist, made early contributions to numerical weather forecasting. Notably, Richardson was also a devout pacifist and refused to serve in World War I. Instead, he volunteered for a Quaker ambulance service during the war. Because he was unwilling to serve in the military, he was barred from holding most academic positions for the remainder of his career. However, his passion for science led him to continue his research, professionally when possible, independently when not. He quit a position as a meteorologist when the position came under control of the British Air Ministry. When he learned that some of his work benefited the chemical weapons industry, he went so far as to destroy his unpublished research on the topic. If we are truly devoted to practicing ethically-minded science, we must carefully consider how far we are willing to go.

If we are committed to opposing climate change and are willing to accept the consequences of our actions, we must not only divest from fossil fuel companies, we must curtail all behavior that contributes to the fossil fuel industry, independent of the negative consequences to the Institute. A serious consideration of ethics is not undertaken if we are only willing to make the easy decisions, but go no further. If we want to travel down the ethical path, the future decisions of the Institute will be much rockier than we currently imagine. Lewis Fry Richardson understood the burden that ethics places on scientific research. Do we?

Paul Richardson is a graduate student in the department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

1 Comment
Raphael Dumas about 10 years ago

Opinion piece from a University of Sydney professor on expanding the role of ethics in engineering

"Our ethics have become mostly technical: how to design properly, how to not cut corners, how to serve our clients well. We work hard to prevent failure of the systems we build, but only in relation to what these systems are meant to do, rather than the way they might actually be utilised, or whether they should have been built at all. We are not amoral, far from it; it's just that we have steered ourselves into a place where our morality has a smaller scope."