The brief answer to this question is, not much. A mature study of Ethics is found nowhere in the safety curriculum across the globe.
The idea of ethics comes from the root meaning (ethike): character, moral nature, guiding beliefs of a person, group or institution. It was originally used by Aristotle to denote moral character and ‘the Good’, and has come to mean the systematic study of morality. Those studied in Ethics understand that ethics and morality are NOT the same thing, most easily distinguished by the theoretical and systematic study of morality, compared to the actual personal moral practices of humans.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that involves the systematic consideration of moral philosophy. Unfortunately, there is no focus on the study of Philosophy or Critical Thinking in any safety curriculum. What this means is that Safety is poorly equipped to enter into any discussion on Ethics. For example:
The amateurish chapter in the AIHS BoK on Ethics conflates morality and ethics (https://safetyrisk.net/the-aihs-bok-and-ethics-check-your-gut/ ), thereby enabling its deontological bias that it never articulates, which is therefore unethical. Transparency is essential to moral practice. Hiding and secrecy in professional practice is unethical and yet Safety adores the use of the word ‘professional’. The glaring omissions about many essentials in ethics in the AIHS BoK are simply astounding.
It is a strange thing in an industry that loves to claim the word ‘professional’ that it includes no studies on Ethics in preparation for the practice ‘tackling risk’ in the workplace. Yet, even in the AIHS BoK it states that ethics is the ‘foundation of professionalism’.
It is from this base that I note the publication of a paper by Corrie Pitzer on the ‘Ethics of Safety’. Pitzer is not an ethicist nor moral philosopher and has never claimed to be so. (BTW, in the ethical interests of transparency, I once worked with Corrie and understand him well. The purpose of this blog is critical reflection that is not personal but professional, such is the need for learning and critical thinking in an industry bogged down in compliance, ignorance and anti-learning). After reading this paper several times, I remain unclear of its purpose. Let’s look at a few points:
- If one wants to articulate an ethic or tackle the theory of ethics, it is essential that one is transparent about bias and foundational position in moral philosophy. This paper does not articulate such a position. (I have stated in many places my own philosophical position on ethics (Existentialist Dialectic) and have articulated what this means. (I have a double major in ethics and moral philosophy and have taught Ethics at Universities for many years. I have also advised and counselled in Ethics for organisations for many years).
- Any endeavour that engages with people is an ethical (and political) activity. It doesn’t matter whether the activity of safety is directed towards engineering/efficiency controls, the by-product of such activity is directed towards people. After all, the measurement of injury is about people and the judgment of Safety effectiveness (traditionally) by injury rates (right or wrong is directed to people). We all know the language of ‘health’ is foundational to the activity of safety. Health for who?
- In discourse in ethics ‘non-ethical’ and ‘unethical’ are used interchangeably but the paper doesn’t make clear such an understanding. This simply enables confusion. The language of ‘’non-ethical is rarely used in ethical discourse and it is unclear why such language is chosen for this paper.
- There is no difference between a direction to ‘efficient outcomes’ or ‘ethical outcomes’ as asserted by this paper. Outcomes are outcomes and carry questions that follow, for example: Outcomes for who? Effective for who? Are these outcomes ethical?
- The theory of efficiency (a principle argument in the paper) is best understood by reading Ellul who names the quest for efficiency as Technique. Technique is never undertaken in isolation and is always social/ethical. Again, the question needs to be asked: Efficient for who?
- Efficiency is neither neutral nor objective and always results in the privileging of systems over people ending in unethical outcomes. In the real world of fallible persons, randomness, volatility and uncertainty, the force of Technique holds a trajectory that conflicts with the real and ‘messy’ nature of life and being.
- Efficiency is an ideology that holds its own ethical value and force (articulated well by Ellul) that is rarely disclosed by those who espouse such language. (Linguistics is neither something studied in Safety). Similarly, the activities of engineering and design are neither objective or neutral.
- The assertion that safety is ‘non-ethical’ is absurd unless its definition means ‘unethical’ (to be contradicted later in the paper and unclarified). The use of the language of ‘unethical’ is the most commonly accept language used in ethical discourse. Definition of language is critical for any discussion of moral philosophy, ethics or methodology.
- As a mono-discipline and as an activity, Safety cannot separate ‘means from the ends’ (neither does the paper) in any human activity. All activity in the world by humans is social, relational and consequential, individualism is a delusion (Buber). Socialitie therefore, is essential to any understanding of ethics. Ethics at its foundation, is the study of moral philosophy of social relations. It is a shame that this paper doesn’t situate its discussion nor define critical language.
- Arguments from silence are common in safety and in this paper. It doesn’t matter that one cannot articulate an ethic or philosophy, this doesn’t mean that there is none. Indeed, the silence of Safety about its predominant behaviourist and deontological ethic only further enables such ethical dispositions to be empowered and run underground in the activities of safety. This paper entertains no such discussion. Just because the safety industry doesn’t study ethics doesn’t mean the industry doesn’t have an ethical disposition. This paper does articulate this disposition indirectly well towards the end but doesn’t describe it as a ‘disposition’. Such implies a cultural understanding.
- It is good to see that the paper acknowledges the limitations of the S2 movement (that neither articulates nor is transparent about an ethic) and confirms methodologically that there is no ‘difference’ from traditional safety. The opposite is the case in SPoR where both philosophy, methodology and methods are clearly articulated and offered for free download for those who want to learn. (Many of the arguments I have seen against SPoR are from quarters that have no familiarity with it, nor ask open questions about it.)
- The contradictions in this paper are unfortunate including discussion of ‘enforcement’ and ‘compliance’ and the myth of ‘free will’. This also includes discussion of the concept of a ‘greater good’ which is both an ethical and moral concept of great complexity. The mystery of ‘free will’ and determinism is one of the philosophical essentials in studying ethics.
- The context of the paper is about outcomes for persons eg. Re discussion of BBS we have this – ‘This is a brutal, or at least a subtle, exploitation of people with coercion towards the organizational goals.’ Great to see the real foundation of BBS exposed for what it is, a moral philosophy that demonises persons.
- The paper asserts that S2 ‘professes an ethic’ but this is NOT the case. There is no articulation of personhood, moral philosophy, care ethics or methodology in any S2 discourse. S2 is predominately a movement against the brutalism of safety and most commonly uses behaviourist language in identity, but has no clearly articulated methodology or method.
- The paper confirms that safety is unethical when it states that: ‘The most non-ethical aspect of safety is to be found in the way we establish metrics, or key performance areas, and how we set the system up in such a way that employees must achieve these ‘deliverables’. Again we don’t know if the paper use the language of ‘non-ethical’ and ‘’unethical interchangeably.
- The paper singles out the Bradley Curve and concludes, that it develops: ‘Organizational pride … It subverts scrutiny, challenge, freedom, honesty, transparency and daring to be different. Clear unethical outcomes related to a lack of transparency, honesty, trust and respect for persons.
- Then we get this: ‘zero cannot be judged as non-ethical’. So, zero is an exception to the argument that safety is non-ethical? Yet, zero is the global mantra for safety? I thought Safety was non-ethical? The paper rightly highlights the ‘unethical’ nature of perfectionism, also the same goal as efficiency/Technique. In this sense the goal of zero IS unethical. The denial of fallibility is delusional.
- I’m not quite sure of the thesis of this paper and whilst its purpose is not articulated, its contradictions about ‘non-ethical’ with ‘unethical’ and, then declaring that ‘safety is profoundly ethical’ simply doesn’t make sense. Unfortunately, the concept of ‘non-ethical’ is neither defined or discussed. Again, in any study of Ethics the linguistics of ‘non-ethical’ and ‘unethical’ are used to mean the same thing – meaning without ethics or virtue. The paper is not clear about the use of such language.
- The clear affirmation of zero as ‘cult-like’, ‘destructive’ and therefore ‘unethical’ is a strength of the paper. Is this the purpose of the paper?
- The assertion that safety is now stumbling from ‘one cult for another’ is an interesting assertion but requires some expertise in Religious Studies/Theology and Linguistics to affirm and unpack such a claim. It is an assumption that the industry understands the nature of cults. The study of Ethics is most often situated in Religious Studies and Philosophy disciplines and this paper lacks any reference to such Transdisciplinary expertise.
- Regardless of the undeclared purpose of this paper, it is good that this issue is being brought to the surface in an industry that simply has an aversion to debate, learning and open discussion about these and many other critical matters.
If you are interested in Ethics then you can study An Ethic of Risk here: https://cllr.com.au/product/an-ethic-of-risk-unit-17/
Further, there is plenty of reading to get started:
A Short History of Ethics
Ethics for A-Level
Nichomachean Ethics (Aristotle)
Introduction to Ethics
Introduction to Ethical Studies
Brent Charlton says
Hi Rob – probably the most valuable course I took with you was the ethics of risk module. If nothing more than understanding the difference between ethics and morals and the realization that so many don’t really understand. Start with “do the right thing” and understanding that’s not the same for everyone was an eye opener. I appreciate how you’ve stretched my thinking, even though it was painful at times!
Rob Long says
Thanks Brent. Cognitive Dissonance is painful as is both learning and conversion. You are to be commended for facing the challenge and being open to learning.