Lost Compasses

compass_smallMy latest bulletin from the Oklahoma Engineering Board had an article about engineering ethics and the following excerpt struck me.

It has taken generations for professional engineers and professional land surveyors to create the level of public trust that they have been afforded. Unfortunately, years of competent and ethical conduct can be destroyed very quickly by one unethical decision. One such serious breach of the public trust happened in Oklahoma just a few years ago.  A city’s Public Works department was racked with a bribery scandal involving one of its own professional engineers and other professional engineers in the private sector. After pleading guilty to the charges, the professional engineers were sentenced to jail time and assessed large fines.  Following disciplinary investigations and hearings, the Board revoked each of their PE licenses.  As a way of explanation for this unethical and illegal behavior, the attorney for one of the engineers told the court that his client had ‘lost his moral compass’. [emphasis mine]

I used compasses a lot in the Army. They’re nice tools. They’re also susceptible to error. I remember the Land Navigation course at Camp Williams, UT had one mountainside that was very iron-rich. Finding waypoints in that area was difficult because of the havoc magnetic materials wreak on compasses. You had to work off of known points and correct the heading your compass was telling you in those areas. Otherwise, you could truly go around in circles. You may get through most of the course trusting this handy little tool, but if you follow it when it clearly doesn’t match up with reality (i.e. I know that mountain is to my north, but my compass says it’s to my south…), then you are setting yourself up for failure, much like these unnamed engineers did. In fact, as I learned in the army, and as my cross-country flights for my pilot’s license later reminded me, compasses don’t match up exactly with reality to begin with. We say a compass points north, but a compass actually points to magnetic north, which generally does not line up with  true north. So as useful as a compass is for pointing you in roughly the right direction, precise navigation with one requires using a map that tells you the “declination angle”, or how much magnetic north and true north differ in your area. Where I lived, it was a 15.3° difference.

It really comes down to a matter of truth, whether that’s true north versus magnetic north when you’re physically lost, or truth versus error when morally lost. It can be said that something is true when it correlates with reality. If it is objectively true in this manner, then it is true regardless of our perceptions or rationalizations. Reality, then, is a known reference point that we can use to check  ourselves.  For instance, even if I’m red-green colorblind, there are tests one can do to verify that the color of light being reflected off of some grass is, in fact, green, thereby validating the statement that “the grass is green”.  But what of non-physical questions such as the ones that typically form ethical dilemmas? We need a known point of reference in those areas also to calibrate our “moral compasses” and correct them if needed.  What “known point”, – what benchmark – can straighten our meandering paths through ethical quagmires?

  • As our position changes, it should be unchanging for us to figure out how far off track we are (like a  “resection” in land nav).  If unchanging, this known point, or standard, would be applicable universally, i.e. multiple people could reference it to “fix”, or locate, their position on the map.  Likewise, a good ethical reference point should not be subjective. It should apply equally to all, from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler.
  •   A known point is also applicable without respect to time. You could likely figure out your location each year on vacation in Yosemite by looking for Half-Dome or El Capitan as those huge cliffs aren’t moving year to year. Using the snowplow on the side of the road as a reference point because it’s been in the same spot your entire week of vacation likely won’t help next year. Another example of this is how a homeowner’s property lines may be determined off a monument marker a surveyor set as a known point over 100 years prior. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be just as valid whether it’s 2014, or 1914, or 2114.
  • A good known point is easily identifiable. Trying to shoot an accurate compass bearing to “the 15th tree down from the 3rd boulder over” when there’s a giant rock spire jutting from a barren mountainside a few hundred feet away is just silly. Use the obvious landmark. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be obvious. For instance, if your ethical standard requires lengthy research on your part to agree that something as horrible as say, torturing babies for fun, is wrong, then I strongly suggest you find a better ethical “landmark”.

Is there a system of ethics that can provide us the known point we seek? A comparison of the several different and highly nuanced ethical systems and variations of each will have to wait for another day (and probably take several posts to even scratch the surface) but consider this: the combination of deontological and classic virtue ethics found in the Christian Bible provides an unmoving reference point in the character of God that applies equally to all people in all places and at all times. It explains the notion that some things really are inherently wrong (like torturing babies for fun) and are not “wrong for you but OK for me”.  It provides a readily identifiable reference for us in God’s holy character. “Is this activity I’m considering (i.e. bribery) in line with God’s character?” No? Then don’t do it! Done, compass calibrated. Move on down the road.

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