ETHICS -- An Important View

Recently I invited a long-time friend, John Slaughter, who -- I had reason to believe -- has first-hand knowledge of ethics, (or the lack thereof, in practice) to speak on the subject at an SCSI conference. He accepted, and made an outstanding presentation to a surprisingly small audence. It was a technical conference, and apparently most technical people feel they know all about ethics and don't want to hear any more on the subject. Or maybe some have a guilty conscience, so it is something of a sore subject. Nevertheless, there were a few important SCSI people in the audience who, without exception, agreed that John's talk was worthy of being given again where a larger audience could be expected -- perhaps as a Keynote Address at a larger conference.

In addition, they urged that the talk be widely published. The following is in partial compliance with that recommendation.


John Brooks Slaughter
President, Occidental College
Los Angeles


When John McLeod called to ask me to speak at this conference, he created quite a quandary for me. First of all, there is no way I could have declined his invitation. John was the first person for whom I worked after receiving my Bachelor's Degree in Engineering in June 1956. I recall vividly the first time I met this large, affable man with the voice of pure "Louisiana Scotch." John was engaged in simulation work on Convair's analog computer, and that is where I had my first taste of this fascinating field. I have been an admirer of him, and Suzette, ever since.

If, when John called, he had said, "I want you to give a speech about neurobiology," then I would have responded, "But John, I don't know anything about neurobiology." But instead he asked me to speak on "ethics" and I had to be much more careful in crafting my response. Had I given the answer that I would have given had he asked me to speak on the subject of "neurobiology" or any of the other million or so arcane topics for which I have absolutely no knowledge, then I would have confirmed the suspicions of many who know me or, at least, lived up to my mother's worst fears. I simply couldn't say, "But John, I don't know anything about ethics," and, therefore, here I am.

I am always apprehensive before giving a speech to experts in a field on a topic for which they have much more knowledge and familiarity than do I. Under the assumption that you are not familiar with the classic story about Albert Einstein and his chauffeur, a story that conveys part of the dilemma that I face this morning, let me share it with you.

Albert Einstein was traveling to universities in a chauffeur-driven car, delivering lectures on his general theory of relativity. One day, while in transit, the chauffeur remarked: "Dr. Einstein, I've heard you deliver that lecture about 30 times. I know it by heart and bet I could give it myself."

"Well, I'll give you the chance," said Einstein. "They don't know me at the next school, so when we get there I'll put on your cap, and you introduce yourself as me and give the lecture." The chauffeur delivered Einstein's lecture flawlessly. When he finished, he started to leave, but one of the professors stopped him and asked him a complex question filled with mathematical equations and formulas. The chauffeur thought fast. "The solution to that problem is so simple," he said, "I'm surprised you have to ask me. In fact, to show you just how simple it is, I'm going to ask my chauffeur to come up here and answer your question."

The other part of the dilemma I face is to tell you that I am not going to speak about ETHICS: PAST AND PRESENT as advertised and as described in the abstract that I prepared two months ago. In the interim and after learning about some of the other presentations that you are hearing in this conference, I concluded that I could not do ample justice to a topic so broad and diffuse. I decided that it would be better for me to share some thoughts with you on a range of issues related to and involved in our understanding of ethics as it relates to our roles as scientists, engineers, educators and citizens.

I am neither an ethicist, a scholar of the field of ethics, or a person uniquely qualified to explore this subject. But in spite of my self-disparagement earlier, I have thought deeply about the subject, have even made a very modest contribution to the literature in a book I co-edited with Richard Lapchick, The Rules of the Game: Ethics in College Sport, and as an educator, I feel that I have a major responsibility in terms of the way in which ethics and values are imparted to young people today. These are the things about which I will speak this morning.


Any issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education or any trade paper or magazine is replete with items pertaining to ethics, or the absence of ethics in most cases. We have heard ad infinitum, ad nauseam about the table-top nuclear fusion that was not there, about indirect cost reimbursement being used for inappropriate purposes, about plagiarism and the failure to cite references, and about the falsification of research data and results. Amidst these allegations of wrongdoing in science and technology, college and university presidents have resigned or been replaced, scientists have been condemned and sanctioned, and the public regard for the integrity of the academic and the scientific and technological communities has suffered another blow.

None of this begins to measure up to the arrogance and the reprehensible behavior of those who bilked savers of billions of dollars in the S&L scams, or of those involved in the Wedtech caper, or the Keating Five, or of the villains in the Iran weapons deals or in the BCCI mess. Or is it the same thing in a different guise?

Perhaps the falsification of transcripts and/or entrance examinations, drug abuse and illegal payments that are so seemingly commonplace in intercollegiate athletics are symptoms of an endemic societal plague that extends well beyond the playing fields and arenas. Perhaps an example of it was present in the ugly spectacle of government in action that was displayed during the confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas. Or was it reflected in the lens of the camcorder that captured the savage beating of Rodney King by those who are sworn to uphold and preserve the law? Given these events, it is little wonder that just two months ago a new law went into effect that empowers federal judges to impose heavy financial penalties on organizations (corporations, nonprofit agencies and government bodies) whose representatives engage in criminal conduct unless the organization can show that it has in place a program to deter and detect unlawful behavior on the part of its agents.

It may be that the Senate Ethics Committee itself should come under the provisions of the law, given its behavior in dealing with the Keating Five as well as with one of its members who was alleged to have steered federal grants to developers who contributed to his campaign.

Approximately two years ago I became acquainted with Michael Josephson of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics. We invited him to Occidental College to speak with us on the relationships between ethics and education as we were completing a strategic plan for the College. Michael Josephson's thoughts for us on that occasion were compelling ones that became embedded in our strategic plan and have guided our efforts. I will say more about that when I address the issue of undergraduate education.


Not long ago I received the November 1991 issue of "Ethics: Easier Said Than Done", the journal of the Josephson Institute. The issue has as its main subject, "Ethics and Computers". For those of you who are engaged in the use of computers for simulation or for other purposes, and I would wager that includes everyone in this room, this is an issue that I would recommend you read. Given the complex issues that cheaper, faster, powerful, and increasingly omnipresent computers present for our global, interdependent society it is arguable that "computer ethics" is an oxymoron and that ethics and computers may not coexist under the ordinary constraints on human behavior.

In the article, "Computer Ethics: An Overview of the Issues", David Kelsey of IBM quotes James H. Moor, Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Dartmouth, who has defined "computer ethics" to be: "the analysis of the nature and social impact of computer technology and the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology." Kelsey goes on to say that ethical questions arise and are of importance because of special, if not unique, technological characteristics possessed by computers. These characteristics include the ability to communicate over long distances at great speed and low cost; to store, copy, erase, retrieve, process and transmit huge quantities of information; to use data created for one purpose for a variety of other purposes; and the ability to make mistakes that no human would or could.

The characteristics stated above raise a number of ethical questions having to do with privacy of information, intellectual property rights of software, equal access to computers and computer information and the vulnerability of computer systems to viruses and worms. The stories are legion about information being collected for legitimate reasons being used elsewhere illegitimately or at least without the knowledge of the person who provided it in the first place. "Big Brother is watching you" is not just one more comical expression. It is possible that it is happening much more than most of us realize.

Computer fraud and computer crime are going to be larger and larger concerns as machines become even more versatile and operators become increasingly skilled. And the prospect of war in the "computer age" is an even more frightening and much less controllable experience than anything mankind has faced to date. Charles M. Allen once said, "If the human race wants to go to hell in a basket, technology can help it get there by jet. It won't change the desire or the direction, but it can greatly speed the passage."


My most recent involvement in an issue with major ethical ramifications was my participation, at the request of Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, to serve as a member of The Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department. The commission, popularly known as The Christopher Commission in recognition of its chairman, Warren Christopher, was formed in the wake of the tragic beating of Rodney King by a group of Los Angeles police officers. Our task was to examine all aspects of the law enforcement structure in Los Angeles that might cause or contribute to the problem of excessive force. The King beating raised fundamental questions about the LAPD, including:

Clearly a number of ethical issues were resident in the examination of the Los Angeles Police Department. But there was one in particular that relates to the topic of "ethics and technology". The Commission's staff conducted an exhaustive review of computer messages sent to and from patrol cars throughout the City over the unit's Mobile Digital Terminals ("MDTs"). Although the vast majority of messages reviewed consisted of routine police communications, there were hundreds of improper messages, including scores in which officers talked about beating suspects or expressed their eagerness to be involved in shooting incidents.

The transmissions also make clear that some officers enjoy the excitement of a pursuit and view it as an opportunity for violence against a fleeing suspect. That supervisors, who have the ability and the authority to do so, made no effort to monitor or control those messages evidenced to the Commission that there were serious ethical and managerial problems within the Department. I was stunned by the frequency and the bravado with which far too many LAPD officers used the in-car MDTs to communicate their scurrilous and reprehensible racial, ethnic and sexual sentiments. Recognize that these were not casual inadvertencies that can often be discounted because of the heat of the moment. These were conscious statements that were typed on a keypad and transmitted by radio link with little, if any, concern for the possibility that they would ever be disclosed or judged.


When Richard Lapchick and I began our project that led to the book, "The Rules of the Game: Ethics in College Sport", we did so because of the evidence that drugs, gambling, racism, television, crooked agents, big money deals, and the public's obsession with athletes and athletics were driving sport to calamity. And we may still prove to have been right.

What we did not fully realize at the time was how embedded these ills were in sport and how long they had been polluting amateur athletics. In the Foreword to the book, Ernest L. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching wrote: "It is true of course, that ethical issues in sport predate our own time. But it is also true that violations are more serious than before. Changes in degree have become changes in kind. Now, sports programs involve staggering amounts of money, television contracts, and mass audiences.

"Now there are agents to guide athletes -- not through their academic programs but through their years of eligibility and into the ranks of professionals. Now, in addition to the so-called recreational drugs, there are performance-enhancing drugs. Now, the ethical problems of big-time sports have reached into the community colleges, the high schools, and even the junior highs or middle schools. Now, the professionalization of coaching has led to tighter and tighter specialization with the result of more and more coaches for each team. Now, racial, gender, and legal issues are as conspicuous as they are complex. Now, the definition of unsportsmanlike conduct seems to have been radically constricted."


Given all the foregoing, where do we go from here? What recourses are available to us as we try to negotiate the rapids created by the tremendous advances that are occurring in technology and in our information-based society? I believe sincerely that the answers to these questions are to be found only in the quality of education received by our young people.

Michael Josephson brought this home to us at Occidental very clearly when he visited with us last year. He discussed the fact that so many of our youth come to school with serious problems that affect learning and their character. Too many of them are without good models and instead have followed a pattern that has taught them to lie, to cheat and to take short-cuts.

I think about this reality when I think about the responsibilities of educators. There are many things required of educators and education today. Certainly we need to insure that our students are well versed in the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy and, hopefully, are infused with the joy of a lifetime of learning. We need to help them make the connections between the arts, the humanities and the sciences. They need to study both Milton and molecules, both Carlyle and chemistry, both Bach and botany, both Michelangelo and microcomputers. They need to understand the insight of the great African-American scientist, Percy Lavon Julian, who said of the sciences and the humanities, "the goal of both is to enrich the good life of man." And this must occur in an environment that encourages the exchange of ideas and not just the dissemination of information.


Let me conclude by drawing an example from my own field of engineering to illustrate the complexity as well as the importance of what faces us. As we all know, the knowledge explosion that continues to expand almost without bounds requires that engineers know more and more about mathematics, physics, chemistry and metallurgy, leaving little time for the study of non-scientific subjects. But yet, the expanding set of social, economic, ethical and cultural interrelationships that are associated with our rush toward high technology calls for a much deeper and a much more sophisticated understanding of these issues in order that they not prove to be limitations upon the value of the engineer's theories, designs and products. Education must come to address these realities.

Beyond the needs of the marketplace, we know that an education that stresses the ability to think, to evaluate and to understand ethical and social issues is absolutely essential in the complex world in which we live. It is not enough to sound the trumpet for a more liberal education because it will make our students better engineers, physicians or business administrators. No, it is because we have a moral responsibility to nurture in our students a sense of their societal and ethical responsibilities.

Twenty-five years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we celebrate at this time of year, eloquently described this need for balance when he cautioned:

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men . . . Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to reestablish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice.
In keeping with this challenge, all of us must recognize that if we are to see the enormous advance in knowledge that is occurring used for the betterment of humankind rather than to its detriment, we must educate people who understand the social, ethical and philosophical consequences of their work, and who have been taught manners as well as mathematics, compassion as well as composition, accountability as well as the principles of accounting and tolerance as well as topology. We need individuals who believe it is important to be not just "computer friendly" but also "people friendly".

That is the task before us. For technology to assist us in making our lives safer, more comfortable and healthier we must begin now. It is, after all, simply a matter of ethics.

Last Updated 94/12/22
Copyright J.A.N. Lee, 1994