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Tuesday, 22 February 2011 23:55

Ethics in the Workplace: A Framework for Moral Judgement

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The Framework

There is no ethical possibility of serious dialogue on moral issues without disclosing the framework of critical decision-making tools—the assumptions—of the participants. Different tools result in different decisions.

The most important critical assumptions made in labour-management relations are those which become the basis of assigning obligations or duties in the face of multiple and often conflicting paths to the protection of “rights” of workers and their employers.

How do we decide to meet different and often conflicting needs found both in natural sets of humans (such as individual, family, peer group, community) and in synthetic sets of humans (such as political party, union, corporation, nation) which may include many diverse natural sets?

How do we decide who is responsible to provide family health care and “safe” tools to design a work station? How do we choose a level of risk in setting a permissible exposure limit?

How do we allocate moral responsibility and distribute the burden of risk?

The “Ladder of Social Justice”

To allocate responsibility, we can posit a “ladder of social justice”. On this ladder, those most able to act are rationally obligated to rise to the highest rung of responsibility so that they may act first in pursuit of a moral objective. They are obligated to act before others, because they are best or uniquely able to do so. This does not mean that only they should act. When those with special obligations fail to act, or need assistance, the obligation falls on the shoulders of those on the next rung.

By rational we mean not only an action that logically follows another. We also mean actions taken to avoid pain, disability, death and loss of pleasure (Gert 1993).

An application of the ladder is found in the US Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Act provides that “employers and employees have separate but dependent responsibilities and rights with respect to achieving safe and healthful working conditions”.

An employee has a duty to comply with rules uniquely “applicable to his own actions and conduct”. The employer has duties based on a unique ability to ensure compliance with rules applicable to an entire workplace. Government has a separate duty based on its unique abilities, for example, to mandate rules if persuasion fails.

There are other assumptions in the framework common to any system of ethical values in any culture. Here, we need to highlight those having to do with the nature of our community, the meaning of “rights”, the method of moral axioms, truth or the good, risk allocation, ideals and reality, and the ethical need for worker participation.

We exist, ecologically, as a global community. In our niche, natural sets of humans (such as families or peer groups) are more meaningful than synthetic sets (such as a corporation or politically defined entity). In this community, we share necessary obligations to protect and to help everyone to act rationally in accordance with their rights, just as we should protect our own rights, regardless of differences in mores and cultural values. These obligations, when they result in actions that protect workers across an international border, are not the imposition of the synthetic values of one nation upon another synthetic set of people. They are acts of reverent recognition of natural, timeless, universal moral values.

Basic human rights, the generic rights to freedom and life (or well being) derive from needs which, if met, enable us to be human (Gewirth 1986). They are not given us by any government or enterprise. We always have had them, logically and phylogenetically. Laws governing the work environment, and rules consistent with rights they implement, are not gifts of charity or benevolence. They are expressions of morality.

The specifications of basic rights, such as personal privacy and the “rights” to know and act in the avoidance of the risks of work, while expressed differently in different cultures, fundamentally are the same among all people in every nation.

Acting on the specifications of our rights may result in conflicts between those rights which protect the individual, such as protecting the privacy of personal medical records, and those concerned with the duties of the employer, such as deriving information from medical records to protect other lives through the avoidance of health hazards thus made known.

These conflicts may be resolved, not by depending upon the ability of a lone physician or even a professional society to withstand court or company challenges, but by choosing axioms of moral behaviour that are rational for everyone collectively in the workplace. Thus, taking encompassing action through stewardship of personal medical records by agencies such as a government-supervised labour-management “neutral” entity (like Germany’s Berufgenossenschaften) may resolve this conflict.

A critical assumption at the very base of this framework of moral judgement is the belief that there is only one real world and that the generic rights apply to everyone in that world, not as ideals that need not be achieved, but as generic conditions of actual existence. If they cannot be applied, it is because we haven’t learned to cope with the fact that knowledge of that world and of the most rational way of conducting ourselves in it is never complete. What we should learn is how to use postulates or axioms not only in ethics, but to describe the world and to guide conduct in the absence of perfect knowledge.

The nature of moral axioms is illuminated by Bertrand Russell’s observation that “all rational conduct of life is based upon the method of the frivolous historical game in which we discuss what the world would be like if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch longer” (Russell 1903).

The game of “as if” allows us to act in the face of ever-present moral and scientific uncertainty. But axioms must not be confused with ultimate “truth” (Woodger 1937). They are kept and used if fruitful in the application of basic ethical principles. When they are found to be no longer useful, they can be discarded and replaced with another set of conventions.

Moral axioms bring the framework of judgement to the level of practice, to the “shop floor”. An example is the common practice of developing professional codes of ethics for corporate physicians and other professionals. They are drafted to protect generic rights and their specifications by bridging gaps in knowledge, to organize experience and to permit us to act in advance of morally or scientifically certain knowledge.

These sets of axioms, like all systems of axioms, are neither right nor wrong, true nor false. We act as if they are right or true (in fact they may be) and retain them only as long as they continue to be fruitful in permitting us to act rationally. The test of fruitfulness will yield different results in different cultures at different points in time because, unlike generic ethical principles, cultural norms reflect relative values.

In cultures of the East, powerful social and legal sanctions enforced professional behaviours consistent with the Buddhist belief in the eightfold path to righteous living, the fifth fold of which was righteous livelihood, or with Confucian traditions of professional responsibility. In such settings, professional codes of ethics can be powerful tools in the protection of the patient or research subject, as well as the physician or scientist.

In cultures of the West, at least at this time despite the strong Hippocratic tradition in medicine, the codes are less effective, albeit retaining a limited value. This is not only because the social and legal sanctions are less powerful, but also because of some assumptions that simply do not fit the realities of current western cultures.

It is clear, for example, that the incorporation in codes of ethics of the widespread doctrine, an axiom, requiring “voluntary”, “informed” consent prior to privacy-invasive procedures (such as genetic testing) is irrational. The consent is seldom really voluntary or informed. The information conveyed is seldom certain or complete (even in the mind of the scientist or physician). Consent is usually obtained under socially (or economically) coercive conditions. The promises of the researcher to protect privacy and confidentiality cannot always be kept. The professional may be socially and legally protected by codes that incorporate this doctrine, but the worker easily becomes the victim of a cruel hoax resulting in social stigma and economic duress due to job and insurance discrimination.

Thus, continued use of the consent doctrine in codes of professional behaviour, as in protecting the worker from the dangers of genetic testing, is unethical because a facade is created that doesn’t fit the modern context of a culture westernized and made global by international data banks served by linked telephones and computers. The practice should be discarded and replaced with codes made effective by assumptions that fit the real world coupled with socially and legally enforceable protections.

Risk Allocation

It is irrational (and therefore immoral) to distribute or allocate the burden of risk by caste, that is, to assign different levels of risk for different sets of humans, as marked by genome, age, socioeconomic status, geographic location within the global community, ethnicity or occupation. Risk allocation by caste assumes that there are humans whose generic rights are different from others. Basic human needs are the same. Therefore, basic human rights are the same.

The concept of “acceptable risk”, widely if not universally used in the setting of standards, is a form of risk allocation by caste. It depends upon the assignment of a risk differential based on calculating the risks of past work practice or prevalent exposure to a toxic substance or hazard in the workplace. This common practice accepts and promotes unnecessary risks by arbitrarily assigning, for example, an “acceptable” risk ratio of one death per thousand in setting a permissible exposure level for workers, compared to one death per million for other members of the same community.

Other examples of irrational (immoral) risk allocation are the acceptance of risk differentials within a caste, as between adults and more vulnerable children (setting one standard for both when stronger protection is needed for children), between the work and community environments, between “guest” (or other less empowered) and indigenous workers, and risks (greater than we have set for ourselves) imposed upon the less protected workers in underdeveloped countries by market demands for their products in more developed countries.

Unnecessary risks are never morally acceptable. A risk is ethically “acceptable” only if it is necessary to protect life (or well-being) and freedom or (1) is culturally impacted and very difficult to eliminate or control in a short time and (2) has a lower priority for control within a rational abatement scheme than another biologically adverse hazard.

Worker Participation

The generic rights to life and freedom necessitate empowering workers to rationally make and act upon choices made in pursuit of these rights. Empowerment occurs through access to information, educational opportunities to understand (and not simply react to information), and unfettered or uncoerced ability to act on this understanding in avoiding or taking risks.

Education that yields understanding may not happen in a typical safety training session, since training is meant to induce a conditioned response to a set of foreseeable signals or events, and not to provide in-depth understanding. Yet not all the causal factors, including events under the control of workers or management, that result in so-called accidents can be foreseen.

True accidents themselves are defined as “occurrences by chance” (Webster’s Third International Dictionary 1986). Thus they do not exist in nature. Every event has a cause (Planck 1933; Einstein 1949). The concept of chance is an axiom fruitfully used when a cause is not known or understood. It should not be confused with invariable reality. Even when injury or disease is clearly associated with work, all the causal factors of the events—in or out of the workplace—resulting in harm are never known or understood when they occur (Susser 1973). Thus, even if time, financing and training resources were infinitely available, it is impossible to condition a worker to every possible set of signals for every possible event.

To effectively reduce the risk of “accidents”, understanding a chemical process or a materials handling practice enables the worker to deal with unforeseen events. Education of the worker and his natural set, such as the family and peer group to which the worker belongs, enhances both understanding and the ability to act in preventing or reducing risk. Therefore, it is a specification of generic rights.

There is another ethical role for a worker’s natural set. Choosing an appropriate location where the worker decides or consents to a risk is a critical factor in assuring an ethical outcome. Many decisions (such as the acceptance of hazard pay) should be made, if they are to even approach being truly voluntary, only in a milieu other than a synthetic setting such as the place of work or a union hall. Family, peer group and other natural sets may provide less coercive alternatives.

Providing an economic incentive to accept an unnecessary risk known to a worker, employer or government—even as the result of a fairly negotiated contract—is always immoral. It is just compensation, if adequate, to a worker’s family when the risk can be justified and when a worker has equal alternative employment available without stigma. Making this choice ethically requires the most neutral or non-coercive setting possible.

If these settings are not available, the decision should be made in the most relatively neutral place associated with the most relatively neutral synthetic set or agency that can protect the empowerment of the worker and his or her natural set. The importance to the well-being of a worker of cultural and ethical values found in his or her family, peer group and community underline the importance of protecting their involvement and understanding as ethically based elements in the empowerment process.

Confusing Axioms and Reality in Communication

Most of us, even physicians, scientists and engineers, have been educated in primary school to understand axiomatic methods. It is not otherwise possible to understand arithmetic and geometry. Yet many consciously confuse assumptions and facts (which can be, but are not always, the same) in an effort to impose personal social values on a specific course of action or inaction. This is most obvious in how information is presented, selected, organized and interpreted.

Use of words like accidents and safe are good examples. We have discussed accidents as events that do not occur in nature. Safe is a similar concept. Most people believe that this word means “free from harm, injury or risk” (Webster’s Third International Dictionary 1986). A riskless void cannot be found, but it is standard practice for “experts” to use this word in describing a condition or chemical, leaving the impression that there is an absence of risk, while assuming or having in mind another meaning—such as their belief that the risk is relatively low or “acceptable”—without informing the audience. If this is done unknowingly, it is a simple mistake called a semi-logical fallacy. If it is done consciously, as is too often the case, it is a simple lie.

The confusion with invariable reality of sets of axioms, models of scientific explanation or assessments of data, seems to be concentrated in the setting of standards. Axiomatic concepts and methods in regulation, the validity of which are assumed and commonly confused with incontrovertible truth, include:

  • thresholds of toxic effects in populations (never found)
  • levels of observed effects (depend on methods)
  • statistical confidence factors (arbitrary by definition)
  • exact risk extrapolations (seldom fit data)
  • zero risk tolerances (exist only with zero exposure)
  • margins of “safety” (always speculative)
  • control feasibility (depends on values)
  • measurement methods (choice of instruments)
  • physiological norms (abstractions from averages)
  • biological end-points (valuing an effect)
  • lifestyle and genetic homogeneity (never found).


These axioms usually are discussed as if they are the truth. They are no more than discardable assumptions about individuals, risks and their control, based (at best) on limited information.

Social and economic values implicit in the selection and use of these axioms guide the policy judgements of those who govern, manage and control. These values, not scientific data alone, determine environmental and biological norms and standards in the community and workplace. Thus, these values, judgements based on them, and the axioms selected also must be judged by their reasonableness, i.e., their success in avoiding the risk of pain, death and disability.

Law and Contracts: Systems of Moral Axioms

Even the most encompassing system of moral axioms should be understood as an experiment in applying moral principles in the work environment, especially the systems of laws and contracts that govern the workplace.

The laws of the state, the rules of its ministerial bodies and even informally adopted procedures (such as models of risk assessment) can be treated—and changed—just like any system of axioms. Consistent with our framework of moral principles, treated as moral axioms, occupational safety and health laws and rules can be fully integrated with other axiomatic systems that meet other community health needs. They can be a differentiated (but not degraded) part of the total community system.

Health care, education, wage replacement and rehabilitation, social security, protection of the disabled, and other public health and environmental protection programmes are often coordinated by legislatures with occupational safety and health programmes. In doing this, care must be taken not to impose or inadvertently create or perpetuate a caste system.

How is this care to be taken? Participation by workers and representatives from their freely organized unions in contracted workplace and governmental bodies is a safeguard that should be part of the experiment. Participation is another specification of human rights. Tested barriers to caste systems in the workplace include workers’ councils (guaranteed in the constitutions of some countries), labour-management committees, ministerial committees on policies and practices, those dealing with standard-setting and enforcement, and education (both professional and rank-and-file) and other participative structures.

The exercise of participatory “rights” by workers in the determination of their own risks is an ethically mandated means of defence against the rise of castes of humans designated by the colour of their collars. It is the first step to the ethical allocation of responsibility and the distribution of the burden of risk in the workplace. The exercise of these rights, however, may conflict with the rights of management and of society as a whole.

Resolution of the conflict is found in understanding that these rights are specifications of generic rights, the imperative of which is absolute and which must ultimately prevail through recognition of the participatory rights of workers, management and the public at large in decisions that affect life and freedom in the community they each share.



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