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On the Level: Instant Replay for Ethics

October 27, 2011
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In a Major League baseball game in 2010, Armando Galarraga, a Detroit Tigers pitcher, was one out away from throwing a perfect game. With two outs in the ninth inning, the first base umpire, Jim Joyce, called a ground ball hitter safe at first base. It was one of those bang-bang plays in which the umpire must see two things happening almost simultaneously: the ball in the glove as the foot hits the base.

Television replay made clear what at least half the spectators in the ball park believed--that the throw from the first baseman to Galarraga, who was covering first, actually arrived in the pitcher’s glove an instant before the runner’s foot touched the base, completing the perfect game. Having called it wrong, Joyce later admitted his mistake and was appropriately chagrinned, but the rule book does not allow a correction of an umpire’s mistake. The record will show that Galarraga threw a one-run shutout instead of a no-hitter.

However one may feel about the use of instant replay to settle the “close calls” of sports, the point is that it’s easy to make even the most difficult decisions when given enough time to review and reconsider a case based on best evidence. It is very much like deciding ethics cases.

Every professional organization publishes a code of ethics, and most have a mechanism for determining questions of ethics brought by, or about, their members. The American Society of Civil Engineers has a Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) that regularly reviews cases involving ASCE members. This is not a casual operation: The ASCE News Column publishes “A Question of Ethics” in which cases considered by the CPC are discussed. ASCE makes available a six-year archive of solutions to ethical questions. The point is that professional decisions often require peer review, sometimes following extensive review and examination.

Ethical review is critical to the integrity of the profession. It works something like instant replay, though it may require lengthy consideration and is not apt to be so “instant.” Ethical review is also an intellectual exercise that often incorporates subjective reasoning.

For example, Canon No. 5 of the “Surveyor’s Creed and Canons” of the NSPS states: “A professional surveyor should accept assignments only in one’s area of professional competence and expertise.” Accordingly, should a surveyor whose experience has been exclusively in cadastral surveying accept an assignment to provide a construction control survey? Many surveyors would be eager to expand the scope of their operations while broadening their own experience. But Canon No. 5 would advise against it. A surveyor with the opportunity to find a new source of work and revenue might reason that he or she has the tools to do the job and is intelligent enough to figure out how to do it. But surveyors with long experience in construction layout and control know that the challenges of the work are unique and hazardous in terms of professional liability. Still, it could be a dilemma for the conscientious professional needing the new work and willing to take the liability risk, but wanting to do the right thing ethically.

We could have a long and spirited debate in a room full of surveyors over this hypothetical case, as we often see at surveyor conferences when a panel of experts takes on the subject of professional ethics. Such debates demonstrate the mutable nature of ethics and the absence of certainty in ethical review.

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