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ExplainingDisasters - -~ CHARLES E HARRIS JR Explaining...

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-~ ._.._ __ ._ CHARLES E. HARRIS, JR. v Explaining Disasters: The Case for Preventive Ethics n 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch, taking the lives of six astro- m a u t s and one teacher, Christa McAuliffe. The disaster virtually stopped U.S. space exploration for two years. How should this disaster be ex- plained? Most disasters have multiple explanations. One type of explanation in the Challenger case I The author is with the Department ofphiloso- phy, Texas A&M University, 510 Blocker Build- ing, College Station, T X 77843-4237. 0278-0079/95/S4.00019951EEE Crewmembers of the January 8, 1986, Challenger mission, leaving to board the space shuttle. All seven lost their lives following the 1 u u n c h -phase exp 1 os ion . F r o m front to back: Francis U. Scobee, Judith A . Resnik. Ronald E . McNuir, Michael J. Smith, Christa McAuliffee. Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory B. Jarvis. focuses on the flaws in the design of the field joints in the boosters, or on other engineering failures. Another type locates the problem in improper management practices, either at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or with Morton Thiokol, the manufac- turer of the boosters. Another type finds the fault in unethical conduct on the part of NASA or the private contractors. Still other types of explana- tion might attribute the disaster to an unantici- pated convergence of events, or just plain bad luck. I shall confine myself, however, to the first IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Summer 1995 '
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three types of explanation: bad engineering, bad management, and bad ethics. Even though we may know that it is insuf- ficient, there seems to be a natural tendency to focus on a single type of explanation, The result is that these three types of explanation compete with one another in the minds of many people. If an event can be explained in terms of engineering failures, for example, we may think there is no need to look for evidence of improper management or unethical con- duct. If there is evidence of incompetent man- agement, why look for engineering problems or ethical improprieties? One reason for this tendency may be that people tend to look for explanations most congruent with their own areas of expertise. Engineers usually look for the explanation of a disaster in bad engineer- ing, most often in faulty design. Managers or management consultants tend to find the ex- planation in bad management. Ethicists are more likely to look for explanations in terms of ethically improper behavior. Contrary to this approach, there are good reasons to believe that these three types of explanation are not mutually exclusive. The same disaster can be explained in terms of bad engineering, bad management and bad ethics. One consequence of taking this more plural- istic approach to explaining disasters is that the place of ethical considerations in explain- ing disasters is not neglected. An appreciation of the importance of ethical failures can, in turn, serve to underscore the importance of avoiding these failures in the future. I shall
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