An Ethic of Mandate in Safety

An Ethic of Mandate in Safety

imageEnsuring a safe workplace is foundational to WHS: morally, legally and ethically. When it comes to the ‘wicked problem’ ( ) of ethics in risk there are no simple answers or ‘fixes’. Indeed, to speak in simplistic terms about wicked problems is unethical and delusional. The idea that an ethic of risk could be leveraged on ‘check your gut’ is amateurish and unprofessional ( ). Imagine claiming some bizarre body of knowledge in ethics in safety with no discussion of: power, personhood, care ethics, competing values, perception, motivation or the psychology of goals. Imagine setting the sights of an industry on the ideology of zero as some kind of spiritual panacea ( ) whilst being plagued by the realities of a pandemic and harm? Yep, that’s Safety!

We will come to an ethic of mandate shortly but it all depends on what ethic is assumed in mandating. If one comes from a deontological ethic to mandate then the focus is on duty and pre-ordained rule. In deontology, reason is assumed to be inbuilt, common and ‘god-given’. In an existentialist dialectical ethic, the focus is on the relationship between persons and collective discourse. More on that later however, the point is this. There is no one objective view on mandate nor a neutral ethic on risk.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Ethics the safety industry simply doesn’t have the curriculum, capability or critical thinking to tackle the ‘wickedity’ of Ethics, mandates and risk. It’s simply not mature or professional enough to lay out a (covert) deontological ethic ( ) as if morality, moral systems and ethical dilemmas are solved by some ‘god-given’ natural endowment of objectivity in risk. This is even made worse when morality and ethics are equated as the same thing. ­

When it comes to ethical decisions in organisations we enter a mine field, according to the declared or undeclared assumptions about persons, ethics and power. The first lesson in Ethics should concern assumptions about persons and power. Such a discussion is not in the AIHS BoK on Ethics! Particularly, when one is discussing public and workplace health, one should be aware of such things as: ‘social contract’, situational ethics, common good, care ethics, ethical dilemmas, social psychological ethics and existentialist ethics. None of this is discussed in the AIHS BoK on Ethics. This brings us to the challenge of ‘mandates’ in workplaces and public health.

Legally, when one is mandated by law to ensure a safe workplace, certain mandates become essential, regardless of so called ‘personal freedoms’. Even then, lawyers know that the Law is neither neutral or objective. All law is interpreted and subjective. Neither is it endowed from on high.

We accept many constraints in living socially just as we accept the benefits of living socially. Similarly, those who ‘violate’ social reality usually end up losing that social reality in a prison, where a new social reality faces them. We cannot escape social reality, all humans are social and all being is social. The beginning of Ethics is captured in the wonderful text of Buber ‘i-thou’. There is no human living in individualism or isolationism. Both are delusions.

Risk is risk because it embeds a social reality. The risk of risk is a social outcome. Any form of harm or suffering has a social outcome. The foundation for all risk and safety is understanding the many trade-offs, limits of choice and acceptance of constraints associated with the certainties of fallibility, vulnerability, mortality and necessity. There is no isolated freedom for individuals because we are social beings. The many necessities associated with mortality eliminate any simplistic idea that individuals can live on an island. The foundation of social psychology accepts the by-products and trade-offs associated with all social living. We always live in a dialectic between individual and social being. Buber’s i-thou and the hyphen between you and I is symbolic of all human connectedness, interaffectivity and intercorporeality. This is where an ethic of mandates should start.

Under the mandate of the WHS Act there is little debate that certain mandates are acceptable, for the common social good. Mandates associated with safety such as: PPE, risk assessment, substance abuse, sexual and other forms of discrimination rules, collective well-being and injury prevention are accepted for the common social good and to not violate the value of persons as social beings. This is why a definition of personhood and ‘violaton’ are essential to an ethic of risk. Violence is always about a ‘violation’ of how one defines personhood. An ethic of risk should always start with consideration of the humanization of persons. This is why the AIHS BoK on Ethics leaves out a discussion of personhood. In that way a deontological ethic excuses the brutalism of Zero.

If you wish to live and work in an organization there are moral (personal) and ethical (systemic) obligations and responsibilities that are equally matched by benefits (wages and conditions) and productive outcomes. All organizing is social organizing. When we organize we create a ‘consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of an agreed notion of sensemaking’ (Weick 1979 p.3). In any organising there are open and closed forms of systems that ‘regulate’ the ecological and systemic functioning of how people organize. Through organizational rules we don’t get to pick and choose our role, job description and responsibilities, and are held accountable to those criteria. This can be messy and flexible but in the end the collective governance manages a moral (sometimes hidden) notion of personhood.

So, even when it comes to such matters as vaccines, masks and ‘health orders’ and with the overwhelming support of the scientific community, organisations are faced with the WHS Act mandate to ensure a safe workplace. We can see the WHS Act as a deontological thing or as a social guide. We can focus on the rule and ruling or on the mutuality of social violation, and many other ethical positions in between.

From a social psychological perspective the value of the common good is held in dialectic against the liberties of the individual. The idea of some individual right to do as you wish is always balanced with responsibilities for the common good. This is why we create laws and rules and accept regulation, for the common good.

From a legal standpoint mandating vaccines is ethical unless one rejects the foundation of organizing for the common good or the principle of social governance. We elect government and sustain regulatory authorities like the TGA, for the same common good.

Unfortunately, we can’t be selectively ethical about what regulations we live under or not, even bad regulations that are interpreted in a way that dehumanize persons. We also accept the premise of policing and a court system but also hold these institutions to account to the value of persons socially. As a minimum, any profession (except safety) accepts the dialectic of four moral principles: beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy and justice ( ). Here too each requires extensive definition and work. Of course, it goes without saying that the AIHS BoK on Ethics doesn’t mentions these four or discuss them in relation to professionalism.

So, unless one comes to ethics from a transdisciplinary methodology one is left with this deontological ethic that rules in rule and one is left with a simplistic political economy of compliance and non-compliance. Such an approach suits zero well and an outcome of brutalism but it is neither ethical nor moral. There can be no ethic of risk without a discussion of power and personhood.

When we negotiate mandates for the common good, we enter into conversational dialectic with how humans organize for the good of persons. This is where an ethic of mandate starts.

Dr Rob Long
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long

PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA
Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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