Essentials in Ethics for Safety

What Does Safety Know About Ethics?One day when safety understands that a mature approach to ethics is essential for being professional, it might hopefully tackle the essentials in ethical and moral thinking. Unfortunately, documents like the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics are so glaringly inadequate it is laughable.

It is also clear that having a concern for ethics and moral philosophy is not enough in itself to understand its complexities. Similarly, avoiding complexity and projecting a naive idea like ‘check your gut’, ‘do the right thing’ and ‘common sense’ actually make things worse. It’s like stating that the best thing to do with culture in safety is to not talk about it.

Whilst I understand the desire of Safety to distinguish between classes of safety people, and concerns about academia in the end, whether we like it or not, we all depend on the expertise of others when things go wrong eg. Lawyers, Magistrates, Doctors, Ethicists, Anthropologists, Psychologists, Psychiatrists etc. The idea that a generalist discipline such as safety is the repository of all knowledge is nonsense. This is why Transdisciplinarity is essentials for generalist occupations eg. Teachers, Nurses, Social Workers and Safety.

All of the helping professions ‘serve’ others through conversation, consultation and mediating (helping) between specialists and users of services.

So, if Safety wishes to have a conversation about Ethics, some knowledge of foundational issues (none mentioned in the AIHS BoK) is critical.

Here are a few essentials:

Power. This is the elephant in the room and the starting point for any discussion on morality, virtue and ethics. The use of power and its outcomes for persons is essential in any discussion on ethics.

Persons. How persons are defined, notions of equity, mutuality, shared space, shared humanity/mortality are essential in any discussion of the way power works. Any thinking about ethics ought to also understand the realities of: mortality, vulnerability, fallibility and human ‘being’.

Policy/Politics. The foundation of human relations is political (formal and informal), this is unavoidable, even in the smallest of human groups.

Virtue/Vice. An understanding of virtues such as: care, helping, service, advising, transparency, truth-telling, wisdom and vice such as: greed, lust, violence etc. An understanding of outcomes in the use of power and its consequences for persons and communities draws together these moral values.

Socialitie. Everything human is social and relational. The myths of individualism and materialism have no place in forming a view on ethics. Context and situation should be determinants or ethical and moral decision making.

Trajectory. It is essential in ethics to understand that policies and decisions have long term effects that cannot be seen at the time (humans are not infallible, omnipotent or omniscient). It is essential to understand that innocent beginnings can have dehumanising consequences. This is where Learning enters the context and the capability to allow Ethics to shape Policy.

Culture. Culture is critical in understanding ethics and why morality varies from situation to situation. A sophisticated understanding context beyond the naïve and simplistic definition of ‘what we do around here’ is essential (

Linguistics. Understanding meaning in language is essential in the communication of ethics. Conflating language as does the AIHS BoK or not knowing the effects of language only leads to confusion. Knowing that it matters whether something is done to someone or with someone is critical. When one engages a Lawyer, one quickly learns that they are experts in law, ethics and linguistics. This is also why Safety people are not representative in a courtroom.

So, these are the starting point for a conversation in ethics for safety – not duty, not safety, not paperwork, not technology, not efficiency, not systems, not engineering, nor behaviours.

None of these are a starting point for thinking about ethics in safety or ethics for safety. It is also critical to consult other disciplines that can help envision dimensions in ethics one has not considered.

As a generalist discipline if Safety should be good at anything, it should be consultation and deference to expertise (academic or experience). Unfortunately, the predominant cultural attitude in the industry is defensive, as if the discipline of safety is a qualification in everything.

So, starting with ethics is as simple as starting with a question: who has the power and what does it do to people? How do we organise and what does this do to persons?

It is from these foundations that one has a good chance of developing a moral framework for tackling risk.

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