Another Lecture in Ethics

Well readers, after a long semester full of writing, I havent felt inspired to write lately, but I wanted to update this blog to let you all know I haven’t forgotten about you. Then I remembered that I had another ethics paper I wanted to share.

     You may remember that I shared the first paper I wrote in March. (If you got bored after the first sentence and did not read it, I understand.) I shared that paper because I was delighted about how much the teacher loved it, and in fact said my writing was advanced and that he just had some feedback about finer points like minor grammar issues.

     But despite how long he raved about my paper, I will never forget when he had finished going over the paper with me and said as I was walking towards the door, “Remember how I said in class that your second paper should be better than the first?”

     “Yes,” I said.

     “Do it,” he said, and I knew exactly what he meant. I wanted to reply that I couldn’t make any promises, as this first paper didn’t require any sources other than my own brain, whereas the second paper would require a little more research which can be difficult for me. But I was so impressed by this teacher’s high expectations that I found myself saying “I will!”

     And I did! Despite the fact that I had so many end-of-semester papers and presentations due all at once and couldn’t devote as much time to the paper as I would have liked, I received an A for it! Better yet, this teacher made the final exam optional so that if you were happy with your grade, you could skip the exam. My A on this final paper, on top of my excellent quiz and participation grades for this class led the teacher to send me an e-mail saying “don’t bother with the final exam!” I think that proclamation calls for a celebration by publishing this paper. I don’t usually brag, so I will stop now. I am just so happy about how well this class, and the whole semester, turned out. On that note, here is another lesson in ethics for those who are interested. Enjoy!

 

An Analysis of Ethical Communication In a Nuclear Crisis

Allison Nastoff

Communication Ethics

Thursday April 14, 2011

     The Japanese people, and for that matter anyone in the world who had access to a television, won’t soon forget the images that came out of Japan on March 11, 2011, a day that set a new standard for the term “natural disaster.” That morning, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake, followed by a giant tsunami, brought Japan to its knees. Whole communities were washed away, and the death toll is now estimated at around 13,000. But coverage of the devastation from the natural disaster was quickly overshadowed by another more ominous man-made disaster. Just as industrial countries around the world were thinking about building more nuclear power plants and switching to “clean energy”, two reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were damaged by the earthquake, causing fuel rods to overheat releasing radiation in to the surrounding air, soil and water, and releasing panic among everyone in the nuclear industry and people living in the surrounding communities.

     Considering the dangerous health effects of being exposed to high levels of radiation, not to mention the economic hit Japan is taking since other countries have banned Japanese products that may have been in the areas effected by the radiation, it is understandable that Japanese officials would want to try and calm people, even if it means downplaying how serious the nuclear crisis really is. For example, the United States evacuated Americans living in a fifty mile radius of the plant, while the Japanese government only evacuated people within a twelve mile radius according to a New York Times update on the crisis published April 9. But is it ethical for governments to try and downplay disasters of this magnitude? In a Democratic society, what is the most ethical communication from a government when a China syndrome seems possible?

     As the citizen of a Democratic country, my values have always dictated that a democratic government is by the people for the people, and thus, the government has a moral obligation to be transparent with the people it represents about what is going on. I also believe transparency is especially important after a national security disaster such as Japan’s nuclear crisis because those are moments when trust in the government is essential for effectively responding to the crisis. These days, national security crises are also moments when social networking has the potential to erode that trust as Jennifer Sims points out in a March 15 New York Times article. “Although outsiders need to be patient, recognizing the enormous stress all Japanese are experiencing as they cope with this crisis, Japanese officials need to appreciate that social networking can magnify noise; poor information policies will exacerbate their national security crisis, not alleviate it” (Sims).

     At a congressional hearing on September 5, 2003, then Senator Hillary Clinton echoes a similar sentiment when she said “To say that national security somehow justifies telling people the air is safe when it is not is to essentially say that people are going to be told that when they need their government the most at a time of terrible disaster, they cannot trust what they hear. A national crisis does not justify giving people the wrong information and continuing to do so days, weeks and months after the event.” Senator Clinton made this statement in the context of a hearing about the lung diseases suffered by firefighters after breathing contaminated air on September 11, 2001, but this statement is applicable to Japan’s current nuclear crisis as well. But since others, even those who live in the same democratic society may value the preservation of calmness and order even at the cost of transparency, making values subjective, determining the most ethical communication for this situation requires analysis of the situation using ethical principles.

     First, Aristotle’s Golden Mean Principle states that “Moral virtue is appropriate location between two extremes.” The virtue of wisdom which is also synonymous with sound judgement, could definitely apply to the above case. Certainly, the extreme of a response that causes panic and chaos would not be desirable in Japan’s situation, or for that matter any country facing a major catastrophe. For instance, had Japanese officials gone banging on doors screaming frantically that people need to evacuate immediately at the first signs of a radiation leak, such a response would not have helped anyone as such a response would have led to such chaos and panic among citizens that it would have become much more difficult to manage the situation. But though a more subtle extreme, the extreme of not sharing anything with citizens about what is going on or how much radiation citizens might be exposed to is just as dangerous because as Hillary Clinton said, this extreme leads to distrust in government at a time when such trust is crucial. So according to this principle, the middle ground, and thus the most ethical communication in this situation would be for government officials to exercise wisdom through honest reporting to the citizens of what is going on so that the citizens feel they can trust their government. Then, should more drastic measures like an evacuation be necessary, the trust the government developed with the citizens would alleviate panic and allow the crisis to be handled in a calm, orderly fashion.

     Although I have always interpreted Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative principle which says “act on that maxim which you will to be universal law”, to be a principle applying more to individuals, it certainly could be applicable to governments as well, especially in terms of a government’s expectation of other governments. After all, Democratic societies are constantly criticizing authoritarian governments for withholding the truth from their people. But if Democratic societies want other governments to be truthful to their citizens, then societies like Japan should be truthful with their people in times of crisis.

     But Immanuel Kant’s principle which says “never lie” makes determining the most ethical communication for this situation a little more uncertain. It is true that there is an implied expectation that governments in a Democratic society will be transparent because if a lack of transparency during a crisis causes harm, it could have serious political repercussions. But when analyzed from the perspective of a formal contractual agreement, applying this principle would indicate that while citizens trust and depend on the government to handle crises, they never entered an explicit contractual agreement requiring the government to keep them informed about the severity of the crisis. So while Japan’s lack of transparency is controversial, it does not meet Kant’s definition of a lie.

     But determining the most ethical communication becomes clear once again when applying Mill’s Principle of Utility which says to “seek the greatest good for the greatest number.” It is true that in the short-term, withholding information about the severity of a crisis could benefit society in the sense that people would not be burdened with unnecessary anxiety about a potential nuclear meltdown when they are already under incredible stress trying to recover from the earthquake and tsunami. But what about the long-term trust in government should a lack of transparency lead to harm? Democratic governments need to take this question in to consideration and realize that if a crisis as severe as a potential nuclear meltdown is mishandled, the resulting mistrust in government could take generations to restore. So while some members of society may prefer not to know the magnitude of a crisis in their midst, governments should realize that transparency is a much safer assurance of the stability of society long-term, and thus transparency is the approach that would ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

     Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance Principle which says that “justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations” is also applicable to this situation, and it leads me right back to the overwhelming evidence that transparency is the most ethical communication. After all, the whole theoretical purpose of government is to act in a manner that serves everyone’s best interests. Therefore, to remain true to their duty, Japan is obligated to be impartial to the emotions of people who may not want to know about the crisis and recognize that transparency is a more sensible approach for everyone involved.

     Finally, the Judea-Christian Principle which says to “love your neighbor as yourself” is definitely applicable to this case, and is perhaps the most important principle. Even if a government official decides not to release information about the severity of a crisis on the basis that he/she would not want such knowledge if he/she were an ordinary citizen, that person should also think about how upset he/she would be if he/she or a member of his/her family were harmed as a result of a lack of transparency. If that person thinks about the Judea-Christian principle in that way, he/she would realize that while transparency may contradict the more simplistic interpretation of this principle which says “do unto others what you would want done unto you”, according to the more accurate interpretation of this principle, “love your neighbor as yourself”, transparency is the most ethical communication.

     Of course, it could be argued that since I am just a college student with no experience in issues as sensitive as a nuclear crisis, I don’t know all of the implications that must be considered by government officials handling such a crisis. I will probably never be faced with such a sensitive situation either. Therefore, it is possible that if I were actually personally involved in such a situation and not just analyzing it theoretically as a college student, my opinion as to the most ethical communication would be different. Nevertheless, based on my current knowledge of the situation, I believe transparency is the most ethical approach.

Works Cited

Sims, Jennifer. What government transparency could mean for Japan’s nuclear disaster. New York Times. 15 March, 2011.

 

Tabuchi, Hiroko and Bradsher, Keith. Lack of Data Heightens Japan’s Nuclear Crisis. New York Times. 8 April, 2011.

 

Senator Hillary Clinton. Senate Congressional Record. 5 September, 2003. Page 21350.

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