Personal Conscience and Scientific Ethics: Listening to the Still Small Voice

Since the first time Jack dissected a frog in high school science, he’s had a nagging problem with working with animals. Now, after years as a biochemist, he’s been assigned to head a potentially lifesaving research project that works exclusively with biological material from rabbits. He’s having problems sleeping, and he suspects it has something to do with the long walk down the aisle of cages every morning. Jack is having what some experts call a “personal moral dilemma.” He’s embarrassed; he’s always thought of himself as the soul of scientific objectivity. What should he do about his problem?

Jane has worked for years and become a recognized leader in the development of fungicides for a major international chemical manufacturer. She has just been told that she will be transferred to a top-secret project to develop materials in support of a government biological weapons project. Not only is the transfer a test of her loyalty to the company, it is couched in terms of patriotic duty as well. Jane’s personal beliefs conflict with the work. What should she tell the vice president who gave her the new assignment?

[For sample resolutions, see the end of the article]

Ethics is the place where big business and personal values meet, sometimes uneasily. Almost every industry, profession, corporation, and institution in the sciences now has at least one code of ethics and sometimes entire governance structures that deal with evolving ethical issues. During the 1990s, corporate and academic America began to integrate formal ethics structures into routine operations. Employees are presented with lengthy codes of ethics and encouraged (under penalty of termination) to follow these and report colleagues and supervisors who do not. An entire industry of consultants, advisory organizations, and publications services the intertwined ethics and compliance functions that affect every aspect of work and on-the-job (and sometimes off-the-job) behavior.

Yet almost none of these efforts at codifying ethics and incorporating an ethical framework into daily scientific work has addressed the basic but sticky question of personal values. Everyone agrees that scientific work should not be stolen, corporate secrets not divulged, and that a general standard of integrity should prevail when dealing with colleagues. But what happens when personal beliefs, convictions, or concerns come into direct conflict with the scientific work at hand?

In many areas, especially the biosciences, the nature of work is evolving rapidly. Scientists who signed up for one job may find that the company has entirely redirected its activities toward another goal. The content of work may change in unexpected and, for a few individuals, unwanted ways. In this article, JobSpectrum looks at the ethics mechanisms that guide corporations and institutions and offers a few suggestions for resolving values dilemmas.

The Ethics of Big Business

Almost every U.S. corporation has adopted a code of ethics. At United Technologies, a detailed corporate code of ethics applies to all 152,000 employees, more than half of whom work outside the United States. The code is an “expression of fundamental values and represents a framework for decision-making.” Each employee is required to sign on to the specifics of the code, which touches on everything from dishonesty to bribing foreign officials. UTC President and CEO George David is blunt about adherence to the code: “If you have a different view, you need to go off and caucus privately with yourself about your situation with our wonderful company, because about this standard, this issue, there is no compromise.”

At HCA Healthcare (Nashville, TN), an Ethics and Compliance Program includes a code of conduct, training and monitoring programs, and Ethics and Compliance Officers at each facility. The HCA code of conduct notes at the outset the need to “…act with absolute integrity in the way we do our work and the way we live our lives.” Yet Alan R. Yuspeh, who serves as Senior Vice President for Ethics, Compliance, and Corporate Responsibility and the Corporate Ethics and Compliance Officer for HCA, notes the difference between personal values and the corporate ethic: “The purpose of a formalized attention to business ethics is not to reiterate fundamental values—many of which are taught in the home—that we presume individuals learn as part of the maturation process. More concretely, the purpose of this effort is to assist individuals in identifying difficult business decisions that have some ethical dimension and then resolving these in a manner that reflects the organization’s values.”

In fact, every corporate code of ethics is designed to address the organization’s values, not the employee’s. Most corporate codes of ethics, regardless of how well-intended and how successful at bringing a new level of integrity to a range of transactions, are based on protection from litigation. In addressing the ways in which customers, clients, and fellow employees should be treated, the bottom line is both defining the letter of the law and making it clear that the company has informed the employee about the law. Personal concerns, when addressed at all, come under the heading of “grievances” or “complaints,” words that are inappropriate when those concerns touch on matters of conscience.

Ethics and Academia

Ethics are big business on campus, too. At Duke, Princeton, Marquette, and hundreds of colleges large and small, an ethics requirement has become part of the undergraduate curriculum. Values and ethics courses have proliferated, and dozens of academic centers for the study of ethics have been launched, often with substantial funding from corporations. National organizations, such as the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics and the Center for Academic Integrity, now offer an umbrella of ethics-related services, instruments, and sounding boards. Elizabeth Kiss, Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke, says that such a focus in academia “can help us cultivate capacities for sensitive and rigorous deliberation about how we ought to live.”

Although universities offer the most promising setting for philosophical discussion of potential conflicts of personal values and institutional goals, most fall short in putting such promise into practice. Few universities or their affiliated medical centers and scientific labs have programs in place to deal with such conflicts among their own employees.

Ethics and Big Science

At the multidisciplinary Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, scientists and scholars come together to research and teach in the rapidly changing areas of modern bioscience: genetics, environmental sciences, global medicine, and others. The strongest impetus for the founding of this and similar academic centers has been the firestorm of popular and scientific controversy surrounding the applications of genetic techniques. The need for rational discourse on hot-button topics such as cloning, stem-cell technologies, and genetically altered food sources is clear. A new generation of bioethicists is being trained to ask the difficult questions about evolving scientific capabilities. But even in these academic centers that look at the overarching moral assumptions that underlie modern science, personal value conflicts within the scientific enterprise play a very small role. “That’s really a corporate or business issue, isn’t it?” asked a faculty member at the Center for Bioethics. “Isn’t that a bioethics issue?” asked the corporate ethics professor to whom we were referred.

In the biosciences, personal value conflicts fall into a gray zone. “The assumption is that this is the field you chose and you knew what you were getting into,” one genetics laboratory worker told JobSpectrum.org. “If you have a problem with it, you leave. At the rate things are changing, whatever you’re objecting to is probably only going get worse.”

Although this outlook seems discouraging, one way to approach such conflicts is to recognize the difference between corporate or professional ethics and personal conscience and know how and when to speak up about conflicts on the job.

Sally O. Walshaw, MA, VMD, affiliated with Michigan State University, calls these concerns a form of “moral distress.” Such distress results when “the right course of action seems obvious to one or more individuals who cannot take appropriate action because of institutional policy or objection by supervisors or co-workers.”

But “moral distress” to one worker may seem like a minor complaint to a supervisor. One person’s crisis of conscience may seem to a co-worker to be a litany of complaints. And none of these concerns is covered in the employee handbook.

Letting the Still Small Voice Talk

If only the conscience were like Jiminy Cricket—out there on the table top, winningly expounding our personal views of right and wrong. Most people have a very difficult time discussing their own moral conflicts at all, much less in situations in which jobs and livelihoods are at stake. JobSpectrum.org spoke with corporate and academic ethicists who gave the following advice to those experiencing crises of personal value on the job:

Look inside. Take a moment for calm reflection. How important is this issue to you? Is this merely troubling or does it touch on what to you is a fundamental matter of right and wrong? If your moral dilemma has a religious basis, talk with your spiritual advisor. Or talk with colleagues you trust. Before you take any action, have a clear idea of how far you are willing to pursue this problem and whether you are willing to have it be the focus of attention in your workplace.
Check your facts. (1) First, check the fine print of your original employment agreement. You may have already agreed to the do the work you now find problematic. This may affect the way you choose to voice your concerns. (2) Next, find out about your company’s ethics structure and HR policies about such concerns. Some organizations allow you to bypass your immediate supervisor and go directly to an ethics board or HR representative. Although they may have no set procedures for dealing with your problem, they may offer a solution that has more authority. (3) Finally, contact the professional organization with the focus that most closely parallels the work you do. Find out if the organization has developed codes of ethics and/or so-called “conscience clauses” that may provide support as you discuss your concerns. The American Pharmaceutical Association, for example, has a conscience clause that “recognizes the individual pharmacist’s right to exercise conscientious refusal” and has appointed a council to serve as a resource for the profession in addressing and understanding ethical issues. At the American Chemical Society, a code of conduct offers broad guidelines that govern responsibilities and professional behavior. ACS Members may contact the ACS Department of Career Services to discuss a specific situation with a staff member or career consultant.
Be honest about your concerns.Once you’ve decided to talk about your conflict, be as honest as you can. Remember that you’re not complaining and you’re not preaching. You’re simply conveying your own difficulty with some aspect of your assigned work.
Consider compromise. Walshaw recommends that employees consider working toward an “integrity-preserving compromise.” First developed by Martin Benjamin, PhD, at Michigan State University, such a compromise requires that both the employee and employer recognize that the issue in question does have philosophical uncertainty and moral complexity, that a continued productive relationship is valued, that only a finite number of options can be explored, and that a decision must be made.
Out in the open. Sometimes integrity-preserving compromise is reached through group discussion. A lab unit or work group may assemble to discuss one employee’s concerns. Some companies, like HCA and UTC, hold such meetings on a regular basis, both as ongoing training and to open up issues for discussion. Group discussions may involve role playing and situational examples. They should always include a wrap-up, with specific conclusions and some consensus about how these conclusions relate to the work at hand.
Look for alternatives. Check out other assignments in your company or institution that might not cause you moral distress. Corporate ethicists interviewed for this article agreed that the overwhelming majority of moral dilemmas in the scientific workplace are handled on an ad hoc basis. If you approach your employers with a solution already in hand, this alternative may be far more appealing than initiating what could be long resolution process.
Recognize your limits. Remember, however, that the work to which you had objections is still being carried out in your company or institution. If you continue to have problems with this, you ultimately may choose to look for other employment. If all else fails, be direct but nonjudgmental with your supervisors. Your goal is to reach an amicable termination agreement in which you receive both a recommendation and support in looking for other employment.
Be true to yourself. You went to school and studied hard to be a scientist. You owe it to yourself to find satisfaction and genuine rewards in what you do. Work with your employer—or look outside to the very wide range of choices available—until you find a situation in which your personal values are consonant with the tasks you do on a daily basis.

Back to Jack and Jane…

Jack’s company has both a well-established ethics committee and a large bioethics board, on each of which Jack had served. He knew that neither group routinely addressed his concerns. The ethics committee looked at matters of corporate and business ethics, and the bioethics board looked at issues of scientific integrity and procedure. Jack decided to hold a discussion meeting for his lab group. He was astonished to find that many of his colleagues occasionally shared his misgivings about animal research. But most felt that the potential benefits of their work outweighed their individual concerns. The group now meets monthly to discuss these and other evolving issues, sometimes with guest speakers from institutional bioethics boards and national organizations. Jack has resolved to continue with his work, confident that he is free discuss all aspects of his work with his colleagues.

Jane weighed her options. Take the transfer and work on a project to which she had moral objections? Refuse the transfer and watch her career flatline? She made an appointment to talk with the head of her company’s ethics board. No procedure was in place for dealing with employees’ personal concerns about the content of their work. With some trepidation, Jane went to the vice president who had made the transfer and voiced her concerns. To her surprise, the response was collegial. “Your concerns are important to us,” he said. “And the last thing we would want is to assign someone to this job who could not dedicate themselves to it without reservation.” Although Jane continues in her old job, this sequence of events has heightened her awareness that when looking at potential new employers she will very carefully consider how well her own values fit into the new setting.

Nan Knight is a freelance science writer and editor whose credits include Smithsonian exhibits, Discovery Channel Web sites, and a wide range of publications on radiation in medicine.

Related Resources

Why should you think about your personal values when you are conducting a job search? Because you spend most of your waking hours at work, it is very important that your personal values and job responsibilities are compatible. When your personal and professional values are in conflict, you will likely find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. This is one of the aspects of a job search that candidates tend to overlook. Don’t wait until a situation arises on the job to discover that your values are in conflict with your employer’s. Read more on how to identify your values as part of your job search.

The Interview Handbook (published by the ACS Department of Career Services) contains lots of information and advice about interviewing as well as suggested questions to ask interviewers based on your personal values assessment.