Ethics are Optional

Do not confuse your vested interests with ethics.
Do not identify the enemies of your privilege with the enemies of humanity.
Max Lerner, Actions and Passions, 1949

This weekend I spend at the MinD-Akademie 2010, which was organized by the MHN (MinD-Hochschul-Netzwerk). It is a four-day event of presentations and workshops related to a single academy topic (this year: “Transformations”), but with contributions from different domains. It usually leads to much discussion between (or instead of watching) the presentations and a quickly accumulating lack of sleep.

It was impressive to see what highly motivated people can achieve on their own and I can highly recommend the MHN and the MinD-Akademie if you have some relation to university (if you do not study in Germany I think they are likely to give you some information on how to create something similar in your country).

One of the presentations at the MinD-Akademie was about having a career — or rather, how to make a successful career, with success as the only goal. The speaker gave some simple rules about how to have a successful career — one of these rules was:

Ethics are optional.

This doesn’t mean that having ethics has to be a disadvantage, but it is certainly not necessary to get ahead.

Watching the presentation I thought about the time when I read “Wahnsinnskarriere“, a German book that provided similar rules, and that I had decided then that this kind of career is not for me. I think that ethics are important, way too important, to neglect them. It does not only matter where you arrive, but also how you get there. Or to put it in a different way, if I would make it to the top I still would want to like what I see in the mirror every morning.

What is interesting is that this is not only the case with careers in commercial organizations. I had one interesting conversation lately, where — at an research institute — one of their providers of advanced scientific instruments wanted to see and hear about the product of another company that the institute had in use, in exchange of a huge discount on the next order.

As an outsider with no stake in this decision I would say that allowing one provider so see the product of another provider would be unethical. The simple test for me would be: How would the other provider react if they would tell him: “By the way, your direct competition in this highly competitive and fast advancing field of yours wanted to see your product and we showed and explained it to them.”

I do not think that they would like this very well. Sure, every company analyzes the products of their competition, but I think that as a research institute one should be neutral in this regard, especially given that scientific research usually is in close contact with the providers of their technology and there is a lot of information exchange between them. These providers profit from delivering to research institutes, because scientists usually go to the limit of what the instruments can do. Consequently, they know them well enough to see their limitations and they find ways on how to improve the instruments. This information should be given to the provider of that instrument, but not to the competitiors. And every showing of the instruments of one provider to another provider will not stop on showing the instrument, but it will include discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of that instrument. And that would be hurtful to the success of the provider of the instrument that is shown.

But, there is this huge discount. I can understand that having more of this highly expensive technology at that institute would be a huge benefit for the involved researcher. It would allow him to do more experiments in parallel, and more experiments means more data, which means more publications, which means career success.

On the other hand, is the integrity of the institute and the researcher not worth more than this? Or is it naïve to expect integrity from scientists beyond their immediate scientific work?

What do you think?