Leave no dead horse unflogged (was ethics, and is long)

Subject: Leave no dead horse unflogged (was ethics, and is long)
From: "Matthew Bin" <mattbin -at- hotmail -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 14 Apr 2003 00:13:30 +0000

I'm posting some parts of my response to Dawn's statement of ethics; not because this thread hasn't gone on too long already, but because there is an issue in the topic that has not been, to my taste, answered satisfactorily.

That issue is the issue of where ethics come from. The only answers I've seen are "everyone has their own" (and I don't agree with that; those I understand to be called morals) or "there is no general standard" (which I agree with, though I do not believe that it is impossible or even a waste of time to create one for our industry).

The more I think about the STC publishing a set of ethical standards, the more I like it. A generally known (if not universally accepted) set of standards is a great starting point. Any system beats no system; any ethical system, therefore, beats no ethical system.

Anyhow, here's the relevant bit from my response to the statement.

I cannot speak for most, or even many, technical communicators. However, in my experience, ethics have been a primary point of concern and discussion in many of my projects. (These projects largely consisted of consulting work for public ministries.)

In completing well-funded year 2000 projects, for example, where there were no rules to speak of, and very little in the way of expectations other than "make sure our equipment doesn't fail!".

We had a 100-member team and spent $35 million on the project. It would have been easy to make things up, really, because when it all came down to it, the Ministry was getting a 110-page report for its $35M (although there was plenty of supporting documentation). We could have fleeced them. We could have done half the work, and taken them to the cleaners.

I was a part of the top management for this project (though I was a worker, not a manager, myself). There were constantly questions and discussions of what it was permissible to say in these reports, and how we could best represent our own interests (finish project, earn money) while remaining truthful and not misleading the client. It wasn't even a matter of being accurate but hiding truth; we were very concerned that the client would misconstrue our findings and work, since it depended greatly on the statistics that came out of that work.

Now, this wasn't technical writing in the sense of product documentation; but it was writing on a technical subject, for a technical project. The particular project I'm thinking of remains the high point in my career as a tech writer.

Incidentally, about halfway through the project the ministry began auditing our work with one of the Big Six consulting firms (and we all know how ethically they act, now, don't we, Mr Andersen). Although the auditors did their best, the projects I worked on easily passed muster, because we acted honestly throughout them. All auditors can do, in those cases, is request more information. (Or they can wilfully misconstrue what we tell them; that was another problem we had, but when it comes down to brass tacks, ignorant people can say what they want but the brass tacks remain.)

While I have not always been in situations that confronted ethical questions so straightforwardly, this way of working remains part of my approach. Not because I'm such a good person, but because I learned that the ethical approach, if you're willing and able to spend the additional energy it sometimes takes to act ethically, your life becomes easier.

By the way, my STC membership has lapsed again and I haven't seen Interlog for a couple of years. I don't know if they have the same definition for "ethical" that I do; I see "ethics" as a set of principles that both the worker and client (or whatever you want to call the two parties in the transaction) mutually (if tactily) agree are required. That means they're relative, often not stated, and change over time and from client to client. I don't know if the STC has a stated ethical standard similar to what many professional engineering organizations have adopted, but it would be worth having one. Only principles that are clear and openly stated can be, in my mind, strictly called "ethics".


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