Ethics and personal responsibility

Sir Peter Rubin, head of the GMC (General Medical Council), was invited to give evidence to the parliamentary commission on banking practices about the requirements of a regulatory body.

He pointed out that the GMC had considerable control over medical education, and therefore doctors educated in Britain had been required to learn a standard of ethical behaviour. He also pointed out that doctors bear personal responsibility for their actions, whereas bankers do not. (Parliament TV of the evidence).

My education has included little practical ethics (a philosophy module at York covered Kant’s categorical imperative, which offers useful advice about behaviour about speaking truthfully to men carrying axes). My MSc discussed organisational behaviour, risk management and research ethics. In the module on ergonomics, we were told that bad design can cause accidents, and told that in future we might bear personal responsibility for accidents that were due to poor design. For example, is the person who decided on the position of the signal passed at danger at Ladbroke Grove (wikipedia details here) personally responsible for the deaths of passengers caused by the signal being difficult to see? Geoffrey Counsell organised a fireworks display near a motorway. He is being prosecuted for manslaughter, because it is possible that smoke from the display obscured visibility and caused drivers to crash. They can’t be prosecuted, because nobody really knows whether they were driving dangerously or not.

How is responsibility shared out? When something goes wrong, we look for an individual to blame. It is as if we imagine that there is a single chain of cause and effect, that we can follow, and find the original person who didn’t spot the missing horseshoe nail, or who put the shoe on badly, and then blame them for the consequences. While it’s never that simple (I’ll talk about organisational cultures another time), there’s still a question for any interface designer. Does what you do make it more likely that someone else will make a mistake, and possibly destroy their own or someone else’s life?