Letter of the Law and Spirit of the Law

So this week we learned that a UK parliamentary body had suggested that some members of a cycling team did not break the sporting laws in terms of taking drugs but they had “crossed an ethical line”. Specifically, the allegation is that they were given an asthma medication that would ultimately benefit their racing performance. I do not claim to know the truth of the matter and would not express a view one way or the other. Where this come close to the bone with me is that I, like millions of other people, am asthmatic. The medications we use are there for a very good reason, breath is life. The thought that anyone might use them to gain advantage in a sport is utterly reprehensible.

However, the item raises an issue me in terms of what it means to “cross an ethical line”. Do we ever do this in our work? How often do we do it? Research data collected from human participants is supposed to be gathered according to strict ethical guidelines. Data protection law is another obvious example. Some professionals have access to very sensitive information about people. It is there, but accessing it for inappropriate reasons is both illegal and unethical. However, these examples breach a clear set of rules.

What about occasions when rules are not broken but nevertheless an ethical line is crossed. When does “effective networking” become “canvassing” for favours? Have you, or anyone you know, gained a promotion through what when broken down is nepotism? Have you ever massaged your research data (the numbers were going in that direction anyway, they just weren’t significant). A million other instances could be cited but you get the point. We all have to work through our own moral compass when confronted by an ethical challenge/line.

Is that really all that is to it? In a pressurised environment where you are required/expected to achieve results doesn’t it become tempting to just let the hand on that moral compass slide anyway? Faced with a disappointing outcome it can be very tempting to “cross an ethical line”. Whilst there are ethical guidelines, codes of conduct etc… there are also pressures to achieve.

These pressures can also come from other people. From the work of Serge Moscovici we learned something of how people’s decision can be influenced by others. So faced with the opportunity to cheat, and the potential glory that goes with it, would you be able to adhere to your moral values and “do the right thing”? Faced with the expectations of colleagues, customers would you be able to adhere to your moral values and “do the right thing”?
We sometimes hear the phrase “laws are made to be broken”. Are they? Is breaking the law really the only morally questionable thing any of us can do in our work?

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Martin Coffey

About Martin Coffey

Career Management Skills Developer, Researcher Development Team.

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