Ethics in the Workplace:
What Should the Christian Do?
Thomas D. Pearson
University of Texas-Pan American,
Many assume that Christians, of all people, should have a firm barometer when it comes to ethical issues. The Bible is replete with commandments, injunctions, directives, and invitations that speak to the ethical conduct of those who seek to follow God. It would seem that this applies universally, in every aspect of our lives, including the domain of our professional work. In theory, this should be true for those who work in the theoretical and applied fields of science and engineering, no less than any other field. Yet in practice, the results suggest otherwise.
Increasingly, professionals in science and engineering are facing more complex and difficult moral issues in the workplace. It is no longer enough simply to know that we should tell the truth, refrain from taking what does not belong to us, and treat others as we wish to be treated. Advances in technology and scientific competence frequently outstrip the ability of Christians in science and engineering to maintain a biblically-centered perspective on ethical matters. Today critical questions arise in fields as diverse as genetic research and toxic waste management that are not adequately addressed within Scripture or the ethical traditions of our Christian faith communities.
This is not the only problem. In the economic environment within which much of science is carried out, the attitudes of government, corporate management, and our own professional colleagues make a thick muddle of the moral dilemmas. Whether a particular strategic decision, research protocol, or marketing plan is even to be considered as an ethical problem is regularly disputed these days. How do we know that a specific action is morally wrong? Perhaps that action raises a new set of questions that have not been encountered before. In professional life, how can Christians tell when we are faced with a moral concern, and when we are not?
These sorts of questions have provoked my own work in the field of professional ethics. My concerns have been twofold. First, how do we best describe the character of contemporary professional life in the sciences and engineering, as they are practiced in Europe and North America? What are the principles in each profession which identify the ideal of ethical excellence for that vocation? What does it mean to be a "good" scientist, or a "good" engineer? Second, how can Christians express their religious commitments in ethically appropriate ways in the workplace? What would it mean for a professional in science or engineering to be faithful to Christ, and also to exercise a high degree of moral competence on the job?
I emphasize the concern for "moral competence" because that is most often where the problems seem to lie for Christian professionals. To address this concern, two years ago I initiated a grant-funded project investigating professional ethics. I have been distributing surveys and conducting interviews with professional researchers (bench scientists), project managers, and project administrators in pharmaceutical and biomedical companies. My intent is to ascertain what ethical resources these people use when making decisions in the workplace, and how successful they are in rendering those decisions.
The survey is carefully designed to elicit responses that would determine which of five specific categories individuals often rely on in making ethical judgments: religious beliefs, family values (values learned at an early age within a familial environment), cultural norms, social and peer pressure, or professional identity. My objective is to find out where people derived the beliefs that motivate their moral decisions. In addition, I am curious to see whether one of these five categories better enables people to reflect on ethical issues.
The interviews, done with a random sample of those who complete the survey, focus on two simulations. I present two very different kinds of scenarios that might arise in the life of a pharmaceutical researcher. Then I ask each respondent a series of questions about what they would do in each simulated situation, and the reasons why they would undertake that action. The interviews provide a much richer source of data for determining the sources of moral decision-making.
My research is not yet complete, and any conclusions are preliminary and tentative. Still, certain patterns appear to be emerging. I confess that some of these patterns have surprised me. When I began this project, I anticipated that Christians would have an easier time resolving moral dilemmas in their professional life than those who identified themselves as non-Christians, or who did not indicate that religious beliefs played a role in their ethical judgments. But this is not so. In fact, those who explicitly affirmed a Christian commitment have been (to date) the group least able to work through the ethical issues embedded in the simulations, and are the most inconsistent in their responses. On the other hand, the group that has indicated most strongly that their moral beliefs are derived from those values that pertain to their professional roles and identity have had the most positive responses.
I want to emphasize that this research is still incomplete, and no conclusions can be drawn yet. Nonetheless, these results were unexpected. They have prompted me to reevaluate the relationship between traditional Christian moral teachings and the demands of modern professional life in science and engineering.
I have formulated two suggestions which I think are in keeping with the trends I am noticing in my research. The first is that Christians need to be more active in reflecting on the character of professionalism in our society. Professionals (particularly in scientific fields) are a growing segment of our society. The various professions largely function as loosely-organized guilds (or, in the current lingo, as "communities of practice"). Each profession has its own standards of excellence, including moral excellence, which form a model for the individual's conduct within that professional practice. These are frequently articulated in various codes of ethics, or codes of conduct. It appears that when an individual sees herself as a professional, operating within a specific community of practice, she is best able to handle the ethical issues that will arise idiosyncratically within her own profession. But when professional identity is lacking, I suspect that the capacity for assessing and resolving moral dilemmas in the workplace is impaired, particularly in professions related to science and engineering. Christians, then, should direct some attention to the dynamics of professional life, to the demands placed on the Christian professional, and to the encouragement and discipleship of Christian professionals.
The second suggestion is closely related to the first. If the structures of the diverse professions in our society inform the ethical values of many people, then by strengthening those structures, particularly where they address moral concerns, we can encourage stronger ethical awareness by those professionals. This may mean that the codes of ethics developed by many corporations, research centers, institutions, and professional associations will need to be strengthened. Many such codes today are brief, vague, and superficial. If these codes were transformed into clear, specific, and thorough documents, detailing the standards of ethical excellence to which we hold all professionals within that practice accountable, we would strengthen professional life in our society. I also think that Christian professionals, who seek faithfulness to Christ along with professional integrity as separate, but related, aspects of their lives, will benefit.