TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 128: Must an engineer warn the government about a life-threatening safety problem?

I help design airplanes. My company is the design subcontractor for an air~frame manufacturer now about to start building and delivering a new, wide-bodied plane we have been helping develop for six years. Despite the fact that the plane is about to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), I am convinced it has a design defect that, if not corrected, probably will result sooner or later in serious accidents.

I made my concerns known to my superiors from the earliest stages, and our company’s management met our obligations as a subcontractor by urging the manufacturer to correct the problem. We were rebuffed, but my analysis was verified by an accident that happened while a prototype was being tested on the ground. That led to some modifications, but I consider them worse than inadequate; in some ways they actually increase the risk.

When the certification process was about to begin, I once more summarized the problem for my immediate superior; he agreed with my analysis, and again made the case to our top management. They again urged the airframe manufacturer to correct the defect, and again were rebuffed. Our people are not happy with the situation, but feel there is nothing more they can do, since our contract makes it clear that the manufacturer bears sole responsibility for ultimate design decisions, and forbids our company to communicate directly with the government authorities.

I hoped the FAA would refuse certification, but now it is clear that the manufacturer has sold them on the plane’s safety and they are going to certify. I fear that will mean the death of some people, perhaps hundreds. Within my company, there is nothing more I can do; my only course would be to violate company policy by going directly to the FAA. If I do, I might as well also contact the communications media. I think there would be some—but not much—chance the FAA will delay certification until adequate modifications have been made.

Must I personally take responsibility for trying to stop certification by giving my analysis of the design defect to the FAA? I probably would lose my job. Openings in my field are few, and an individual known to have unilaterally violated a company’s policies is hardly likely to get one. I am forty-five, and my four children are lined up to go to college.

I have no desire to be a hero and will make this sacrifice only if convinced I must. My wife says not to do it. But I hate the prospect of hearing on the news: “An airliner has crashed with the loss of everyone aboard, three hundred and . . ..”


The moral issue for this questioner is one of fairness. He should consider not only the diverse goods at stake but the likelihood that lives will be saved or lost, on the one hand, and that his family will be harmed or protected, on the other, assuming he proceeds on each of the available options. He should then judge between (or among) the options by applying the Golden Rule, and act according to that judgment. If he judges that fairness requires him to try to prevent certification, it will not be supererogatory self-sacrifice but his duty to do that; if, judging that he should protect his family’s interests, he refrains from acting and the defect results in a disaster, he will not be responsible for the lost lives.

The reply could be along the following lines:

You do well to ask this question, and it really is difficult.335 Since far more people sometimes fly on airplanes than ever support their families by work like yours, most people probably would tell you that you plainly must make the sacrifice. At the same time, people in positions like yours all too often take it for granted that moral responsibilities in connection with their work end when they have carried out the duties in their job description. While love of neighbor does not demand that you forget your responsibilities toward your family, it plainly calls for the broader view of work related responsibilities that you are taking.

Perhaps your employer should have violated the terms of its contract with the airframe manufacturer and delivered your case against certification to the FAA. But even if the company failed to do its duty, it does not follow that you have a duty to try to save the lives at risk. If your employer is neglecting its duty, not only are its responsibility and yours separate and distinct but what you did should have been sufficient to prevent its negligence. And though your employer perhaps could have stopped the certification, your chances of stopping it are poorer.

Generally, a company’s employees should obey its policies and cooperate in fulfilling its contracts with other firms. Provided the policies and contracts are in themselves just, only serious reasons can override an employee’s responsibilities and justify him or her in taking independent action. Loyal employees bear their responsibilities in mind and do not lightly set them aside. As you point out, your superiors, having decided to do nothing more about the problem, are likely to regard further action by you as disloyal, and so would the managers of other companies in your field.

However, loyalty is not merely steadfastness but a virtue, and as such it never requires anything at odds with other moral responsibilities. If there truly is a significant probability that your going directly to the FAA would save many peoples’ lives, it seems to me you would not be disloyal in violating company policy and the terms of its contract with the airframe manufacturer. But, besides the issue of loyalty, your question raises an issue of fairness between your family and the people who might die in a disaster. To judge what you should do, you must consider two things distinctly and very carefully: the likelihood that your intervention would save lives and the likelihood that it would seriously harm your family. Then you must apply the Golden Rule.

First, just how likely is it that your going directly to the FAA would save lives? Presumably the officials who are about to certify the plane have considered the problem with some care, and people who have made up their minds about such matters generally are not easily dissuaded from acting on their conclusions. I think you should ask yourself whether you may be mistaken about one or more of three things: the seriousness of the safety problem, the probability that it will cause the loss of lives if the plane is certified, and the likelihood that your intervention at this stage will keep the plane from being certified until the problem is corrected.

Second, just how likely is it that your going directly to the FAA will lead to great harm to your family? The chances of losing your job and being unable to get another in your field may be great if you act openly and do not warn your superiors. But if the government authorities are receptive to what you tell them, they may do what they can to protect you, and the managers of your company, if they truly are unhappy with the situation, might be prepared to tolerate your doing what you believe you must. These considerations suggest that you might communicate confidentially with the government authorities; or you might take into your confidence the highest manager in your company you have confidence in and can speak with, and warn him or her that you believe you must try to block certification. Also, even if you do lose your present job, you might be more successful than you expect in finding other suitable employment.

Having determined (as well as you can) how likely independent action by you is to save lives and how likely it is to result in great harm to your family, you must apply the Golden Rule. Of course, if you think of more than one way to try to prevent certification and the two (or more) differ in potential effectiveness and/or riskiness, you should consider each separately.

Perhaps, with respect to some possible way of acting, you will judge that someone like you in an analogous situation would be obliged to accept the risk of similar harm to his or her own family in order to save the lives of many strangers including your loved ones. Then it will be your duty to act either in that way or some other more likely to be effective; and doing so will not be optional heroism beyond the call of duty. In such a case you should act, entrusting your family to God’s providence.

But perhaps you will judge, with respect to every way of acting you can think of, that another person in a similar situation would be obliged to put his or her family’s interests first, even though taking action might prevent the death of many people, including your loved ones. Then you should refrain from acting and entrust those whose lives will be at risk to God’s providence. If a disaster does occur, do not consider it your fault but rather the fault of others whose responsibility for the airplane’s safety is more immediate and greater than yours—the managers of the airframe manufacturing company seeking certification, the government officials granting it, and even the management of your company.

335. The question as stated is fictional but drawn (with simplifications of the technical and other complexities) from a real case; see Paul Eddy, Elaine Potter, and Bruce Page, Destination Disaster: From the Tri-Motor to the DC–10: The Risk of Flying (New York: Quadrangle, 1976), esp. 122–251. For a fuller and worthwhile discussion of the general problem the question presents, with sound criticism of alternative responses, see Mike W. Martin, “Whistleblowing: Professionalism, Personal Life, and Shared Responsibility for Safety in Engineering,” Business and Professional Ethics Journal, 11:2 (Summer 1992): 21–40.