Ethics and technical writing?

Subject: Ethics and technical writing?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>, 'Darren Barefoot' <darren -at- capulet -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 14 Aug 2003 09:22:21 -0400

Darren Barefoot wonders: <<When job hunting (permanent or contract), how
much do your ethics impact your decision making?>>

They're a primary consideration. If I don't think I'll be able to stomach
the work, I won't waste my time applying for the job. There are obviously
different degrees of discomfort, of course. For example, as a (non-radical)
environmentalist, I initially had some concerns about working for my current
employer, which does operational research for the forest industry. But I can
get behind the work quite easily (without any rationalizing) because the
majority of the work involves reforestation, improving environmental
responsibility and worker safety, and reducing fuel consumption by the
industry. I was less comfortable with the original harvesting operations,
but now that we're moving strongly towards partial cutting (to replace
clearcuts) and better fiber recovery (to make clearcuts more effective and
thus require fewer of them and smaller ones), I see my work as a very
positive thing.

<<I became somewhat uncomfortable when I learned that my company had signed
a deal with a major tobacco company (to
worsen matters, the project was tapping youth markets in South East Asia).>>

Depends on your company's role, doesn't it? If you're the guy who writes the
manuals that tell the sales staff how to get young Asians hooked on tobacco,
the ethics are indefensible. On the other hand, if you're the guy who writes
the safety instructions so the factory workers packaging cigarettes don't
get mangled by the machines and survive to provide money for their families,
you're doing highly ethical work, even if they're not. Obviously, most
ethical problems aren't quite so easy to pigeonhole.

<<I used to work for a company who sold software to a company who used it to
help them build a military base. How much more acceptable is that?>>

Building a safe home for humans who just happen to be soldiers? Sounds
pretty ethical to me, particularly if the software is used to build low-cost
housing for the poor, hospitals, foodbanks... Building software that helps
those soldiers kill other people? Less ethical, but not unethical. (Let's
not get into the whole issue of military ethics. It doesn't relate to
technical writing, and there are really strong arguments on both sides that
lead to angry shouting matches rather than productive debates.)

You can't accuse the programmers who created the languages used to develop
Word and Frame of being unethical simply because someone else used those
programming languages to write a computer virus. Look at the primary purpose
of what you're doing: that's the main determinant of the ethical nature of
that work. There's no technology that can't be abused with a little thought.
If the technology is designed primarily for abuse, however, that's another

<<And, of course, in the current job market, there's always the 'beggars
can't be choosers' issue.>>

Even beggars have principles. The question is how desperate you are for
survival and how much you're willing to bend on your principles. (Check out
the broad variety of writings on "situational ethics".) If ethics are
sufficiently important to you, you'll take a job in a donut shop rather than
work for a tobacco company's marketing department. Of course, then you have
all those cholesterol and obesity issues to deal with. Maybe look for work
at the supermarket instead? Scrub the floors at the local hospital or

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
(try ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca if you get no response)
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

"Wisdom is one of the few things that look bigger the further away it
is."--Terry Pratchett

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