The word ‘ethics’ comes from the Greek ethos, which means ‘custom or practice, a mode of behaviour’. When we study the ethics of a particular practice or profession, we often call those ‘applied ethics’ as we are looking at the implications of general theories for specific forms of conduct. Examples of applied ethics would be medical ethics (doctors) or legal ethics (lawyers).
There is a never-ending debate over the difference between ethics and morals because they seem to be saying the same thing. Without going into it, let’s just say that morals are more of an individual belief system (subjective), whereas ethics are more of an imposed and regulatory system of conduct (objective). There is clearly a lot of common ground between the two and it can be said that if the one becomes less important to society it is inevitable that the other does as well.
This is what has happened in Ireland, especially in the last decade. We have been shocked by stories of the physical and sexual abuse of children by the clergy; we have read much about banking and business scandals, tax evasion by prominent people, political corruption and the ‘brown envelope’ mentality, and recently, corruption in the gardaí.
Being in a constant state of shock and outrage is not good for you. Our brain knows this and its defence mechanism is to progressively become less shocked and more hardened to these outrages. Remember the shock we felt at the first gangland executions? Front-page headlines for weeks. Now the average response is “I couldn’t be arsed if they kill each other, good riddance”. Only the tabloids make headlines about these killings now, usually to glorify, rather than vilify.
This defence mechanism is collectively translated into public indifference. As Edmund Burke famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
The disregard for the consequences of behaviour towards others eventually becomes acceptable and finally becomes the new morality. This new morality must necessarily impact on the ethical behaviour of professionals, and the recent spate of solicitors being kicked out of the legal profession for dishonesty is proof of that.
Doctors and lawyers are not the only professionals that have a Code of Ethics. Engineers do as well.
The very first entry in the Engineers Ireland Code of Ethics is as follows:
“1.1 Members shall behave with integrity and objectivity in their relationships with colleagues, clients, employers, employees and with society in general.”
The CEO of EirGrid, Mr Fintan Slye, answered a question from the Oireachtas Transport and Communications Sub-Committee on the 5th December 2013 regarding the health risks of living near very high voltage electric pylons: “I know they are completely safe”. He has made the same or similar statements to the electronic and print media on numerous occasions.
He did this at a time when the Department of Energy’s published report and also the European Commission’s report on the subject very clearly stated that Electro Magnetic Radiation (EMR) is a known risk of childhood leukaemia and lists the overhead power-line technology as a potential carcinogen. It has been recently discovered that since 2009 EirGrid have been in possession of a report by the Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor which concluded that:
“There is a body of epidemiological evidence which suggests that time-weighted average exposure to power line magnetic fields above 0.4μT is associated with a small increase in the risk of leukaemia in children. If real, this is a “threshold response’” with no observed effect below this approximate value. The general public is exposed to average fields of this magnitude very rarely. If the risk were real, it would correspond to an increase of about 1 case of childhood leukaemia in Ireland every four years.”
Earlier in the Report it is stated that even at 40 metres away from a 400kV line, the EMR was 1.0μT, over double that safety limit of 0.4μT.
One child sentenced to death or at best chronic suffering every four years. Is that enough to shock you? Should it be a headline on the Irish Times or the Independent?
On 7th January, 2014, the GridLink Project Manager, Mr John Lowry of Eirgrid, said in the Irish Examiner: “I can assure people there are absolutely no health implications …”.
On 28th April 2014, Mr Brendan Murray, Manager, Transmission Projects, of EirGrid made the same claim on RTE News.
In addition to the abovementioned reports of 2005 and 2009, in the last six months EirGrid have been provided with research findings by a number of medical experts like Professor Anthony Staines of UCD; Professor Denis Henshaw of Bristol University (the world authority on EMR and childhood leukaemia), and Dr John Swanson, scientific advisor to the UK’s National Grid, all of whom say there is a definite link between high voltage power lines and childhood leukaemia. During a recent lecture here, Professor Henshaw even went so far as to accuse EirGrid of “corporate manslaughter”.
EirGrid does not employ a medical expert and therefore it must be concluded that the abovementioned engineers from EirGrid are not acting on medical advice when they make these statements to the public.
Is there controversy about this research? Of course there is, but there is also controversy about cigarettes and their impact on your health, and yet we have health warnings on cigarette packets and an age limit on buyers.
Are these engineers from EirGrid entitled to their opinion about EMR and cancer? Of course they are, but that is all it is; an opinion. As they do not have any medical qualifications, it is not even a professional opinion, but rather a personal point of view such as you might share with friends in the pub, but not on the national media as a spokesperson for EirGrid, a huge national organisation.
As an organisation dependant on public funds, it is incumbent upon EirGrid to be scrupulously fair in its dealings with the public, and this includes the statements it releases to the public. To this end it is incumbent on any EirGrid official to only deliver statements to the public that they know are factually correct. They can only know that if the information delivered falls within their realm of professional competence.
Alternatively, if an opinion is voiced, it must be made quite clear that it is only an opinion, in other words either unsupported, or contradicted, by objectively established facts. Moreover, as it is an opinion on which the speaker has no professional qualification or expertise, this should also be made clear to the listening public.
This would be in the interests of proper public participation, something that is essential for meaningful consultation. We need to avoid the situation where the average citizen would be misled in any way, particularly when it concerns the health of their family, and more especially their children.
Can it be said that these EirGrid officials (Messrs Slye, Lowry and Murray), who are all members of Engineers Ireland, have not ‘behaved with objectivity in their relationships with … society in general’? You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
What I can say is that if you do think that, you are entitled to make an Ethics Complaint to Engineers Ireland: 22 Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4,Ireland; Tel: +353 (0)1 6651300; Fax: +353 (0)1 6685508; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web: http://www.engineersireland.ie.