Monday, January 21, 2013

Ethical Lessons from Lance

Trying to learn a lesson in ethics from bicyle-racing star Lance Armstrong’s public confession last week is a little like trying to learn a lesson in cooperation from the U. S. Congress.  Neither Mr. Armstrong nor Congress has recently demonstrated a good understanding of the concepts involved.  But as many engineers know, you sometimes learn more from things that go wrong than from unqualified successes.  Mr. Armstrong has given us a personal perspective of what it is like to violate rules for personal gain, and to maintain for years that you’re not violating them until the evidence to the contrary became overwhelming.  Before you say to yourself, “Well, I would never do such a thing,” recall Solzhenitsyn’s words that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  And hear what it is like to do things that even Mr. Armstrong himself now can hardly believe he did.

In his two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey aired last week, Mr. Armstrong contrasted his extraordinary public image with “the truth.”  The “mythic perfect story” of his overcoming advanced testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times, while in reality violating the sport’s rules against artificial means of enhancing performance (collectively called “doping”) leads to lesson No. 1:  what look like small or routine compromises with the truth early on in a process may lead to unforeseen consequences that are huge.  Most of the time, most of the things that we average people do have little or no effect outside a small circle of influence.  But sometimes, what looks at first like a small act of wrongdoing can cascade into a major disaster.  For example, the I-35W bridge collapse on Aug. 1, 2007 in Minnesota was traced largely to a small error in the size of gusset plates that held joints together, although overloading by construction machinery also contributed. 

Ms. Winfrey probed into Mr. Armstrong’s feelings at the time he was winning Tour de France prizes over and over again while knowingly violating the sport’s rules against doping.  She asked, “Was it a big deal to you, did it feel wrong?”  His reply:  “No. Scary.”  “It did not even feel wrong?”  “No.  Even scarier.”  “Did you feel bad about it?”  “No.  The scariest.”  When I teach engineering ethics modules, I usually ask students how they can tell the difference between right and wrong actions.  One of the most common responses is that they have a “feeling” or intuition that a thing is wrong, and that feeling is what they depend on.  While this feeling, called conscience, is quite often a good guide to what in retrospect turns out to be the right choice, consciences can be overpowered by other feelings or motivations.  In Mr. Armstrong’s case, he admits to being a competitiveness junkie and a control freak, putting it bluntly.  The desire to win at all costs was richly rewarded by the increasingly prominent sports competitions he entered, and whatever qualms he may have had about doping were swept away in the practical realization that doping was just a part of what it took to win races.  Lesson No. 2 is:  don’t always trust your feelings about an ethical matter. 

As many readers know, while allegations of doping have been made against Mr. Armstrong and others for many years, it took the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s multi-year investigation to produce results that convinced the Union Cycliste Internationale (the world body governing professional cycling) to revoke his Tour de France wins retroactively.  Despite Mr. Armstrong’s legal challenges to the process, the USADA’s nearly exhaustive thousand-page report contained enough testimony from enough people to convince the UCI, and gradually even most of Mr. Armstrong’s supporters, that the doping charges were basically true.  Only after losing all commercial sponsorships and being forced out of the leadership of his charitable Livestrong Foundation did Mr. Armstrong decide to make an extensive public statement about the matter, in the form of his interview with Oprah Winfrey. 

When someone else discovers that you have run aground ethically, what should you do about it?  For a time that even Mr. Armstrong now admits is too long, he continued an almost knee-jerk reaction to charges of doping by either threatening or filing lawsuits, including one against the USADA itself.  But losing the lawsuits, losing the money from sponsorship contracts, and losing his credibility even with former supporters finally convinced Mr. Armstrong to change tactics and to admit that what he was doing for so many years was a big lie, and involved lying and calling truth-tellers liars on a regular basis.  When a person is held up to millions as an ideal to strive for, an example of noble achievement against tremendous obstacles, that person has more than the usual obligation to keep his nose clean. 

Mr. Armstrong’s nose was not clean.  And now everybody knows it.  He himself points to a moment when he learned that the USADA was going to pursue its case against him.  He now wishes that he had simply asked them for three days in which to confess the truth to his family, his sponsors, and his foundation, and then he would have admitted to the rest of the world that the charges were true.  But even Mr. Armstrong can’t get in a time machine and go back and play that scene differently:  “I wish I could do that but I can’t.”

So we end with Lesson No. 3:  Fighting the truth once it is revealed usually hurts more than admitting you were wrong.  I’m reminded of a case in which some researchers analyzed the Citigroup Center tower in Manhattan in 1978, shortly after its completion.  They found that under some types of wind load, the unusual architecture of the building could cause oscillations that might lead to its collapse.  When its architect William LeMessurier recalculated the wind loads himself, he found that the researchers were right, and voluntarily contacted Citicorp to warn them of the problem.  Without any publicity, the owners worked with LeMessurier to correct the difficulties, but the story was not revealed in public for another twenty years.  LeMessurier came in for both criticism and praise, but the story is basically one of an honest engineer correcting his mistakes at the risk of his reputation.

Sources:  I used two sources for the transcriptions of Lance Armstrong’s interviews with Oprah Winfrey: for Part 1 and for Part 2.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Lance Armstrong, the Citigroup Center, the Missisippi I-35W bridge collapse, William LeMessurier, and for the Aleksander Solzhenitsyn quote, the site 

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