Sunday, February 27, 2011

Virtues of Research

A university required all faculty members to complete a short, online course on ethics prior to their pursuit of research funding, and one faculty member in the architecture school refused to do so because he saw the course as irrelevant to his work and a waste of his time. He, nevertheless, pursued research funding and the administrators in his school had to decide whether to let him do so or not.

We often associate research with the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries and the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. But research depends around an idea that dates back to the ancient Greeks: that ethical actions stem from the virtue of those engaged in the activity. While we may value research according to its consequences – did it result in new knowledge or a useful discovery? – we also depend upon researchers’ integrity, honesty, and fairness in order to trust their conclusions.

The research community has put in place mechanisms to ensure trustworthy conclusions. The anonymous or “blind” review of a scientific paper by peers prior to its publication and the replication of a scientific experiment by others to see if the same outcomes occur represent two effective ways of catching unreliable or unverifiable results. A third, relevant to the situation here, involves insisting that researchers understand and adhere to the highest ethical standards.

Some in the architectural community have discounted the relevance of this to their work. For some, architecture entails the speculation upon future possibilities rather than the discovery of facts about the world as it exists. The “truth” of a speculation rests upon its ability to convince people of its value, not upon its verifiability. Meanwhile others have questioned the objectivity of all human activity, science included. This more-radical idea doesn’t distinguish between design and science, but instead sees a degree of subjectivity and cultural relativity in both.

Such arguments, however, do not diminish the role of virtue: in even the most subjective or speculative work, integrity, honesty, and fairness matter. Nor do the virtues essential to research end there. The cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice also apply: research demands the use of good judgment or prudence, a temperate sense of balance and reasonable limits, the fortitude to keep pursuing a promising idea despite setbacks or unexpected results, and a just concern that the results have widespread benefits.

The so-called theological virtues of faith, hope, charity, and love also have relevance to research. Although we often think of science and faith as sharply divided, researchers have to have a degree of faith in the value of their work and hope in its ultimate success. At the same time, they have to love what they do, given the long hours devoted to their pursuits, and to have a charitable respect for the work of others. In research, as in all creative activity, we cannot entirely disconnect good work from the goodness of the people doing it.

Which brings us to the faculty member who refuses to complete the online exercise on ethics in order to compete for research funding. At one level, this represents a contractual as much as an ethical issue: when we accept employment we also agree to follow the rules of our employers, however much we may dislike them. At another level, the faculty member’s refusal to take the course raises serious questions about his prudence and temperance, and suggests that his superiors would be wise to prohibit him from pursuing funded research for which he seems temperamentally ill suited.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


A well-known architectural critic writes an article full of jargon words that only a few fellow theorists would understand. When the editor of the journal for which the article was written translates the words into prose most readers comprehend, the author demands that the editor reinstate several words to signal that he has read the current theory. The editor has to decide whether to acquiesce to the author’s wishes or to stand up for the reader’s comprehension.

Every discipline has its own jargon: words that have specialized meaning to those in a field. Jargon can enhance people’s productivity by increasing the efficiency of conversation among those who understand it, encapsulating in a single word or phrase a complex theory or body of knowledge. In that sense, jargon increases communication by saving us time. But jargon also diminishes communication by decreasing the ability of others outside a field to understand the lingo of those on the inside, placing a wall between those in the know and those who are not.

We may take some comfort in the jargon of others. If we have an illness or an injury needing immediate attention, we may welcome the argot of medical personnel as they attend to us, speeding up the delivery of the treatment we need, even though we may also worry about what their conversation portends in terms of our prognosis. In situations like this, we can find ourselves torn between a desire to understand a specialized terminology and a desire not to know.

In most cases, though, jargon becomes an unnecessary barrier between people. While it may save time, words comprehensible to only a few mainly serves to enhance the prestige and power of some over others, a gambit that has gotten so out of control that many disciplines now have sub-fields with their own terminology that even fellow professionals do not understand. Technical language, in other words, has begun to raise ethical issues, evident in the dilemma of the editor described here.

Nietzsche once described architecture as “the will to power by means of form,” and we might call jargon the will to power by means of words. Power relations, be they architectural or linguistic, bring us immediately to the question of who has power over whom, by what means, and to what end? If the power that professionals wield has, as its goal, improving the lives of others – as in the case of attending physicians or, one hopes, in the case of architects looking after the public’s health, safety, and welfare – then we happily grant them that power through their license to practice. But it quickly becomes an abuse of power if professionals simply want to show, through their actions or their words, that they know or possess something others do not.

Ethics panels look for such abuses of power when it comes to the actions of professionals, and editors have the responsibility to do so when it comes to words. Audience matters here. If the readership of a publication understands the jargon, then editors should allow its use in order to save readers’ time and the journal, space. If there exist, however, a number readers who may not understand what a particular writer has written, the editor has a responsibility to translate the jargon into words that most, if not all, will comprehend.

A follower of Nietzsche might call this simply a matter of the editor’s will to power over that of the writer, and that may be true. But if we resist the temptation to reduce every conflict down to a question of power and instead take a more nuanced view of ethics, the editor here has an obligation, contra Nietzsche, to defend the interests of those with less power – the readers in this case – against a writer who wants to use jargon to assert his power over them and to elevate himself in the eyes of a few peers. When writers knowingly use arcane words to impress others with what they know, all it really shows is how little such writers know.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Moral Hazard

Among a group of students who went through architecture school together, one decided, after graduation, to pursue a career on Wall Street, which he saw as a more certain path to financial security. Fifteen years later, he got into financial trouble and asked his former classmates for a loan, even though they all made substantially less income than he had. Some in the class wanted to give him the loan while others thought that he should live by the consequences of his choices.

Moral hazard describes any situation in which a person or group remain insulated from the consequences of their actions and so engage in unreasonable risky behavior, knowing that they cannot lose. Frequently, those who take such risks have done two things to protect themselves: they often have more information than others, which gives them an advantage when things start to go wrong, and they often have set up the system so that they will come out ahead regardless of what happens. While those outside the system face the material hazard of actual losses, those on the inside face the moral hazard of acting irresponsibly with little or no penalty. 

The hedge-fund-fueled crash on Wall Street in 2008 offered a painful example of the suffering moral hazard can cause. Hedge funds, as their name implies, allow banks to hedge their bets so that they come out ahead whether or not their investments reap a profit or not, wagering for and against something at the same time. When they use other people’s money and when inside information allows those making such bets to insulate themselves from any losses, the level of moral hazard rises accordingly. It would not matter if moral hazard only resulted in the loss of an investor’s ethical moorings. But, as we saw after 2008, it often harms a great many people, in that case, literally billions of people around the world. The moral hazard of a few can become a real hazard to us all.

It can even become hazardous to those who engage in it, as happened with this former architecture student turned investment banker. Architects have a duty as licensed professionals to protect the health, safety, and welfare of others, and as a result, the built environment has all sorts of protective, durable, or redundant features to ensure that buildings won’t collapse, systems won’t fail, and inhabitants won’t get injured. Insulating other people – and themselves – from such hazards remains a central part of what architects do. It may not seem like such a leap, in that sense, to move from the physical protections of architecture to the financial protections of investment banking. Both architects and bankers have insider knowledge of how systems work that the general public often does not, and both have designed products to not only benefit their clients or customers, but also to protect the professionals themselves against undue risk or liability.

The difference lies in the risks they impose on others. Architects face little or no moral hazard in the sense that they remain very exposed to litigation and to the loss of their licenses should a state find them incompetent to practice. While they may take aesthetic risks, most architects have an aversion to risk when it comes to others health, safety and welfare – as they should. We have seen the opposite on Wall Street. The reckless risk-taking with others money and the insulation from the consequences of it via the taxpayer bailouts of the banks and insurance companies involved in the 2008 debacle, show how morally hazardous investment banking has become.

The solution to moral hazard lies in ensuring that those who engage in unreasonable risk know – and have to pay – the consequences of such behavior. On the policy level that means that the government should not bail out financial institutions in the future that continue to engage in the kind of actions that led to the 2008 economic collapse. And in the case of this investment banker, it also means that his former classmates should not bail him out, however much they might all be friends. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Quid Pro Quo

A university ranked design and construction firms pursuing projects at the institution not only according to their skill and experience, but also in terms of how much money they had contributed in support of students, either through scholarships or internships. Some in the construction industry shrugged this off as part of the cost of doing business, while others saw it as extortion.

Rising tuition and declining public support for higher education have led many colleges and universities to search for other forms of revenue in order to balance their books. Donations from alumni and supporters of these institutions have become one of the most important sources of additional income, enabling administrators to reduce the cost of attendance through scholarships and enhance the experience of students through internships, among other forms of extra-curricular activity.

Raising money in this way seems like a win-win for everyone. Students receive a more affordable education, donors see the immediate benefit of their gifts, and universities can stretch their already limited funds. The tax laws, at least in the United States, make this an attractive transfer of money from wealthy adults to poor students, while also encouraging investment in our future through support of the best and brightest of our youth.

But what if the donations are not entirely voluntary? What if, as in the case here, gifts to an institution come as part of a quid pro quo in exchange for giving a commission to the individual or firm making the contribution? And does it matter if this “you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours” approach to philanthropy goes to a good cause – financially supporting students in need – or do the ends, however noble, not justify the means?

Philanthropy, of course, always involves a degree of pressure applied by those seeking a gift on those who have the capacity to give. That pressure, though, almost always takes the form of playing upon a donor’s allegiance to the institution, eagerness to help others, or desire to be recognized or remembered in some permanent way. At the same time, there almost always involves some quid pro quo in philanthropy, although that, too, usually involves acknowledging a gift publically, naming something in honor of the donor, or inscribing the donor’s name in some highly visible place.

But when donations to a college or university get linked to doing business there, a ethical line gets crossed. However “voluntary” this may seem, in that a firm has the right not to pursue a business opportunity with the institution, giving a gift in order to compete for work has more of the characteristic of extortion. In a difficult economy, when firms may be desperate for work and unable to walk away from a possible commission, this arm-twisting on the part of the institution becomes even more objectionable, taking advantage of businesses, financially, when they can least afford it.

Situations like this highlight the limits of modern ethics. A utilitarian might argue that ranking firms based on the amount of scholarship money they have given disadvantages a few – the owners of a firm – in order to benefit many – the generations of students who will receive the scholarship. At the same time, a Kantian might argue that the good intention of the institution to help students in need makes this policy acceptable, however objectionable the means of doing so.

But good ends or good intentions do not justify any means, and extortion – even if implicit in a request for proposals – must remain outside the bounds of what we consider ethical. We would, otherwise, quickly create a condition in which bribery and extortion became an expected aspect of trade, a practice that we see happening in some corrupt countries and that has the paradoxical effect of impoverishing everyone as a few try enriching themselves in the process. A world in which no good deed happens voluntarily means that only bad ones will.