To be clear: Assessing evidence and data is crucial—both following tragedies like these crashes and for ongoing monitoring of safety risks and new technology. But data was irrelevant to the most critical question that Boeing and the FAA faced after 346 people lost their lives within five months of flying on the same model plane: Should we allow the Max 737 planes to continue to fly or not? The point should not have been to assess averages or estimate the likelihood of events. The only focus should have been on eliminating the potential for loss of life. And there's only one decision that accomplishes this goal: ground the planes. Which is what President Trump ultimately did on Wednesday afternoon, when he directed the FAA to ground the entire 737 Max 8 and Max 9 fleets because "safety" was "of paramount concern."
In the months to follow, investigators would uncover extensive evidence that Boeing had more than safety problems. The 103-year-old American company had lost its way ethically. In a scandal marked by disregard for human life, Boeing hadn't just ignored safety issues or technology errors; it had failed to integrate ethics into the company's decision-making at every level, resulting in a collapse of trust in a much revered institution. Boeing's website at the time stated: "Our stance on ethical business conduct is simple: do the right thing, every time, no exceptions." But exceptions were made again and again, breaking customers' trust, Boeing's most valuable currency.
The Boeing tragedy is a clarion call for our times, a clear marker of the precipitous decline of ethics in our decision-making in recent years, often with grave consequences. Why are ethics more critical than ever? And how do we make good decisions when the law lags behind reality and boundaries are blurred—or what I refer to as "the edge"? The edge is the point at which the law no longer safeguards us, and ethics alone must guide our decisions. Even where the law does operate effectively, it is the lowest common denominator—not the highest or even a sufficiently high standard of behavior. Ethics must operate above and beyond the law.
This chapter introduces the importance of banishing the binary, the first of six forces that affect ethical decision-making on the edge. Binary decisions involve a choice between two clear options, like the example of Boeing facing a choice between protecting lives or pursuing profit. But most ethical decisions, especially on the edge, require us to banish the binary, quashing our tendency to oversimplify ethical questions into an exercise in choosing sides: "yes or no," "black or white," or "good or bad." Frequently, we leap to categorize people, behaviors, and actions as "ethical" or "unethical." As you will come to see, this kind of ethics labeling, or shorthand, is not ethical decision-making.
Binary decisions may require in-depth debates about risks and opportunities, such as whether a company should sell drone technology to the government. Or the answers to binary decisions may be straightforward. For example, "Should social media platforms tolerate sex trafficking?" and "Should a teacher allow bullying in the classroom?" are questions that demand a binary answer: No.
But on the edge, we more often encounter ethics challenges that arenon-binary—those that involve shades of gray and an evolving blend of risks and opportunities on all sides. Since the world around us is changing, with ethical lines blurring, we're often in ethical dilemmas where there are few easy answers. We often must replace questions like "Should I or shouldn't I...?" with the more open-ended and realistic question that I asked about Boeing: "When and under what circumstances should I...?" Crafting our ethical dilemmas in non-binary terms helps anchor our choices in reality. As I tell my students, you can "do ethics" outside of reality all you want, but you will live with the very real consequences.
Most decisions we need to make will be non-binary. But I start with Boeing to illustrate that there are still right-or-wrong, yes-or-no choices. Boeing's story is an example of truly binary decisions...and failed responses. The questions were straightforward. The stakes couldn't have been higher.
Before we begin to examine Boeing's decisions, we need to better understand how the Max plane led to Boeing's fall. It begins in 2010, when its biggest rival, French airplane maker Airbus, announced the launch of a new jet that would burn up to 20 percent less fuel. When Boeing learned that its longtime customer American Airlines was considering purchasing two hundred of the new French planes, the company scrambled to compete.
Building a new plane could take a decade and would require expensive pilot training, so instead Boeing decided to update an existing plane, the 737, with new, fuel-efficient engines. In August 2011, Boeing's board of directors approved a 2017 launch of the reengineered 737 that came to be known as the Max. Before building even began, the company already had 496 orders for its new fuel-saving planes.
Boeing engineers soon discovered that serious problems arise when massive, modern engines are attached to a plane first built in 1967. For one, the 737 sits very low to the ground—there simply wasn't enough room to fit bigger engines under its wings. As a result, they moved the new engines slightly above the wing and farther forward. But that threw off the aerodynamics: When the craft was in full thrust during takeoff, the nose had a tendency to pitch up too high, causing a stall. At first, they explored the idea of changing the shape of the wings or adding small metal vanes to the wings to alter the aerodynamics. When those options didn't work, Boeing developed MCAS as a software workaround. MCAS was originally designed to rely on two inputs: a single AOA sensor and g-force. If the plane's angle-of-attack and g-force were both too high, MCAS would subtly adjust the tail of the plane to push the nose down. But then engineers realized that the plane could experience aerodynamic instability at low speeds, not just high speeds, so they removedg-force as a trigger. This meant a single AOA sensor could now activate MCAS.
***** TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
1. Banished Binary
2. Scattered Power
4. Crumbling Pillars
5. Blurred Boundaries
6. Compromised Truth
7. Ethics on the Fly
8. Resilience and Recovery
Epilogue: Ethics on Tomorrow's Edge