Op-Ed: Forget whistleblowing. Get out!

By Jeffrey Tsang, MEng ’24 (ME)


The following essay received an honorable mention in this year’s Berkeley MEng op-ed contest. In this contest, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate an Engineering-related topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers.

Note: As opinion pieces, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute.

Haiti Earthquake / RIBI Image Library / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED

A once-proud skyline, rent asunder and laid low for all to ogle. A gaping maw where a residential building once stood, strewn with rubble and limbs. And the families of the dead, pouring a river of Lamentation into the ruined bowels of the earth. Some of the mind-numbing imagery paraded by the news in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, at least until the next disaster du jour. But what they didn’t show is just how avoidable this destruction is — and how complicit we are in this suffering.¹

Five out of six people killed in building collapses within the past 30 years died in anomalously corrupt countries, even after controlling for relative wealth,² as richer countries can afford much more building protections. Over 100,000 perished in the Haiti catastrophe;³ an earthquake 500 times stronger struck Chile the same year and claimed some 500 lives.⁴ What distinguishes the two countries? “Corrupt awards of construction projects, corrupt issuance of permits and approvals, and corrupt inspection practices.⁵” As the Nature authors put bluntly: “corruption kills”.²

Despite Sisyphean efforts, engineering and construction is still perceived as the most corrupt sector of industry in the world, per Transparency International.⁶ Poor professional ethical standards are a perennial favorite to scapegoat;⁷ ethics education focuses on “solving” dilemmas in vignettes,⁸ while students hear only diktats on laws and rules, pronounced by faculty who aren’t exactly role models.⁹ Conspicuously missing from these book smarts are the processes which corrupt professionals;¹⁰ after all, almost nobody chooses their career by bribery income potential, and yet the trail of shattered buildings and bodies leads on. So let us delve into the evil Trenches where psychology and sociology are deliberately twisted11 into manacles that drag the unwary down to unethical hell, forged by enemies hiding in plain sight: profit maximizers.

Corporations, as a legal fictionhood of persons,¹² are by definition amoral, soulless, and inhuman. Their entire raison d’être is to profit; if professional scruples, mortal laws, or human lives¹³ stand in the way, then breaking them all is simply “cost of doing business”,¹⁴ if the price is right.¹⁵ It could be Siemens maintaining a 40-plus-million annual “bribery budget” to purchase officials worldwide.¹⁶ Or the “tried and tested 3cs” of the pharma playbook: “convince if possible, confuse if necessary, and corrupt if nothing else works”¹⁷— capitalism working as intended. The latter exposes the true nature of the trap: it doesn’t begin with a brandished checkbook, but exigent needs and small favors, letting you slowly convince yourself of every step unto Oblivion.¹⁸ Only when you’re lethally ensnared in the sunk cost of previous unethical shortcuts and shortfalls¹⁹ will they end you with the unsheathed bribe, in an infernal comedy of such self-justification²⁰ that even the devil may cry.²¹

How would we fight such a vampiric menace? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, most of the time,²² and awareness is the first step in bringing truth to light. The game theory is straight for ward: wherever there is concentration of power, there is disproportionate incentive to co-opt such power. As professionals entrusted with public safety, a concept diametrically opposed to maximal profits,²³ our mantle and doom is eternal besiegement by vested interests. But trace the lines of power further: when reading or reviewing a scientific paper, have you ever thought about whether the data presented are even real? Science is a social construct of influence, and predictably, industry-bought, sheep-skinned researchers²⁴ manufacture propaganda to confound,²⁵ often with blatantly falsified data, exemplified by the tobacco disinformation campaign which slaughtered millions.²⁶ Lest we look away, Shuddering at the horrors of bygone days, this debasement of knowledge itself continues, as self-correction of science is but a myth;²⁷ two actively waged warfronts are killer pharmaceuticals²⁸ and climate denialism.²⁹

Unveiling the highway to hell is one thing; damming it is another. Unlike ethics textbooks, I’m not going to tell you “just say no to corruption and turn whistleblower”.³⁰ When Boeing corroded the faa’s certification pipeline to force the 737 max through,³¹ there were employees who spoke up, and got unerringly frozen out.³² The faa played their part, “continuing a decades-long pattern of punishing whistleblowers” on their side.³³ Such heroics didn’t stop the Icarian contraption from murdering 346 souls anyway. Exhorting professionals to make the ultimate career sacrifice,³⁴ when sinners-in-chief get a slap on the wrist, nailing suborned peons in their stead,³⁵ is more messianic than realistic. Instead of groveling in an unethical cesspit, wallowing about how you can’t afford to go down Flaming,³⁶ don’t assume the compromised position in the first place.

Prevention is better than cure: an aphorism ever true for ethical diseases. We can spend all pralaya dissecting how people selectively forget their past unethicality,³⁷ and all the reasons managers desecrate their own ideals,³⁸ but all you need to know is you are not going to single-handedly redeem an ethically malignant culture,³⁹ especially as a disempowered Challenger.⁴⁰ The culture will infect you instead.⁴¹ If When you see unethical behavior from on high — and you will know it when you see it — run, don’t walk.⁴² For all the capitalist gospel of universal scarcity,⁴³ there will always be more companies in the world, more teams worthy of selling your labor to.⁴⁴ Your first responsibility is your own ethical survival; otherwise the cognitive dissonance threatens your psychological survival as well:⁴⁵ selling your soul has a vastly higher cost than most realize. Let that mistrust of convenient rationalizations be your guide and moral compass, and there’s far less risk you’ll end up helpless,⁴⁶ looking back at how your life’s work is literally maximizing death.⁴⁷

It is impossible to traverse an entire career unmolested; the ferryman Capital always exacts His toll, and the worst response is to pretend not to feel⁴⁸ His dark materials and salivations.⁴⁹ But with critical suspicion, adversarial vigilance, and judicious defiance, you may yet emerge from your travails upon the far shore of Acheron with your professional soul intact. Godspeed — and good luck.


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