Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ethical Issues in Emergency Management Policy

Ernest Partridge, Research Associate
Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences
and the Institute of Behavioral Sciences
University of Colorado

Managing Disaster: Strategies and Policy Perspectives. 
Edited by Louise K.  Comfort

Duke University Press, 1988
With Permission of the Publisher

This essay is almost twice as long as the published version, which excluded all of the first and most of the second sections.  It has benefited from the comments and criticisms of Louise Comfort, Clement Shearer of the US Geological Survey, and Max Wyss and Carl Kisslinger of CIRES (University of Colorado).

I gratefully acknowledge support of the National Science Foundation, Program in Ethics and Values in Science and Technology (EVIST), award No.  RII-8210282).  The views expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions and policies of the sponsoring agencies.

I.  The Myth of "Value-Free Policy Science"

We begin with an affirmation that there are "ethical issues in emergency management policy." This may seem a strange and pointless recitation of the obvious.  Public officials, crisis managers, public safety personnel, and others directly involved with hazards and disasters need not he reminded that, in the performance of their respective roles and duties, they will be faced with compelling, crucial and forced ethical choices involving the protection and even the saving of lives and property.  They face these choices in all phases of emergency, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery -- that is to say, before, during and after disasters.  These choices, regarding how they will act in the anticipation and in the event of min emergency, are unavoidably laden with values.

And yet, many theorists (notably some economists and political scientists) have attempted to "simplify" and even eliminate "ethical issues" from policy analysis by reducing "values" to some arrangement of facts or empirical concepts, such as "cost/benefit ratios" or "preferences" or "cultural norms." Such so-called "positive" criteria of value have the apparent advantage of precision and determinateness.  However, since these criteria are also irrelevant to the solution of ethical questions, these "advantages" count for little in policy deliberations.  Nonetheless, when scholarly experts are appointed to government research commissions or invited before committees of Congress to present their opinions regarding disaster management policy, economists, engineers and others are conspicuous in the rosters -- and appropriately so.  Moral and Analytical Philosophers, however, generally remain at their campuses, ignored and uninvited.  Few grants in disaster policy studies are awarded to moral philosophers.1  Why this neglect of the philosophical aspects of public policy? An exploration of that question might reveal fundamental misconceptions and errors in the theory and practice of emergency policy making.

There are, of course, many apparent reasons for this official indifference to philosophical opinion.  Philosophers rarely express themselves with numbers and equations, while policymakers admire precision.  Philosophers are concerned with values, conceptual clarity, and logical validity, while policy-makers generally prefer to be given "just the facts, please." In addition, political leaders and legislators reflect the widespread public belief that "morality" (including ethical issues of public interest) are "private matters," and that there are no "moral experts," except possibly clergymen.  Most generally and most significantly, congressional committees, executive commissions, policy study groups, and funding agencies, seek answers, while philosophers are widely considered (not without justification), to be more interested in raising questions than in finding answers and settling issues.

Granting all this, I shall argue that the exclusion of philosophers from policy debates and decision-making is a serious error, resulting in policy that is less likely to deserve public support or to serve the public interest.

Policy debate and study is obviously prompted by an acute and practical desire to search for answers that are as clear and definitive as limited time and resources will allow.  In search thereof, legislators and administrators have looked to those disciplines and professions whose work has been characterized by precise and "settled" results -- namely, the sciences and engineering.  The "harder" the sciences (i.e., more quantitative, with more precisely operational and empirical vocabularies, more definitive experimental designs, etc.) the better --- better physical science than biological, better biological than behavioral , better behavioral than social .  In short , science, and the facts of science, present the model of solid, confirmable, cumulative knowledge.2  Values, in contrast, are regarded as vague and subjective, and thus the source of interminable dispute..  Accordingly, a dominant faction of legislators and administrators, and even policy theorists assume that when the time has come to hear the experts, moral philosophers need not apply.

The effort to exclude moral philosophers and normative values from policy considerations may be found in the published record of policy makers and theorists extending back to the previous generation and beyond.  Though the literature on this topic in extensive, space constraints forbid further explaration.3

Like most important errors, the myth of "value-free policy science" issues from a kernel of truth.  It is true that the content of the propositions of physical science is value free (though not the objectives or the activity of science4).  Physical facts are just facts, independent of human preferences, ideals and ideology.  Communist missiles and capitalist missiles obey the same laws of trajectory, and the strain energy accumulating along the San Andreas Fault will not yield by a single erg to accommodate the hopes, plans and expectations of those who dwell within its proximity.  This is the kernel of truth from which the seekers of "value free policy science" proceed straightway to their misconception and error.  These "policy positivists," as we might call them, are further encouraged along this thoroughfare by what they perceive as an "extension," since the renaissance, of value-free science from the empirical study of energy (physics) and matter (chemistry), to life (biology) , and thence to society and politics and human behavior.  By this account:, all of these realms of being have, in their turn, yielded their secrets to the objective and value--free inquiry of the sciences, and thus our understanding of these realms has been annexed and integrated into the expanding empire of science.  Within sight of the borders of science is the autonomous province of values (ethics) --- which will, in due course, be assimilated as well.  Indeed, some believe that the capitulation has already taken place.  Thus, B.  F.  Skinner writes:

When we say that a value judgment is a matter not of fact but of how someone feels about a fact, we are simply distinguishing between a thing and its reinforcing effect.  .  .  Reinforcing effects of things are the province of behavioral science, which to the extent that it is concerned with operant reinforcement, is a science of values.5

Positivistic policy theorists whose imaginations are captured red by this image might propose that we to "expand the borders" from, say, a scientific account off the geophysics of earthquakes (seismology), to a capacity to predict earthquakes, to a "description," in the light of such knowledge and predictions, of "optimal" preparations for, responses to, and recoveries from earthquakes.  All these activities -- geophysical research, prediction, and hazard policy formulation -- are, claim the positivists, alike in the principle of being "value-free." They differ only in their degrees of certainty and verifiability.  (Similar examples might be drawn from other types of natural hazards, and their associated sciences and policies).

This image of the "expanding empire of value-free science" however appealing, is fundamentally mistaken -- not because of a miscalculation of the extent of our knowledge (present and anticipated), but because of a basic misunderstanding of the concept of "policy," of the activity of "policy-making" and of the logic of ethical judgment.  Values, and the policies which incorporate, exemplify and enact them, are not simply inchoate "facts" that we have not quite "tied down" with scientific method and theory; they are of a different logical type than facts.  comparing facts and values is not like "comparing apples and oranges" it is more like comparing apples and logarithmic functions.

Policy--making is fundamentally a value-laden activity.  To see that this is so, and why this is so, we need only analyze the concept of "policy."  After encountering numerous descriptions, conceptions, definitions and theories of "policy-making," I have concluded that, at the very least, "policy" can be defined as "a general decision, arrived at deliberately and stated explicitly, which is intended to bind and direct future activities and investments (in funds, time and energy) of the decisionmaker(s)."  Implicit in the term "decision," is a belief in the availability of discriminable options.  (One does not "decide" to do that which is perceived to be impossible, or inevitable).  More might be said to better capture the essence of the concept of "policy" --- more, but not less."

Policy-making  is not only an exercise in choosing, it: involves choices among graded options, which is to say that some of these options will be judged to be "preferable" to others and (presumably) the option chosen will be judged "optimal." Furthermore, these options are "graded" (at least in part) according to how each are judged to affect the welfare, the rights, and the responsibilities of persons, and how effectively these options are judged to accomplish these and other presupposed value objectives.  At the close of his deliberations the policy-maker says, in effect, "having evaluated the available options, I propose that we should do the following..."  In sum, by "policy-making" we mean, at the very least, a deliberative choice among graded options, each of which will variably affect the welfare and the rights of human beings.  That.  definition effectively entails that this activity is "value-laden.''

"Very well," the critic replies, "you have shown that policy decisions are fundamentally evaluative.  What yon have not shown is that: the premises can not be entirely factual and descriptive.  But if policy conclusions are entirely evaluative, that is of no matter so long as the premises are factual.  In that case, we will have a 'science of policy' after all."

The critic's rejoinder is unavailing, due to an elementary rule of formal logic; "no term can appear in the conclusion that  is absent from the premises." The terms in question are "ought," "should," or "best" (or any synonyms thereof) -- terms which characterize value statements.  Sentences in which these terms are present (at least implicitly) can not be purely descriptive and factual.  It follows then that if an evaluative ("ought") statement appears as the conclusion of a valid argument, there must be an "ought statement" among the premises.  Accordingly, if the policy-maker is to arrive at a policy decision by means of valid reasoning, he must assume at least one evaluative premise.

If, as we have argued, evaluation is intrinsic to policymaking, then a deliberate attempt to avoid evaluation will result in policies that are uncritical, simplistic, dogmatic, conservative -- and, ironically, value-laden.  As Loren R.  Graham observes, "if you insist that science and values do not mix, then the antecedent values of society are protected."7

In the face of such philosophical criticisms as these, the tide of positivism has begun to recede, as ever more policymakers and theorists have come to acknowledge that however "'messy" ethical considerations may be, normative values are nonetheless inalienable to policy debate and decision-making.  Interdisciplinary courtesy, exchange and collaboration among philosophers, economists, political scientists and other scholars as becoming more evident in the proliferating "Centers" of policy study, throughout the country.8  What remains to be seen is whether this new philosophical sophistication among academic researchers in policy studies will find its way into the deliberations of practicing policy-makers and policy administrators, in the various branches and levels of government.

To summarize: Values are admittedly less objective, less determinate, and more controversial than facts, though many philosophers (including this one) deny that they are entirely subjective and indeterminate.  But however "messy" values may be, an analysis of the concept of "policy" and an examination of the essential nature of policy-making will show that both values and facts are necessary to policy-making, and thus neither are sufficient by themselves.  Like it or not, when we engage in policy deliberations and come to policy conclusions, we must, to some degree, engage in moral philosophy.  But while we cannot, as policy-makers, escape moral philosophy (at least implicitly), what we can escape, and all too often do escape, are well-considered, critical and informed moral decision-making.  If we must, as policy-makers, policy critics and policy implementers, engage in moral philosophizing, then we had best do it well.  The moral philosopher is prepared to contribute to this enterprise, not by simply prescribing policy decisions, but by assisting those who must make these decisions, so that these decisions might be clear, coherent, consistent, comprehensive, informed, and in harmony with our most enduring, cherished and universal moral convictions.  Accordingly, it is past time to invite the philosophers from their campuses, to participate in policy deliberations.

II - A Critic's Response -- and a Rebuttal

Our critic has yet another objection: "I will concede the logic of this argument, but I will not concede that your argument makes an appreciable difference to disaster mitigation policy.  Yes, policy conclusions are normative, and this means that if the arguments in support thereof are to be formally valid, the premises must contain value assertions.  That much I will grant you.  However, those normative premises in disaster mitigation policy are so clear, simple, obvious and non-controversial, that there is no need to call upon the philosophers to help us arrive at our policy conclusions.  In fact, there is really only one normative premise involved in policies of disaster preparation, mitigation and response, and it is simply this: 'It is desirable to minimize losses of life and property.' Now who could dispute that premise? If everyone agrees with that (and for all practical and political purposes, everybody does), and that is all the value assumption involved in disaster management planning, then all that remains is to assemble, assess and deal with the relevant facts and then choose from among our options on the bases of those facts and the above indisputable 'value premise.' No need for philosophers here."

A moment's reflection will show that even that premise is anything but "simple, straightforward and uncontroversial." Neither is it the only ethical premise in emergency management policy, as this paper should make clear.  However, let us, for the moment, confine our attention to this acknowledged value premise and ask if this premise is, as claimed, "simple, obvious and non-controversial"?  Though it may seem so at the surface, once we "unpack" the meanings and entailments of this assumption, we will find that these components are anything but "simple, obvious and non-controversial."

The first item of controversy is immediately before us in the phrase, "life and property."  That phrase indicates that the premise is not "simple," but compound -- "lives and property."  Still worse, disaster policy and disaster management decisions often involve "lives versus property."  (For example, strict building codes in seismically hazardous areas will enhance the safety of the occupants of the buildings, at the cost of increasing the prices and the rents of these structures).  In addition, decisions regarding the protection of lives and property are weighed according to a variety of separate scales of evaluation; such as costs and benefits (dollars), risks (probabilities), time (hours to years).

"Don't we all agree that we can't put a price on human life?"  But in fact we do price lives and, on reflection, it seems that we should -- at least implicitly.  If the value of life were to have absolute priority over all other values (in addition to property, such values as convenience, comfort, and aesthetics), then all structures in seismically active areas would be limited to a single story, and would have fabric roofs.  Furthermore, the law would totally prohibit the use of alcohol and tobacco, and such activities as sky-diving, hang-gliding and river-running.  Cars would be built like Sherman tanks, and limited to a speed of fifteen miles an hour, and so on.  On the other hand, we are not utterly casual about the value of life: the law often regulates construction in hazardous areas, and we do, in fact, enact and enforce traffic and drug laws.  Where, then, do we "draw the line" between the value of life and property?  The answer is anything but "simple, obvious and noncontroversial."

"Protect property"?  But when?  Now or later?  Building a levee to protect an area from a one hundred year flood may not be a cost-effective gamble, if assessed over a period of ten years.  But over a period of two hundred years, it may be a prudent investment.  The decision rests upon the balancing of short-term costs against long-term benefits, which depends, in turn, upon how much or how little the remote future is "discounted."9  The levee will probably benefit future generations, but not our own.  "What do we owe posterity -- what has posterity ever done for us?" Have we an answer to that cynical taunt? If we do, that answer is based (at least implicitly) upon some moral convictions and an ethical theory.

Is hazard policy designed to "protect lives"?  Of course.  But whose lives? Variable attitudes toward risk and disaster response will affect different persons and save different lives.  For instance, when it comes to disaster response, the public is generally far more inclined to spend "pounds" for "cures" than to invest "ounces" for prevention.  Enormous amounts of public funds are readily procured and willingly spent to save and relieve the victims of disasters, after these disasters have struck.  And yet, had but a fraction of these resources been invested in preparations for the disaster, many of the victims thereof would have avoided injury or have been been spared their lives and property -- including, of course, those in whose behalf heroic rescue efforts were made after the event.  In short, determinate present casualties seem to "matter" far more than indeterminate future casualties -- thus different, and additional lives are lost.  This is how the public and its chosen officials normally respond to the anticipation and the actuality of emergencies.  As a result, different (and fewer!) lives in fact protected.  Is this a rational response? Is it a moral response?

If we assume, as seems apparent, that this public response to "the prevention/cure problem" is irrational, an urgent problem of political morality immediately arises: does the legislator, policy-maker, and policy-administrator, have a right to act "in the public interest," when that act is contrary to "the public will" and "public opinion"?  Or must public officials, on the contrary, yield to the willingness of the general public to be irrational?  One clear implication, perhaps, is that policymakers and public officials should join in a concerted efforts to improve public awareness and education regarding hazards.  (We will return to this urgent question near the close of this section).

Further problems of political and social morality arise out of policies of hazard mitigation and response.  Suppose a majority of the public supports hazard mitigation policies that are both rational and appropriate?  What claims does the majority have upon the dissenting and irrational minority?  If, for example, the community decides to protect itself by building a levee, can it make legitimate claims upon the owner of riverfront property who has elected to "opt out" of the project?  Thus we encounter the familiar but vexing problems of "the free rider" and "eminent domain."  Unrestricted "eminent domain" implies a communistic system that precludes all property rights, while unrestricted property rights threaten to dissolve a "community" into an aggregation of isolated egoists.  The problem of "eminent domain" is a species of a larger moral issue: the right of the individual to assume the responsibility of protecting his own life and property versus the right of the community to claim the resources of the individual in behalf of the common good.  Balances must be struck between these competing claims.  Where they are to be struck is a function of the values that are placed upon these claims.

What "level" of political power is to assume the responsibility for protecting lives and property from natural disasters?  Local?  State?  Federal?  Each level entails a mix of advantages and disadvantages.  "Central authority" can be "efficient," but at a price in personal freedom and responsibility that few American would be willing to pay.  Thus disaster planners "have had to contend with the fundamental distrust with which citizens and business interests view central planning." Local authority is "closer to the people," but lacks necessary resources and expertise, or the ability to respond appropriately to a regional disaster that also affects an area beyond its jurisdiction.  "Compromise" distributions of powers among various agencies create further problems, such as "horizontal" rivalries that impede information flow, and "vertical" bottlenecks among levels of authority that impede implementation.10  In short, the choice of a political arrangement to manage disasters must entail an evaluation and a weighing of a number of political, social, economic and personal costs, risks and benefits.  Once again, how these factors are weighed is a function of the values assigned thereto -- assigned, for example, to local autonomy vs. efficiency, individual initiative vs.  interference by "experts," etc.

Such talk of "balances" between an array of "costs, risks and benefits" suggests that the "optimal" policy would be that which would result in the highest net gain in benefits (or, given no favorable option, the lowest net loss in costs).  This approach to policy-making, which is attractive to many economists and legislators, will be recognized at once by the moral philosopher as a species of the ethical theory of utilitarianism.  That philosopher will also warn the policy-maker that a simple assessment of net utility may not suffice to validate public policy, since such assessments do not readily include the fundamental moral consideration of rights; notably such rights to equity, justice and due process.  The question of "rights" adds to the consideration of "total" or ("aggregate") utility, the question of distributive justice -- i.e., whose "benefits" and whose "costs" and whose "risks?"  In simple assessments and comparisons of aggregate costs and benefits, (with "values" often conveniently commensurated as "prices,") individuals are "factored out.11  "Rights," the critic of utilitarianism will urge, attach to individuals in recognition of their intrinsic worth as persons.  Rights are the moral ground upon which individuals may stand and defend their interests and integrity against the demands of aggregate utility.12  And yet, in the search for objectivity and precision, rights are all too easily overlooked in "cost/risk/benefit" assessments of emergency management policy.

Accordingly, the critic of utilitarian "cost/risk/benefit analysis" asks, whose "costs"?  Southern Californians, now enjoying sunshine, hot tubs, and other amenities of their life-styles, will, for the most part, accept without hesitation disaster relief from the other forty-nine states, when the next great earthquake strikes.13  Were they not assured of this assistance, many Californians might be unwilling to live in this hazardous area.  Is it fair that other Americans thus subsidize their life-style?

Whose "benefits"?  What if "benefits" accrue to those who do not pay the costs that attend or produce these benefits.  What is to be done with "free riders" who are miserly when time, effort and funds are solicited for hazard preparation and mitigation, but who are to be found in the queue when relief benefits are being distributed?  It has often been noted that much of the problem of air and water pollution might be mitigated if the owners and managers of the polluting industries were required to live and work downwind and downstream of their industries -- thus, as the economist puts it, "internalizing the costs." Should developers who profit from construction in flood plains and seismic zones be required to live there?

What "risks"?  No one will contend that environmental hazards and technological risks can be totally eliminated.  The constant presence of risk is an inescapable price of civilized life, just as the reduction of risk is a dividend of civilized life.  But "risk" is not a simple concept -- it is a family of concepts.  "Risks" are voluntary and involuntary, informed and uninformed, avoidable and unavoidable, and of variable probability and consequence.  Questions of how these different species of "risks" are to be assessed, balanced and apportioned are deeply and inalienably moral questions.

As these questions proliferate, we find that they display the qualities of what are called "tragic choices." First of all, they are, in William James' words, momentous, they present live options, and they are forced (i.e., "to do nothing," is to make a significant choice).  Furthermore, these choices are among exclusive "goods" (we can't have them all), and (more seriously) among unavoidable "bads" (necessary evils).  Emergency management policy gives us a stark and compelling reminder that the "sunday school view" of morality as a "contest between good and evil" is radically restrictive and short-sighted.  In the face of impending and actual catastrophes, good intentions and moral stamina, however important, will not suffice to give us the "best" decisions.  Relevant information and moral intelligence are also required.

How are these ethical questions of disaster policy to be settled?  In behalf of whose interests and preferences?  Whose "perspective" upon these policy issues is to have precedent?  Here we touch a theoretical "nerve" of the philosophical analysis of public policy.  The problem of the "point of view" of hazards policy pervades this entire volume, thus saturating these discussions, and this issue, with ethical significance.

Each "point of view" generates a different policy.  As the literature of hazards studies testifies, "ordinary citizens" living in hazardous areas generally do not, before the occurrence of natural disasters, act in their own best interests.  In such circumstances it appears that well-known psychological mechanisms of denial interfere with and defeat proposals to invest appropriate amounts of time, funds and concern before the event.  (Risa Palm's important study reveals that in California, neither home buyers, or appraisers, or lending institutions set prices that reflect seismic hazards.  "In sum,: she writes, "the housing market has accepted [seismic risk] zonation with a giant yawn").14  Thus we find that public preference and opinion is usually at odds with public interest.  Because of this discrepancy between preference and interest, hazards professionals seeking to serve the public interest must often strain at the limits of democratic legitimacy, and act in a manner that might be described as "paternalistic."  What point of view justifies this behavior?  Perhaps the point of view of the hypothetical disaster victim.  From this perspective, the hazards policy-maker and policy implementer acts, before a disaster, as the citizen suffering from the disaster would have him act.  But wouldn't such a point of view be overly cautious and conservative?  After all, the vast majority of our days are disaster-free.  Perhaps the optimum point of view would be that of a hypothetical individual who possesses general knowledge regarding risks, costs, benefits, and his basic needs and desires as a human being, but who is denied knowledge of the particular times and circumstances of his life.  The "point of view" of such an hypothetical observer would thus encompass the perspectives of both the anguished victim and the complacent citizen in pre-disaster conditions.  Such a hypothetical point of view is proposed by John Rawls in his celebrated and esteemed work, A Theory of Justice.

The question of "point of view" is one of the most fundamental issues of moral philosophy.  It is also implicit (and often explicit) in all policy theory and policy practice, for it is a ground of legitimacy for such theory and practice.  As the "point of view" changes, so then does the policy.  A point of view fundamentally affects one's assessment of the values of life and property (in our opening "value premise"), as "life" and "property" are variously encountered and evaluated in a myriad of differing contexts and circumstances (e.g., present-life, future-life, determinate-life, indeterminate-life, secure-life, endangered-life, etc.).

This is but a partial list of morally controversial problems that are generated by an analysis of the seemingly "simple, obvious and non-controversial" premise that the moral objective of emergency management policy is to "minimize losses of life and property." A continuation of this list, and of an analysis of the implications of that premise, would exhaust the remaining available space of this paper, leaving the task still uncompleted.  All this from the allegedly "single" acknowledged normative premise conceded by our critic.  There are many more normative assumptions and ethical issues in hazard management policy, as we shall now illustrate with a hypothetical situation that may well be faced in the near future.

III -- "The Pasadena Paradigm"

Imagine that an ad hoc emergency meeting of select members of the Seismology faculty and staff has assembled at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.  Also in attendance are seismologists from other campuses, from the USGS office in Menlo Park and from appropriate state and local offices.  The meeting is a response to some ominous data that has just arrived from field studies along the San Andreas fault, some fifty kilometers to the north.  These studies report alarming changes in data that was heretofore quite stable over the years and decades.  They now report releases of radon gas in deep wells and mines, (and/or) changes in water tables, (and/or) quiescence in an asperity zone, surrounded by micro-quakes, (and/or) crustal deformation along the fault, (and/or) a drop and then a rise in P-wave velocities.  (The parenthetical "and/or" indicates the author's desire to remain neutral regarding various theories of earthquake prediction, none of which need be assumed or preferred in this scenario).

We- assume that at the time of this hypothetical meeting, earthquake prediction theory will have advanced to the point that a consensus can be reached regarding the implications of these findings.  (While the science is not currently at this state, that accomplishment is plausibly near enough to be taken very seriously).  That consensus is that the next great earthquake in southern California is about to take place, and that it will, in effect, be a repetition of the Fort Tejon earthquake of January 9, 1857.15  The prediction contains the following basic components:

Magnitude: 8.3
Epicenter: Tejon Pass
Time: Four weeks in the future, ħone week16
Probability: 60%

We have imagined, to this point, an exercise in applied science.  Surely everyone in that conference room in Pasadena is appalled by this finding, though fully aware that such an event is "due".  Each person assembled there devoutly wishes that the evidence indicated otherwise.  But as good scientists, they all acknowledge that their preferences are irrelevant to the seismological data before them; the San Andreas fault will not alter its alignment by a millimeter to accommodate these preferences.  In that sense, these facts are totally detached from the values of those who recorded them, and by those to be affected by them.  However, once these scientific assessments, analyses and projections have been made, the values enter in, and with them, disaster management specialists.  And so, two days later, key members of the first meeting reconvene, with invited experts in the theory and practice of emergency management.  The first question of ethical import is obvious, and compelling: "What are we to do with this information and this prediction?" That question, as we shall see, generates a large list of additional ethical questions, the most immediate of which is "shall we disclose our findings to the public, or shall we withhold them?"  (Here the problem of "lives versus property," noted above, arises again).  The following decision grid of four cells results from the intersection of two pairs of possibilities: one physical (the occurrence or the non-occurrence of the earthquake), and the other moral (to disclose or not to disclose the prediction):

                                                            Earthquake Occurs    No Earthquake




No Disclosure



(To simplify this analysis, I am ignoring such "gray areas" as degrees of magnitude, variable location of the epicenter, vagueness and ambiguity of the disclosure, etc.).

Certainty would eliminate the "live" ethical issues.  If the seismologists were certain that a repeat of the Ft. Tejon earthquake were to occur at a specified date, their clear obligation would be to disclose this information.  (The NW cell)   If they were virtually certain that it would not occur, then of course they have nothing to disclose.  (The SE cell).

The problems arise with regard to the SW and NE cells -- undesirable outcomes that might result from a forced decision under conditions of uncertainty.  If a prediction and disclosure are made, and no earthquake takes place, there will likely be a high cost in property value loss and economic dislocation.  Furthermore, the credibility of the seismologists might be severely compromised.  (The "cry wolf" problem).  However, if disclosure is withheld and the earthquake occurs, a great many individuals will be killed and injured who might otherwise have been spared.  The seismologist is faced with a "tragic choice;" a choice between two "bads" (loss of life vs.  economic loss) and, conversely, two "goods" (preservation of life vs.  preservation of property values).  Once again, our "simple value assumption" of "lives versus property" breaks down into complexity and controversy.  Nor is that the only moral issue before the scientists, and shortly thereafter, before many more individuals and groups -- public, corporate, and private.

The scientists and disaster managers in Pasadena hesitate.  Might it be possible to improve probability assessment and the accuracy of the other variables in the prediction?  It is possible, but it will take time -- as much as a week.  Perhaps the probability factor may be reduced below 30% (i.e.  <30% or >70%).  If, after review, the magnitude is revised to <7, emergency services will be able to cope much more appropriately and effectively.  But valuable time will be lost; indeed, the event may occur while the review is under way.  Another "tragic choice."  How much time versus how much confidence? How are these factors to be weighed, prior to balancing?

The decision is made to disclose the prediction -- with appropriate caution and discretion.  That moral choice settled, still more appear.  How do we determine which mode of "caution" and "discretion" is "appropriate."  Who is to be notified? Surely the Governor, the Mayor of Los Angeles, and The Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Who else? The Los Angeles Times?  CBS News and Dan Rather?  The National Enquirer?  The highest journalistic bidder?  Where do we draw the line?  What rationale directs the drawing of that line?  What are they to be told? "Just the facts?"  Public officials, journalists, and ordinary citizens are impatient with scholarly qualifications and unable to cope with scientific details and technicalities.  Thus it will not do to bind up the pile of unedited technical data and toss it "over the transom" into the Mayor's office.  Abridgment, assessment and summarization of the data must be done.  What rules are to guide this preparation of the data?

Once widespread disclosure is made, the seismologists become vulnerable to public ridicule and law suits, should their prediction prove to be false.  (Conversely, had they chosen otherwise, they might still have been subject to law suits, were it to be discovered, after an earthquake, that they had deliberately withheld a prediction of that event -- yet another "Catch 22" dilemma).  A prediction, carefully qualified with precise scientific concepts and terminology, may be sensationalized by the press.  Thus what they are willing and obligated to disclose must be a function, not only of the integrity of their professional colleagues (in the review process) and of their codes of professional conduct (stated or otherwise), but also a function of the anticipated and actual conduct of public officials, of the media, of the legal profession, and indeed of the general public.  Thus the decision of the assembled seismologists and crisis managers can not be derived entirely from abstract rules and in splendid isolation from considerations of the conditions of the society upon which that decision will soon have an impact.  Rather, because they have both a right and a responsibility to assess and anticipate the moral quality of the responses of affected professions and the public, their decision must take into account the interactions among the operative norms, "the moral ecology," of the community.  (We will return to this important consideration in the next section).

As we have seen, the "tragic choices" facing the conferees at Cal-Tech are inescapably moral choices.  The conferees can also be said to be "morally responsible" for their decisions -- again, a condition from which they can not escape.  Their predicament is due to a convergence, at that time, place and circumstance, of the four essential conditions of "responsibility;" namely, that whatever they decide:

  • they will know, or be capable of anticipating (before the event), the consequences of their decision.  (Not totally, of course, but enough for their decision to be morally significant).

  • they will be capable of making that decision and acting upon it

  • they will have a free choice.  (They could have chosen otherwise).

  • their decision will be acknowledged to have, consequences of value significance, affecting the lives, welfare and rights of persons.

Should they choose to disclose the prediction, the burden of responsibility will be extended to others whose circumstances encompass these four conditions -- the Governor, various Mayors, lawyers, the media, etc.  A generation earlier, this burden of responsibility would not have fallen upon a similar collection of specialists, professionals and administrators, for the "knowledge" and "capacity" conditions would have been virtually absent.  Lacking any of the four criteria, there is no responsibility.  Thus the hypothetical conference in Pasadena displays, in microcosm, the macrocosm of our scientific/technological civilization, wherein the exponential growth in knowledge and power "bestows" upon policy-makers, legislators, administrators and managers, a parallel expansion of moral responsibility.

It will therefore not do for the decision-makers in Pasadena to plead that they are not philosophers and therefore have no moral theories or moral responsibilities.  They can not escape their public responsibility.  Whatever they choose to do (and this includes "doing nothing"), their decision will necessarily (a) reflect their knowledge of consequences, (b) be a choice among options (c) variably affecting the future, and (d) with value significance (affecting the lives, welfare, property, and rights of persons).  Furthermore, that decision will exemplify a moral theory, at least implicitly.17  The moral component of their decision will not be determined simply by "going over the (scientific) data once again," or sending researchers back to the field for still more "facts."

Once again, we must cut short a proliferation of moral questions generated by a seemingly simple paradigm case.  By the nature of that case, the moral issues apply more to the preparedness and response phases of emergency management, and less to the mitigation and recovery phases.  Other thought-experiments would direct our attention to still more ethical issues applying to other phases of emergency management.  However, from even this necessarily brief recitation, some significant moral aspects of emergency policy-making and policy-implementation have become apparent.

IV - Professional Ethics: It's Functions and Objectives

The professionals assembled in the hypothetical conference room at Cal-Tech will, if conscientious, be guided by "codes of professional conduct" -- either formally enacted and articulated, or implicit sensed.  Thus, as we explore "ethical issues in emergency management policy," it would be appropriate to examine the function of professional codes of ethics.

Professional "codes of ethics" are commonly perceived to be like "decalogues" -- lists of "do-s" and "don't-s" (primarily don't-s) describing the bounds of acceptable, and realms of forbidden, conduct on the part of the professional.  Thus committees that write professional codes are perceived as moral legislators, and others that enforce these codes are seen as moral police.  To be sure, the "decalogue function" is an important element of a professional code of ethics -- but it is not the only function, and perhaps not even the most important function.  In addition to the claims of the profession against the practitioner, there are matters of reciprocating claims and expectations of the practitioner regarding his colleagues, of the profession and practitioner against other professions, against public public officials and institutions, against the code of law, and against the public at large.  Thus a comprehensive code of ethics includes not only a statement of duties and responsibilities (moral claims against the agents), but also a statement of rights and expectations (claims by and in behalf of the agent).  In this second sense.  a professional may claim from his colleagues, candor, honesty, loyalty, and expectations of support.  (For example, a conscientious seismologist prepared to announce an earthquake prediction will honor his peers' prohibition against seeking notoriety and self-promotion through "sensationalism."  In exchange for this restraint, he might claim, against his colleagues, a right to have his prediction receive peer review and evaluation and, if the results thereof are favorable, he has a claim to peer support as he discreetly discloses his prediction).

The explication, in the code of conduct, of the practitioner's rights, duties, responsibilities and expectations, results in an enhancement of personal, professional and public advantage, through the professional's improved knowledge of the likely consequences of his conduct.  Accordingly, the objectives of codes of professional conduct are not simply moral, they are also pragmatic ("practical").  They serve, not only as "moral policemen," but also as facilitators of effective and appropriate action -- as, one might say, "rules of the professional road." Thus, for example, a public communications expert in the office of the Mayor of Los Angeles would, upon receiving the prediction from the Pasadena group, need to know the most expeditious means of releasing this information to appropriate officials and then, through the media, to the general public.  That official's decision will surely be facilitated by an informed expectation of the degree of civic responsibility and moral restraint that will be exhibited by the media, members of the legal and medical professions, and still other professionals.  Codes of professional conduct might clarify and ensure that expectation.  But apart from these moral considerations, codes of conduct may explicate agreed-upon procedures of doing intra- and extra-mural business -- procedures that can claim little intrinsic moral significance by themselves.

Consider an analogy: there is nothing intrinsically "better" about driving on the right side of the road, as in the United States, rather than the left, as in England.  But once the choice has been made, for whatever reason, and enacted into the traffic laws, there is unquestionably a "correct" side of the road for driving.  Similarly, there may be little moral difference among a set of available professional procedures, until a collective choice is made.  Once decided, however, the practitioner is obliged to follow these "rules," so that others may deal with him in an effective and efficient manner.  "Professional codes," thus serve to define roles and interactions -- within and beyond the profession.  Thus they might better be called "codes of conduct and procedure."

Codes of conduct should express claims against other professions, and statements of conditions and contingencies which will govern the professional's dealing with other professions, contingent upon how those other professions and professionals reciprocally behave.  Thus, to return to our example, a seismologist's moral "responsibility" with regard to his prediction, can not be determined in isolation from the conditions of the world beyond his professional practice.  Rather, as Garrett Hardin has put it, "the morality of [that] act is a function of the state of the system"18 -- namely, the "system" of society and the interaction of its component institutions and professions.  For example, if the media can be expected to act with the decorum and restraint of the Los Angeles Times, one type of disclosure is called for.  If, on the other hand, the media can be expected to respond with the flamboyance of The National Enquirer, a different response is called for.  Personal and professional ethics must therefore be a function of the "moral ecology" of society -- the dynamic interaction of the norms, behavior, institutions and professions of the "social environment."

Let us return to the conference room in Pasadena.  These seismologists, engineers and crisis managers, having agreed that there is a high probability of a catastrophic earthquake in about a month, find themselves amid cross-currents of moral obligations -- to themselves, to their profession, and to the general public.  First, they have a duty to warn the public -- through, presumably, appropriate government agencies and perhaps the media (who will learn of it anyway).  On the other hand, they, their institutions, and their families have a right to be protected from professional and financial ruin.  How secure are their personal and professional lives once they give a candid warning?  How does this security affect their burdens of professional responsibility?

As they attempt to answer these questions, the professionals must assess, predict and come to terms with the "moral ecology" of their society -- with the responsibilities, respectively, of government officials, the media, and the legal profession.  In the best of worlds (alas, not our world), one would find beyond one's profession, operative preferences (a) in government, for public safety over political advantage, (b) in the media, for accuracy over sensationalism, (c) in law, of protected expression over litigation -- all of which would protect and thus morally require candid disclosure on the part of the seismologist and the crisis manager.  The professionals do not, however, have comparable responsibility if interacting institutions and professions lie in ambush.

Codes of professional conduct can thus serve a vital social function, not merely as "Decalogues" of "Thou Shalt Not" imperatives, but rather as "compacts" between the profession and society, defining and regulating professional behavior, and setting expectations and common understanding, both within and beyond the profession.  As "agreements in principle" and statements of expectation, professional codes serve to reduce the "anguish of indecision" and hazards of unpredictability.  Moreover, if they enjoy a consensus of the profession, they provide informal peer sanction.  Like other "rules of the road," these codes are best drawn up in times of quiet and unhurried reflection, with wise and informed anticipation before the fact.  Yet, as "general rules" they can not anticipate all "applications" in the brute, particular, anxious reality of an actual disaster.  Thus initiative and improvisation must be an essential objective of the education and the practice of the professional disaster manager.

Given that one of the primary objectives of emergency management is effective, efficient, appropriate and coordinated response to disasters, and given that codes of professional "conduct and procedure" may enhance the mutual expectations of how the active and interested parties and professionals will in fact respond before, during and after an emergency, it follows that it is a primary and urgent duty of each profession involved in disaster policy and management to prepare and articulate a well-ordered, well-considered, and comprehensive code of conduct.19  This obligation falls under the rule that "forewarned is forearmed."  The preparation of these codes, integrated with the codes of ethics of other involved professions, may thus be regarded as one of the primary aspects of the "preparation phase" of emergency management policy.

V - A Postscript and an Invitation

How well has the foregoing analysis solved the dilemma of the hypothetical seismologists and emergency managers in the "Pasadena Paradigm?"  Have we instructed them as to whether or not they should disclose their findings, and, if so, to whom and in what manner? It would appear that we have offered them little guidance.  But these appearances are deceiving.  We have (hypothetically) cautioned them about widespread errors in ethical and policy decision-making.  We have acquainted them with important relevant concepts and methods of ethical and policy decision-making.  But we have offered no direct answers regarding the disposition of their prediction, for to do so would be an impertinence.

While many may be disappointed with this result, that disappointment betrays a misconception of the philosopher's role.  Applied philosophers who, on occasion, are invited to confer with scholars and professionals of various fields of applied science, engineering, and the "help professions" routinely encounter such questions as these:

  • From a lawyer: "When is my obligation to my client overridden by my obligation to society?"

  • From an architect-engineer working in a seismically active region: "What can a philosopher tell me about balancing my obligations to my client with my obligations to the eventual tenants of this building?"

  • And from the disaster policy-maker: "If public opinion and preference does not support disaster mitigation efforts that are in the public interest, how would a philosopher direct me to treat this dilemma?"

A responsible philosopher has remarkably little to say about any of these questions that is directly, explicitly normative and definitive.  He does not, because he lacks the factual competence to speak on these issues.  Why then should the philosopher be consulted on these matters?  Because the doctor, the legislator, the lawyer, the architect and the policy-maker may lack a background in conceptual analysis and moral assessment to arrive at an informed and critically astute answer.  Quite probably, however, through his practical professional experience, the practitioner has acquired excellent "moral intuitions," which might be improved and integrated thought critical reflection and clarification.20  And so, working in concert, with due respect for each other's professional knowledge and skills, the professional practitioner and the philosopher may examine these issues with a combined skill and insight that far exceeds the sum of their separate competences.

Accordingly, to questions such as the above, the philosopher might first say, "please inform me of the facts, concepts and theories that might bear upon this case," and "share with me your sense of the morally correct answer, and your justification for this belief."  After reflecting upon these answers to these queries, he then might say, "let me suggest some possible answers to these ethical questions, and let us together assess their adequacy.  Also let me acquaint you with some fundamental concepts which we in our profession have found to be valuable in facing such issues as these.  Finally, let me further suggest some methods of moral decision-making that have proven fruitful, and let me warn you of others which have not."

The philosopher's role in policy-making, then, is not to provide answers, but rather to facilitate the process which produces these answers, by asking relevant questions and assisting and assessing and criticizing the process of moral judgment and policy-making.



1.     A noteworthy exception are some of the Interdisciplinary Incentive Awards of the NSF/NEH EVIST Program ("Ethics and Values in Science and Technology"), among which is the author's present study of "Applied Seismology and Responsibilities to the Future." Philosophers have also received occasional support from the Office of Technology Assessment and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  In addition several philosophical "policy centers" are beginning to enjoy recognition and support.  (See note 8, below).

2.    Burton, Kates and White, (Natural Hazards Research Working Paper No.  1, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, 1968, pp 11-15).

3.    Prominent among those who have criticized the attempt at "value-free policy science" are Lawrence Tribe, Mark Sagoff, Alistair Maclntyre, and K.  S.  Shrader-Frechette.  See also numerous publications by the Hastings Center and the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy (University of Maryland).

4.    This point is argued by numerous philosophers and many scientists.  See in particular, K.  S.  Shrader-Frechette, Science Policy, Ethics, and Economic Methodology, (Boston: Reidel, 1985), Chapter 3.  Also, J.  Bronowski, Science and Human Values, (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).

5.    B.  F.  Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, New York: Alfred A.  Knopf, 1971, p.  104.

6.    This brief and seemingly dogmatic paragraph leads us to the edge of the abyss of modern metaethics -- particularly, the question of "the naturalistic fallacy." We will draw back from that abyss, lest the topic and purpose of this paper be lost by such a digression.  Suffice to say that some philosophers believe that the gap between "is statements" and "ought statements" can be bridged.  None, however, would suggest that this is a simple enterprise, and all would be appalled at how carelessly and casually many "policy positivists" walk past this deep and perplexing philosophical problem.  One of the best introductions to the "is-ought problem" is William Frankena's Ethics, (Second Edition), Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973, Chapter 6.  See also my "Are Science and Scholarship "Value Neutral?," and "Can the Environmentalist Escape Philosophy?,"  this site.

7.    Loren R.  Graham, "The Multiple Connections Between Science and Ethics," The Hastings Center Report, June 1979, p.  38.  See also Shrader-Frechette, op.  cit., p.  87, Cf.  note 4, above.

8.     The following come immediately to mind: The Institute for Behavioral Science, and the Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy, at the University of Colorado; the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, at the University of Maryland; The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, at the Illinois Institute of Technology; The Hastings Center.

9.     "Discounting the future" is much more than a simple matter of "descriptive economics." Some of the deep ethical issues involved "discounting" are expertly analyzed by Derek Parfit in his book, Reasons and Persons, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984, pp.  480-6.

10.     This point is expertly made by Ender and Kim in their paper, "A Risk Management Model for Natural Disaster Mitigation Policy Implementation," Louise Comfort (ed) Managing Disaster: Strategies and Policy Perspectives,  Duke University Press, 1988

11.  Such a gross and uncritical utilitarianism, complains John Rawls (among other critics), "does not take seriously the distinction between persons." John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971, p.  27.  Other critics of the utilitarian "cost/risk/benefit analysis" are cited in note 3, above.

12.  For two eloquent and cogent statements of this position, see Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), Chapter 7.  Also, Joel Feinberg, "The Nature and Value of Rights," The Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol.  4, (Winter, 1970), pp 243-57.

13.  Risa Palm, "Geography and Consumer Protection: Housing Market Responses to Earthquake Hazards Disclosure," Southeastern Geographer, (Vol.  25:1, May 1985), p.71.

14.  Palm, op.  cit., p.  71.  Also, 67, 69.  The paper summarizes an extensive study by Palm, Marston, Kellner, Smith and Budetti, Home Mortgage Lenders, Real Property Appraisers and Earthquake Hazards, University of Colorado: Institute of Behavioral Science, 1983.  The same point is made by several authors in Comfort's anthology (op.  cit.)

15.  This is the "scenario earthquake" studied by the California Division of Mines and Geology, and published as "Earthquake Planning Scenario for a Magnitude 8.3 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault in Southern California," James F.  Davis, et.  al., Special Publication 60, California Department of Conservation, Division of Mines and Geology, Sacramento, California, 1982.

16.  At the present state of the science, short-term predictions (hours and days) and long-term hazard assessments (probabilities over several years) are more reliable than such an intermediate time prediction as imagined here.  However, this scenario raises the more interesting ethical issues.  (My thanks to Clement Shearer for pointing this out).

17.  By this I mean that these ethical decisions will not be arbitrary, random and incoherent.  Rather, they will follow a pattern which will display a moral theory, just as colloquial speech displays a grammatical structure unknown to the uneducated speaker (or, in the case of "deep structures," the professor of linguistics).  For more about "implicit moral theory," see my "Are We Ready for an Ecological Morality?," Environmental Ethics, (4) Winter, 1984, pp 175-90.  That paper draws upon important work, by John Rawls, Noam Chomsky and Lawrence Kohlberg.

18.  Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, Vol.  162, p.  1245.

19.  Well coordinated codes of conduct and procedure would thus help to bring about and sustain what John Rawls calls a "well-ordered society;" namely, a society in which the parties know, now only that they will behave rationally and justly, but also how others will behave likewise, and that this knowledge and expectation is mutual and reciprocated -- i.e., "they know that others know that they know.  Rawls, op.  cit., pp.  4, 453ff.

20.  For important recent work on "moral intuitions" and "the moral sense," see the work of Lawrence Kohlberg and, once again, John Rawls, op.cit, pp.46ff.  My thoughts along these lines (following the ideas of Kohlberg and Rawls) may be found in my "Are We Ready for an Ecological Morality?", loc.  cit..

21.  This role of the philosopher is not unlike what Louise Comfort calls "the function of design in emergency problem-solving," namely, "to structure the elements of decision -- information, timing, known constraints, interaction among participants -- in a process which is likely to yield the most appropriate choice in the most timely fashion." To this list I would add "value clarification and assessment" in terms of such philosophical criteria as consistency, coherence and comprehensiveness.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .