Engineering Ethics

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Accepting Gifts And Amenities
Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering Texas A&M University
NSF Grant Number DIR-9012252
Accepting Gifts And Amenities
Instructor's Guide
Introduction To The Case
One of the most challenging and interesting areas of moral reasoning involves deciding where to draw the line between permissible and impermissible actions. Even if we know that some actions are clearly right and others are clearly wrong, there may be gray areas where making decisions is difficult. Deciding when to accept a gift or amenity illustrates this challenge. In this case, developed from the experiences of a chemical engineer, the students will be asked to decide where they would draw the line between morally permissible and impermissible acts and to justify their decisions. Students will be asked to decide, in other words, how they would distinguish the perfectly proper acceptance of a business favor from an improper acceptance of a bribe. The topic of bribery has a long history, and bribery seems to be an area in which our moral views are changing. For this reason, a short history lesson may be instructive. John T. Noonan, a lawyer and historian of moral ideas, traces the history of thought on bribery from 3000 B.C. to the present. He finds that moral concepts change: "Moral concepts found enshrined in traditions do not stay the same. They undergo transformation. They are subject to investigation and criticism. They expand, shrink, or disappear."1 This thesis can be illustrated by comparing the history of the concept of bribery with the history of other moral ideas. Until about the sixteenth century, it was considered wrong to take interest on money, and "usury" was a serious sin. It still is in Islamic countries, which have simply preserved the old prohibition. Due to a number of circumstances which we cannot discuss here, the prohibition of taking interest on money was lifted in the West. Today, the term "usury" is reserved for the extraction of excessive interest. Slavery and torture were widely accepted in Western society until the eighteenth century, and now both are condemned as heinous evils. What is the trend with regard to the concept of bribery? Is the idea likely to remain vigorous and even expand its dominance, so that more and more types of behavior will be condemned as contrary to the anti-bribery ethic? Or is it likely to shrink and wither as a moral concept? Is bribery becoming increasingly tolerated (thus following the pattern of usury), or is it increasingly frowned upon and prohibited, as has been the case with slavery and torture? Noonan believes that the evidence shows that bribery is increasingly viewed with intolerance throughout the world. In fact, in virtually every country in the world bribery is a shameful act. Those who accept bribes do not speak publicly of their bribes anywhere. Noonan claims that only the Westerner supposes that a modern Asian or African society does not regard the act of bribery as shameful in the way Westerners regard it.2 There are good moral reasons for this increasing intolerance, especially as the capitalist system becomes more widely accepted: 1. Bribery corrupts the capitalist economic system. The capitalist system is based on competition in an open and free market, where people tend to buy the best product at the best price. Bribery corrupts the free-market mechanism by getting people to make purchases that do not reward the most efficient producer. 2. Bribery is a sellout to the rich. In any situation ruled only by money, the deeper pocket will prevail. If bribery were universally practiced, expert testimony, justice in the courts, and everything else would be up for sale to the highest bidder. 3. Bribery produces cynicism and a general distrust of institutions. It destroys people's trust in the integrity of professional services, of...
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