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Some ethical problems of hazardous substances in the working environment
  1. W. R. Lee1
  1. Department of Occupational Health, University of Manchester


    ABSTRACT Exposure of persons to conditions at work may involve some risk to health. It is not possible always to ensure that exposure can be kept below a level from which it may be categorically stated that there is no risk. The decision that has to be made, what ought to be done, poses an ethical problem. What principles are available for examining such ethical problems? Two theories from the study of ethics seem relevant. On the one hand Intuitionism asserts that we possess a moral sense which, correctly applied, enables us to determine what is a right action. The familiar use of 'conscience' and the teachings of some of the influential Western religions follow this theory. On the other hand Utilitarianism (in particular Objective Utilitarianism) asserts that we may judge the rightness of an action by looking at its consequences. This theory, translated into legislative reform, has provided a substantial basis for much of the social reforming legislation of the last century. In economic terms it appears as cost benefit analysis. Despite its attraction and almost plausible objectivity, Utilitarianism requires the quantification and even costing of consequences which cannot always be measured (for example, emotions) but which from an important part of the totality of life. Decisions about the right course of action are required politically but cannot always be made objectively. They may require an element of judgement—a correct application of the moral sense—to use the Intuitionists' phrase. Doctors, used to making ethical decisions in the clinical setting, must examine carefully their role when contributing to ethical decisions in the industrial setting.

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    • 1 Based on a paper read before the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, 2 February 1977.