Fall 2020

The Professional Ethics of Witnessing Professionals

Dennis F. Thompson

Professionals have an ethical obligation to bear witness to climate change. They should report, warn, criticize, and lobby to bring attention to the existential threat that climate change poses. But they also have an obligation to respect the knowledge that is the basis of their authority to witness. Witnessing carries risks to this professional authority. Witnessing professionals should avoid letting bias distort their advocacy, simplifying their statements excessively, overplaying the consensus in the field, neglecting their own conflicts of interest, and claiming authority beyond their areas of expertise. To witness ethically, the professional should advocate responsibly.

Dennis F. Thompson, elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1994, is the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy, Emeritus, and Professor of Government, Emeritus, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and a Professor of Public Policy, Emeritus, at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the Founding Director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions (now the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics) at Harvard University. He is the author of The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It (with Amy Gutmann, 2012), Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business, and Healthcare (2004), and Why Deliberative Democracy? (with Amy Gutmann, 2004).

“What you have to say needs to be heard. . . . Are you willing to be a witness?” Rafe Pomerance, director of Friends of the Earth, put the question to James Hansen, a prominent physicist turned climate scientist whose research on global warming pointed to the dangers of rising sea levels and other environmental changes with potential for catastrophic harm to the planet. Hansen had earlier concluded that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to warming sooner than previously predicted. As a scientist working at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he had tried to stay focused on his research and wrote mainly for his scientific colleagues. But then, recognizing that politicians, the public, and even many other scientists did not appreciate the seriousness of global warming, he accepted the challenge of the question that Pomerance put to him. He became a witnessing professional. His testimony to Congress in 1988 dramatically put global warming on the public agenda. His subsequent ­advocacy furthered the cause, helping to make “the greenhouse effect” a familiar term in the public discourse.

Hansen’s witnessing was widely praised but not all of his efforts were welcomed. The government agency he worked for censored his remarks, and he ultimately left government service. Later, he became an advocate for nuclear power as an alternative to environmentally harmful fossil fuels. In the process, he provoked the ire of many of his former allies in the climate change movement, some of whom believed he was proposing a cure that was worse than the disease. He appeared to be going beyond his own area of expertise and pronouncing on subjects on which he had no special authority to speak.

Hansen’s career exhibits to a high degree the ideal of witnessing, a professional obligation that he admirably exemplified. But it also reveals one of the risks of witnessing, the temptation to speak beyond one’s professional authority. It exposes a particular aspect of the general tension between the obligation to witness and the obligation to respect the knowledge that is the basis of professional authority.

I argue that professional ethics should include an obligation to witness: to speak and act publicly to call attention to existential threats to the society and the planet. But I also want to emphasize that this obligation poses challenges, not simply personal ones such as risks to a career, but also professional ones, such as risks of misrepresenting the knowledge that gives the professional the authority to speak. As professional ethics is broadened to include witnessing, this internal conflict becomes more acute.

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