Lost in a moral fog, Part 1

compassCapt. John Cota is a veteran pilot with years of experience guiding giant ships in and out of San Francisco Bay. On the morning of November 7 in dense fog, he was on the bridge of the 65,000 ton container ship Cosco Busan instructing the ship’s captain and helmsman so they could safely navigate under the Bay Bridge and out to sea.

Despite the fact that the ship was equipped with radar and a global positioning system, it had drifted south of its intended course, a fact that no one on the bridge seemed to recognize. Coast Guard traffic control radioed Cota that he was off course. “That’s not what I see here,” was Cota’s reply.

Not long afterwards, the Cosco Busan made a dramatic turn to the west — too late — and hit a support pier on the Bay Bridge, cutting a 160 foot long gash along the ship’s waterline and spilling an estimated 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay.

These are some of the known facts from an article on the accident in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The investigation is still young, but two possible factors have been cited in the accident: 1) the crew was Chinese, and may have misunderstood Cota’s commands, which were given in English; and 2) the fog may have caused Cota to lose his situational awareness, a military term that means knowing what is happening right now and what will happen next if you don’t take the right actions.

Sailing in fog is disorienting, even with good instruments. Without visual cues about speed and position, your mind plays tricks on you, leading you to believe things that may not be true. At such times, humans have a tendency to doubt their instruments and trust their gut, sometimes to their great regret. There is no way to know if that sort of confusion played a role in the Cosco Busan crash.

Fog is often used metaphorically, as in the oft-quoted phrase coined by military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, “the fog of war.” The fog of war obscures a soldier’s grasp of the tactical situation he is fighting in. It creates confusion about the enemy’s strength, location and intentions. Just as importantly, the fog of war creates temptations and opportunities to justify moral compromise, such as at Abu Ghraib.

Which makes me wonder if it might be useful to think about something we might call a “moral fog,” in which someone unaccountably loses his ethical bearings and augers into the ground. War brings headlines of atrocities and all sorts of moral compromises, but the uncomfortable truth is this: we see far more shipwrecks in the decisions we make in everyday life than we ever do on the battlefield.

Some examples from the news.

An unidentified member of Hillary Clinton’s staff decides that planting questions at a recent Iowa campaign appearance is a perfect way to make the candidate look better.

Management at a Chinese manufacturing firm decides to switch to a toxic (but less expensive) glue on Aqua Dots, toy beads designed to be used by children.
US sprinter Marion Jones takes illegal steroids in order to gain a competitive advantage and win Olympic gold.
Yahoo bows to pressure and provides information to the Chinese government that results in the imprisonment of several Chinese dissidents.

Each of these are examples of the sort of moral temptations we all face. Will I cheat or play by the rules? Will I bow to pressure or stand by my principles? Will I make compromises in secret that I would be ashamed of if they became public?

Why do these moral failures happen? Pressures mount, deadlines loom, money is tight, people we care about are unhappy, we risk failure or disappointment or the loss of reputation. A tantalizing temptation presents itself. The moral fog rolls in and we rationalize. Our instruments tell us we’re off-course, but we convince ourselves that with this one little compromise behind us, it will be smooth sailing from here on.

Living with a consistent, dogged commitment to moral principle is hard work, and very often it can be exasperatingly inconvenient.

Why is it that we who ought to know better decide to sail south when the compass clearly points north?

The prophet Jeremiah has one answer, I think. He wrote that our moral compass is irreparably broken. “The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful,” Jeremiah lamented, “a puzzle that no one can figure out.” (Jeremiah 17:9, The Message)

If my heart is hopelessly deceitful, I will be the first to fall victim to its lies. If I’m lost in a fog with a broken compass sailing for a bridge that I cannot see, how do I get back on course?

(To be continued.)

Photo credit: Nikolay Okhitin of StockXpert

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