Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: `THAT THING'LL NEVER WORK'

It would be great to be able to invent the next big thing -- you know, the invention that would make the world beat a path to your door, the one that would make you so much money that you'd never have to work again.

Short of being able to come up with that trailblazing invention, however, perhaps the next best thing is to work for the guy who is making the next big thing.

A reader from southern California has been contracted to design some components for a guy's new invention -- and, he adds, "this fellow pays quite handsomely."

My reader has a dilemma, however: He believes that his employer is attempting to build a perpetual-motion machine, a machine that would put out more energy than it took in and therefore could operate forever. Such a device would solve the world's energy problems and be worth an incalculable fortune ... but it's also scientifically impossible.

"I can see aspects of what he's revealed to me that are, to his mind, of a proprietary nature," my reader writes. "But from my perspective, as a design engineer, I can see where his overall design couldn't ever possibly accomplish his goal."

The dilemma, as my reader sees it, is a straightforward one: Should he "sell out, continue to do what this guy says and get paid," as he puts it, even though he knows that the invention will never work, or should he tell his employer that it can never work -- which, he's certain, would signal the end of his gravy train since, as he concedes, the inventor "didn't pay me to criticize his invention."

What's the right thing to do?

A telling indication lies in my reader's choice of words: He would consider not saying anything to be "selling out."

True, the inventor hired my reader only to do a specific job, not to provide advice on the efficacy of what he is building. All the same, my reader feels compelled to tell his employer that he thinks his invention has as much chance of working as a time machine would. His employer is wasting lots of money, and not saying so doesn't sit right with my reader.

But what about the handsome pay? Why risk it? If he says nothing and does his job well, who's hurt by it? Shouldn't it be "No harm, no foul?"

The harm is, of course, to my reader's principles. That's why, unless his life or his family' lives depend on this cash he's receiving from the inventor, the right thing for him to do is to let the inventor know what he thinks. He doesn't have to aggressively denounce him, of course -- he might ask the inventor his intentions and then, if the inventor's plan is what he suspects, point out what he sees as flaws in the design plans -- but he can't be comfortable until he's made a good-faith effort to say what he thinks needs to be said.

The inventor may well decide that he wants to slog on, of course. He may decide to fire my reader, but he may also decide that he has no problem paying him for his work on this invention, despite his reservations about the design. He may conclude that my reader is a good worker in spite of his limited vision.

If so, my reader will have to decide if he wants to continue working on an invention that he's convinced will never work. As long as he does good work while he ponders, however, he'll be running on good ethical ground.


c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Regarding the inventor and his perpetual motion machine, he is clearly not in contact with reality and has obviously never heard of Newton or Einstein. People that crazy will ignore what anyone says to them and press on regardless.

So if I were the contractor, I'd press on and keep my mouth shut. But the downside is that when the project fails, it won't be the inventor's fault (nutcases like that are never wrong) but the contractors because he didn't build the machine right.

I can almost guarantee a lawsuit. The trick is knowing when to get out.

Burl Estes

Anonymous said...

Before I forget and click "Send", my hometown is Huntington Beach, CA; I read your column in the Orange County Register. Thanks for providing insight into some "tricky" situations.

On the engineer questioning his generous employer's efforts to build a perpetual motion machine, who's to know if his efforts won't be a step toward that end and make it possible in the future. The Wright brothers didn't just come up with the wing design that shifted the air pressure and allowed heavier than air flight; they had others whose failed efforts they studied and improved upon.

Jim Thomson

Anonymous said...

The “right thing” for the contractor to do, should NOT depend on whether “his or his family’s lives depend on this cash he is receiving from the inventor” -- period. Ethics is (or should be) about doing the “right thing” especially when it is most painful – to do the “right thing” when it is easy, hardly tests our ethics.

a. The contractor should disclose his concerns to the inventor – but without assuming that the inventor is trying to develop something that violates the laws of physics. Chances are that the inventor knows what he is doing, and is not trying to build a perpetual motion machine. If the contractor tells the inventor that what he is trying to develop is impossible, and the contractor is mistaken, then the inventor might terminate him or not give him future work.

b. BTW the issue of a perpetual motion being impossible, refers to a closed system, which cannot deliver more energy than is put into it. But there are many sources of “free” energy, eg solar, tidal waves. So a system that converts some “free” energy and delivers more energy than the cost to transform the “free” energy, would not violate perpetual motion – and yet many would erroneously believe it does.

Luis Villalobos
Newport Beach CA

Anonymous said...

The “right thing” for the contractor to do, should NOT depend on whether “his or his family’s lives depend on this cash he is receiving from the inventor” -- period. Ethics is (or should be) about doing the “right thing” especially when it is most painful – to do the “right thing” when it is easy, hardly tests our ethics.

a. The contractor should disclose his concerns to the inventor – but without assuming that the inventor is trying to develop something that violates the laws of physics. Chances are that the inventor knows what he is doing, and is not trying to build a perpetual motion machine. If the contractor tells the inventor that what he is trying to develop is impossible, and the contractor is mistaken, then the inventor might terminate him or not give him future work.

b. BTW the issue of a perpetual motion being impossible, refers to a closed system, which cannot deliver more energy than is put into it. But there are many sources of “free” energy, eg solar, tidal waves. So a system that converts some “free” energy and delivers more energy than the cost to transform the “free” energy, would not violate perpetual motion – and yet many would erroneously believe it does.

Luis Villalobos
Newport Beach CA

Anonymous said...

This column is probably about the same inventor that hired my husband. The inventor eventually decided not to use my husband for the work, after my husband made it clear that he thought the perpetual motion machine could not work.

The reason I am writing though, is another ethical problem with this invention. The inventor was attempting to find investors. Helping him design or build his machine would make it easier to gain the legitimacy required to get investors (who would undoubtably lose their money). Also, I was concerned that it could make my husband liable for potential future civil or criminal lawsuits on behalf of the investors. I thought you may want to pass this caution on to the design engineer.

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