Weighty thoughts about ethical distress and moral injury were not on my mind when I attended the October 2005 meeting of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Ethics and mapping were separate areas of my work, and until then, I had never considered their conjunction. That spring, Esri Press published my first book on the history of medical mapping, Cartographies of Disease,1 and, honestly (and isn’t that a virtue we seek to advance?), I was going to NACIS to promote its purchase among conference attendees. And since I then was coteaching Geography 381 (“Spatial Data Analysis Using GIS”) at the University of British Columbia, I was curious what graduates of programs like ours were doing and saying.
And then there was the conference location itself. Salt Lake City, Utah, is the home of the great Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its extraordinary organ. I desperately wanted to hear it. Rebuilt and expanded several times since it was inaugurated in 1867, the organ’s 11,623 pipes arranged in 267 rows produce an extraordinary congress of potential sounds managed by a complex combination of stops toggled in various combinations. These give precise character to the notes played on any of the organ’s five keyboards and pedals. NACIS was an opportunity to hear and see if not perhaps play this behemoth in its home auditorium, one so large it takes, guests are told, 1.5 seconds for sound to travel from the auditorium wall stage left to the opposite wall, stage right.
Great organs fill the air in a visceral way. The largest pipes produce undertones that vibrate through the walls and floor into the wooden pews. You can feel the sound. Depending on the choice of stops, notes played on the organ console become the whispered call of a bird flying in the midst of a thundering storm or the energy of the storm itself. In Salt Lake City the organ is played every day at noon and again at 5 p.m. During the conference, I attended almost every recital.
For me, the organ is a metaphor for the complexities of the world. Even an apparently simple musical idea can be transformed into something elaborate and grand when transposed across three simultaneous lines of notation performed at once with both hands and both feet. For me, nothing so exemplifies the broadly connected complexities of the world, or the way we choose among them, than the organ.
That complexity, multiple choices within a seemingly simple system, is what I have always found to be the reality in medical ethics. Apparently simple diagnostic “facts” become complex points of deliberation when treatment options are transposed through the scales of fear and hope expressed by the desperately ill and their families. Medical ethics are easy if you never have to meet with the patients, their families, or the sometimes exasperated medical staff whose members too often have little patience with either doubt or hope.2 In practice there are always complex negotiations between personal, professional, and social values. The result is rarely a simple, “objective” certainty of what is “right” but rather a set of tentative conclusions open to interpretation and discord when interpretations diverge and essential values differ.
Mapping similarly presents a congress of choices ordered around apparently simple themes. So many decisions go into their making that the map’s proud declarative, “It is,” is better expressed as “This is how I think it might be.” Just as I wrestle with how to play a Bach sonata (or a Lennon-McCartney song), so I struggle with the sometimes-conflicting potentials that can be distilled in the imaging of what seems, at first, simply described. What are we really saying, and to whom are we speaking? What speaks which idea best?
Although I attended the conference as a geographer, I found that ethics were in the air. Participants worried in different sessions about what they perceived as the problematic ethics of subcontracting work offshore to countries where mapping expertise and printing processes were cheaper than in Canada or the United States. Yes, it made business sense, members said, but wasn’t it unethical, or at least unpatriotic, or somehow unsomething to deprive fellow citizens of badly needed work? And, in other matters, some asked, what was the appropriate response to a job whose stated goal seemed biased in its assumptions and limited in the data the mapmaker was given to promote a particular cartographic conclusion?
The conflict, to me, was obvious. Were these largely independent contractors grounded solely in an economic ethic whose bedrock presupposition made gain their sole objective, or was their ethical perspective grounded in a morality of community and social good that extended beyond personal benefit? How could they feel proud of work whose message they denied, about business deals that helped them but hurt those who were their confreres?
The high point of the NACIS meeting that year was a more or less friendly competition called “Map-Off” in which five or six volunteers presented maps on a subject assigned by officials five days before the meetings began. The results were then publicly judged in an open, studio-style critique by an expert panel. After that, conference attendees commented and then voted with a show of hands for their favorite. In 2005 the subject was Hurricane Katrina.
By every measure, the worst submission was by a mapmaker employed by a major US newspaper whose entry, she later admitted, was produced not for the competition but on assignment weeks before. It was an ugly and to my eye flawed map of a section of flooded New Orleans (little contrast in its deep browns, as I remember, and a curious scale) with a curling Mississippi River snaking through the city. It had something to do with the area where the levees were breached but the point of the map was far from clear. It was not only inferior in its production but also … a cheat. It had been submitted as if constructed for the competition and therefore in compliance with NACIS Map-Off rules. In fact, it had been completed at the direction of her news editors weeks earlier and then slipped into the NACIS mix.
Maps presented by other participants were more honest (their creators did not violate competition rules) but less than enlightening. As a group, they proclaimed a woeful lack of even a modest knowledge of the complex interplay of biogeographic and socioeconomic factors that made Katrina so inevitably devastating. In 2001, for example, Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha reviewed literatures on the Mississippi Delta as a dynamic entity in which hydrologic forces and human activities interact unceasingly.3 That turned issues of hydrology (and thus its mapping) into an intensely interactive subject as complex as any organ fugue.4 The problem for me with the Map-Off entries was that they presented the storm as a presumably unforeseeable, natural, and thus simple, one-off meteorological event. In a more theological age, it would have been called, with a shrug, an act of God. The devastation that resulted therefore was nobody’s fault.
During the general discussion, I suggested that since earlier in the day folks had raised questions of business ethics—subcontracting work offshore—ethics might be a way to think about the contest maps. I pointed out that the newspaper cartographer’s map was a self-conscious violation of the competition rules. What, I asked rhetorically, are the ethics of flouting policies of fair engagement? I then questioned the ethics of mapping Katrina’s path and its resulting urban destruction without attention to either the history of recurrent gulf hurricanes or repeated reports of the inadequacy of local levees in a city where major storms are an almost annual event. After all, detailed histories of those hurricanes have been accumulating for more than one hundred years, and the wholesale destruction resulting from breached levees has been detailed at least since the 1920s.5
At the least, a poster-style map set of historical storm tracks (fig. 2.2) would have said much about the inevitability of Hurricane Katrina and thus its probable effects. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has published detailed data on the path of every hurricane reported since the 1860s.6 More recent storms mapped include, in a partial list, hurricanes Betsy (1965),7 Camille (1969), Bret (1999),8 and Wilma (2005).9 Mapping Katrina as if it were a unique event denied that history and its potential lessons.
Similarly absent in the Map-Off entries was the wealth of then-available data detailing the city’s many physical vulnerabilities.10 A map of roads and streets of New Orleans, and their links to the rest of the state and country, would have been an important contribution to understanding what turned the hurricane into a human disaster.11 New Orleans’s evacuation protocols, such as they were, assumed that citizens would flee in private cars and, further, that Louisiana highways could handle the outflow volume. No one had tested those assumptions or predicted the traffic chaos that might result. And, more ethically central, the assumption of independent evacuation meant people without cars were likely to be stranded if the levees failed and the city flooded.12 By far the greatest losses in Katrina occurred among the fragile who because of age, illness, or poverty were stuck in place.13 As June Isaacson Kailes and Alexandra Enders would argue in 2007, attention to those with “diverse needs” serves not only the “disabled” but also a range of persons living in or near disaster sites (earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, landslides, tornadoes, and so on).14 None of this, however, was lodged in the maps of the Map-Off participants.
The most devastated wards with the greatest loss of life, the Lower Ninth and North Bywater,15 were the poorest in the city and the ones in which lived the highest percentage of African American residents (78 percent).16 In the weeks after Katrina, Mathew Ericson, deputy graphic editor for the New York Times, and his team together traced the extent of the flood on a map of New Orleans wards and then added socioeconomic data to demonstrate the relative effect of the hurricane on poor and rich, black and white, New Orleans residents (fig. 2.3).
In 2005 issues of poverty, race, and levee safety in the Ninth Ward and Bywater were an old and familiar story. In the 1920s, the old Ninth Ward was bisected in the name of commerce so that the Industrial Canal could be deepened to permit increased deepwater shipping. In theory, adjacent wards were protected by levees, but their adequacy was repeatedly questioned. After they were breached and the ward flooded by Hurricane Betsy in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, who toured the resulting devastation, promised it would never be allowed to happen again. Before Katrina, federal engineers had recommended remedial action for at-risk levees—they knew the potential for disaster—but the necessary repairs were never funded and thus never carried out. Without them, and given the virtual certainty of a category 5 hurricane, sooner or later (the levees were designed to withstand, at best, category 3 storms) the human disaster that was Katrina was not merely predictable but inevitable.
Similarly inevitable was that the brunt of the storm would fall upon the poorest wards, the Ninth and Basewater. A New York Times map of affected areas was embedded in a page that gave the average income, general demographics, and population of each ward (figure 2.4). This “epi-text” in which the map was placed gave to each area a sense of population and the relative effect of the storm on poorer versus richer citizens living farther from the most vulnerable levees.
All of this, I suggested, had a lot to do with ethics and responsibility in mapping. The hurricane was natural, but the extraordinary loss of life and property was not. Rather, it was the result of a long history of local, state, and federal inaction. To present maps of the storm and its effects as if they were an unavoidable and unexpected “natural” disaster denied the histories that transformed predictable occurrence into destructive human catastrophe. It let everyone off the hook. Where were the ethics in that? If this was the best that North America’s cartographic experts could do, what did it say, I asked, about us as citizens and professionals?
That created quite a stir and a lot of discussion that continued long after Map-Off ended. First up was the newspaper’s mapmaker, who took heated exception to my characterization of her efforts. She had accepted the assignment as a favor to the Map-Off organizers, she told me, but hell, she was a very busy person and had a map she had already produced for her employers, so … where was the harm? The rules were crafted to ensure all contestants a level playing field, I replied. Submitting her map as if it were made for the competition, and thus in accord with Map-Off rules, I replied, was simply dishonest. The harm was to her fellow mapmakers, also busy professionals, who had obeyed the rules, spent the time, and given their best effort to the competition. Moreover, the harm was to other NACIS members who expected participants not only to play by the rules but also to do their best work. If honesty is an ethical virtue she subscribed to, I said, shouldn’t she be ashamed of her false pretenses?
Another mapmaker complained that he had carefully mapped the storm’s track through the Gulf, and what was wrong with that? Nothing, I said, except that we had all seen scores of nearly identical maps on TV and in newspapers during and immediately after Katrina. Mapping the storm’s track yet again was at best repetitive and certainly uninteresting. What did he want us to learn from his map that we did not already know? What, precisely, did he want to say? Why make a map at all, I asked, if it only tells us what we think we already know, if it merely repeats what has already been said? A map that argued the disaster was socioeconomic and cultural, not simply natural, would be both more informative and more interesting to produce.
What most people wanted to talk about, however, was the idea of ethics as a practical thing. What did I mean by ethics, they asked? How might ethics be understood in relation to people whose livelihood is based on contractual assignments from clients—academic and commercial—requiring they formulate graphic statements based on data the mapmakers did not themselves either choose or collect? Wasn’t it enough to be “professional,” by which most meant competently completing an assignment on time and to a certain standard of aesthetic and cartographic excellence? And, really, aren’t maps just the transposition of a dataset into a graphic? Was it really their business to question an assignment, critiquing the relevance of the data they were given? Was it somehow their responsibility?
The philosopher Mary Midgley declares that “people avoid thinking about things which would stop them from doing what they wish.”17 But NACIS members were thinking about such things, not shying away. Their “moral intuition” wasn’t a sudden impulse or instinct but a recurring problem for which they could find no answer.18 Most of the NACIS members I talked to said they knew what it was to be uncomfortable with an assignment, either its general subject or the adequacy of the data they were asked to map. They had experienced that queasy feeling when a job is competently completed but, in its aftermath, they can feel little pride in the result. Most could describe an incident in which they did everything right but knew that, somehow, what they had produced was somehow wrong (or at least wrongish).
Something was missing. There was, they said, nothing in their training that prepared them for this sense of ethical unease incurred while mapping other persons’ stories and subjects. Some said they had taken a course in philosophy in college, but reading Aristotle, Plato, and Kant had been of little relevance, and less guidance, in confronting the mundane choices they encountered in their roles as professional mapmakers for hire.
I told the NACIS members that, as a bioethicist, I had worked with nurses, doctors, and hospital officials who expressed a similar sense of ethical unease and moral uncertainty. I had heard such concerns from graphic artists illustrating work they thought at least somewhat inappropriate, and from academic librarians whose research they believed was used selectively to create incomplete and thus if not biased then at least limited reports. I suspected but wasn’t sure the distress, or at least discomfort, NACIS members were describing was similar. I promised to try to figure out how they corresponded and to write an article from the mapmakers’ perspective that might speak to their concerns.
I first turned to moral philosophy, whose practitioners seek to systematize potentially applicable notions of good and bad, right and wrong, in their crafting of “normative” frameworks potentially (but not necessarily) applicable to practical questions of conduct and behavior.19 There are four major approaches, and a quick reference to any of them might have served had I chosen to fashion a superficial answer. As I worked on this problem, talking to cartographers and then demographers, journalists, and statisticians (as well as ethicists), I would see one or another of these general frameworks enacted time and again by people who had never read works in the field.
Consequentialists focus less on the act (what we do) than on its resulting effect, good or bad. Consequentialism is typically invoked to emphasize the “big picture” of outcomes rather than the smaller field of individual actions. A soldier’s performance on the battlefield is judged by its result (take that hill, hold that town, and thus win this war), even if the killing required to achieve that objective seems morally problematic to the soldier him- or herself. If the war is deemed just, then so, too, are the actions of the soldiers who in its prosecution follow the “rules of engagement” their superiors have laid out.
Deontology, on the other hand, presents a kind of more or less rule-based ethics. For a deontologist, mapmakers have an obligation to complete their contractual obligations. Like most citizens, mapmakers are expected to tell the truth as best they can. They have an obligation not to steal another’s work or to manipulate data in a manner that is self-consciously untruthful. Those are the rules. The NACIS news cartographer, for example, broke faith with her fellow members by not following the rules designed to give Map-Off contestants an equal playing field. Whether rules are just or unjust, capricious or carefully wrought, may be another issue.
That NACIS members cared at all about such things spoke to the third main branch of moral philosophy. Virtue ethics’ neo-Aristotelian theme focuses on what motivates persons to feel good about their lives. A sense of well-being comes from living in accord with a set of shared social virtues. So from the start it is about the person in relation to society and its values. “But what virtue is, and what constitutes a good man, have always been matters of conflicting opinion.”20
Alasdair MacIntyre attempted to create an Aristotelian, virtue-based ethic but found it rough going. “Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts, every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.”21 And since those are open to dispute and disagreement—suppositions seeking clarification—what is correct is rarely immediately clear. The result, MacIntyre said, is that “it begins to appear implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements.” But if everything is subjective, then how do we choose?
Finally, there are the so-called moral realists, who insist there is no fundamental, ironclad moral truth. For followers of William James’s pragmatism, the values we promote and the ethics we embrace are the result of an ongoing mix of experience and reflection.22 We kind of make it up as a society as we go along, in other words. We do this based on a broad base of historical values—religious and secular—that set the context of contemporary values. The result is the virtue we proclaim through the rules we apply to behavior whose presumably ethical results are things we can feel good about promoting. The result may guide individuals whose judgments consciously exist within the context of a great social value set.
By putting these branches of moral philosophy together, I found I might describe moral stress or distress as an inevitable condition of people trying to do right (virtue ethics) while playing by the rules (deontology), but who know or suspect their actions have consequences that are somehow injurious, misleading, or just plain wrong. They can’t feel good about that. As virtue ethicists, the nature of their character is tarnished. Queasiness exists, therefore, at the intersection of a number of vectors: a person’s sense of self-worth and social standing, constricting behavior-governing rules (deontology), and a scale of consequences (individual, cultural, social) they believe likely if not inevitable. The result is a morass in which pragmatic solutions do not easily answer complex underlying questions.
For the average mapmaker, ethics is primarily deontological. The rules are simple: don’t lie (falsify the data being mapped) and don’t steal (plagiarize another’s work). The objective of mapping is to produce a value-free, factual representation of the world (or at least an employer’s vision of it). To do less is to break faith with map readers (a moral violation) because, as Judith Tyner put it, “map users tend to place inordinate faith in maps and accept them as true and complete representations.”23 Failing those expectations, mapmakers fail their readers, violating their trust, offering what seems true and complete but is not.
But as Tyner acknowledged, all maps fall short of that goal because they are abstractions whose promises of completeness and objectivity are bounded by the limits of the data sets selected and the means of their presentation. As Brian Harley put it, “To present a useful and truthful picture, maps must tell white lies.”24 A truth built on lies seems, however, problematic. Complete truthfulness is an unobtainable, default standard,25 because all “scientific geovisualization” is biased, or at least influenced by the mapmaker’s aesthetic and his or her point of view.26
So the real message has been that maps promise what they can’t deliver. Looking for objectivity and truth is something of a mug’s game. Mark Monmonier says the problem is that a two-dimensional map is just too small a canvas to capture the real.27 Even atlases—map collections focused on a single subject—can’t do the job, however. “Powerful narratives often underlie the seeming objectivity” of atlases, wrote Bieke Cattoor and Chris Perkins in 2014.28
This was all pretty much a riff on David Hume (1711–1776), introduced briefly in the previous chapter, perhaps the greatest philosopher ever to write in English. “Reject every system,” Hume advised those seeking the critical and objective, “however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation,” and “hearken to no arguments but those which are derived from experience.”29 The problem is that observations always are based on and bent around a set of ideas that define the search for relevant data, determine the method of analysis and then the medium in which its conclusions are presented. So at best, maps (and by extension, as we will see, charts, graphs, tables, and other graphics) are only as “objective as possible” within the framework of a given authorial point of view.
That was a basic message of Denis Wood’s The Power of Maps (1992), which concluded that, in the end, maps represent nothing. Instead, as Jacques Bertin later put it, maps present ideas about things in the world through a system of signs employed to craft a view of the world as if it were complete, objective, and therefore true.30 Truth, objectivity, and the ethics that promote them are merely tracings of a system of presentation ordered around an idea about things and their importance.
None of this is unique to cartography. It is instead a general limit to our knowing. Journalism, for example, similarly promises an “objectivity” whose “truth” is always limited and at best only partial. The Reporter’s Handbook describes the news reporter’s job as being “to accurately report what is said, heard, or seen by an individual at a place and time.”31 That the attributed description or statement may be fantastic puffery is irrelevant. Simple deontology rules: reporters accurately reproduce a subject’s statements in an objective manner. The consequences of correctly attributing this or that fantastic assertion are of little relevance.32 The newsperson’s ethical allegiance is to neither the veracity of the attributed statement (that it is true rather than simply truthfully reported) nor its completeness but primarily to its repetition. The new story thus promotes a small truth (she said, he said) but remains agnostic about the greater truth value of the statement itself. The same is true of statisticians (as I later demonstrate) who analyze data collected by others and then distill those numbers into a conclusion.
This was made clear in 2016 and 2017 with the accusations of “false news” trumpeted by a new president who, across his candidacy and after his inauguration, issued a series of duly reported statements whose factual basis was largely nonexistent. The news reportage was factual, however, in the sense that it was an accurate restatement of his utterances. The news was real, but the content, when considered impartially, was not.
Riding beneath the ethics pervading cartography, journalism, and most “knowledge industry” professions is a belief in the world as a simple place where unassailable facts exist like Lego blocks, which, correctly assembled, accurately mirror the objective real. One needs simply to fit them together to produce a disinterested, rational presentation of events. But complexity rules at every stage and in every field: “On the one hand there is an order that simplifies, and on the other there is an elusive and chaotic complexity expelled, produced, or suppressed by it.”33 In our maps, charts, graphs, graphics, statistics, news stories and reports, we present the simple without attention to the elusive and chaotic. Sometimes we then feel uneasy about the result.
Two things were clear. First, if the NACIS meeting was typical, a lot of working cartographers were sometimes uneasy about the ethics of their work. By this I understood them to be unclear about the role of their mapmaking as a social good (and remember, for Plato, truth is a social good) in which they could take pride. Second, neither cartographers nor geographers possessed a clearly articulated moral paradigm that might be transposed into a daily ethic of practice. From the geographer Immanuel Kant,34 whose philosophical writings form the bedrock of modern ethics,35 to the Marxist musings of a young David Harvey in his 1973 Social Justice and the City,36 geographers (and cartographers) have been grand at high-toned moral pronouncements but (with a few notable exceptions) generally deficient in their practical application to the urgent if pedestrian issues facing average citizens seeking informed answers about good and bad practices, about how to assign values like right and wrong in their daily lives.
Welcome to the complexity that rules us all. One person’s virtuous whistle-blower is another’s chatty, untrustworthy tattletale. One person’s fact is another’s fake news. One profession’s exemplar is another’s villain. One person’s data trove is another’s toxic data dump. What was needed was a map through the mire of ethical platitudes and presumptions whose general fault lines were, in the end, basically unchanged since the days of David Hume.
The goal became to use cartography as a laboratory in which to investigate the lines between ethical pride and distress, moral comfort and discomfort, good and bad, right and wrong. Hume repeatedly warned against any approach that begins with grand truths that “fix beyond controversy the foundations of morals, reasoning and criticism.”37 That is still good advice, because ethics, at least as they are understood here, exist in controversy over how things are to be evaluated, interpreted, presented, and then judged. One must look at actions and consequences, rules and results, in evaluating a map (or story or statistic) and our responsibility for and to it.
Michael Dobson summed up the general problem nicely in a 1991 roundtable on ethical problems in cartography: “If we want to serve the public well and not be at odds with our inner drives, [then] our objective and subjective responsibilities must be closely aligned.”38 Three assumptions are buried in his seemingly simple proposition. First, public service is a universal and recognizable good, something everyone believes in to a greater or lesser extent. If we are to be ethical, we must serve the public and not simply ourselves and our employers. Second, public service can potentially conflict with personal beliefs, needs, and limits. Third, “external demands and requirements” impose practical constraints that create problems of ethical unease.
The morals of the map, and of everything else, thus reside in what Andrew Pickering called “the mangle of practice,” in which the world we perceive, and our place in it, is an often conflicted series of interactions in which public statements, personal convictions, and pragmatic realities abut like sliding tectonic plates.39 The question became how to make this clear, how to set it in a context that would serve the needs of NACIS members who had challenged me to help those for whom moral distress, or at least moral stress, was a part of their daily life.
It took me a year to craft a serviceable example that would reflect these complexities in a simple way. The result, “False Truths: Ethics and Mapping as a Profession,” was published in the NACIS magazine Cartographic Perspectives and serves as the basis for the next two chapters.40 Craftily, I think, it presented (without naming them) an opportunity for consequential, deontological, pragmatic, and virtue-based approaches to ethical problem presentation. Depending on the reader’s point of view, any or all of those approaches could be deployed to give different answers to what I called “the Tobacco Problem.”
For several years, I presented the problem in classroom and conference lectures and exercises. In those venues, participants asked questions I could not answer, although, like any good lecturer, I could finesse them with a quip. Is the map a unique ethical environment? How does the map differ from the database of incidents on which it is based? Why can’t a general ethic assumed to prevail in society simply be applied to problems of mapping? Might the ethics of mapping provide a way to critique the general ethics of modern (which is to say postmodern) business and culture? And most importantly, how does one seek the answers to these questions?
The result was a kind of evolving anthropology of ethics, an ethnography that “confronts us with alternative worlds of value and meaning” and whose goal is a consideration of the “differences that make a difference for the way lives are lived, developed, and experienced, and for the way competence, excellence, virtue, and personal well-being are defined.”41 Ethnographers focus on the way people talk about and reflect on their lives. Going deeper, seeking the roots of those reflections, reveals the substrata on which we build descriptions of our place in the world.