An American Editor

June 4, 2014

Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing

I am currently reading David Edmonds’ Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong (2013). The book focuses on what has become known as the trolley problem, which goes like this (the following is a summary of Phillippa Foot’s original thought experiment from the 1960s, which subsequently morphed into the “Fat Man” variation, as well as other variations):

The trolley is coming down the track and you are standing by a switch. If the trolley remains on the current track, it will kill five people who are tied to the track and cannot escape. If you throw the switch, the trolley will veer onto a spur on which one person is tied and will kill that one person, but the five people will be saved. Do you/should you throw the switch?

This is the conundrum of right and wrong, which underlies most religious and moral beliefs.

Reading this book made me think of editing ethics. I grant that the decisions we have to make are not of life and death, but still, they can be weighty and certainly raise the specter of morally and ethically right and wrong behavior.

Is the absence of the conundrum equivalent to saying that there is no ethical or unethical behavior, there is just behavior? Is this a conundrum for philosophers to quarrel over but that has no particular value outside the philosophical debates? As with most philosophical questions, there are only philosophical answers, any of which can be correct at a given moment in time.

I think few of us would say that editing (of all stripes, including proofreading) raises such philosophical conundrums that we grind to a halt as we consider them and discuss them with colleagues. Over the past 30 years, I have had editing-related “philosophical” discussions with colleagues only on a handful of occasions, and those discussions were rarely earth moving.

I suppose our initial foray into the conundrum is whether we are competent to handle the project being offered. This is not about our competency in general as an editor, but our competency specifically for the project in question. For example, we work alone, there are 3,000 manuscript pages to be edited; they require a “heavy” edit; the subject matter is a sub-sub-subspecialty area of nuclear physics, an area with which we have no familiarity; the manuscript is heavy in math, which we know is a weakness; the schedule is six weeks and cannot be extended, which means we would have to edit 500 manuscript pages a week, yet the best we have ever done is 300. The project is for a long-time client who pays very well (more than any other client we have) and will pay double our usual rate. Finally, if we do not accept this project, we currently have nothing else to fill the time, although it is always possible for something to come along. Also, the project still will have to be done by someone — and that someone might be even less qualified.

What do we do? Some of us will immediately decline, outlining our reasons for the client. Some of us will accept and hope that we can convince the client to extend the deadline. Some of us will simply accept and hope that we do a satisfactory job. Some of us will accept and try to find colleagues to work on the manuscript with us. Regardless of which path we take, I suspect that most of us would think more about the practical problems than the philosophical problems associated with the project offer.

But should we be so focused on the practical problems, or should we have already had a philosophical discussion about such a situation and have our moral and ethical compass already set to give an answer to the offer? My thinking tends toward the latter.

The job offer raises many of ethical questions. Should an editor accept work in unfamiliar subject areas? What makes up an unfamiliar subject area? How much depth of knowledge in a subject area does an editor need to accept an offer? (For example, do we need to have studied Jewish writings regarding the Talmud for years to be able to edit a book on Jewish philosophy that arises from the Talmud? Do we need to be able to cite the German order of battle before we agree to edit a book on the German offensive in World War I? Should we have at least a nursing degree before we edit a medical text intended for nursing students?)

Should our decision be based on schedule and our past history with regard to schedule? That is, if the schedule requires 500 edited pages per week but the most we have ever done is 300, are we morally obligated to turn down the project because we have never accomplished that speed before? Or is this one of those ethical considerations that need to be given some weight, but not much weight because we can find techniques that will speed up our editing? Which raises the question of whether we would be substituting technique for skill.

Let us not forget the money part. The offer comes with more money than usual — a doubling of our normal fee. Why? Is it not the client’s recognition of the difficulty of the project and the client’s method of incentivizing us to undertake what appears to be a difficult project? How much should the fee offered govern our decision-making process? If we were to prioritize elements of the offer, where would we place fee?

I know that some of us would say that before approaching these or any other question about the offer, they would insist on seeing a few chapters to make their own decision about the project’s difficulty. Even if chapters are chosen at random, how much can we learn from them? The two or three chapters randomly chosen could be the most difficult to edit, the longest, the shortest, the easiest to edit, or something else that would unduly influence a positive or negative reaction. Such a review could (and likely would) divert us from addressing the more important underlying ethical and moral questions.

In a sense, that is exactly the problem: We editors do not have a universal code of morality or ethics that serves as a guide to any of the editorial decisions we make, which range from whether to accept an offer to whether to bill the client for hours we didn’t actually spend on the project because we were more efficient than the client calculated we would be (in other words, the project took us 50 hours but the client expected it to take and budgeted for 75 hours. Do we bill for 50 hours or 75 hours?).

In the absence of such ethical codes, editors tend to approach the job-offer problem from the practical side rather than the philosophical side. Granted, in our instance, unlike in the trolley problem, there is no balancing of life versus death(s). And I also grant that in the trolley problem the dilemma has a cultural/religious element (substitute for the trolley problem the abortion problem and its variations) that editing will rarely face (an exception being, perhaps, the offer to edit a virulently anti-Semitic book that calls for a new genocide). Yet I think we — and our clients and profession — would gain greatly were we to have this discussion and come to a consensus on what constitutes ethical and moral behavior for an editor and what doesn’t.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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