The Titanic and OceanGate both failed due to the same ethical dynamics.
Last week five people died when the OceanGate sub suffered an implosion. In parallels the Titanic not simply because that’s where it went down, but because the deaths of the people on board stemmed from an ethical lapse.
The CEO and pilot of the craft, Stockton Rush, was not a fan of regulations. In an interview with journalist David Pogue Rush said. “At some point, safety is just pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed. Don’t get in your car. Don’t do anything.” Technically that’s true in the same way that you are technically heading towards your death every moment of your life.
The widespread use of cars causes the loss of life. In 1950 there were 7.24 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled and 32.79 deaths per 100,000 people in the US. (source) One approach would have been to accept it as is. The approach many countries took was with regulations, like adding seat belt and crumple zone requirements to cars. With regulations those numbers dropped to 1.37 and 12.89 respectively in 2021. (source)
Buildings require fire extinguishers, alarms systems, and sufficient fire exits because when we didn’t have those regulations 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Many more people died in other fires, mine collapses, airplane crashes, from contaminated food, and from so many other sources. Ironically these explorers died visiting the Titanic, a ship thought to be so unsinkable it didn’t even carry enough lifeboats for everyone aboard.
The Wikipedia page lists the following quote.
The fact that Titanic carried boats for little more than half the people on board was not a deliberate oversight, but was in accordance with a deliberate policy that, when the subdivision of a vessel into watertight compartments exceeds what is considered necessary to ensure that she shall remain afloat after the worst conceivable accident, the need for lifeboats practically ceases to exist, and consequently a large number may be dispensed with. (note: I have not independently verified quote in the original source)
Compare this to Rush’s thinking.
I think it was General MacArthur who said you’re remembered for the rules you break and I’ve broken some rules to make this. I think I’ve broken them with logic and good engineering behind me.” (source)
I get into airplanes regularly because I trust the FAA. I know flying isn’t 100% safe, but I trust that they have made the risk low enough. It’s the same reason I drink tap water and take medications which are approved by the FDA. Despite multiple science and engineering degrees I don’t have the time or capability to evaluate the risk of each daily decision I make. I rely on society, through its proxy of government, to put up guardrails so I can focus my day on other decisions.
In both cases, Titanic and OceanGate, the person or organization deciding to break the rules had a financial incentive to have them broken. When we let anyone draw any line anywhere they want, we get disasters because their own risk-reward matrix isn’t necessarily the same as that of others, and often leads to decisions not in the best interest of the customer or society. This is why, for all their headaches and red tape, we have regulations.
Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” I would submit that government regulations are the worst form of safety – except for all the others that have been tried. For all their limitations, and occasional overregulation, on the whole we are better off with them. When someone claims, “I’m breaking them because I know better,” and that person has a financial incentive when doing so, be afraid, be very afraid.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.