Yes, there are times when "secrets" can -- or even should, in some cases -- be revealed, according to responses to the August ethics question posed by past AAPG executive director Lyle F. Baie.
"It really depends on how you define 'higher purpose,' and whether or not you personally profit from it. For instance if your client tells you that he/she is going to use your work as a basis for sites to dispose of untreated toxic waste you might want to inform the authorities.
"Another one might be where a client tells you that he is buying up acreage at bargain basement prices from undereducated, semi-literate poor people who have no idea of the value of their property.
"The more general problem is whether or not you inform the client that you are going to disclose the information."
"The general ethical principle that an employer's or client's confidential information should not be divulged is included in the AAPG and other geological codes of ethics. Baie's question posits a situation in which an individual geologist decides that a personally 'higher' purpose requires disclosure of confidential information and asks if such disclosure could ever be ethical.
"The answer is 'yes' in a very limited but real set of circumstances -- namely, where disclosure is required to prevent or diminish an immediate harm to the public's health, safety or welfare. This limited exception recognizes that the public health, safety and welfare are more important when there is conflict with the interests of an individual client or employer AND there is an immediate danger to the public.
"(The answer is also 'yes' where disclosure is required by law.) Such situations are rare.
"Furthermore, it is likely that there may be dispute among fully informed geologists about whether a particular set of facts ethically warrants the violation of the general rule against disclosure of confidential information.
"Here one must turn to the integrity of the geologist making the disclosure.
"Is the geologist willing to publicly make the disclosure and risk the adverse consequences for doing so? Integrity demands willingness to face adverse consequences. Although publicly making the disclosures does not automatically validate the ethics of making the disclosures in everyone's eyes, it at least demonstrates the convictions and integrity of the geologist making the disclosures.
"This brings us to Baie's follow-up question: What should AAPG do in such a case?
"If the disclosure was not made publicly, then it is very likely that the personally viewed 'higher' purpose would not be generally supported, and appropriate sanctions for violating the general rules against disclosure of confidential information should be imposed.
"If the disclosure was public, then fully informed evaluation of the situation can be made. Whether and what sanctions might be warranted will depend on the particular facts and circumstances.
"It may be that most impartial reviewers conclude that the immediate public harm required to support ethical choice to make the disclosure existed, that no ethical sanctions are warranted, and that the geologist should be ethically commended. Or such review may arrive at an intermediate or opposite conclusion.
"In any case, the integrity of the geologist making the disclosure can be recognized and considered in choosing the sanctions.
"Even if the sanction is expulsion from AAPG, the geologist with integrity will accept the result."