Engineering Ethics

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"[F]or all of its influence on our modern world, the engineering profession remains a mystery to many Americans." (ASEE Action ). These words in President Bill Clinton's statement for Engineer's Week of 1999 capture the curious situation of engineering: its products shape the world, but engineers are virtually invisible.

The academic study of ethics and responsibility in engineering began in the United States in the mid-1970s at a time of social ferment and heightened public scrutiny of the professions. Scholars from philosophy and engineering, collaborating in workshops and conferences, teaching, and research, began to penetrate the mystery. They concentrated on engineering in the United States.

Engineering originated in France in the seventeenth century and led in France to the development of the first engineering curriculum during the eighteenth century. Subsequently, engineering took shape as an occupation elsewhere, notably in the United States, Britain, Germany, and Russia. The French curriculum, with its emphasis on mathematics, physics, and chemistry, became the model for the engineering curriculum in the United States and most other countries. Despite persisting differences among countries in the status of professions and of engineers, the academic study of engineering ethics spread to a number of other countries.

Engineering ethics critically examines the behavior of engineers and engineering institutions in light of the special standards of the profession and the common standards of morality. The discipline studies engineers' actions, practices, and workplace, focusing philosophical analysis on standards and concepts such as responsibility and loyalty, to help identify ethical problems and options for resolving them.

Cases or vignettes are essential starting points for teaching and research. For example, during an economic downturn, an engineer overseeing the testing of fuel pumps for a company receives instructions to curtail the testing process. The engineer's ethical concern is that he or she will not be able to ensure the life expectancy of the pumps relied on by the company's customers.

From the latter part of the nineteenth century, engineering in the United States organized as a profession, creating engineering professional societies and promulgating technical and ethical standards. The latter incorporate ordinary morality, for example, in requiring engineers to "issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner." They include special standards, for instance, the canon requiring engineers to act "for each employer or client as faithful agents and avoid conflicts of interest." (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology [ABET] 1977, p. 1).

In the ferment of the mid-1970s engineering societies revised their codes of ethics. Unsatisfied with a commitment to "due regard" or "proper regard" for the public, almost all the societies adopted as the first canon, "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties" (Florman 1986, p. 7778).

A great majority of engineers are employees of large business organizations where they do not easily acquire authority or visibility. Still, through their professional societies, engineers profess a commitment to serve society and continue to promulgate technical and ethical standards supporting that commitment. Ethical standards articulate values underlying the technical standards, the core valuessafety, reliability, and efficiencythat are also embedded in routines of engineering practice.

The engineering workplace features complexities and intricacies of large, generally hierarchical organizations. The role of engineers in business and in other organizations is elastic. They manage a range of responsibilities from narrowly technical to managerial and, while often subordinate to managers, must cooperate with them in decision making. The major ethical challenge for engineers is to deal with these complexities (including cost constraints) as employees bound by the special ethical standards of a profession as well as by moral rules. For example, they must find ethically justified, practical options for coping with instructions to curtail testing or to drastically revise public statements.

Adding to the complexity of the engineering workplace is the legal environment, including contracts, the federal and state regulatory systems for health and safety, product liability litigation, and common-law adjudication involving expert witnesses. The legal framework both constrains engineers and generates questions about additional ethical responsibilities, for example, about the extent of their responsibilities to help formulate or implement government standards to control pollution.

Individual engineers' ethical obligations derive from requirements of morality, the obligation of everyone to exercise a reasonable standard of care, the special standards of the profession, and the duties they have as employees. All these ethical imperatives inform the exercise of practical judgment by engineers, the professionals who determine specifications for the design, development, testing, operation, maintenance, and disposal of technological products and systems.

Regarding concerns about safety, for instance, they have a duty to protect the public while avoiding injury to their employers. Engineers are thus subject to tension between the duty of loyalty to the employer (complicated by having to distinguish between interests of the company and what managers want) and the obligation to hold public safety paramount. An engineer's judgment that his or her company's environmentally damaging spill should be reported to the regulatory agency might encounter resistance challenging his or her loyalty. In handling the reporting obligation, the engineer must take due care to avoid injury to the company and to a manager perhaps more concerned with self-protection than other interests.

The moral status of loyalty and the idea of critical loyalty are central in research and teaching. Discussion focuses on a range of ways to express independent judgment, from disagreement and dissent to the extreme of whistle-blowing. Dissent, such as resisting assignment to a particular project out of safety concerns, may invoke the code of ethics as support. Disagreement and dissent require tact and sensitivity so as not to cause avoidable opposition or injury.

Whistle-blowing, that is, transmitting information outside normal channels, ruptures relationships and requires justification that trumps the harm it causes. Engineers blocked from obtaining images to assess the impact of foam debris on the space shuttle Columbia had justification for blowing the whistle. To help engineers perform responsibly without resorting to extreme measures, research and teaching focus on impediments to responsible conduct in organizations, for example, fear, deference to authority, and "group think."

The space shuttle Challenger disaster revealed another impediment: normalized deviance (Vaughan 1996). It is a form of complacency, the phenomenon of gradually accepting certain anomalous, originally unexpected occurrences that portend serious harm. As the occurrences continue without leading to actual serious harm, they come to be viewed as normal. Strategies to counter this relaxation of vigilance and other impediments to responsibility are current research subjects. This is preventive ethics, catching engineering ethics problems early before they ripen into disasters.

Canon one, the code provision that enjoins engineers to "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public," (ABET 1977, p. 1) requires interpretation. Analysis begins with the question: Who is the public? Should the public include, for example, the crew on the Columbia, workers within the engineering workplace, or everyone who might be affected by an engineering product?

Michael Davis (1998) points out the need to determine a characteristic that identifies the relevant public, that is, the vulnerable parties who may be harmed by engineers' work. He suggests identifying members of the public by their ignorance and consequent helplessness in the face of dangers from engineers' work. On this interpretation, members of the Columbia crew, unaware of the extent of damage from the break off of insulation and therefore helpless to do anything about their perilous situation, were members of the public.

Analysis continues by asking: How can engineers translate the paramountcy provision into guidelines that are less vague? Kenneth Alpern (1983) draws attention to the importance of a standard or principle of due care that holds for everyone. Its corollary, a standard of care proportionate to the magnitude of harm and "the centrality of one's role" in producing the harm, further reduces the vagueness for engineers.

Mindful that this principle can demand moral heroism and that few people are capable of heroism, engineering ethics specialists focus on sources of support for engineers and on constructing options for responsible problem solving within the capacities of most people. In constructing options for resolving ethics problems, engineers use methods resembling those for solving design problems (Whitbeck 1996).

Further analysis of the paramountcy provision addresses another problem: managers typically balance or trade off factors, such as cost, schedule, marketing, and safety. In their deliberations, managers include safety as a factor, but only as one factor that, like others, may have to be sacrificed. Because safety is a priority for engineers, they cannot treat safety in that way. Philosophers suggest interpreting canon one as requiring engineers to meet a threshold of safety before taking a balancing approach (Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins 2005). This interpretation can help engineers hold their ground with managers.

Employers' demands for secrecy and confidentiality give rise to a cluster of specific issues concerning disclosure and withholding of information and protection of intellectual property, including trade secrets and patents. Societal interests in open circulation of knowledge (and propagation of new technology) and engineers' interests in using their knowledge to advance their careers come into conflict with the interests of firms in protecting information perceived to be economically valuable.

Employment contracts generate ethical responsibilities for engineers and their employers and figure in the balancing necessary to reconcile these interests. These contracts commonly require engineers to keep information confidential even after moving to another company. Such contracts make employers responsible for clearly specifying information to be kept confidential over a reasonable period of time. Engineers become responsible for taking due care at a new job to protect specified information for an appropriately limited time. Drawing such lines between privately owned knowledge and public knowledge is an important practical issue for engineers as well as a subject for analysis in engineering ethics.

Among problems that readily arise for engineers is conflict of interest (COI). While specifying vendors, suppliers, contractors, materials, and components, engineers must be alert to affiliations, investments, and associations they have that can threaten the reliability of their engineering judgment. Philosophical investigation has explicated the concept of COI, the harm of COI, and appropriate responses for dealing with COI. Disclosure of the investment or affiliation that threatens reliable judgment is essential to avoid deceiving and betraying the party relying on professional judgment.

Because of the impact of engineers' work and the priority of safety, it is essential for engineers to acquire a sophisticated understanding of risk and approaches to dealing with risks to humans, other creatures, and the environment. One approach to fostering such understanding is to provide engineers an overview of important perspectives on risk and critical discussion of cost-benefit analysis.

Ethics specialists consider several perspectives alongside one another, those of risk experts (specialists in defining and assessing risks, usually relying on cost-benefit analysis), government regulators, and lay people. It is part of the engineering approach to provide knowledge about risks, for example, concentrations of pollutants in water. The engineering perspective also includes an understanding of cost-benefit analysis and its limitations, an orientation toward protecting the public (similar to, but not the same as that of the government regulator), and an appreciation of lay attitudes toward risks (e.g., those imposed as contrasted with those voluntarily assumed).

Accommodating lay attitudes introduces issues associated with informed consent, that is, explicit acceptance of risks by affected parties. Recognizing that many situations in engineering make it impractical to obtain voluntary informed consent, ethics analysis considers substitutes and compensatory policies. This and other engineering ethics topics encompass problems that arise for individual practitioners but point toward engineering responsibilities of the profession as a whole because they call on the collective capabilities of the profession.

Accordingly, engineers' responsibilities regarding the environment have begun to engage U.S. engineering societies as well as ethics specialists. Some societies have added provisions to their codes of ethics that provide a distinct place in decision making for attention to environmental implications.

Engineers work increasingly in an international environment. A decision-making situation may bring into play engineering standards and government regulatory standards of different countries. The tasks of finding common ground and making adjustments among differing standards consistent with morality and the paramountcy provision are appropriate responsibilities for the profession through its professional societies. For engineering ethics research, addressing international variations in standards is an important task. Advances in international law, which have been prompted by economic globalization, may encourage such research.

As radically innovative technologies have followed rapidly one after another, especially in the decades since World War II, issues associated with emerging technologies have come to the forefront. For individuals and the profession as whole, emerging technologies present issues not only regarding potential risks but also regarding the role of engineers (and the technologies they help create) in shaping the physical, social, and cultural world.

See also Duty; Ethics and Economics.


Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Code of Ethics of Engineers. 1977. Available from

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Vivian Weil (2005)