Cicero's Creed

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Lawyer, author, statesman, and scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.) is considered Rome's greatest orator. His philosophical writings are impressive. In vocabulary alone, Cicero gave Rome the words quality, individual, moral, definition, comprehension, and infinity (Everitt 2001). Also attributed to him is Cicero's Creed, called the oldest statement of engineering ethics specifically, "Salus populi suprema est lex," or "the safety of the public shall be the[ir] highest law" (Broome 1986), which is comparable in stature to medicine's "primum non nocere" ("first, do no harm," attributed to Hippocrates, but found in his Epidemics rather than his Oath). Varying versions of Cicero's Creed have been incorporated into each of the major engineering professional organizations' codes (Martin and Schinzinger 2005). As such, it has served as a common reference point for contemporary engineers navigating the moral boundaries of their work.

As with "first, do no harm," however, the practicality of applying Cicero's Creed came into question during the 1980s. Just as the new field of bioethics scrutinized how physicians made ethical decisions and asked what role (if any) the public had in this process (Veatch 1981), three contending criticisms challenged Cicero's Creed. The contractarian code denied any implied or explicit contract between engineers and the public and posited that social contracts were "abstract, arbitrary, and absent of authority." The only operative contract was one between professional engineers and their employers. The personal-judgment imperative maintained that the interests of business and government never conflict with the interests of the public. Engineers, de facto, then represent the public in their safety decisions. The third criticism defined engineering as consisting of "theories for changing the physical world before all relevant scientific facts are in." Hence, engineering could never be totally risk-free or absolutely safe (Broome 1986).

Rosa Pinkus, et al. (1997) incorporated these disparate views into a framework for gauging the ethical practice of both the individual and the organization. It consists of three principles: competence, responsibility, and Cicero's Creed II. Adding specificity to the historic code, Cicero's Creed II suggests that the "ethical engineer should be cognizant of, sensitive to, and strive to avoid the potential for harm and opt for doing good." Operationalizing this implies understanding the risk and failure characteristics of the product or process at hand. Further, "the ethical organization manages technology so as not to betray the public trust," thus introducing the concept of stewardship for public resources that embodied the intent of Cicero's original ethic. Hence, the ethical engineer must have the "competence" to assess risk and should exercise the "responsibility" to communicate it when it is known.

The longevity of Cicero's Creed is a tribute to the rhetorical power and wisdom of its originator. When Cicero coined the phrase, "the safety of the people shall be their highest law," rather than engineers, he was referring to newly appointed "praetors, judges, and consuls" who were, in turn, directed to decide civil cases in the Roman Empire. However, as noted by Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins (2004, p. 12), it was not until 1947, when the engineers' council for professional development issued the first major code proclaiming that engineers "will have due regard for the safety and health of the public." Until then, engineers were to consider the protection of their clients or employers interests as their highest professional obligation.

Hence one can conjecture that around this time some engineers began to refer to the safety of the public as "Cicero's Creed." Perhaps it was first used in a popular speech or article and caught on as a professional ethic. Mistaken context aside, when balanced within the cost and schedule of completing a project, Cicero's Creed can provide direction for weighing the competing ethical demands that are built into the profession of engineering.


SEE ALSO Codes of Ethics;Engineering Ethics.


Broome, Taft H., Jr. (1986). "Ethics: The Slippery Ethics of Engineering." Washington Post, December 28, p. D3.

Cicero, M. T. De Legibus III, trans. C.W. Keyes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Everitt, Anthony. (2001). Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician. New York: Random House.

Harris, Charles E., Jr.; Michael S. Pritchard; and Michael J. Rabins. (2004). Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Martin, Mike W., and Roland Schinzinger. (2005). Ethics in Engineering, 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Pinkus, Rosa Lynn; Larry J. Shuman; Norman P. Hummon; and Harvey Wolfe. (1997). Engineering Ethics: Balancing Cost, Schedule, and Risk—Lessons Learned from the Space Shuttle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Veatch, Robert A. (1981). A Theory of Medical Ethics. New York: Basic Books.


Augustine, Norman R. (2002). "Ethics and the Second Law of Thermodynamics." The Bridge 32(3). Available from