Engineering Ethics: Europe

views updated

Engineering Ethics: EUROPE

In most European countries engineering ethics is increasingly conceived as an interdisciplinary reflection at the crossroads of professional ethics, the human and social sciences, and the philosophy of technology (especially the ethics of technology). This is in marked contrast with the situation in the United States, where engineering ethics is a form of professional ethics.

Europe nevertheless includes countries with diverse cultural, juridical, professional, and educational traditions of engineering, something that has promoted efforts within the European Union to harmonize technical education, including its nontechnical requirements in the humanities, social sciences, and professional ethics. European integration has further required the development of professional guidelines for the mutual recognition of diplomas and titles. Thus any comparison between engineering ethics in Europe and in the United States cannot ignore a diversity of professional traditions. Engineering ethics in Europe requires a contextualist approach referencing the perceptions of the various engineers who formulate them.

Engineering Education: British versus Continental Models

Histories of engineering education frequently begin with France, ignoring that the first engineering schools in the world were the Moscow School for Military Engineers (established 1698) and the Apprenticeship School for Civil and Military Engineers (founded in Prague in 1707). As for Western Europe, from its commonly accepted origination with the Bureau des dessinateurs du roi (Bureau of the King's Draftsmen), established in France in 1744 (and the forerunner of l'École royale des ponts et chaussées, or Royal School of Bridges and Roads, founded in 1747), it is still a long way to engineering education as known in the twenty-first century, with its strong theoretical and practical content. The role of the bureau was primarily to provide a tutorial to guide new recruits in their first projects.

The creation of the Bureau des dessinateurs du roi was followed by l'École du génie de Mézières (School of Military Engineering, Mézières) in 1748 and l'École royale des mines (Royal School of Mines) in 1783. If these are among the oldest engineering schools in Western Europe, the one that has most influenced the engineering educational system is l'École polytechnique. The polytechnique was founded in 1794, one year after the dissolution of the French universities, and soon after the failure of the school at Mezières, from which it borrowed the idea of a formal curriculum, rather than imitating the ancien régime tutorship in place at l'École royale des ponts et chaussées. The polytechnique's formalized theoretical curriculum with its emphasis on mathematics became an influential model for engineering education throughout France and beyond. It also contributed to the establishment of a high scientific and technical education outside university.

Engineering in the United Kingdom adopted a different approach and only later established a structured education for engineers. Engineering degrees were not offered in the United Kingdom until 1838, when King's College, London, began to teach civil engineering. Indeed, Oxford and Cambridge Universities did not offer engineering degrees until the first decade of the twentieth century. Instead, British engineers were for a long time given occupational training exclusively in workshops; apprenticeship promotion is what truly integrated them into their peer group. For this same reason, Britain is the uncontested birthplace of industrial technology. These engineers were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution and played a major role in the development of both the steam engine and its uses.

It is also noteworthy that because of their habit of meeting in clubs in order to exchange ideas and proposals—and above all to capitalize on their experiences and projects—these British engineers prepared the ground for professional engineering organizations well before their Continental colleagues. It may also be significant that when engineering degrees did begin to be offered in the United Kingdom this was done not in independent institutions but in universities that already offered degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.

Professional Engineering Associations in Europe

With regard to France, historians of the engineering profession often cite the long existence of a particular organized group of engineers. Indeed, since 1676 there existed in France a Corps du génie (Engineering Corps) that was in fact a military organization. This particularly early institutionalization thus had little to do with those professional organizations that arose later in the majority of countries. The primary difference is that engineers of the Corps du génie were exclusively engineers of the state, that is, royal functionaries. Because of this state service the Corps du génie did not constitute a truly free organization of professionals, such as was established by "civil" engineers in Great Britain as an outgrowth of the previously mentioned informal clubs, notably the Society of Civil Engineers (founded 1771), later renamed "Smeatonians" after John Smeaton (1724–1792), one of its original members. Another of these societies, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) was founded in 1818 by a small group of young engineers. In 1828, it obtained a royal charter and became a leader in the profession, with 80,000 members in the early twenty-first century.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, several European countries followed the British model, beginning with France (the Société des ingénieurs civils de France, founded in 1848), Germany (Verein Deutscher Ingenieure [Association of German Engineers], or VDI, 1856), and Spain (Asociación de ingenieros industriales [Association of Industrial Engineers], 1861). But while the prestigious British Institution of Civil Engineers was a club for practitioners, the French, German, and Spanish organizations were all created by a group of certified engineers coming from a single school in each country: the l'École centrale des arts et manufactures de Paris (Central School of Arts and Manufacturing in Paris), Berlin Gewerbeinstitut (Berlin Technical Institute), and the Escuela de ingenieros industriales de Madrid (School of Industrial Engineers in Madrid), respectively. Each association was only later open to qualified persons from other institutions or even to autodidacts (the self-taught).

By contrast, in the United Kingdom there still exist no institutions of higher education devoted exclusively to engineering such as those found on the Continent. The closest approximations are the British "polytechnics," founded in the mid-twentieth century, which include the education of technicians as well as engineers. Great Britain is also different from its neighbors in regard to another important point: It is the only European country in which the engineering associations were for a long time given a monopoly over designating who was an engineer and who was not. Since the 1920s this power has been limited to the power of the ICE to determine the legitimacy of the title "chartered engineer."

From Professional Organizations to Professional Ethics

This historical review shows that the early institutionalization of engineering education did not directly lead to the early establishment of professional engineering organizations. Instead, it was the autonomous organization of practitioners that promoted the initial affirmation of a collective identity and the formalization of a collective moral framework for professional conduct. It is not therefore by chance that the first code of professional ethics written by and for engineers was formulated in Great Britain.

Indeed, historians of the professions commonly consider the "professional code of conduct" adopted by the ICE in 1910 as the model for engineering ethics codes first in the United States and subsequently throughout the world. In 1911 the American Institute of Consulting Engineers became the first U.S. association of engineers to adopt a code of ethics, a code composed of five articles strongly inspired by that of the British ICE, with seven supplementary articles.

On the Continent again, in 1604 in France, even prior to the creation of the Corps du génie in 1676, the prime minister of King Henry IV (1553–1610), who was also superintendent of fortifications, proclaimed a "Great Regulation" for all royal engineers. This set of directives and general rules was applied until the end of the seventeenth century, but had more the character of administrative law than of a code of professional ethics.

With regard to contemporary codes of professional ethics in Europe, their development is not the same in every country and they are much less important than in North America. Generally speaking, the presence of professional codes of ethics for engineers is stronger in those countries more influenced by Anglo-American cultural models, as is equally true throughout the rest of the world. Indeed, it is striking to note that when the Fédération européenne d'associations nationales d'ingénieurs (European Federation of National Engineering Associations, created in 1951) decided during the 1990s to formulate a code of ethics, it began by studying documents coming exclusively from anglophone countries (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) rather than the few existing European codes, which were little known.

Among the little-known European codelike documents were three from Scandinavia and one from Germany. The Scandinavian documents were a "Code of Honor" from the Samlar Sveriges Ingenjörer (Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers), first adopted in 1929 and revised in 1988; a similar "Code of Honor" of the Tekniska Föreningen i Finland (Association of Swedish-Speaking Engineers in Finland) from 1966; and an "Ethical Code for Members of the Norwegian Civil Engineers Association" from 1970. In 1950 the VDI had adopted the "Engineer's Confession," which was more a quasi-religious statement than a professional code.

The European situation thus remains different from that of the United States, where the profusion of codes and of successive revisions within the different branches of the profession constituted a first fundamental phase of engineering ethics. This internalist phase ended during the 1970s, when ethical reflection began to take into account considerations external to the profession and thus challenged a hierarchy of values in which the public interest sometimes gave way to professional prestige. In Europe, however, the public interest has from the beginning been more pronounced, although in a different way than in countries that have had to deal with an ethos of individualism and competition influenced more strongly by American culture.

Engineering Ethics in Twenty-First-Century Europe

Contrary to the situation in the United States, contemporary European reflection on engineering ethics did not arise from a will to renew an existing and explicit reflection at the heart of the profession, and to open it to other actors such as scholars and academics. In the United States engineering ethics found new inspiration in the collaboration among engineering professionals, on one side, and philosophers, historians, and more recently social scientists, on the other. But in Europe engineering ethics was not heir to a prior internalist approach. Instead, its heritage was more that of a professional conscience intuitively sensitive to social responsibilities and to legal expectations for professional conduct associated with the Code Napoléon (the first modern legal code of France, promulgated by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1804).

Certainly, there existed at the end of the twentieth century, in some European countries, some more or less obsolete ethical codes. But there was no formalized ethical reflection, with one exception. In Germany, World War II led engineers to a painful crisis of conscience over the use of science and technology in the service of a monstrous program, and the postwar period saw a strong engagement of the VDI in reflection on the proper ends of technology and the moral responsibility of engineers. But even in Germany no formal code of ethics existed until 2001.

In France, a country with a long engineering tradition, the first ethics code dates back only to 1997, with a 2001 revision. But the two versions of this code, especially the first, are more French adaptations of the North American manner of formulating an ethical framework. A different dynamic, independent from that of the formulation of these initial codes, began in the 1990s to introduce ethical reflection into engineering education in courses (often under different names) dealing with the questions relevant to engineering ethics—courses on philosophy, on epistemology, and on the sociology of sciences and technologies, aroused by contemporary intellectual and social debates.

It is thus not surprising that the first European handbook on engineering ethics, Technology and Ethics (2001), which was the product of a team of thirty-seven researchers from ten different European countries, adopted an approach different from U.S. textbooks on the same topic. This volume, which provides one perspective on the state of ethical reflection in European engineering practice, distinguishes three levels of analysis. The first deals with the microsocial level and concerns ethical problems encountered by individual engineers (dilemmas and cases of conscience). The second focuses on the mesosocial level, where the technical systems and institutions are in competition. A third emphasizes the macrosocial level, and therefore technical development in general as a societal question.

Whereas textbooks from the United States are often centered on a code of professional ethics for the profession—that is, on the roles, responsibilities, decisions, and attitudes of engineers individually confronted by ethical dilemmas—Technology and Ethics situates this dimension within a more comprehensive framework. To some extent it makes engineering ethics more complex by situating it within the institutional and social context in which engineers participate with other actors (scientists, entrepreneurs, end users, and others) in the development of technologies. At the same time it strives to be more realistic and place less emphasis on individual moral heroism as the best response to ethical problems.

The contextualist approach taken here suggests two sets of questions. First, engineering ethics in Europe may be handicapped by the absence of strong and dynamic professional organizations. This weakness is partially compensated by the growing internationalization of technological universities and professional organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), and others. But what is their influence with respect to the large, multinational corporations that employ the great majority of engineers? Is a collaboration possible with business ethics?

Second, the freshness of European ethical reflection has permitted it to adapt more rapidly to questions posed by those engineers who develop and maintain the new technological systems (within computer, nuclear, and biotechnological engineering). Engineers are indeed only one of several groups of agents who must articulate and address within their fields the new social and societal questions posed by the development of these techniques. On this point a collaboration with the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) studies movement is greatly desirable.


SEE ALSO Tradeoffs.


Didier, Christelle. (1999). "Engineering Ethics in France: A Historical Perspective." Technology in Society 21(4): 471–486.

Goujon, Philippe, and Bertrand Hériard Dubreuil, eds. (2001). Technology and Ethics: A European Quest for Responsible Engineering. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters. The first textbook incorporating an interdisciplinary European perspective.

Grelon, André, ed. (1986). Les ingénieurs de la crise: Titre et profession entre les deux guerres [The engineers of crisis: Title and profession between the two wars]. Paris: Editions de l'École des hautes études en sciences sociales. A basic study of the engineering profession in France.

Ropohl, Günter. (1996). Ethik und Technikbewertung [Ethics and technical value]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. The first engineering ethics textbook in Germany.