Engineering Ethics: Overview

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Engineering Ethics: OVERVIEW

Engineering ethics is concerned with the ethical responsibilities of engineers, both as individual practitioners and organizational employees, and as members of a profession with obligations to the public. The issues in engineering ethics range from micro-level questions about the everyday practice of individual engineers to macro-level questions about the effects of technology on society (Herkert 2001). Because engineers are the primary creators of science-based technology, engineering ethics is one of the most important intersections between science, technology, and ethics.

Development of Engineering and Engineering Ethics

Compared to the clergy, law, and medicine, engineering is a relatively young profession, having acquired something like its present form in France in the eighteenth century. In the United States, the United States Military Academy at West Point graduated its first engineers in 1817. The first private engineering college in the United States was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1823. By the mid-nineteenth century, the land grant colleges in the United States had programs in civil engineering. In 1850, the first year the United States census counted engineers, only one in 10,000 persons identified themselves as engineers (for 2,000 total). By 1900, however, the numbers were increasing dramatically and the fields of engineering multiplying because of new discoveries and inventions in electricity, power generation, chemical processing, automobile development, and flight. The emerging large corporations also required increasing numbers of engineers. At the end of the twentieth century, about one in one hundred Americans was an engineer (Davis 1998).

Codes of ethics appeared in England in the middle of the nineteenth century and in the United States early in the twentieth century. In 1912 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) proposed to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) that a code for all three societies be constructed. The attempt was unsuccessful due to differences in the disciplines and their different relationships to business. The societies agreed that a code of ethics was desirable, and each society wrote its own. Not surprisingly, the codes had many similarities (Layton 1986).

Early codes focused on such issues as limiting professional advertising, protecting small businesses and consulting firms from underbidding, and the primacy of the obligation of engineers to their clients and employers. After several decades of relative neglect of the codes, a major change occurred in 1974, when the Engineers' Council for Professional Development (ECPD) adopted a new code of ethics that held that the paramount obligation of engineers was to the health, welfare, and safety of the public. Virtually all engineering codes of the early twenty-first century identify this as the primary obligation of engineers, not the obligation to clients and employers.

The emergence of engineering ethics as an academic subject also began in the 1970s. From this period to the present, there has been a growing emphasis on including engineering ethics in some form in the engineering curriculum. The emergence and continuing growth of this new discipline is due to a number of factors. One is a series of high-profile disasters, such as the problems of the Ford Pinto and the crash of the DC-10 outside Orly Field in Paris in 1974. In the intervening years, such events as the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters have reinforced the need for engineers to be both technically competent and ethically responsible.

In 1985, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET, Inc.), which accredits engineering colleges, reached a decision to require engineering programs to provide students with "an understanding of the ethical characteristics of the engineering profession and practice," supplying still more impetus to the development of engineering ethics. The ABET 2000 requirements were even more specific with regard to the ethics dimension of engineering education, requiring engineering graduates to have not only an understanding of ethical and professional issues related to the practice of engineering, but also an understanding of the impact of engineering on larger social issues.

Finally, the increased emphasis on ethics in large business organizations, where most engineers work, has also reinforced the importance of engineering ethics. Ethics codes have proliferated in business organizations, as has the creation of "ethics officers" to interpret and implement the codes. In 1992 the Ethics Officers Association (EOA) was founded. The organization had almost 900 organizations as members at the beginning of its second decade. Business organizations may increasingly expect engineers to have some knowledge and sophistication in the area of ethics and professionalism.

In order to promote the development of the emerging field of engineering ethics and to develop material for classroom use, in the late 1970s both the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a series of workshops to develop teaching materials and provide pedagogical advice for faculty who wanted to introduce engineering students to ethics. Led by Robert Baum and Vivian Weil, these workshops brought together engineering faculty and ethics teachers. One early fruit of these collaborations was the first edition of the textbook Ethics in Engineering (1996) by philosopher Mike Martin and engineer Roland Schinzinger, who came as a team to Baum's NEH workshop.

Because much of the impetus for the development of engineering ethics as an academic area came from the need for educational materials, some early publications focused on teaching. For example, Robert Baum's monograph, Ethics and Engineering (1983) included a statement of the goals of ethics education endorsed by a large group of educators across the curriculum who, sponsored by the Hastings Center, met over a three-year period to discuss the goals of ethics instruction in higher education. Adapted to each academic area, the five goals were:

  1. to stimulate the moral imagination of students;
  2. to help students recognize ethical issues;
  3. to help students analyze key moral concepts and principles;
  4. to stimulate a sense of moral responsibility; and
  5. to help students deal constructively with moral ambiguity and disagreement.

Case studies have proven one of the most popular and effective ways of pursuing these goals. Since its early support of Vivian Weil's workshop, the NSF has consistently funded engineering ethics projects, particularly those designed to develop case studies for classroom use. In addition to Martin and Schinzinger, the first editions of a number of engineering ethics textbooks followed Baum's monograph. There was Unger (1994), Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins (2000), Whitbeck (1998), and Fleddermann (1999). Baum and Flores (1983), Schaub and Pavlovic (1983), Johnson (1991), and Vesilind and Gunn (1998) have published anthologies in engineering ethics, and Davis (1998) and Cook (2003) have published single-authored texts on aspects of engineering ethics.

Articles on engineering ethics began appearing frequently in engineering periodicals and philosophical journals such as Business and Professional Ethics and Professional Ethics. In 1995 Science and Engineering Ethics, a periodical that regularly publishes articles across a wide spectrum of issues in engineering ethics, began publication. With the support of NSF, Caroline Whitbeck initiated the Online Center for Ethics in Science and Engineering, which includes diverse resources for engineering ethics educators.

Although the emergence of engineering ethics as an academic area is especially evident in the United States, serious interest is by no means confined to it. The editorial board of Science and Engineering Ethics is represented by Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Poland, Romania, Italy, Norway, France, Belgium, Sweden, and Japan, and it has had guest editors from the Netherlands. European educators have collaborated to produce a volume edited by Philippe Goujan and Bertrand Heriard Dubreuil (2001). The Martin and Schinzinger and Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins texts have been translated into Japanese. Shuzo Nakamura has also published an original textbook in Japanese, Practical Engineering Ethics (2003).

The rise of engineering ethics is not without its critics. Engineer Samuel Florman agrees that engineers should avoid being inaccurate, careless, or inattentive. For him, engineering ethics is about reliability; people count on engineers to do their work well and not make mistakes. However, cautions Florman, "We do not leave it to our soldiers to determine when we should have war or peace. Nor do we leave it to our judges to write our laws. Why, then, should we want our engineers to decide the uses to which we put our technology?" (Florman 1983, p. 332). Responses to Florman typically claim that engineers are in the best position to inform the public about the possible uses and likely consequences of technology, to alert employers and (if necessary) the public of defects and possible disasters associated with technology, to participate in the setting of engineering standards, and to help investigate problems, such as the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, or the collapse of the World Trade Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. This does not necessarily mean that it should be left to engineers to decide all the uses for a technology. It only means that responsible decisions require information that engineers are in the best position to provide.

Topics in Engineering Ethics

Engineering experience as well as public responses to technological developments to which engineers contribute raise topics in engineering ethics. A review of key issues easily begins with the codes of ethics of professional engineering societies, which attempt to identify the major areas of ethical concern for engineers. Reflection on the nature and function of the codes themselves has itself produced considerable discussion. Some writers argue that the codes are coercive and should therefore be thought of as codes of conduct rather than codes of ethics (Ladd 1991, Luegenbiehl 1991). Others think of codes of ethics as guides and expressions of commitment that enable engineers, their clients, and the public to know what to expect rather than instruments of coercion (Davis 1998, Unger 1994). Even so, there are issues about the range of applicability of codes. Professional societies adopt engineering codes of ethics, but most engineers do not belong to professional societies. Do the standards, rules, principles, and ideals contained in the codes still apply to them?

A related issue is professional registration. Most U.S. engineers do not have the Professional Engineer (P.E.) license. This means that most engineers cannot cite the possibility of losing their P.E. registration as a way to resist pressures to engage in unethical conduct. There is considerable resistance in the engineering profession to making the P.E. license mandatory. Should the requirements for engineering registration be changed to make licensure more acceptable to most engineers? Short of P.E. registration, are there other ways of ensuring quality in engineering work and protecting engineers from undue pressure to be unethical?

As has already been noted, prior to the 1970s most engineering codes of ethics held that the first obligation of an engineer is loyalty to a client or employer. The codes said little about obligations to the public. By the turn of the twenty-first century, most codes gave pride of place to the so-called paramountcy clause, which requires engineers to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. However, there has been surprisingly little discussion of what, specifically, this requires engineers to do. Most attention has focused on whether whistle-blowing is either morally required, or at least permissible, when violations of the paramountcy clause are observed (DeGeorge 1981, James 1995, Davis 1998).

The issue of whistle-blowing has been central to some classic cases in engineering ethics, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit case (Anderson, Perucci, Schendel et al. 1980), the DC-10 case (Fielder and Birsch 1992) and, above all, the Challenger case (Boisjoly 1991, Vaughn 1996). Important as such cases are, however, they touch on only one aspect of engineers' responsibility for public safety, health, and welfare. Whistle-blowing typically occurs only when something bad is imminent or has already occurred. The codes have little, if anything, to say about engineers' attempting to anticipate and resolve problems before they get out of hand. This deficiency is also reflected in the engineering ethics literature, which tends to focus on wrongdoing and its prevention, rather than on steps that should be taken to promote public safety, health, and welfare.

Questions involving conflicts of interest produce dilemmas for engineers, especially those in private practice (Davis 1998). A conflict of interest in the professions is a situation in which some professional or personal interest threatens to interfere with professional judgment, rendering that judgment less trustworthy than it might otherwise be. One of the topics that often arises in discussions of conflicts of interest is accepting gifts and bribes. An offer of a bribe creates a conflict of interest, because it may corrupt professional judgment, even when rejected. While it may be easy to say that accepting bribes is unethical, offers of gifts and favors from vendors can produce more subtle dilemmas. Such offers are likely to pose the first ethical issues that engineers face in their professional careers. These issues lend themselves especially well to treatment by the method of casuistry. For example, a case where accepting a gift from a vendor would usually be considered permissible (such as accepting a cheap plastic pen) and a case where accepting a gift from a vendor would usually be considered impermissible (such as accepting a gift worth several thousand dollars) can be compared with a more difficult case. By determining whether the case in question is more analogous to the permissible or impermissible case, the engineer can decide on the moral status of the questionable case (Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins 2000). Of course, identifying legitimate and illegitimate cases will in part be guided by the particular culture in which one is working.

The issue of confidentiality arises most commonly for engineers in private practice (Armstrong 1994). Although engineers ordinarily owe strong obligations of confidentiality to clients, the primacy of the obligation to the safety, health, and welfare of the public can be overriding in some situations. Suppose an engineer is hired by a client to assess the structural soundness of a building and finds fundamental flaws that threaten the safety of the present occupants. The engineer may be obligated to violate engineer/client confidentiality in order to inform authorities or tenants of the danger. Again, the method of casuistry can be used effectively to deal with troublesome cases of confidentiality.

Computer ethics is a rapidly developing area of interest, raising a host of questions, such as the control of pornography and spam, privacy, intellectual property rights, the legitimacy of sending unsolicited and unwanted cookies, the proper uses of encryption, selling monitoring software to totalitarian states, the proper uses of Social Security numbers, national ID cards, identity theft, whether Internet sites for making bombs or holocaust denial should be allowed, the legitimacy of downloading music, and software piracy. Interesting conceptual issues can be raised about the status of such entities as computer programs. Are they more like books, where copyright would be the appropriate form of protection, or like inventions, where patents would be the more appropriate form of protection? (Johnson 2000, Johnson and Nissenbaum 1995).

Engineers have more effect on the environment than any other professional group; yet engineers are only gradually assuming environmental responsibilities. Provisions relating to engineers' responsibility for the environment appeared only in the codes of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (now ASME International). Vesilund and Gunn (1998) explore a number of religious and philosophical bases for engineers' directly embracing environmental concerns, and Gorman, Mehalik, and Werhane (2000) have published a wide range of case studies that pose environmental challenges for engineers. For those who support the notion that engineers have direct responsibility for the environmental effects of their work, the basis and extent of that responsibility is still under debate. A key question is whether accepting responsibility only in areas where there is a clear threat to the health or well-being of human beings is sufficient, or whether a concern for the environment for its own sake is needed.

Another area where engineering work directly affects the public is in the imposition of risk as a result of technology. Martin and Schinzinger have suggested that engineering work is a kind of social experimentation and, as such, imposes risks on those on whom the "experiment" is performed, namely the public. What is acceptable risk? Who should determine it? Answers to the first question strongly affect answers to the second. Scientists and engineers tend to take a somewhat consequentialist or utilitarian approach. Defining risk as the product of the probability and magnitude of harm, they find a risk acceptable if the potential benefits outweigh the potential harms. Because they believe the public is often irrational and ill-informed about risk, scientists and engineers may be inclined to say that the determination of acceptable risk should be left to them. Representatives of the public, however, tend to link acceptable risk to free and informed consent and the equitable distribution of risks and benefits. This position is more congruent with an approach that emphasizes respect for individual rights (Shrader-Frechette 1985, 1991).

Engineers increasingly have work assignments in host countries with different practices, traditions, and values from an engineer's home country, raising still other issues. What criteria are appropriate in determining when engineers should adopt the values and practices of the host country? For example, when, if ever, is it appropriate to make "grease payments" and to exchange rather substantial gifts with customers and potential customers, where this is commonly practiced? (Harris 2000).

Future Directions

As an academic discipline in an early phase of its evolution, engineering ethics can be expected to show further maturation in every area, but the following areas seem particularly in need of further cultivation and growth.

METHODOLOGY. As in many areas of practical ethics, methodology needs further development. In practical ethics there are at least three different methodologies, each with characteristic strengths and weaknesses. One is to turn to traditional philosophical theories, especially consequentialist or utilitarian and deontologist or person-respecting theories, a "top-down" approach. Traditional ethical theories serve several useful functions in engineering ethics. First, they help identify relevant moral considerations in a dilemma. For example, knowledge of moral theory is useful in identifying the different moral perspectives of scientists and engineers (who often take a consequentialist approach) and the lay public (who often take a deontological approach) with respect to risk, and in confirming that both perspectives have deep and legitimate moral roots.

Second, moral theories often allow one to construct and even predict the arguments that will be made for or against certain policies or courses of action. Suppose one is considering whether there should be strong or weak protections of intellectual property. Utilitarian arguments for strong protections point out that such protections give incentive for technical advancement by insuring that those who are responsible will reap the economic rewards. Utilitarian arguments against strong protections point out that severe restrictions can impede the advance of technology by restricting the flow of information. Arguments based on a respect for persons typically point out that respect for individual rights of the creators of new technology requires that their creations be protected from unauthorized use. These lines of thinking do in fact reflect the discussion in the courts and scholarly literature.

Third, moral theories are often useful in assessing whether an argument has been resolved satisfactorily. If arguments from the two perspectives agree, there is good reason to accept the conclusion. If they disagree, there is a clearer basis for identifying morally relevant differences and determining which arguments are the most persuasive. Despite these advantages, however, many writers and teachers find that theories are often not useful for analysis and resolution of many of the concrete dilemmas that engineers face. Furthermore, engineering students are often not sympathetic to grand theories.

In contrast, a "bottom-up" approach emphasizes the need for careful analysis of the particulars of a given situation and makes much less use of broad moral principles. One version of this approach is the ancient method of casuistry, which has also been revived in medical ethics (Jonsen and Toulmin 1988). As has already been pointed out, paradigms of acceptable (or unacceptable) action are first identified. Then the salient ethical features of the paradigms are compared with those of the case under consideration. The casuist must then determine whether the case in question more closely resembles the paradigm of acceptable behavior or the paradigm of unacceptable behavior. For this method to work effectively, appropriate paradigms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior must be identified and generally accepted by the profession. The critical question is whether this can be done without relying on just the sorts of principles those sympathetic to the top-down approach take as their starting point.

An approach that falls somewhere between the top-down and bottom-up approaches proceeds from what might be called "mid-level" moral rules and principles, such as: "keep your promises and agreements"; "don't cheat"; "don't harm others"; "be truthful"; and "minimize the influence of conflicts of interest." Engineering codes of ethics tend to operate at this level. Questions about the appropriate grounding of such mid-level rules and principles remain, however, as do questions about their application to particular circumstances. If, for example, one asserts that exceptions to the rules or principles are justified as long as a rational person would be willing to have others make the same exception, one must give reasons for taking this position. Do the reasons make reference to principles of a still broader nature, perhaps even general moral theories? Whether all three approaches are useful, or only one, or some other approach such as "virtue ethics," is still a matter of debate.

GOOD WORKS AND CHARACTER. Many of the cases that have driven research and teaching in engineering ethics have dealt with engineering disasters and the responsibilities of engineers to prevent them or respond to them adequately after they have occurred. Some writers, however, have begun to stress the importance of going beyond basic duties to protect the public from the disastrous effects of technology to the duty to promote the public good (Pritchard 1992, 1998). The General Electric (G.E.) engineers who in the 1930s worked together against odds and with relatively little managerial support to develop the sealed-beam headlight exemplified good works. Some writers have stressed the importance of character and personal ideals in motivating such good works (Pritchard 2001, Martin 2002). Physicians who are members of "Physicians Without Borders" and engineers in "Engineers Without Borders" exemplify this kind of activity, but there are many less dramatic examples, such as the G.E. engineers. Many believe that the place of good works and the motivations for them deserve more emphasis in teaching, in research, and in the engineering profession itself.

Taking on responsibilities that go beyond standard job requirements in order to improve public safety is not unusual for engineers. Beyond the efforts of individual engineers or small groups of engineers, professional societies can make important contributions. The rapid emergence of the boiler industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provides an illustration of the constructive role engineers can play in the face of serious risks arising from technological development. Initially ill-understood and without a set of regulations to guide their safe construction and use, boilers frequently exploded, injuring and killing untold numbers of people. Through the efforts of the leadership and dedicated work of a large number of mechanical engineers in the ASME, guidelines and regulations for the construction and safe use of boilers were eventually put in place (Cross 1990).

SOCIAL POLICY ISSUES. Most cases in engineering ethics have focused on the decisions of individual engineers in the context of a particular situation, but the effect of technology on society is often more a function of larger social policy issues—what some have called "macro-issues" as opposed to "micro-issues" (Herkert 2001). The legal and medical professions often make policy statements in areas of their expertise. Engineers, perhaps because of the absence of a unified professional society that can represent the profession to the public, have been much less conspicuous in public debates related to technology. In the light of engineers' responsibility to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, what are their responsibilities (if any) in this area?

Some believe that engineers should step forward to help the public reflect on what future technological development might hold in store—both positive and negative (Fouke 2000). These developments will have an impact on the quality of our environment, the availability and distribution of needed resources, the quality of life that is possible, and the ability to live in peace or conflict. Many of these questions have to do with the appropriate laws and governmental regulations.

Several such issues have already been suggested. Others include the relationship of bio- and related engineering to cloning and genetic engineering. Still others have to do with nanotechnology, national defense, and the use of cell phones. The proper decisions in these areas, as well as the extent to which engineers should have responsibility for making policy statements or informing the public, is a matter that deserves more consideration in the engineering profession and in engineering ethics.

Engineers must also be concerned with codes and laws that are important in protecting the public. The ASME has long been associated with the code governing boilers and pressure vessels. Some engineers have incurred considerable personal risk and liability by promoting requirements for trench boxes to protect workers in deep trenches. Engineers have been involved in promoting improvements in building codes that protect buildings from earthquake damage, damage due to subsoil shifting, and hurricane and wind damage. Yet the extent and nature of engineers' obligations in these areas has received scant attention in the literature of engineering ethics.

CONTEXT OF ENGINEERING DECISIONS. The context in which engineering decisions are made and the implications of this context for ethical analysis are insufficiently explored. Engineers commonly make recommendations and decisions about design and other issues in the context of incomplete knowledge and considerable uncertainty. Often their work is limited to only a part of the total project or product design, and managers, not engineers, sometimes make crucial decisions. Assessments of individual responsibility in such contexts and the proper criteria for making decisions under conditions of uncertainty have yet to be fully analyzed.

ENGINEERS, MANAGERS, AND RIGHTS IN THE WORKPLACE. The relationship of engineers to managers is an especially sensitive area. On the one hand, managers can overrule the decisions of engineers, even when professional issues are at stake. On the other, managers control the jobs of engineers, and many engineers aspire to management positions. Engineers do not want to jeopardize careers by unnecessarily offending managers. Some attention has been devoted to the question of when decisions are properly made by engineers and by managers, and to the professional rights of engineers in the workplace (Harris 2000, Martin 2000). The issues that arise between engineers and managers and how they should be dealt with have been insufficiently studied, however, and no engineering code of ethics has raised the question of the rights of engineers as professionals in the workplace. This is a topic that merits further study in academic engineering ethics and by professional engineering societies.

INTEGRATION WITH OTHER AREAS. Engineering ethics may need further integration with several other areas, such as the philosophy of technology, law, management theory, and the philosophy of engineering. Engineers, as well as teachers and writers in engineering ethics, need to be more aware of the nature of technology and its influence on society, the impact of law on ethical decisions, the relationship of engineering decisions to management decisions, and the important differences between the way engineers and scientists use scientific knowledge. This can help bring ethical analysis more closely in line with engineering practice. How this integration will affect the evaluation of professional decisions is not yet clear, but the need for this integration seems obvious (Mitcham 2003).


SEE ALSO Architectural Ethics;Bay Area Rapid Transit Case;Bioengineering Ethics;Building Codes;Building Destruction and Collapse;Chinese Perspectives:Engineering Ethics;Codes of Ethics;Computer Ethics;Conflict of Interest;Consequentialism;DC-10 Case;Deontology;Design Ethics;Earth Systems Engineering and Management;Engineering Design Ethics;Engineering Method;Environmental Ethics;Ford Pinto Case;Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers;Preventive Engineering;Professional Engineering Organizations;Safety Engineering:Practices;Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accidents;Whistleblowing.


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