Engineering Ethics All Engineers Should Know Right Now

Last Updated on March 8, 2023 by Eng Katepa

 Engineering Ethics can be defined as the set of rules and guidelines that engineers adhere to as a moral obligation to their profession and to the world. Engineering is a professional career that impacts lives.

Therefore, Engineering is a profession, similar to law, medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. A distinguishing feature of all these professions is that their practitioners are highly educated. Engineers are hired by clients (and employers) specifically for their specialized expertise. Generally, the client knows less about the subject than the engineer.

Therefore, engineers have ethical obligations to their clients, because the client often cannot assess the quality of the engineer’s technical advice. These obligations are part of engineering ethics, the set of behavioral standards that all engineers are expected to follow. Engineering ethics are an extension of the ethical standards we all have as human beings.

Engineers have a long tradition of ethical behavior that is widely recognized. Public opinion polls consistently list engineering among the most ethical professions.

1.0 Engineering Ethics: Interaction Rule

Engineers rarely work as lone individuals; we generally work in teams. Further, the products of our labor – automobiles, roads, chemical plants, computers – impact society as a whole. Therefore, we need a set interaction rule outlining the expected set of behavior between the engineer, other individuals, and society as a whole.

The interaction rules go both ways: the engineer has obligations to society (e.g., To be honest, unbiased, hardworking, and careful) and society has obligations to the engineer (e.g., to pay for work performed, to protect intellectual property).

               Interaction rules can be classified as etiquette, law, morals, and ethics.

1.1 Etiquette

Etiquette consists of codes of behavior and courtesy. It addresses such issues as how many forks to place on the dinner table, proper dress at weddings, seating arrangements, and invitations to parties. Although we generally learn these rules from our everyday experiences, they have been codified in various ways.

The rules of etiquette are often arbitrary, and they evolve rapidly. For example, in the past, it was common for women to wear white gloves at formal functions; now this is rarely done. The consequences of violating rules of etiquette generally do not result in jail time. In some cases, etiquette can have important impacts.

Engineering Ethics

Within the engineering world, proper etiquette is manifested by showing proper respect to employers and clients, not embarrassing colleagues, answering the phone in a professional manner, and so forth.

1.2 Law

Law is a system of rules established by authority, society, or custom. Unlike etiquette, violations of the law carry penalties such as imprisonment, fines, community service, death, dismemberment, or banishment. Each society has its own consequences for law violations. In Middle Eastern societies, robbers may have a hand amputated, whereas Western societies favor imprisonment.

Because severe penalties may result from violating the law, the law must be clearly identifiable so everyone can know the boundaries separating legal and illegal behavior. In some cases, this requirement may lead to seemingly arbitrary laws. For example, it is illegal for a 15- year-old to drive in most states in the USA, whereas 16-year-olds can.

This is somewhat arbitrary, as a mature 14-year-old may be capable of driving but an immature 18- year- old may not. Because we have no test to quantify the maturity level needed for maturity. Similarly, the United States specifies 21 as the responsible drinking age. Legal driving ages and drinking ages vary between countries, another indication that the exact age is somewhat arbitrary.

Legal rights are “just claims” given to all humans within a government’s jurisdiction. Most governments grant their citizens rights through a constitution.

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1.3 Morals

Morals are accepted standards of right and wrong that are usually applied to personal behavior. We derive moral standards from our parents, religious backgrounds, friends, and the media (television, movies, books, and music). Many moral codes are recorded in religious writings.

Despite the wide variety of cultures and religions in the world, there is agreement on many moral standards. Most cultures consider murder and stealing to be immoral behavior.

From the view of cultural evolution, we can say there is a strong selective pressure against these behaviors. Societies that did not develop moral codes against these behaviors degenerated into anarchy and disappeared.

For some behaviors, there is no universal agreement as to whether they are immoral. Activities such as gambling, dancing, and consumption of alcohol, meat, coffee, and cigarette are considered immoral in some cultures and religions, but not in others.

From the view of cultural evolution, we can say there is no strong selective pressure against these activities. Societies can maintain viability while tolerating these activities, although some people would argue that a society that bans them is stronger.

Moral rights are just claims that belong to all humans, regardless of whether these rights are recognized by the government. Civilization recognizes that simply being a human endows us with rights; we need not do anything to earn these rights. For example, most of the civilized world believes that because prisoners are human beings, they should not be tortured, regardless of the cruelty of their crime.

1.4 Ethics

Ethics consists of general and abstract concepts of right and wrong behavior culled from philosophy, theology, and professional societies. Because professions draw their members from many cultures and religions, their ethical standards must be secular. Most professional societies have a formal code of ethics to guide their members.

1.4 Comparison of Interaction Rules

From the above discussion, you can see we have a complex web of interaction rules governing our behavior. In some cases, all the interaction rules agree. For example, murder is illegal, immoral, unethical, a violation of human rights, and certainly bad etiquette. In general, lawmakers try to formulate laws that are consistent with morality. However, there can be conflicts between the law and morality for the following reasons:

  • The legal system has not considered the situation.
  • Encoding some moral standards into law should be unenforceable.
  • Laws must be impartial and treat everyone the same.
  • Laws must govern observable behavior.
  • Laws must be enacted by immoral regimes.

2.0 Engineering Ethics: Settling Conflict

A major purpose of interaction rules is to avoid conflicts between members of society. For example, a law tells us on which side of the road to drive. Without it, there would be many lethal conflicts.

Inevitably, human interactions result in conflicts. To settle the conflict, it is necessary to discern its source, which may result from moral issues, conceptual issues, application issues, and factual issues.

2.1 Moral issues

A moral issue is involved if the issue can be resolved only by making a moral decision. For example, when automobiles were first introduced onto roads, a moral decision had to be made on whether limits should be placed on their speeds. One side of the issue would argue that motorists should go as fast as they wish either for their own pleasure or to save time for their business.

The other side of the issue would argue that excessive speeds place other motorists and pedestrians at risk. Clearly, moral considerations favor speed limits, for people’s lives are more valued than the pleasures or business interests of speed-seeking motorists.

2.2 Conceptual Issues

A conceptual issue arises when the morality of an action is agreed upon, but there is uncertainty about how it should be codified into clearly defined law, rule, or policy. For example, society has agreed that innocent motorists should be protected from other motorists who go too fast.

The conceptual issue is: What speed is too fast? To resolve the conceptual issue, too fast may be defined as “highway speeds that exceed 55 mph under favorable driving conditions or speeds likely to result in an accident under adverse driving conditions such as frog, snow, ice, or rain.”

2.3 Application Issues

An application issue results when it is unclear if a particular act violates a law, rule, or policy. Suppose a motorist is going 50mph on a road posted for 55mph. During a light rain, the motorist skids off the road and has an accident. The police officer who arrives at the accident scene must decide if she should cite the motorist for excessive speed; in other words, the application issue is whether the light rain qualifies as an adverse driving condition.

2.4 Factual Issues

A factual issue arises when there is uncertainty about morally relevant facts. It can usually be resolved by acquiring more information. If a police officer stops a motorist by going 60mph in a 55 mph zone and the motorist claims she was going 55mph, the conflict can be resolved by getting more data. For example, the motorist might be able to show that the police officer’s radar gun is out of calibration by 5 mph.

Notice that the preceding issues were arranged from the most abstract to the most concrete. Factual issues are more clearly defined and can generally be resolved regardless of upbringing and cultural background. In contrast, moral issues are often hard to define and their resolution may depend upon upbringing and cultural background. As a result, moral issues can be difficult to resolve. They are addressed by applying moral theories to help the decision-making process.

3.0 Engineering Ethics: Moral Theories

As much as we would like to have a “moral algorithm” that always leads us to the correct answer, such an algorithm does not exist. If it did, we could program computers to make moral and ethical decisions for us. Instead, we have moral theories that provide a framework for making moral and ethical decisions. Sometimes these different theories lead to different answers, but often they lead to the same answer.

To illustrate moral theories, consider this example: A civil engineer works for the city as a building inspector. As a large building is being erected, he is responsible for ensuring it is built according to the city code. (The code protects the public by specifying proper construction materials and methods suitable for a particular city. For example, buildings in San Francisco are constructed according to a code that allows them to withstand earthquakes.) The building inspector is offered a $10,000 bribe to overlook some shoddy construction that would cost the contractor $50,000 to correct. Should the engineer accept the bribe?

It does not take a great moral theorist to determine that the answer is no. Each moral theory arrives at this answer through slightly different paths.

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3.1 Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is a moral theory stating that an act is morally provided you act in your enlightened self-interest. For example, if a mugger were to attack you with a knife and you killed him in self-defense, this would not be immoral.
Societies that structure themselves to harness our natural desire to act in self-interest are more successful. (The recent collapse of communism attests to this.)

However, ethical egoism is not a license for selfish behavior. In the long term, selfish behavior is not
rewarded; selfish people have few friends and are not likely to be promoted in a company. In our building-inspector example, if he were to take the bribe, there is always a chance that he would be caught.

Imprisonment and the loss of his job are certainly not
worth $ 10,000. Therefore, he can argue it is in his self-interest not to take the bribe. Not all ethical and moral issues involve a single individual. In cases where many people or societies are involved, we must consider the broader moral theories of utilitarianism and rights analysis.

3.2 Rights Analysis

According to rights analysis, moral actions are those that equally respect each human being. This is often summarized in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Many cultures use the Golden Rule; however, it does not work in every case. If it were strictly followed, a manager (who himself would not want to be laid off) could not lay off workers even if it were required for the health of the company.

As another example of Golden Rule failure, consider an Italian foreman who likes to tell Polish jokes. His Polish subordinates are offended and complain to him. He counters that he doesn’t mind Italian jokes, and proceeds to tell one.

To solve this problem, we could formulate the Revised Golden Rule: Do unto others as they would have done unto them. The Revised Golden Rule would ask the foreman to put himself in the shoes of his subordinates. Feeling the pain his subordinates experience from the jokes, he would stop his offensive behavior even though he personally is not offended by the jokes. Even the Revised Golden Rule cannot be applied universally. If it were, a judge would be unable to sentence criminals to jail, because the criminals certainly do not want to go to jail.

Because not all rights are equally important, a hierarchy has been established. They are listed below from most important to least important:

  • Right to life, physical integrity, and mental health.
  • Right to maintain one’s level of purposeful fulfillment (e.g., right not to be deceived,
    cheated, robbed, or defamed).
  • Right to increase one’s level of purposeful fulfillment (e.g., right to self-respect, to
    nondiscrimination, and to acquire property)

To perform rights analysis:

  • Determine the target audience.
  • Evaluate the seriousness of the infringement of the rights according to the above list.
  • Choose the course of action that imposes the infringement of the least serious rights.

In our example of the building inspector who was offered a bribe, he would know the correct action to take via rights analysis. His accepting the $10,000 bribe may lead to a more fulfilling life for him, but this is subordinate to the rights of those persons who may be killed if the building collapses.

3.3 Making Moral Decisions When Moral Theories Diverge

In our building-inspector example, we determined that he should not take the bribe regardless of the moral theory that we applied. This is an example of convergence. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, the moral theories do not agree— they diverge.
When applied to society, utilitarianism represents one extreme: Do the best for society regardless of the consequences to the individual. Rights analysis represents another extreme, in which individual rights are protected regardless of the impact on society.
Society must determine how it will strike a balance between these two extremes. To illustrate how moral theories can diverge, consider highway construction.
Engineers decide on the most efficient route between two points that reduces construction costs and allows motorists to travel between population centers efficiently. Often, the most efficient route goes through some homes.

The government will condemn those homes under “eminent domain” and reimburse the homeowners according to the fair market price. The rights of the individual homeowners are violated. Perhaps they have strong emotional ties to their home and do not want to sell. However, society benefits from constructing the road, because people can move more quickly between population centers, trucking costs are reduced, and fuel is saved. In this case, society has chosen the utilitarian approach.

As another example of diverging moral theories, consider a situation where a sickly brother has a rare disease that will certainly be fatal if he does not receive a kidney transplant. His healthy brother has a closely matching tissue type, so the transplant would be successful.

All other relatives do not have closely matching tissue types, so their transplanted kidneys
would fail. The healthy brother never liked his sickly brother and refuses to give him the kidney. The utilitarian approach would forcibly demand that the healthy brother donate a kidney to his sickly brother, as total happiness is greater with this option.

The sickly brother would be helped much more than the healthy brother would be harmed. In contrast, rights analysis
would honor the right of the healthy brother not to be dismembered. In this case, society has chosen the rights analysis approach. Although there are no algorithms to tell us exactly what to do, a reasonable approach to making moral decisions when moral theories diverge is to use utilitarianism unless an individual’s rights are seriously violated.

4.0 Engineering Ethics: The Ethical Engineer

Most professional societies have prepared ethical codes for their members. The purpose of these codes is to provide guidance to engineers on ethical behavior. A distillation of these codes provides the following guidelines:

  • Protect the public safety, health, and welfare.
  • Perform duties only in areas of competence.
  • Be truthful and objective.
  • Behave in an honorable and dignified manner.
  • Continue learning to sharpen technical skills.
  • Provide honest hard work to employers or clients.
  • Inform the proper authorities of harmful, dangerous, or illegal activities.
  • Be involved with civic and community affairs.
  • Protect the environment.
  • Do not accept bribes or gifts that would interfere with engineering judgment.
  • Protect confidential information of employer or client.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.

A conflict of interest is a situation in which an engineer’s loyalties and obligations may be compromised because of self-interest or other loyalties and obligations. This can lead to biased judgments. Suppose an engineer was responsible for selecting bearings for an engine her employer is constructing.

It so happens that her father owns a bearing company that the engineer will inherit when her father dies. This situation makes it very difficult for the engineer to make an unbiased selection of bearings because she has an obvious conflict of interest. She and her family would benefit by selecting her father’s bearings.

Even if her father’s bearings are the best for the job, the selection of these bearings gives the appearance of impropriety. Therefore, the situation must be avoided.

The engineer should inform her boss that she has a conflict of interest and that another engineer should make the bearing selection. Informing authorities of harmful, dangerous, or illegal activities is often called whistle-blowing. An engineer who is involved with an organization that is doing these activities has a conflict of interest.

He has obligations to protect society, but he also has obligations to his fellow workers and employers. Clearly, the need to protect the public is paramount. However, when performing his public duty, the whistleblower must be prepared to pay the consequences. He may lose his job or be given a flunky job. He may find it difficult to find new employment because potential employers may be
unwilling to hire a whistle-blower.

If the engineer has a family, the effects of lost income could be devastating. If he keeps his job, he is likely to be ostracized by his
coworkers. Before whistle-blowing, the engineer should try every method possible to persuade the wrongdoers to correct their ways. It takes a lot of strength and courage to do the right thing.

Although the consequences of being a whistle-blower may be severe, the consequences of knowing you are unable to do the right thing can also be severe. It is best to avoid this situation as much as possible and work with an honorable company.
No code of ethics can cover every possible ethical situation.

Perhaps the simplest guideline is to imagine that you have been selected by the New York Times as Engineer of the Year. A reporter follows you around and records all your activities, which are then published daily. Because most of us have an inherent sense of right and wrong, this should lead us to correct ethical behavior.

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Engineering Ethics: Conclusion

As professionals, Engineers are expected to behave in an ethical manner. Ethical rules are among the interaction rules that govern the relationship between individuals and society; other interaction rules are classified as etiquette, law, and morals. Generally, there is consistency between these various interaction rules, but occasionally, they conflict.

The purpose of interaction rules is to eliminate conflict; however, it is impossible to eliminate all conflicts so the source of conflict must be identified. Conflicts can result from moral issues, conceptual issues, application issues, or factual issues.

Factual issues are very concrete and can generally be settled regardless of a person’s upbringing and background. In contrast, moral issues tend to be abstract. The resolution of moral conflicts depends upon a person’s upbringing and background.

When attempting to settle moral issues, various moral theories may be employed. Ethical egoism states that actions are moral if you act in your enlightened self-interest. Utilitarianism states that the most moral action is the one that brings the best to the most people. Rights analysis states that actions are moral if they do not violate the rights of individuals.

Often, these three moral theories converge, indicating that one action is clearly correct. However, sometimes they diverge, making it difficult to select a moral action. Each society deals with problems differently. Some philosophers recommend using utilitarianism unless an individual’s rights are seriously impaired.

We hope this article helped you learn about Engineering Ethics. You may also want to learn about What is Civil Engineering? | History and FunctionsBuilding construction | Types of Building ConstructionMaterial Processing | Definition, and Examples and What do an Engineer do? | All You Need To Know.

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