Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Technology and Social Change

Three Unhelpful Views about Technology

1. Technology is a good thing. It liberates human beings and brings about prosperity (utopia).

2. Technology is a bad thing. It is an autonomous force that threatens individuality, freedom, and the environment.

3. Technology s nt as important as the first two groups think. History has shown that people can and have adapted to changes in technology.

All three of these views are oversimplifications that fail to grasp how technology causes social change and how it affects the future.

Some Countervailing Considerations:

1. Informational technology has not been the boon it was supposed to be in education.

2. The range of possibility and human choice implicit in technology seems to go against pessimism about the effects of technology on human freedom.

3. Technology, the organization of knowledge for practical purposes, is a genuine matter of concern, since (with its pervasive influence) it has made our contemporary situation qualitatively different from prior eras in three ways:

o Our tools are more powerful than any before.

o Modern technology has a quality of finality. That tells us that technology does have an influence on our culture and institutions.

o Consequently, there is increasing effort to try to understand and control technology.

How Technological Change Impinges on Society:

1. New technology creates new opportunities for men and societies.

2. New technology generates new problems for men and societies.

Any given technological development has both positive and negative effects. This is the mechanism:

1. Technological advance creates a new opportunity to achieve a certain goal.

2. Taking advantage of this new opportunity requires changes in social organization.

3. These changes interfere in the functions of existing social structures.

4. Goals which were achieved by means of the older social structures cannot be adequately achieved any more.

How Society Reacts to Technological Change:

Our challenge is to profit from the opportunities opened up by technology and to contain its dangers. Existing social structures often get in the way of taking advantage of advances in technology. Government and education have not made the public aware of the potential benefits of technologies such as urban policy techniques.

Containing the Negative Effects of Technology:

Private individuals and large corporations who develop new technologies because of their perceived benefits often do not think about benefits or harms that may affect many people in society. Many negative consequences of technology are due to the fact that particular technologies are developed by individuals (or individual corporations) for particular purposes without attention to the effect of their decisions on society as a whole.

The rights of individual decision-makers which have been traditionally politically protected may be the source of the problem. Technologies may be out of control to the extent that human institutions are not adequately controlling them.

Thus, there is tension between the need to control technology and values of market freedom, private enterprise, scientific freedom and individual autonomy. This tension makes it difficult to use social organizations to control the opportunities and the problems of technology.


Technology’s Challenge to Values:

Social planning reveals conflicts in values. Economic values of leisure conflict with increase in productivity. Education values of equality conflict with values of achievement (merit).

Social planning (based upon knowledge) and changing technology confronts traditional values and requires that they change (accommodate themselves).

Technology as a Cause of Value Change:

Technology can change values by—

1. Creating new attainable goals (new options) and

2. Making old goals easier to attain.

When society fails to take advantage of these opportunities, tension arises. For example, representative democracy has been thought to be necessary since it has been impossible for all citizens to have a direct say or vote in policy. Does technology which would allow immediate electronic voting change all that? On the other hand, technology also makes it easier to use technical expertise in decision-making (and thus diminish the role of citizens).

The Value Implications of Economic Change:

Private profit motives cannot meet the expectations of society for public goods. Increased government intervention is required in social and economic affairs. This conflicts with a value system which has been primarily individualistic rater than collective or “societal.” In other words, control of widespread consequences of technologies must be on a social or governmental level.

Religion and Values:

According to Cox, there are three inconsistent traditions in religion:

1. Apocalyptic tradition: the end of the world is at hand, pessimism.

2. Technological tradition: everything is destined to turn out all right; there is a fixed purpose being realized.

3. Prophetic tradition: the future is in our hands and will be what we can make of it.

Technology seems most amenable to the third tradition—the prophetic. Religion is challenged to account for the creation of new values [and a future which is not determined in advance].

Individual Man in a Technological Age:

The impact of technology on the individual has both positive and negative sides. The balance sheet might look something like this:



Pressure on the individual to conform or adjust. [Loss of individuality]

Economic productivity, education, and modern means of communication have helped the individual to develop his individual potential. People feel like individuals more than ever before.

Decline in personal privacy with sophisticated eavesdropping and surveillance devices.

Privacy was not always a good thing, especially if it meant one died alone. Social security, public education and public health measures would not be given up for privacy.

Increasing power of government.

Government is more lacking in confidence than ever before.

According to Professor Shils, technological change has implications for the balance that individuals find between individual or private goals and responsibilities as a public citizen. The political requirements of a modern technological society seem to call for more emphasis on public responsibility.


The Enlarged Scope of Public Decision Making:

The political “encompasses all of the decision-making structures and procedures that have to do with the allocation and distribution of wealth and power in society.”

A society that fosters great advances in technology has to accept that it will have to “enlarge the scope of public decision-making,” probably because—

1. the development of technology leads to bigger and bigger social concentrations such as corporations, universities and government or leads to increased centralization of large social units such as cities and

2. The effects of advanced technology cover large distances (are widespread).

The power blackout in the northeastern United States showed how widespread and concentrated the effects of advanced technology can be.

Private Firms and Public Goods:

Corporations play a key role in developing technology. According to Galbraith, corporations and market forces are better at providing for and creating private wants than they are at satisfying public needs. Technological change seems to require a shift of emphasis from corporation government.

The Promise and Problems of Scientific Decision Making:

More and more emphasis is being put on technical processes of decision-making by using sophisticated computer and statistical technologies. This seems to put more and more administrative control in the hands of technical experts.

However, this cause difficulties for traditional values of popular and participatory democracy. Scientific management of the opportunities and problems arising from technology has both positive and negative consequences.

The Need for Institutional Innovation:

We need new institutions and social structures to deal with the management of the opportunities and problems of technology. These would call for a collaboration of government, corporations and social organizations.


1. The creation of new physical possibilities and social options by technology tends toward and appears to require the emergence of new values, new forms of economic activity and new political organizations.

2. Technological change also poses problems of social and psychological displacement.

Individuals will be fully integrated into society only when we can extract from our knowledge not only its technological potential but also its implications for a system of values and a social, economic and political organization appropriate to a society in which technology is so prevalent.

Engineering Ethics

Engineering ethics is the field of applied ethics which examines and sets standards for engineer’s obligations to the public, their clients, employers and the profession. This essay addresses the subject for both professional engineers and other engineers.

Engineering does not have a single uniform system, or standard, of ethical conduct across the entire profession. Ethical approaches vary somewhat by discipline and jurisdiction, but are most influenced by whether the engineers are independently providing professional services to clients or the public if employed in governmental services; or if they are employees of an enterprise creating products for sale.

In the United States the first are usually licensed Professional engineers, are governed by statute, and have fairly consistent codes of professional ethics. The latter, working as engineers in industry, are governed by various laws including whistleblowing, and product liability laws, and often rely on principles of business ethics rather than engineering ethics.

Professional and Chartered Engineers:

Professional engineers (Chartered engineers in the United Kingdom.) are distinct from other engineers in that they have obtained some form of license, charter, or registration from a government agency or charter-granting authority acting on their behalf. As such they are subject to regulation by these bodies, as are other regulated professions.

Professional and Chartered engineers enjoy significant influence over their regulation. They are often the authors of the pertinent codes of ethics used by some of these organizations. These engineers in private practice often, but not always, find themselves in traditional professional-client relationships in their practice. Engineers employed in government service find themselves on the other side of the same relationship.

Engineers in industry, sometimes termed “graduate engineers” in the US if they hold a Bachelor’s Degree, are not formally accredited by government agencies. Their professional relationships much more likely to be employee-employer relationship.

Despite the different focus, engineers in industry or private practice face similar ethical issues and reach similar conclusions. One American engineering society, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) has sought to extend professional licensure and a code of ethics across the field regardless of practice area or employment sector.

Current Codes of Ethics:

Many American engineering professional societies have prepared codes of ethics. Some go back to the early decades of the twentieth century. These have been incorporated to a greater or lesser degree into the regulatory laws of most states.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in the UK has a code of ethics incorporated into its standards of conduct. The Canadian societies of Professional engineers likewise have as well. These codes of ethics share many similarities.

General Principles:

Codes of engineering ethics identify a specific precedence with respect to the engineer’s consideration for the public, clients, employers, and the profession.

This is an example from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE):

“Fundamental Canons

1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional ethics.

2. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.

3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees and shall avoid conflicts of interest.

5. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.

6. Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.

7. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.

Like virtually all professional societies and chartering authorities, ASCE expends upon these and publishes specific guidance.

First Principle:

As noted above, generally the first duty recognized by Professional and Chartered engineers is to the safety of the public.

The ICE’s “Code of Professional Conduct” identifies similar ethical values as the ASCE’s but likewise places the good of the public as the highest ethic.

“Members of the ICE should always be aware of their override responsibility to the public good. A member’s obligations to the client can never override this, and members of the ICE should not enter undertakings which compromise this responsibility. The ‘public good’ encompasses care and respect for the environment, and for humanity’s cultural, historical and archaeological heritage, as well as the primary responsibility members have to protect the health and well being of present and future generations.”

Canadian engineering codes of ethics also place the public good above all other concerns:

· Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO): “A practitioner shall, regard the practitioner’s duty to public welfare as paramount.”

· L’Ordre des Ingenieure du Quebec (QIQ): “In all aspects of his work, the engineer must respect his obligations towards man and take into account the consequences of the performance of his work on the environment and on the life, health and property of every person.”

As in ASCE’s Fundamental Canon 1, other American professional societies are likewise specific on this point:

· National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE): “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall: Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.”

· American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME): “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.”

· Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE): “We, the members of the IEEE,... do hereby commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct and agree: 1. to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;”

· American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE): “To achieve these goals, members shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties.”


A basic ethical dilemma is that an engineer has the duty to report to the appropriate authority a possible risk to others from a client or employer failing to follow the engineer’s directions. According to first principles, this duty overrides the duty to a client and/or employer. An engineer may be disciplined, or have their license revoked, even if the failure to report such a danger does not result in the loss of life or health.

In many cases, this duty can be discharged by advising the client of the consequences in a forthright matter, and assuring the client takes the engineer’s advice. However, the engineer must ensure that the remedial steps are taken and, if they are not, the situation must be reported to the appropriate authority. In very rare cases, where even a governmental authority may not take appropriate action, the engineer can only discharge the duty by making the situation public. As a result, whistleblowing by professional engineers is not an unusual event, and courts have often sided with engineers in such cases, overruling duties to employers and confidentiality considerations that otherwise would have prevented the engineer from speaking out.

Other Ethical Issues:

There are several other ethical issues that engineers may face. Some have to do with technical practice, but many others have to do with broader considerations of business conduct. These include:

  • Quality
  • Ensuring legal compliance
  • Conflict of interest
  • Bribery and kickbacks
  • Treatment of confidential or proprietary information
  • Consideration of the employer’s assets
  • Relationships with clients, consultants, competitors and contractors
  • Gifts, meals, services and entertainment
  • Outside employment/activities (Moonlighting)

Some engineering societies are addressing environmental protection as a stand-alone question of ethics. The field of business ethics often overlaps and informs ethical decision making for engineers.


· American Society of Civil Engineers [1914] (2006). Codes of Ethics. Reston, Virginia, USA: ASCE Press. Retrieved on 2006-10-20.

· American Society of Civil Engineers (2000). Standards of Professional Conduct. Reston, Virginia, USA: ASCE Press. Retrieved on 2006-10-20.

· Institution of Civil Engineers (2004). Royal Charter, by-laws, Regulations and Rules. Retrieved on 2006-10-20.

· Layton, Edwin (1986). The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: The johns Hopkins University Press.

· Petroski, Henry (1985). To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. St Martins Press.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Engineering Ethics - History and Development

The Nineteenth Century and Growing Concern:

As engineering rose as a distinct profession during the nineteenth century, engineers saw themselves as either independent specialists or technical employees of large enterprises. In the United States growing professionalism gave rise to the development of four founding engineering societies: ASCE (1851), the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) (1884), ASMF (1880), and the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) (1871). ASCE and AIEE were more closely identified with the engineer as learned professional, where ASME<>

Turning of the Twentieth Century and Turning Point:

As the nineteenth century drew to a close and the twentieth century began, there were a series of significant structural failures, including some spectacular bridge failures, notably the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (1851), Tay Bridge Disaster (1879), and the Quebec Bridge collapse (1907). These had a profound effect on engineers and forced the profession to confront short comings in technical and construction practice, as well as ethical standards.

One response was the development of formal codes of ethics by three of the four founding engineering societies. AIEE adopted theirs in 1912. ASCE and ASME did so in 1914. AIME did not adopt a code of ethics in its history.

Concerns for professional practice and protecting the public highlighted by these bridge failures, as well as the Boston molasses disaster (1919), provided impetus for another movement that had been underway for some time: to require formal credentials (Professional licensure in the US.) as a requirement to practice. This involves meeting some combination of educational, experience, and testing requirements.

Over the following decade’s most American states and Canadian provinces either required engineers to be licensed, or passed special legislation reserving title rights to organization of professional engineers. The Canadian model is to require all persons working in fields of engineering that posed a risk to life, health, property, the public welfare and the environment to be licensed, and all provinces required licensing by the 1950s.

The US model has generally been only to require those practicing independently (i.e. consulting engineers) to be licensed, while engineers working in industry, education, and sometimes government need not be licensed. This has perpetuated the split between professional engineers and those in industry. Professional societies have adopted generally uniform codes of ethics. On the other hand technical societies have generally not adopted these, but instead sometimes offer ethics education and resources to members similar to those of the professional societies. This is not uniform, nad the question of who is to be held in the highest regard: the public or the employer, is still an open one in industry, and sometimes in professional practice.

Current Status:

The difference in viewpoint between the engineer as a professional and the engineer as employee is still reflected today in the use of the title “engineer”. In US industry, the title “engineer” is determined by the firm and can often apply to anyone executing design work. These can include individuals with an Associate degree or degree in engineering technology. Here, the term “graduate engineer” is pertinent to differentiate those with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. The US model law for Professional engineers requires a minimum of a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering.

This difference also has led to the division of engineering societies broadly into professional and technical societies. Both professional and technical societies advance technical practice through developing standards, and providing educational, and training resources. However, professional societies like ASCE, ASME, IEEE, and later AICE (1907), and NSPE (1934), also focus on professional practice issues facing the engineer such as licensing laws and ethics.

Technical societies like AIME, the American Railway Engineering Association (AREA) (1899), and later the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) (1905) and Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) (1932) generally don’t address professional practice issues, including ethics.

Current Ethical Issues:

Efforts to promote ethical practice continue. In addition to the professional societies and chartering organizations efforts with their members, the Canadian Iron Ring and American Order of the Engineer trace their roots to the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse. Both require members to swear an oath to uphold ethical practice and wear a symbolic ring as a reminder.

Currently, bribery and political corruption is being addressed very directly by several professional societies and business groups around the world. However, new issues have arisen, such as offshoring, sustainable development, and environmental protection, that the profession is having to consider and address.

Professional Relationships

Modern professional codes of ethics cover more relationships than the two basic ones covered by the Hippocratic code. In general they also include relationships between employees and employers and between the professional and the public in general.

1. Professional Relationships with Employers:

a. Loyalty

In general employees are expected to show loyalty to their employers – they are expected to recognize and help the employer achieve her ends. But there are limits to loyalty, for example the employee must retain the right to support the political party of their choice without threat of job loss, and they must not be expected to buy only company products, in preference to the competitor’s.

b. Trade Secrets

In a free labor market it is difficult to protect trade secrets. A company can afford to hire a competitor’s employee at a higher price than the competitor if the employee carries information that gives the company a market lead over its competitor. Companies attempt to guard against this practice in several ways. Employees can be asked to sign agreements promising not to reveal trade secrets. They can even be expected to agree not to work in the same industry for a set period after they leave a company. There is a moral sense in which loyalty should carry over beyond the term of employment.

2. Professional Relationships with Clients:

There are roughly three ways the relationship can be seen and it is necessary for a smooth running relationship that there be some agreement about what sort of relationship it is. Essentially the difference concerns the balance in decision making between the company and the client.

If the company is seen as the agent of the client, it simply carries out the client’s wishes; it does not make any significant decisions of ite own. When it has to make a decision about aspects of design that are not obvious from the client’s wishes, then it must return to the client for clarification. This is the agency model.

At the other extreme, the client may transfer all the decision-making authority into the hands of the company. In this case the company first learns as much as it can about what the client wants and then, during the process of development, makes all the decisions about how best to realize the client’s desires. This latter is the paternalistic model.

In between these two extremes an interactive model where the client is engaged in making decisions but is advised by the company. The decisions are not entirely the client’s nor are they entirely the company’s. Decisions are arrived at through a process of dialogue in which the client expresses her wishes and desires and the company advises on what is possible from a practical and what is advisable from their own point of view of superior experience.

3. Professional Relationship with the Public in General:

The obligation of the professional to the public at large can be seen as a kind of implicit contract that the professional makes with society to allow him, and not just anyone, to practice his trade. Society in general, through its legal system gives the professional the right to maintain a monopoly in the practice of his profession, on the understanding that the professional will act for the good of society.

4. Professional Relationships with other Professionals:

A popular image of the professional organization is that its sole purpose is to promote the interests of the professionals themselves. It is like a monopoly of practitioners who have managed to corner the market and convince the establishment that they have some special skill that no-one else has. Thus they manage to legalize their particular monopoly and squeeze out and other practitioners. Once organized they can set their own fees and standards of performance. One has only to recollect the legal profession as portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House to get the image.

But even with such a cynical view of the professional organization, there is reason to suppose that it is in the interest of the profession to adopt some controls on the behavior of heir members. An individual who does not act in the interest of the client will damage the reputation of the profession as a while. And when the trust that people place in the profession is damaged, the people will begin to look for alternative sources of expertise – they will turn to alternative medicine, or begin to practice their own conveyance.

Basic Qualities of a Successful Engineer

In an engineering education, the fundamental purpose of the college/university years is to enable you in a short period to time, to learn of, and to profit by, the experiences, discoveries, and interpretations of the thousands who have gone before you in the application of nature’s laws and material for the use of mankind. For you, an engineering graduate at the threshold of a professional career, your total education has only begun.

So, what is required of you as an engineer? An engineer must consciously develop some very specific and basic qualities. Professor William Wickenden, in his booklet A Professional Guide for Young Engineers, presents them as follows:

1. Courage and integrity are prime requisites for a successful engineer. Do not continue in engineering if you are afraid to take calculated risks and to make decisions on the basis of available information; very seldom will you know in advance the certain answer to any major engineering problem. You must be willing to live up to an inflexible code of integrity and honestly. The habit of straight thinking and honest action is just as important to an engineer as is the habit of cleanliness to a surgeon.

2. A thirst for knowledge is an attribute you must possess if you hope to succeed in professional life. The engineer must have the native inclination to delve into the fundamental truths of mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

3. Imagination is a factor vital to successful engineering. Every engineering product, be it great or small is someone’s mental picture that has become a reality. If you find it difficult to see things in your mind’s eye as they would be in actuality, you should re-examine your motives for entering engineering.

4. Sound judgment is a requisite for the successful engineer. You must be able to see all aspects of a question or problem and place a proper value on each phase of a situation and to foresee and estimate the consequences likely to result from each step taken in the solution of the problem or project.

5. Accuracy in thought and action is essential if you are to be a successful engineer. It must be cultivated if you hope to succeed in technical pursuits.

6. An instinct for economy, the economical use of manpower, energy, and materials in producing the most effective results is most important.

7. An aptitude for leadership is very important to the individual engineer’s professional advancement in this modern civilization. You have a challenging opportunity to constructively lead as an engineer and as a private citizen in the field of civic and social problems. If humanity is to receive the maximum benefit of the engineer’s work, then you, as an engineer, must assume interest and responsibility for applying your accomplishments most effectively for the welfare of humanity.

8. Ingenuity, the ability to be creative, is another essential ingredient for a successful engineer. The engineer who can take commonplace situations and apply imagination of conception and creativity to produce and improve results will contribute the greatest benefit to mankind.

9. Hard work is essential to give strength and vigor to the intellect and to give it the dimension of depth. Intelligence is necessary to give effectiveness, honor, and dignity to labor.

10. The ability to communicate effectively can enhance every other quality which the engineer possesses. And without it, all other qualities are shadowed. Especially as a young engineer, you will do well to emphasize this phase of your education.

Four things you, as an engineer, must have:

· a mastery of applied science

· the power to visualize your ideas by imagination

· the power to express you ideas clearly to others in speech or writing or drawings

· an instinct for economy of effort and of cost

As engineer’s nature, three-quarters of them take on executive responsibilities and many become executives. Only rarely does an engineer get far without a good understanding of human nature and the art of managing people.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Role of the Engineer in Society


Engineers help to shape and impact our society. In this process, they are guided by professional codes of conduct. Professional engineers should internalize these codes.

Viewing the ethical codes as static statements made by other people limits an engineer’s investment in the codes. For in reality, codes of conduct are dynamic and the ability to understand and apply the codes should be an integral part of the engineering process.

Engineering is a scientific discipline in that it requires the study of scientific principles and methodology. However, science in and of itself is generally done to develop knowledge and understanding of the physical universe. Thus the pursuit of science is not driven by societal needs.

Scientific study is somewhat of a “curiosity-driven process” and societal values do not necessarily direct the scope or limit the bounds of scientific curiosity. We can envision the base of scientific knowledge as an amoebae-like structure that is uneven in how it branches in various directions.

Although engineering also uses the power of curiosity, it is mainly driven by the application of science to the needs of society. In this sense, engineering is often an applied and practical application of science.

We are not suggesting that engineers are not creative. Instead we promote the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s (ABET) definition that identifies engineering as, “the profession in which knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience, and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.”

Consider the intersection of scientific knowledge with societal need as illustrated in this Venn diagram. Each of the sectors represents the following:

· Sector A – purely analytical talents within the engineering domain. This is engineering science, the ability to model complex systems and predict their response to various inputs under numerous conditions.

· Sector B – creative capacity within the engineering domain. This is viewed as those sudden intuitive leaps that can result in revolutionary advances in technology.

· Sector C – the intersection of knowledge and the need for both creative and analytical capabilities. This is engineering design, the ability to work at “real world” problem solving.

· Sector D – the culmination of societal need, analysis, knowledge and creativity. This is the ideal role of engineering and the individual engineer.

Our four-circle representation illustrates that engineers need to acquire analytical skills, but that in order to be productive engineers, creativity is also essential. Life seldom offers problems with single solutions and engineers often face complex and intricate dilemmas that require both analytical and creative skills.

Engineers, by the very nature of their work, have a responsibility to society. In this role, they have extensive professional responsibilities and they have to address ethical dimensions of engineering problems, designs, and interactions. Students of engineering should graduate with experience in working in teams, have strong written and oral communication skills, and be well-versed in the economic, social, environmental, and international context of engineering professional activities.

In particular, engineers have a duty to Society to understand and abide by their discipline’s Codes of Ethics. All such codes address the three primary duties of an engineer – duty toward society, fiduciary responsibility toward employer or client, and safeguarding the reputation and status of the engineering profession.

Based on article by Steven P. Nichols and William F. Weldom in Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 3, Issue 3, 1997.

Engineering Responsibilities to the Non-Human Environment

Contemporary technologically advanced civilization has made massive changes in the environment. Western society has tended to conceive of nature as passive, as the fit object of human manipulation and control. This view of nature as passive is amply reflected in our language about the nature world. Land is to be “developed.” “Raw” land is to be “improved.” Natural resources are to be “exploited” and “consumed.” Trees are to be “harvested.” The rivers are to be “harnessed” to produce electrical power. The wilderness must be “managed.” Nature, like the rest of the non-human world, is to be subservient to human purposes.

The environmental movement, so influential during the last twenty-five years, is a reaction against this attitude toward nature, but there is still a question as to whether the concern for non-human nature should be a part of professional engineering ethics rather than an engineer’s personal ethics. What are some of the arguments for and against including a concern for non-human nature in the professional codes of engineers?

Those who believe that professional engineering obligations to the environment should not be extended beyond a concern for factors that endanger human health could make the following arguments.

First, the judgments that would have to be made in this area fall outside the area of professional engineering expertise and as such might be considered a violation of professional responsibility. Suppose an engineer is asked to participate in the design of a condominium which will be built on a wetland area. The engineer objects because she believes that the wetland area is especially important for the ecology of the area. This judgment is not a professional engineering judgment, but rather one more appropriately made by a biologist.

The same problem exists in many other areas related to the environment. An engineer may object to a dam that will destroy a wild river of flood hundreds of acres of farmland. Or he may object to designing a sawmill that is to be built in the midst of an ancient forest. In all of these cases the judgments involve considerations outside the engineer’s professional expertise. An engineer may well object to these projects, but he or she should not object as an engineer. To do so is to invite public disrespect for the engineering profession.

Such objections might even be considered violations of engineering codes. The NSPE code contains the following statement:

Engineers may express publicly a professional opinion on technical subjects only when that opinion is founded upon adequate knowledge of the facts and competence in the subject matter.

Many objections to environmental matters are not based on professional engineering competence. Suppose the NSPE code also contained another provision such as this:

Engineers must not participate in projects that are unnecessarily destructive to the environment, even if they do not endanger human life or health.

The judgments necessary to comply with such a provision would often not be professional engineering judgments engineering judgments, so that implementing such a provision might well involve violating section 11, 3, b.

Second, an extension of professional responsibility for the environment into areas not clearly related to public health or safety might cause considerable problems for engineering societies. Along with other members of society, engineers disagree over environmental issues, especially where human health is not directly involved. Forcing members of professional societies to take policy stands on such issues will introduce a new source of divisiveness into professional societies.

Another aspect of this same objection is that such issues will be especially troublesome for engineering managers who are members of the societies. Management cannot be expected to be sympathetic to policies that will inevitably result in greater expense for industry. The effect of introducing these issues into the societies may serve to weaken industry support for the societies themselves.

There are, however, reasons for believing that engineers should assume a professional responsibility for the effects of engineering work on the non-human environment.

First, a good argument can be made that the very concept of responsibility shows that engineers have a responsibility for environmental problems, even when they do not directly affect human welfare. Philosopher Kenneth E. Goodpaster finds several senses of the tern “responsibility,” two of which are relevant here. In the causal sense of responsibility, we say of a person that he or she is responsible for something when an action or event is brought about at least in part by that individual. By this definition, engineers should share in the responsibility for environmental concerns, because technology has brought about many environmental problems, and it has the capacity to remedy many of them.

Another conception of responsibility is a rule-following sense, referring to socially expected behavior associated with certain roles. Thus parents have responsibility for children. In this sense also engineers have responsibility for the environment, for many members of the public expect engineers to assume this responsibility.

Second, the engineering profession could make a substantial contribution to the protection of the environment. Engineers are, after all, major participants in virtually all of the projects that affect the environment for good or ill. If even a substantial number of concerned engineers refused to contribute their professional skills to some of the most environmentally destructive projects, the result might well be the cancellation of he projects or at least a modification of them so they will produce less environmental devastation.

We shall leave it to the reader to decide whether engineers should have an obligation as professionals to protect non-human nature. There is, however, another approach to the question. There is a precedent in other professions for allowing professionals to refuse to lend their professional expertise to activities to which they have personal objections. The morality of abortion is an issue outside the professional expertise of physicians. It is a matter for moral philosophy or theology rater then medicine. Nevertheless, physicians are not usually required to perform abortions if they have moral objections to it. Similarly, perhaps engineers should not be required to participate in environmental projects to which they object. Many engineers already have serious reservations about some projects that damage the environment. Without support from the codes, they may find it difficult to register their objections to the projects or to refuse to participate in them. Perhaps a provision in the code could be worded like this:

Engineers should not be required to participate in projects which, in their personal judgment, are unnecessarily harmful to the environment. They also have the right to make their objections known to the proper authorities.

Glossary of Ethical Terms

Applied Ethics is the branch of ethics that asks relatively concrete questions about the morality of specific actions and policies. The following branches focus on various issues of applied ethics:

· Medical Ethics (euthanasia, abortion, human cloning, genetic engineering etc.)

· Business Ethics (corporate responsibility; rights and obligations of employees etc.)

· Legal Ethics (responsibilities of individuals working in the criminal justice system)

Common Good Approach: The ethical action is the one that contributes most to the achievement of a quality common life together. In this approach, we focus on ensuring that the social policies, social systems, institutions and environments on which we depend are beneficial to all. Examples of goods common to all include affordable health care, effective public safety, and peace among nations, a just legal system and an unpolluted environment.

The common good is a notion that originated more than 2,000 years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. Contemporary ethicist John Rawls defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are … equally to everyone’s advantage.

Ethics requires that there be consistency among our moral standards and in how we apply these standards. Ethics also requires a consistency between our ethical standards and our actions, as well as among our inner desires. Finally, ethics requires that there be consistency between how we treat ourselves and how we treat others.

Consequentialism: Any position in ethics which claims that the rightness or wrongness of actions depends on their consequences.

Descriptive Ethics: An empirical study of moral customs, convictions and motivations; it’s a domain of anthropology, sociology, psychology etc; it is not part of (moral) philosophy. Notice, the claims above describes the beliefs of various people or groups. They do not tell us what is right or wrong but merely what those people think about right and wrong.

Deontology: Any position in ethics which claims that the rightness or wrongness of actions depends on whether they correspond to our duty or not. The word drives from the Greek word for duty, deon.

Duty is an obligation to act in a certain manner for moral reasons.

Ethical sentence and non-ethical sentence: An ethical sentence is one that is used to make either a positive or a negative (moral) evaluation of something. Ethical sentences use words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘moral’, ‘immoral’, and so on. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Rashad is a good person.’
  • ‘People should not steal.’

In contrast, a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not serve to (morally) evaluate something. Examples would include:

· ‘Rashad is a tell person.’

· ‘Someone took the stereo out of my car.’

Ethics is the philosophical reflection on moral beliefs and practices. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies and recommends the fundamental principles and basic concepts of what is considered morally good or bad, right and wrong in human conduct. Some would also include in ethics how we ought to interact with nature and animals.

Facts by themselves only tell us what is; they do not tell us what ought to be. In addition to getting the facts, resolving an ethical issue also requires an appeal to values.

Fairness or Justice Approach: The ethical action is the one that treats people equally, or if unequally, that treats people proportionately and fairly. The basic moral question in this approach is: How fair is an action? Does it treat everyone in the same way, or does it show favoritism and discrimination?

Favoritism gives benefits to some people without a justifiable reason for singling them out; discrimination imposes burdens on people who are not different from those on whom burdens are not imposed. Both favoritism and discrimination are unjust and wrong.

General Moral Principles and Particular Moral Judgments: General Moral Principles make some general statement about what is morally right or wrong, or good or bad, or what we should or ought, or should not or ought not to. Examples:

1. You should not take what does not belong to you without permission of the owner.

2. If you make a promise, you ought to keep it.

Not all moral judgments are general principles. Some are about specifics. Examples:

3. John was wrong to tell you that.

4. Hitler was an evil person.

Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that tried to answer questions about the nature of morality itself. It doesn’t ask or make judgments about what types of action are moral and immoral; rather, it asks questions like:

· Does morality depend on what we believe about it, or is it independent of our beliefs?

· Does morality depend on what God commands?

Non-moral Normative Judgments and Principles: Some Judgments are normative, and say what ought or ought not to be done, but are not moral. Examples of these include prudential, legal and aesthetic judgments. They may be general or specific. Examples:

1. You should quit smoking.

2. That’s the wrong hat for that outfit.

Normative and Descriptive: A normative statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things should be, how they ought to be, rather than how they actually are. The opposite of “normative” is “descriptive”. A descriptive statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things actually are, not how they ought to be.

Normative ethics is the branch of ethics that tries to answer general questions about how we should behave, how we ought to act. In other words, it attempts to discover general rules or principles of moral behavior. In this area of ethics, you’ll find claims like the following:

If doing x will benefit someone without harming anyone else, then it is morally right for you to do x.

Obligation is something that one ought to do or not do for moral reasons such as keeping just laws, promises, or respecting the rights of others.

Philosophy is the area of inquiry that attempts to discover truths involving fundamental concepts, such as the concepts of God, knowledge, truths, reality, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong.

Profession is an occupation, the practice of which directly influences human well-being and requires mastery of a complex body of knowledge and specialized skills, requiring both formal education and practical experience.

Professional ethics concerns the moral issues that arise because of the specialist knowledge that professionals attain, and how the use of this knowledge should be governed when providing a service to the public.

Rights are claims that have some justification behind them. A moral right is a morally justified claim. A legal right is a legally justified claim. When we use the term right we usually mean a moral right. Rights specify the acts that are permitted, forbidden, or required. If they specify the acts that the rights-holder may perform (such as vote, or drive a car), they are often called licenses. If they specify acts that others may not perform (as the right to life obliges others to refrain from killing the rights holder), they are called liberties or (in law) negative rights. If they specify what the rights-holder should receive, some philosophers call them claim rights. The law calls them positive rights.

Rights Approach: The ethical action is the one that most dutifully respects the rights of all affected. In deciding whether an action is moral or immoral using this approach, we must ask, does the action respect the moral rights of everyone? Actions are wrong to the extent that they violate the rights of individuals; the more serious the violation, the more wrongful the action.

Standard is something established as a basis of comparison in measuring or judging capacity, quantity, content, value, quality etc. a specified set of safety or performance qualities which a device or process must possess. These must generally be demonstrated by a series of tests conducted under pre-determined conditions.

Utilitarian Approach: The ethical action is the one that produce the greatest balance of benefits over harms. To analyze an issue using the utilitarian approach, we first identify the various courses of action available to us. Second, we ask who will be affected by each action and what benefits or harms will be derived from each. And third, we choose the action that will produce the greatest benefits and the least harm.

Virtue Approach: The ethical action is the one that embodies the habits and values of humans at their best. In dealing with an ethical problem using the virtue approach, we might ask, what kind of person should I be? What will promote the development of character within myself and my community?

Virtues are attitudes or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop our highest potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty. Courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control and prudence are all examples of virtues.