Dr. William Marcy & Jane Rathbun, Texas Tech University
Engineering Ethics and Its Impact on Society
William M. Marcy, PhD, PE
Jane B. Rathbun, BS, MBA
The National Institute for Engineering Ethics
Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas 79409
This article attempts to address three fundamental issues regarding engineering ethics; (1) engineering ethics education, (2) ethical decision making in professional practice and (3) protecting the rights of engineers to make ethical decisions.
The public has a right to expect ethical conduct of all professionals. The role of engineering and its impact on the health, welfare and safety of the public cannot be overstated. Ethical and professional conduct on the part of engineers requires an often delicate balance of moral reasoning, standards, legal relevance, safety, costs, benefits and risk assessment. 
The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics includes engineering ethics as a field of applied ethics that consists of a system of moral principles that apply to the practice of engineering. Engineering ethics sets forth the obligations of engineers to society, to their clients, and to the profession. 
Ethical dilemmas faced by practicing engineers are more difficult to resolve than is generally understood, and they are typically multidimensional. They impact a wide range of stakeholders and decisions about ‘doing the right thing’ often fall into a gray area that is ambiguous at best, and catastrophic at worst. It is important to understand the nuances of different approaches to ethical evaluation and decision making. A decision that is the right thing to do for a large majority of stakeholders may have a disproportionately negative impact on a small minority. The ethical principle of ‘utilitarianism’ - which takes the position that the right decision is the one that results in the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders- does not necessarily result in the best ethical choice. Alternative ethical principles such as ‘respect for persons’ and ‘virtue ethics’ may yield better ethical decisions when resolving complex dilemmas. Respect for persons recognizes that everyone has the right to ethical treatment regardless of their status in society. Virtue ethics recognizes that engineers, by virtue of their specialized knowledge, have obligations to protect the health, welfare and safety of the public. A key observation is that ‘intuition’ is often not a reliable method for making ethical decisions. 
A serious conflict of interest arises when a design engineer knows the right ethical decision to make but upper management overrides that decision. After exhausting all appeals to upper management, the engineer may be confronted with a significant personal dilemma. The engineer may consider “whistle blowing.” 
Even though there are various laws in place to protect whistle blowers, they rarely shield the person involved from potentially catastrophic financial and career risk. The engineer may be required to make a difficult, and unfair choice between fulfilling their obligations as an engineer and putting their family’s financial well-being at risk.
“The very societies and institutions which stress ethical values that are grounded in personal responsibility and public accountability have been weak in protecting whistle-blowers from harassment, dismissals, and the expense of law suits. In making this point, Bertrand G. Berube, an engineer, a former GSA regional administrator, a whistle blower, told American Society for Engineering Education members at their 1987 meeting: “If you blow the whistle on a boss, you are likely to be without a job for three to four months and legal fees will be in the range of $30-40 thousand; for blowing the whistle on a government agency, you may expect to be out of work for one to two years and your legal fees may run from $125-$150 thousand. If you blow the whistle on the political administration in power, you may be off the job for four to seven years and legal fees may be in the $400K to $550K range.”  
“That is a high price to pay for subsequent recognition by your professional society for your dedication to professionalism, but it, unfortunately, has been the experience of many who chose to exercise their right to blow a whistle when they felt that engineering ethics demanded such drastic action.” 
A Brief History of Engineering as a Profession
Engineering ethics has its roots in both engineering and philosophy. Engineering as a profession can trace its roots to the medieval system of training apprentices in skills associated with specific crafts. These craftsmen came together to form “guilds’ whose membership signified not only trusted expertise, but also provided a measure of control over who was permitted to offer their skills, products and services to the public and how those services were to be offered. Eventually, engineering disciplines became sufficiently specialized to develop professional societies and an associated ‘body of knowledge’ was integrated into each discipline. 
“To become a member of Craft Guilds in the Middle Ages a person would have to work through three phases to become a member of a Medieval Craft Guild starting as an apprentice.” 
It is worth remembering that before World War II, engineering as a profession in the U.S. was learned primarily through apprenticeship under practicing engineers. As the training of engineers evolved to require more mathematical and scientific knowledge, college education became the necessary pathway to becoming an engineer. Even with a college degree in engineering, a specified period of professional practice under the supervision of licensed professional engineers is required in order for an individual to become licensed to offer engineering services to the public. 
“Internationally, the first engineering professional societies began in France. French army engineers organized as the Corps du Genie in 1672, and the French national highway department’s engineers formed the Corps des Ponts et Chaussees in 1716. More than a century later, in England, the Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in 1818. This was followed in 1847 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Early engineering societies in the North America developed in the following order:
American Society of Civil Engineers, 1852; American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, 1871; American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1880; Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, 1884;American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 1908.
These groups were subsequently joined by the National Council of State Boards of Engineering, Examiners, American Society for Engineering Education, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the National Society of Professional Engineers, Canada’s Engineering Institute and a number of other pertinent professional societies.” 
Evolution of Engineering Ethics as an Academic Subject
Fortunately, the present day engineering curriculum has evolved, as academic accrediting bodies such as the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology now require ethics to be taught formally in colleges and universities. . Ethics is also a significant component of the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam. Professional licensing boards now require continuing education in engineering ethics for practicing engineers. 
One difficult aspect to teaching engineering ethics is that by nature, the subject often deals with ambiguous situations that are conceptually difficult for people to understand and assess. In addition, the decision to do the right thing may necessitate that an engineer takes substantial personal and professional risk. Codes of ethics provide a framework for making decisions, however, they tend to be backward looking, and rapid advances in technology often result in ethical dilemmas that have not been anticipated. In these instances, well educated individuals are often able to reach rationally sound decisions about the right thing to do, however these decisions may be constrained by variables that are in direct conflict with the individual and/or other stakeholders.
Another difficulty related to teaching engineering ethics is that many engineering faculty may lack practical, real-world experience with the complex ethical dilemmas encountered in professional practice. This lack of experience is often coupled with a reluctance to deal with abstract philosophical concepts and educational institutions may find it difficult to find faculty both willing and competent to teach engineering ethics.
Codes of Ethics
Engineering codes of ethics are the rules of practice that provide a framework for making ethical decisions based on historical case studies where poorly made decisions have been shown to result in negative outcomes. While engineering codes of ethics are similar across disciplines, each may have a slightly different historical perspective. Nevertheless, there are strong similarities between all engineering codes of ethics. 
The fundamental cannons and rules of practice found on the National Society of Professional Engineers web site are worth comparing with the codes of ethics developed by individual professional societies. Specifically, all areas and disciplines of engineering share a common doctrine to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”
“Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:
- Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
- Perform services only in areas of their competence.
- Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
- Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
- Avoid deceptive acts.
- Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.” 
Engineering Ethics and Technological Change
Modern society is dramatically impacted by advances in technology. Current examples include, but are certainly not limited to, self-driving automobiles, electric automobiles, autonomous robots, artificial intelligence, broadband internet, social media, cyber warfare, remotely piloted drones, smart phones, tablet computers, deep sea drilling, ‘fracking’, etc. The list is endless and we see changes on a seemingly daily basis. One aspect of many of the recent and prominently technological changes is a vast array of unintended consequences that the designers never anticipated. Unintended consequences frequently overshadow the anticipated benefits designers of a new technology had in mind. While many unintended consequences may have tremendous positive impacts on society, others may not. Ethical considerations must be included in every step of the design, documentation and deployment process to help anticipate and mitigate negative consequences. One approach to accomplishing this is to conduct a Social Impact Analysis (SIA) as a formal part of the engineering design documentation process. This is a multi-dimensional team effort that is not restricted to engineers. The team should include representatives from all relevant organizational stakeholders in addition to a person whose education, focus and expertise are specific to ethical process evaluation and decision making.
Social Impact Analysis
Social Impact Analysis is a forward looking methodology that analyzes the potential ethical consequences of a design, product or concept (DPC). A general outline of the steps required to develop an SIA is as follows: 
- Describe the Design, Product or Concept (DPC)
- What need is it intended to fill?
- Who are the parties responsible for creating and deploying the DPC?
- Who will be held responsible if the design, product or concept fails?
- Who are the stakeholders, both direct and indirect?
- Conduct a Cost/Benefit/Risk Analysis
- What are the risks?
- What are the costs?
- What are the benefits?
- What is the impact on the environment?
- What are the potential ethical consequences to all stakeholders, both positive and negative?
- What can be done to mitigate or eliminate negative consequences?
- What can be done to maximize positive consequences?
- Provide a critical discussion for each potential ethical consequence.
- Identify the decisions that must be made to justify the deployment of the DPC?
- What can be done to ethically minimize risks to the stakeholders?
- What can be done to ethically minimize costs to the stakeholders?
- What can be done to ethically maximize the benefits to the stakeholders?
- What is the right thing to do regarding each decision?
It is often necessary to make changes to the SIA analysis as the design and deployment process evolves. Most often, the earlier in the design and deployment process that an ethical issue is identified and addressed, the less costly it will be to fix in the long run. A worst case scenario is the requirement to address a safety issue after a project has been deployed. The news media are filled with examples where better ethical decision making during the design and deployment process might have prevented injuries, saved lives, and avoided millions of dollars in institutional liability settlements.
Changing Roles of the Engineer
Engineers often represent multiple internal and or external stakeholders in a firm, corporation or government agency. They may begin their careers as practicing engineers but may progress into upper level administrative and engineering management positions. At each stage of their careers their loyalties may change. Engineers who are specifically charged with design development are often not the individuals who bear the ultimate responsibility for the profitability of the final design and deployment of a concept or product. It is often the case that a senior engineering manager will have overall profit responsibility but not the technical competence to sign off on work prepared by other design engineers. If a subordinate engineer’s design negatively impacts the profitability of the overall project, a decision may be made by upper engineering management to change a design specification to reduce cost. This cost reduction may negatively impact the health, welfare and safety of the public. Just because it is legal to make these changes to improve profitability doesn’t mean it is ethical.
Engineering Ethics in an International Environment
Many engineers working for U.S. companies practice engineering in a foreign country. It goes without saying that ethical practices outside the United States can be very different. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is intended to prevent U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials in order to gain favorable treatment in receiving contracts. Even though huge fines have been levied against companies for violating the FCPA, many companies doing business in a foreign country view the fines as a cost of doing business when the fines are a small percentage of the profits to be made. 
There is huge pressure on engineers and engineering managers to do what is necessary to acquire favorable business opportunities in foreign countries. Engineering decisions that would be considered unethical in the U.S. may be perfectly acceptable in a foreign country. Concerns about protecting the health, welfare and safety of the public are often secondary to making a profit in these circumstances. An example, among many, might be as simple as legal leniency regarding protecting the environment, or worse, substandard safety protocols. The ethical consequences of decisions such as these have been devastating in many foreign countries. Hundreds of lives have been lost in plant disasters due to structural failures, chemical disasters and fires in manufacturing facilities. These were the direct result of designs that would be considered unacceptable in the U.S. 
Doing the right thing should not change when engineers cross international borders.
While professional engineers often practice their profession largely out of the public eye, the benefits of their efforts are visible all around us.
A recent Gallup poll asked what professions people considered most trustworthy. When it comes to ethics and honesty, here’s how the top five professions ranked. Engineers remain among the most trusted professionals. 
- Medical Doctors
Being an ethical and professional engineer can be very difficult at times. Universities and professional organizations are getting better at providing practicing engineers with the continuing education needed to make sound ethical decisions. The elephant in the room that no one wants to recognize is the lack of protection for engineers who are asked to put their careers and livelihoods on the line to do the right thing. Protections must be put in place to ensure that engineers are protected under these circumstances. Failing to provide these protections puts everyone at risk.
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Your reflective comments are invited on some or all of the following. As part of your analysis include information as appropriate on the stakeholders and how they are impacted both positively and negatively.
- What knowledge and skills are needed to implement sophisticated, appropriate and workable solutions to the complex global problems facing the world today?
- What interdisciplinary perspectives would help identify innovative and non-obvious solutions?
- What insights can you articulate, based your culture and other cultures with which you are familiar, to help understand your worldview and enable greater civic engagement?
- What is your position on the right thing(s) to do?