In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on Engineering Ethics
March 3, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 1

Editor's Note

Friday, March 3, 2017

Author: Deborah G. Johnson and Gerald E. Galloway, Jr.

As a profession that touches the lives and well-being of people, engineering has long considered itself to be guided by commonly held moral principles. These principles can be found in the examinations required of those seeking professional licensing, in the codes of conduct that shape and constrain engineering activities, and in the thinking and behavior of most engineers. Those who depend on and are affected by engineering expect (and are entitled to expect) engineers to behave in an ethical manner, and this is especially so when engineers engage in activities that have the potential for profound negative consequences.

One of the challenges for the engineering profession is to figure out how best to maintain these principles in a complex, diverse, and ever changing world. Those joining the engineering profession today are educated in colleges and universities and then socialized into the profession in the context of the organizational cultures they encounter as they move into practice and through their careers. Are educational institutions up to the task? Are organizations?

Throughout their careers, engineers are guided by rules, procedures, and precedents developed by the organizations in which they work and the professional organizations with which they associate. The manner in which these institutions and organizations deal with ethical issues, create an ethical climate, and provide models of ethical behavior have enormous influence on how engineers come to understand their professional roles and ethical responsibilities.

Over the last few decades the engineering community has taken steps to better address ethical issues and to establish a climate supportive of ethical behavior. The Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and professional licensing organizations have included ethics education as a requirement on the path to graduation and professional preparation as well as a prerequisite in continuing professional development.

Recent decades have also been marked by the acceleration of technological development and innovation, and increasing recognition of the powerful role of technology in solving social problems. Unfortunately, the social impacts of rapid technological advances are not always carefully considered before they are implemented. Innovations in geoengineering, bioengineering, nanotechnologies, cyber systems, and artificial intelligence move society in directions not previously traveled, and the moral compass for the decisions that must be made may not be adequate for these new terrae incognitae.

The fact that engineers can build or manufacture something does not mean that the product or process necessarily will make an overall positive contribution to society. As the saying goes, “just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.”

Most products, processes, and services affect different people differently. While cloud dusting might someday be able to shift the direction of a hurricane away from a coastal city, who should decide what areas must then take the brunt of the hurricane forces? Of course, engineers must have a role in such decisions, but should they be expected to make those judgments alone?

Notwithstanding today’s communication-rich environment, the challenges of communicating how a technologically complicated world works and how technological decisions are made are daunting. It is not always clear how to effectively carry messages about ethical issues to those who must deal with them. Whistleblowing has been a necessary but far from ideal method. Can a sounder foundation in ethics improve this situation?

Today, the public expects transparency. Engineers are expected to communicate information as to why and how they are carrying out their duties. But decisions are based on complex models of a situation, so it becomes increasingly more unrealistic to expect the public—and engineers—to understand what is inside the black boxes of models and software systems.

Engineering never takes place in a vacuum. Whether local, state, national, or global, engineering projects take place in a social context with historical, political, and economic patterns. The work of engineers affects and is affected by the social context. Are engineers responsible for ensuring that their projects and products do not exacerbate inequality among social groups? Can engineers just push this topic on to public decision makers or do they have a role in making these decisions with ethics in mind? As engineers operate around the globe, they may encounter unfamiliar social attitudes, expectations, and practices; how are they to react to actions considered legitimate in some societies and corrupt in others?

The articles in this issue address many of these questions and concerns. The authors have given a great deal of thought to various challenges in and approaches to engineering ethics, and, as experts in their area, provide their understanding. Although they bring key insights, in many cases they raise as many questions as they answer.

Building on the importance of trust, Chad Holliday makes the case for every company to ask how it can “move the dial from the majority of employees behaving ethically to all employees behaving ethically, day in and day out.” He explains the need to set the tone at the top and in an authentic way—employees know when it is empty talk. He also emphasizes the importance of both maintaining a corporate culture in which discussion of ethical issues is welcomed rather than suppressed and providing education related to ethics.

In harmony with Holliday, Thomas Smith and Tara Hoke focus on the importance of corporate cultures that facilitate expressions of dissent rather than suppressing them in favor of loyalty to management or the bottom line. A corporate culture in which dissent can be expressed allows issues to be addressed so that engineers can achieve their ethical obligations. The authors argue that “a culture in which discussions about risk are routine and questions are treated with respect and diligence will create a safer environment for communicating concerns.”

Engineering professional societies and their codes of ethics are especially important and are referenced many times in this issue. Arthur Schwartz puts the codes of ethics of professional societies in historical context and reviews a number of ethical issues relevant to engineering practice. In his conclusion, he states that engineers and engineering organizations “have an ongoing obligation to carefully review and recommend updates to their codes of ethics, in order to balance enduring ethical values and principles while addressing contemporary issues that affect the practice of engineering.”

The next article builds on the importance of professional society codes of ethics. Recognizing that when individual engineers sense an ethical challenge and consider raising a flag, they may be putting themselves at risk of pushback or even retaliation, Jeff Matsuura reviews steps to prepare for and protect against such eventualities. He explains that documenting the actions that have raised the ethical questions and following professional procedures and codes of ethics in raising ethical issues supports engineers in both making their case and protecting themselves.

Robert Gilbert avers that decisions about the safety of engineering projects or systems cannot be made solely by engineers. While absolute safety is normally unachievable, efforts to maximize safety and minimize risk often pit the high costs of achieving this goal against opportunities lost by “overspending” to achieve a goal that is not seen as necessary or desirable by the public. Such decisions must consider not only “normal” engineering approaches but also alternatives or more progressive design standards that address the risk tolerance of the public.

Kristin Shrader-Frechette argues that scientists and engineers contribute to environmental injustice insofar as they use flawed analytic techniques. She identifies three kinds of flaws: using nonrepresentative samples, misrepresenting uncertainty, and misusing statistical significance. She responds to those who would deny or excuse the unequal distribution of environmental risk, and persuasively concludes that “Sound science promotes sound ethics.”

Kenneth Fleischmann and William Wallace describe the various ways that values come into play in the process of modeling and in the models themselves. Among the conclusions of their analysis that may be surprising to some (though perhaps obvious to self-aware modelers) is that the goal of building a model is not to be value neutral. Acknowledging that “no model of a natural system can completely, perfectly capture the complexity of reality,” the authors explain that the goal is “rather to be as transparent as possible about both the modeling process and the (known and potential) limitations of the model relative to reality.”

Corruption is the epitome of unethical behavior and engineering is not immune to it, perhaps especially in the construction industry. William Henry lays out the problems and many different kinds of corruption, and provides information about strategies and resources for countering it. He emphasizes the need to understand the terms used to refer to corrupt behavior so that engineers know it when they see it, can talk about it, and can take action to prevent it.

Given the ethical concerns discussed, engineering education faces a critical challenge in seeking to prepare student engineers for the ethical dimensions of their work. The final article takes on the skeptics who think engineering ethics can’t be taught. Engineering ethics education can help engineers to be ethical by providing knowledge of codes of ethics and standards of behavior, improving their abilities to recognize ethical issues, providing conceptual tools and practice in analyzing ethical issues and making ethical decisions, and motivating students to behave ethically.

The articles in this issue discuss a number of strategies for pursuing the ultimate goal expressed by Holliday, to achieve a point when all employees behave ethically, “day in and day out.” Whether it is ethics education, codes of conduct, awareness of corruption, or good science, ethical engineering is an ongoing endeavor involving most every aspect of engineering. These articles contribute to the endeavor, which requires the engagement, energy, insights, and actions of those who read them.


We are very grateful to Rachelle Hollander for suggesting that we collaborate on this issue. We had never met so the undertaking was somewhat risky but Rachelle’s judgment turned out to be prescient. We are also enormously grateful to Cameron Fletcher for her meticulous editing and her bountiful patience and professionalism.

About the Author:Deborah G. Johnson is Olsson Pro-fessor of Applied Ethics Emeritus, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia Gerald E. Galloway, Jr. (NAE) is Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering, University of Maryland, College Park.