In This Issue
Engineering Ethics
September 1, 2002 Volume 32 Issue 3

Engineering Ethics (Editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Wm. A. Wulf

At the Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the president is expected to present a brief lecture on a relevant engineering issue. For the 2000 meeting, I thought it would be appropriate for me to talk about the achievements of engineers in the twentieth century and the challenges facing them in the twenty-first century. My preparation of the first part of the lecture was made easier because we had already worked with the engineering professional societies to create a list of the 20 greatest achievements of the twentieth century - we selected the "greatest achievements" for their impact on people's lives, rather than for their technological "gee whiz."

Preparing the second half of the lecture was harder, at least at first. As Neils Bohr once quipped, making predictions is difficult, especially predictions that look far into the future. Conventional wisdom about the near-term future of technology suggests that we have a wealth of technical opportunities and challenges. But my crystal ball is no better than anyone else's, and it becomes completely fogged up after a dozen years or so. How could I anticipate the challenges for a full century?

When I looked again at the list of the twentieth-century achievements, I was struck by two things. First, I was awed by how much engineers matter. Arguably, engineers and their creations did more to shape our lives than anything or anyone else in the last century! Second, I realized that the immense social impact of most of our inventions was not predicted by their inventors. As Norm Augustine says a bit later in this volume: "The bottom line is that the things engineers do have consequences, both positive and negative, sometimes unintended, often widespread, and occasionally irreversible."

Because of the enormous impact of engineers on individuals and society, we also have deep moral and ethical responsibilities. That realization changed the nature of my quest, and I began to read broadly and deeply about engineering ethics and its cousin, "applied ethics." In the end, I decided I would pose only one challenge for the twenty-first century - engineering ethics. The combination of the quickening pace of technological innovation, the widespread use of nano-, bio-, and information technology, and the increasingly complex systems we engineer is raising ethical questions that engineers in the twentieth century did not face. These issues go beyond the appropriate behavior of individual engineers to the appropriate behavior of the engineering profession.

Beyond making a speech about this at the Annual Meeting (although I do speak about it often), I became convinced that NAE is the one, pan-engineering organization that could lead the discussion on engineering ethics in the twenty-first century, with a strong emphasis on the new issues. My idea was enthusiastically backed by the NAE Council, and I asked Norm Augustine to chair a committee to suggest how we might best carry it out. The committee, which brought together engineers, ethicists, judges, lawyers, educators, and people from the private sector, is about to submit its report to me. Although I have an inkling of what it will say (and you may too after reading his article), I will defer discussing it until I've actually received it.

In closing, let me be clear. I believe that the vast majority of engineers behave ethically, and I do not think we are facing a crisis of moral decline. I am proud to be an engineer, in part at least because of the ethics of the profession. But as we move ahead and continue to touch the public in new ways, we need to think ahead about how our actions might affect people for good or ill. We must be prepared to practice in an ethical way as the circumstances change.

I am deeply grateful to the five authors who prepared articles for this issue of The Bridge. From time to time, we will certainly have other articles on the subject, especially as we implement the recommendations of Norm Augustine’s committee.

Wm. A. Wulf

About the Author:Wm. A. Wulf is president of the National Academy of Engineering.