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

Engineering Ethics: The Conversation without End

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Samuel C. Florman

As the world changes, the definition of professional morality must change with it.

Engineering ethics again? Haven't we settled this business once and for all? Well, no. We seem to be engaged in a conversation that will never end, and properly so. As the world changes, so do the problems of defining professional morality. There has been - and continues to be - meaningful change in engineering ethics, more than one might intuitively have supposed. For example:

In the not too distant past, codes of engineering ethics very much resembled guild rules that told engineers how they should deal with each other. Don't compete for commissions on the basis of price. Don't advertise. Don't review a fellow engineer’s work without first getting clearance from him. Today we might call such admonitions professional protocol, professional manners, or professional decorum. But society at large will not accept them as having anything to do with real ethics. In fact, in the 1970s, society at large, acting through the U.S. Department of Justice and the courts, declared such restrictions violations of antitrust laws, which radically changed the status of many professions - not only engineering. What engineers used to call ethical behavior is now to a great extent illegal.

I hope and trust that engineers will continue to behave courteously. Cutthroat competition between engineers is not in anybody’s best interest, no matter what the antitrust laws say. But it is a fact that engineers can no longer hope to control their profession totally from within. The law will not permit it, and in a democracy this is fitting as well as inevitable. Once upon a time, the cowboy in a white hat walking down Main Street with guns at the ready was a hero. Today he is a vigilante. Frontier conditions no longer prevail.

It is striking to note how many topics that used to be in the province of professional ethics are now in the province of law. Confidentiality, industrial secrets, and proprietary interest in invention are now defined by statute and legal precedent rather than by ethical codes. So are the norms of behavior considered appropriate for a professional. When an engineer in New York paid invoices from a firm that had performed no services for him, and it was discovered that this was done to make a covert political contribution, the commissioner of education suspended the engineer’s state license, an action that was upheld by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court.

And this is only a small part of the story. Consider the matter of product safety. Ironically, as engineers became more and more concerned about the ethical aspects of this issue, government regulation began to dominate the field. There was a time, to be sure, when a morally principled engineer was often the only protection on which the public could rely. The rule of the land was caveat emptor, buyer beware; Congress believed it was prohib-ited by the Constitution from telling manufacturers how to manage their affairs. In the nineteenth century, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, arguing against legislation intended to reduce the risk of steamboat explosions, proclaimed that the proper way to tell if a boat was safe was to inquire personally as to whether the machinery was in good working order. The "good old days" were really wild, woolly, and relatively lawless. Robber barons singlemindedly pursued profit, and a swarm of rapscallions, exemplified by snake-oil salesmen, plied their wares with little or no restraint. In such a climate, discussions of engineering ethics often revolved around the question of how engineers could maintain their independence from industry in order to safeguard society.

However, as the nation became wealthier and better educated, the communal will decreed that laws be passed and that rules and regulations be established to defend the public interest. Progress was slow and halting, but in the end, relentless. In 1852, Congress enacted a law that required the inspection of steam boilers. In the 1880s, there came railroad safety legislation. Between 1880 and 1906, 103 bills were introduced proposing control of interstate traffic in food and drugs, until finally the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed and signed by Theodore Roosevelt. The Federal Trade Commission Act was passed in 1914, the Federal Power Commission founded in 1920, the Federal Communications Commission established in 1934, and the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1938. Finally, starting in 1970, after the first celebration of Earth Day, the floodgates were opened. A list of some of the better known protections tells the tale: occupational safety and health (1970); boat safety (1971); insecticide, fungicide, and rodenticide (1972); marine protection, research, and sanctuaries (1972); consumer products safety (1972); noise control (1972); safe drinking water (1974); motor vehicle safety (1974); hazardous materials transportation (1975); toxic substances control (1976); solid waste disposal (1976); clean air (1977); mine safety and health (1977); water pollution control (1977); comprehensive environmental response, compensation, and liability (1980).

The proliferation of these laws, and the agencies to administer them, is a manifestation of the public will and a splendid example of democracy at work. They show that the declaration in engineering codes of ethics to "protect the public interest" were much too vague to be useful (except as a general commitment to do one’s best.) Yet, clearly legislation was not intended as a rebuff to engineers. In fact, engineers played a crucial role in drafting the acts that today protect the body social from disease, injury, and disaster. We cannot expect to enjoy the benefits of high technology and the fruits of a competitive economy without facing up to the complexity - yes, the often annoying complexity - that is inherent in them.

And complexity is an understatement when we consider the multitude of problems that are the consequences of our astonishing technological exploits. We all want safety, reliability, an undamaged environment, and undepleted resources. We also want economy - in fact, this is a moral imperative because it means more benefits for people of modest means. We want freedom and privacy, but also the benefits of technologies that threaten freedom and privacy. Surely the trade-offs that must be made cannot be left to the "free market," and surely the problems go beyond anything that can be determined by engineers, no matter how well intentioned they are. Engineers are committed to educating the public, presenting the facts clearly and correctly. But - unlike the days of Senator Benton - the basic technological decisions today must ultimately be subject to the public will, which means subject to the approval of politicians and bureaucrats.

An integral part of engineering progress has been the development of many thousands of technical standards. These standards constitute an engineering triumph - a glory of our civilization, comparable to the development of regulatory laws and agencies. In fact, these two marvelous phenomena are interrelated. Voluntary standards are developed by professional groups, and then government agencies, when they see fit, adopt the standards and give them the force of law. Without these laws, regulations, codes, and rules, each engineer would be given unwarranted - and unwanted - powers (and, incidentally, each engineering problem would entail reinventing the wheel).

We must constantly work to make our regulatory apparatus more efficient. This is a special challenge for engineers who choose to go into government service. And we must constantly preach self-discipline. Even with laws and regulations, we need self-discipline in the form of scrupulous compliance. Yet self-discipline is no substitute for restraint by government. The American founding fathers knew this and said it - frequently and eloquently. It simply took a while to apply the concept to technological activities.

Of course, it would be impossible - and undesirable - to subject every engineering decision to a written regulation. The next line of defense, however, is not the ethics of engineers, but rather the standards of liability as made manifest by our courts. And here, too, there have been meaningful changes in recent years. How safe is safe enough? What is the expectation of the citizenry in the area of risk and responsibility? Beyond the limits of legislation, the decisions of judges and juries govern. We do not say to industry, "be ethical." That is too vague and permits an enormous range of individual responses. It is an invitation to chaos. We say instead, "be prudent, and here are the standards by which you will be judged."

An industrial firm can be held liable for defective product design, defective manufacture, inadequate labeling, and faulty packaging. Liability losses can be suffered by companies that fail to keep proper records of product sales and distribution or fail to keep adequate records of project failures and customer complaints. As stated by the authors of Product Safety and Liability: A Desk Reference, "The one choice engineers, designers, and their employers no longer have is whether or not to pursue safety goals. To ignore or pay only lip service to safety . . . can jeopardize corporate survival" (Kolb and Ross, 1980).

Product safety is no longer a matter of conscience and good will. It is a professional specialty founded in knowledge of prediction techniques, fault tree analysis, failure modes, effects analysis, and the operator-design interface. When it comes to establishing liability, worthy intentions no longer count. Tort law traditionally required that negligence be proved as a "proximate" cause of an injury. But, since the 1960s, courts have been imposing "strict liability" for injuries caused by dangerous products whether or not negligence was involved. Nor is industrial pollution mainly a matter of ethical integrity as it once was. Most of the major environmental protection laws include provisions that permit private suits; so in addition to penalties that can be imposed by government agencies, the increasingly powerful environmental organizations have access to the courts.

The problems of the Information Age - who should control the Internet and how - are still too new for us to predict their resolution. This is also the case with genetic engineering, terrorism, and the other technological problems that seem to arise almost daily. But it is clear that all of our old assumptions and beliefs - including engineering ethics - will be subject to continual challenge and reevaluation.

Yet some people - especially among the professional ethicists - are reluctant to accept the changes that have occurred. When a respected historian of technology, Edwin T. Layton, Jr. (1983), calls for engineers to become a "loyal opposition" within corporate America, I feel that he is expressing the precepts of an earlier age. Surely he means well; but by setting "good" engineers against "bad" entrepreneurs, I fear that he, and like-minded colleagues, may be doing more harm than good. First of all, if the objective is to protect the public welfare - which everyone agrees is the central objective of engineering ethics - such moralists have the wrong target in their sights. Several in-depth studies have shown that the overwhelming preponderance of technological disasters are caused, not by evil design - by greed or intent to deceive - but by ignorance, carelessness, negligence, and the like. A well intentioned, even saintly engineer may still be an inept engineer, that is, a "bad" engineer if his work does not serve the public well. Engineering ethics is not the same as conventional ethics. It is always worth preaching sermons on behalf of virtuous behavior. We must continually remind young people - and ourselves - that it is important to resist temptation and "do the right thing." But, in technical work, the facts show that competence does more good than "goodness," that incompetence does much more harm than evil intent. It is deceptive to imply that we can serve society by meaning well.

It is also unfortunate that academics who stress the importance of being constantly on guard against malfeasance risk nourishing feelings of suspicion and mistrust among their students. Yes, to repeat, we must be alert to the possibility of encountering evil in the world. But do we have to dwell on this endlessly in classes, conferences, and lectures? One hopes that young engineers can enter into their professional lives, not filled with foreboding and suspicion, but energized with enthusiasm and hope.

Whistle-blowing - to use a word that appears early and often in many discussions of engineering ethics - is a rare and extreme circumstance, worthy of consideration, to be sure, but not deserving of the central role it has been given in studies of the field. In this day and age, most enlightened organizations have an ombudsman system, or equivalent, to deal with employee grievances and alarms on a confidential basis. Development and maintenance of such systems is a key element of competent - and responsible - management. We will never eliminate the need for honorable and courageous people willing to endure martyrdom on behalf of public well-being. But a society that relies upon such martyrdom from its citizens is neither wise nor noble.

By dwelling on ambiguities and constant change, I do not wish to voice support for cynicism, of which there is no shortage. But, isn’t it true that many debates that are nominally about engineering ethics are really expressions of personal prejudice and political commitment?

Of course, engineers are entitled to express their personal opinions. And clearly they have an ethical right to choose a line of work consistent with their political views. But this does not give them the license to allow their prejudices to overwhelm their professional discernment. Today, for example, an issue that divides the citizenry, engineers included, is the question of whether or not to drill for oil in the wildlife preserves of Alaska. Passions run deep, and it is sometimes difficult to remember that, as has been said in the Senate, "We are Americans on both sides of the aisle." I suppose that most engineers working for the oil companies favor drawing upon this resource, while most engineers working for environmental groups favor the reverse view. This need not be so in all instances, however, nor should it be. What is required of all engineers, however, is accuracy and truthfulness in all the work they perform.

It would be marvelous if every engineer could work for a cause in which he or she believed deeply. But the world being the way it is, this is not always possible. I am a builder, and I may wish to build a museum, a library, or a hospital. But it is morally acceptable for me to build a store or an office building, or even a gambling casino where casinos can be lawfully built. In fact, just as each citizen is entitled to legal representation, one can argue that every lawful enterprise is entitled to engage advice from professional engineers.

I remember how, at the height of the Cold War, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers used to conduct polls among its members about who was well satisfied to work on armaments, who was uneasily willing, who was not willing, etc. The results showed large percentages in each of the categories, just one example of the obvious fact that engineers are human beings.

Inevitably someone will raise the example of Nazi Germany and the work of engineers in designing and building death camps. To this, one can only say that absolute evil should be resisted wherever it is encountered, by all citizens, including, but not limited to, engineers. However, because such extreme examples - although they are worthy of discussion and should never be forgotten - are associated with wicked despotism, they need not form the core of deliberations by American professionals.

I propose that when engineers discuss ethics they avoid a simplistic approach that is no longer adequate to the complexities of the current day. This does not mean they should abandon their professional commitment to moral principles. However, I propose that the essence of engineering ethics be recognized as something different and apart from white-hat heroics. There is no single word that defines this "something," but conscientiousness is fairly close to what I have in mind. Engineers should be constantly aware that their fellow citizens are relying upon them. As a consequence, if they do their jobs well, they are acting more than competently. In serving their fellow human beings, and serving them well, they are acting righteously. Reliability is a virtue. Therefore, the conscientious, effective engineer is a virtuous engineer. It is superfluous to give specific admonitions such as, "Don’t falsify test reports." The conscientious engineer must be, by definition, truthful, factual, alert, accurate - all key elements of any definition of ethical behavior. And, in a world where poverty and destitution are still widespread, a creative engineer - an engineer who alleviates hunger and suffering - becomes a towering force for moral good.

Much more can be said, to be sure. Individual engineers are uniquely qualified to perform pro bono work in their communities - and beyond. Also, through their professional societies, engineers have an opportunity (and a responsibility) to call attention to technological problems and to propose solutions - to commission studies, issue reports, set standards, schedule seminars, visit schools, and so forth. The role of the engineer has changed through the years, and it is well worth studying the nature of these changes and coming to terms with the new social order. But the opportunities to do good, particularly in organized groups, have not diminished.

Unfortunately, less than a third of U.S. engineers belong to any professional society at all. This seems to me to be a very good topic with which to continue the discussion about engineering ethics - the conversation without end.


  • Kolb, J., and S.S. Ross. 1980. Product Safety and Liability: A Desk Reference. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Layton, E.T. 1983. Engineering needs a loyal opposition. Business and Professional Ethics 2(3): 51-59.
About the Author:Samuel C. Florman is chairman of Kreisler Borg Florman Construction Company and the author of several books on the relationship between engineering and the general culture. He is a member of NAE.