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

Ethics and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Norman R. Augustine

Engineers who make bad decisions often don’t realize they are confronting ethical issues.

During the years I had the privilege of teaching in the engineering school at Princeton, I began the first class session of every semester by announcing that a gentleman had invented a new product that virtually everyone in the world would want to have - a product that would create millions of new jobs and would greatly improve the quality of most people’s lives. Furthermore, as luck would have it, he was seeking investors. When asked, most students expressed significant interest in investing in his endeavor (at least hypothetically - after all, they were students!). But when I added, "Oh yes, there is one other thing - his invention will kill a quarter of a million people each year" and asked if they would still be interested in investing, no one showed any interest in such a reprehensible product. Furthermore, most said that any such product should be banned outright. I then told them that the inventor’s name was Nicholas Joseph Cugnot - and his invention was the automobile.

Imagine that you were responsible for the structural design of a building in Manhattan, the world’s seventh tallest building, and that after the edifice was completed and fully occupied by its owners you, and you alone, discovered that there was an error in the design that could result in the structure’s collapse in a type of storm that might be expected to occur every 16 years. What should you do? In this case, the "you" is Bill LeMessurier, a highly regarded structural engineer. He immediately informed the owner of the building and the authorities of the danger.


Or suppose you are a young, up-and-coming manager in a large corporation and that one day the chairman of the firm indicates to you that he is impressed with your work and is going to propose that you be elected to the board of directors. He goes on to say that there will be one condition: "You will always vote," he says, "exactly as I tell you." What should you do? In this case, the "you" is Herb Krannert - and his answer was simple. "I quit," he said. The following day six of his colleagues showed up at his front door saying they heard what happened and they too had quit - and they wanted to go to work for him! Together, they formed the Inland Container Corporation.

Or suppose you are an engineer responsible for overseeing the research and development work of an aerospace corporation by which you are employed; the company is doing some very early research on stealth technology, in which it is investing significant sums of money. Independently, you are asked by the government to serve, in a personal capacity, as chairman of an outside advisory board. In carrying out your duties for the government, you become aware that the government is funding research on stealth technology at another company based on an altogether different technical approach that is far more advanced than the work being done by your own company. How do you carry out your responsibilities to your company - and yet honor your duty of privacy to your client, the U.S. government, and, indirectly, to its contractor on the project? In this case, I was "the engineer."


These three examples span the spectrum of ethics from macroethics to microethics, and all of them involve engineering. Macroethics involves ethical issues that affect large segments of society, whereas microethics involves issues that affect a smaller, more immediate group, such as one’s boss or one’s client.

When raising the subject of ethics among engineers, their response is often, "What does ethics have to do with engineering? Engineering deals with equations and the principles of nature. The second law of thermodynamics is the second law of thermodynamics - no interpretation required." In fact, that certainty is precisely what attracted many of us to engineering in the first place.


But it’s not that simple. As the examples suggest, engineering has a great deal to do with ethics; and most of the engineers whom I have seen get into trouble on ethical matters did so not because they were not decent people but because they failed to recognize that they were confronting an ethical issue. As a result, they made horrendously bad decisions - decisions they had to live with for the rest of their lives.


The oldest statement of ethics for the engineering profession is considered by many to be Cicero’s Creed, which counsels that public safety must be preeminent in everything engineers do. By that standard, it is instructive to ask how well the engineering profession has performed. In examining such an emotion-laden issue, it sometimes helps to look at performance in the distant past. Hence, consider the designers of the Titanic, who provided 1,178 lifeboat positions on a ship that carried 2,224 passengers and crew. When disaster struck, 1,515 people lost their lives, at least in part because of this single decision. Was this a case of bad ethics or bad design - or both? If the engineers truly believed that the ship was unsinkable, then perhaps there was no need for any lifeboat places at all. If the ship was in fact sinkable, then there would presumably be a need for at least one lifeboat position for every person on board. In no case does providing lifeboat places for half the ship’s occupants make any sense. Was it expected that the ship would "half sink"?

Or consider the magnificent Crystal Palace designed by Sir Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London as the centerpiece of that extravaganza. A contemporary news account described the testing procedures used to verify the design of the walkways in the imaginative structure:
The first experiment was that of placing a dead load of about 42,000 pounds . . . consisting of 300 of the workmen of the contractors, on the floors and the adjoining approaches . . . The fourth experiment - and that which may be considered the most severe test . . . was that of packing closely that same load of men, and causing them to jump up and down together for some time.


Was this simply a convenient and inexpensive way to conduct a test, or was it an imaginative motivational technique, or was it a reflection of an ethical shortcoming?


How would the engineering practices for the Titanic and the Crystal Palace comport with Cicero’s principle, and would practices such as these be condoned today? The bottom line is that the things engineers do have consequences, both positive and negative, sometimes unintended, often widespread, and occasionally irreversible. In fact, the ethical content of the decisions confronting engineers is increasing as the impact of their work reaches more and more people around the world. Consider questions such as whether oil fields should be established on the North Slope of Alaska; whether a renewed effort should be undertaken to build nuclear power plants; whether a dam should be built that would help prevent flooding but would severely impact the environment in the vicinity of the dam itself; whether new robots should be built that would increase efficiency but put large numbers of people out of work. Increasingly, engineers are realizing that simply because they can do something, does not necessarily imply that they should do it. A recent poll by Georgia Tech showed that 80 percent of the respondents believe that the public should have a say in the regulation of new technological innovations.


Nowhere is the complexity of these issues more challenging than in the burgeoning areas of genetics and so-called genetic engineering, which raises profound issues, such as whether cloning should be permitted, what sort of stem cell research is appropriate, and so forth. In the years ahead it is likely that engineers will become increasingly prominent in the biological sciences, adding another dimension to the decisions they face.

Unfortunately, one can build a reasonable argument that modern terrorism has been made possible by advancements in science and technology. For the first time in history, individuals or very small groups of individuals - who can thus "live among us" in our free society - have leverage whereby they can profoundly and adversely impact the lives of very large groups. This has been brought about through the unintended consequences of past scientific and technological advancements.

Interestingly, engineers as a group enjoy a relatively good reputation in terms of ethical comportment. In Gallup polls conducted every year since 1976, engineers generally rank in the upper third (nurses are usually at the top, and car salesmen are usually at the bottom) in terms of confidence in their honesty and the ethics of their field. Another encouraging trend is that the absolute fraction of the public expressing confidence in the engineering profession has steadily increased over the years from about 45 percent to 60 percent in the most recent survey. This may, of course, be fortuitous because few engineering schools in America teach ethics, per se. In fact, some 80 percent of current engineering graduates are not required to take ethics-related courses at all. This may change, however, since the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology recently established a requirement that all engineering graduates be exposed to a formal ethics course. The teachings of Plato, Mill, Kant, Spinoza, Descartes, Nietzsche, Epicurus, Confucius, and others will indeed provide a very solid foundation for the understanding of ethics. But it is important that ethics courses also deal with the pragmatic issues that confront engineers in the rough-and-tumble, everyday world in which they live and work.

A reasonable question is why ethical issues require special courses in an already badly overburdened engineering curriculum. The answer is that, first, it is not always easy to recognize that an issue or decision has ethical connotations. Second, even then, it is often difficult to determine the ethical thing to do. Third, even when this has been determined, acting ethically often requires superhuman fortitude. And, finally, doing the ethical thing often does not lead to the desired outcome, at least not in the short term.


The problem is not so much associated with the Ivan Boesky school of ethics - Boesky once told students at UCLA that "greed is good" - as it is with the Charlie Brown school of ethics. For example, one day the peripatetic Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy observes him shooting an arrow at a fence and then drawing a target around the spot where the arrow landed - with the point smack in the bulls-eye! Needless to say, Lucy becomes hysterical over Charlie’s behavior - and her frame of mind is not helped when Charlie calmly explains, "But if you do it my way, you never miss."


Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once defined ethics as "knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is the right thing to do." One of the nation’s great engineers, Glenn Martin, speaking of his friend Orville Wright, pointed out the advantages of ethical behavior in the field of engineering


    I am convinced that it was his [Orville Wright’s] devotion to the truth - in all things - that lay at the root of the Wright Brothers’ success in creating the airplane . . . The quality of honesty in daily dealings is an infallible guide to a (person’s) capabilities in the engineering and scientific fields. Structures and machines are unforgiving of the cheater and inevitably indict those who toy with the facts.

One of the great attributes of our profession is that our work is judged by Mother Nature, an unfailingly consistent and fair judge—albeit a judge unforgiving of human error. But the work of engineers must do far more than comply with the laws of nature; it must also comply with the laws of society and must serve our principal client, humankind.


In this context, about a year ago - well before Enron, Rite Aid, Waste Management, Sunbeam, WorldCom, ImClone, Xerox, Tyco, Adelphia, Global Crossing, Computer Associates, Cendant, MicroStrategy, and others became front-page news - NAE President Bill Wulf established an NAE committee to determine if our Academy might play a role in ensuring that our profession and its members never face the derision now being heaped - broadly and often indiscriminately - on American business. The committee, which is comprised of engineers, lawyers, judges, ethicists, scientists, educators, industrialists, and others, will make its final report in the next few months. The committee is addressing both microethical and macroethical issues, but its emphasis is on the latter because many excellent forums are already addressing the former. Among the proposals being considered by the committee is the establishment within the NAE of a center for engineering ethics and society, the purpose of which would be to lay the groundwork for assisting engineers and the public in making difficult ethical decisions that impact large segments of society.

Warren Buffett once gave his son some good advice that also applies to engineering: "It takes years to build a reputation - and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently." Although we can take pride in so much of what engineers have done over the years, we might wish to do a few things differently in the future.
About the Author:Norman R. Augustine is a former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corporation, a former Under Secretary of the Army, and a former lecturer with the rank of professor at Princeton University. He has served on the board of the Ethics Resource Center and has been a trustee of Johns Hopkins and Princeton universities and MIT. He is a former chairman of NAE and chair of the NAE Committee on Engineering Ethics and Society.