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Engineering Ethics in 2014

Posted December 17, 2014 10:41 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: career engineer ethics morals

Just like doctors, engineers are expected to utilize their skills and knowledge in a benevolent fashion. Where the Hippocratic Oath outlines the ethical standards for physicians (simplified as "do no harm"), there isn't one standard oath for engineers. Several professional engineer organizations each have their own vows. The following ethics were enacted by the American Society of Professional Engineers in 1914, and also convey the same principles upheld by oaths of other engineering organizations.

  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.
  2. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest.
  5. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.
  6. Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.
  7. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.

Yet some engineers take their professional pledge more seriously than others. Upholding it can include whistleblowing, a.k.a. snitching, a term that carries with it connotations of social mistrust. Engineers should create a collaborative and opportunity-driven environment, even with engineers they might be competing against. How does a weapons system engineer remain ethical while designing a platform to kill people? Sometimes, the 'acceptable risk' might exceed some definitions of acceptable.

These aren't really questions with answers, or at least the kind of answers that can be easily addressed with comments on an internet forum. Each individual engineer has a personal responsibility to uphold professional expectations and when a value is compromised, he or she needs to do something to personally rectify the situation. An engineer that spots a deficiency has some degree of interpretation on how to address it, and far more flexibility than a doctor placed in a similar circumstance.

Is there a way to ensure engineers behave ethically? Not really. Perhaps encouraging more student involvement in projects like Engineers Without Borders can foster goodwill, but ultimately each individual needs to make a commitment to ethical engineering. Ethics aren't equal to morals either; morals change between communities and cultures, but ethics are more resolved.

And in some ways, it's impossible for engineers to behave totally ethically. Patents restrict the flow of information. Certain industries profit from malignance. In certain ways, laws and standards make engineering ethics an afterthought. It's also not an engineer's place to fight public policy or impose bias.

Simply, 'ethical engineering' doesn't mean what it used to mean 100 years ago. Train bridges and molasses factories simply don't fail like the use to. Ethical engineering can be boiled down to doing things right and doing the right thing. If an engineer is conscious, thorough and civic-minded in their actions or tasks, then they're behaving ethically.

How do you identify ethical engineering?

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#1

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/17/2014 11:20 AM

Ethics is such a loose term, even Adolf Hitler had ethics.

This may get philosophical because I believe ones ethics can change to adjust to ones own environment.

I did a thesis on this in my college ethics class. Where it resembled a bubble level and the level is adjusted to center yourself in your environment. You just have to be careful not to pick an immoral environment that strains and is detriment to your own core values..

And that would apply to the question of:

How do you identify ethical engineering?

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/17/2014 11:29 AM

Previous in Blog: Do Engineers Make Good Terrorists?

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#3

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/17/2014 12:13 PM

Mechanical Engineers make weapons...Civil Engineers make targets.

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/17/2014 1:43 PM

Yea, but they wouldn't hit anything without us Electrical Engineers.

Jack - An actual military defence contractor (among other things)

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#14
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Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 10:12 AM

Chemical Engineers make war crimes.

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#19
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Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 2:10 PM

...the first of which violates principle no.1.

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#20
In reply to #19

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 2:24 PM

See post #18 below, and welcome to the grey area (Woooooooo).

Actually that would have been better if this was posted on Halloween.

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#5

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/17/2014 4:18 PM

There are, often, competing ethical drivers and less than clear decisions to be made.

Should you make a decision based on your client's wish or on his best interest when they are different?

With apologies to Justice Potter, I know an unethical decision when I see it.

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#15
In reply to #5

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 12:25 PM

"Should you make a decision based on your client's wish or on his best interest when they are different?"

You inform the client that his requirement is not in his best interest. That is, you try to educate your customer. If the client refuses your suggestion, then you do it his way. If the client's way is to violate a law or something else you feel is not negotiable, you inform the client why you will not serve him and you leave the project.

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#6

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/17/2014 6:08 PM

"And in some ways, it's impossible for engineers to behave totally ethically. Patents restrict the flow of information."

Perhaps you didn't phrase this the way you intended to. There is certainly nothing unethical about patents. Nor is there anything about patents that 'restricts the flow of information'. If anything, patents increase the flow of information. I worked for many years at two companies that produced similar products:

The first company spent NO dollars pursuing patents. Every piece of engineering intellectual property was filed with the engineering department and with the company lawyers, and kept as 'company proprietary'. None of our inventions were ever seen by other engineers unless a 'non-disclosure agreement' was signed and notarized. Thus there was also NO flow of information.

The second company actively pursued patents and spent a significant chunk of its engineering budget on patents. Its patents have potentially been seen by thousands of other engineers outside the company. In one case I even collaborated with an outside company to perfect the design for a patent. In the case of this second company, patents encouraged the flow of information.

This doesn't mean there aren't problems with the patent system. I've previously discussed here on CR4 the problem of lawyering firms that take unfair advantage of patent laws to extract royalty fees. The chilling effect of these 'submarine' patent holders does restrict information - but that's due to the lawyers, not the engineers and not the patents.

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#16
In reply to #6

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 12:30 PM

Good answer. I have worked for a company which encouraged patents. Bonuses were often granted to engineers who successfully patented something.

There were some years when the market was down but the company still posted a profit because of the license fees paid to it by its competitors.

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#17
In reply to #6

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 12:42 PM

True. Perhaps I should have better specified some of the problems patents can create, rather than painting with such a broad stroke.

Submarining is harder to do recently, as the patent office has become better about releasing details.

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#7

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 12:07 AM

"...sustainable development..." does not sound like anything from 1914. I looked up the link, and this version of these canons is from 2006. I don't really "have a problem" with anything on the list, but, please, don't make it out to be something it isn't and never was.

Engineers have always been concerned about the possibility of disaster resulting from their work. "Dilbert" mentioned this while making a career-day presentation to a third-grade class, remarking that every engineer fervently hopes that he will make it to retirement without "effing up" in a way that causes mass casualties. William Mulholland's career ended with the failure of the St. Francis Dam mere hours after he and Harvey Van Norman inspected it and pronounced it sound. Six hundred people died, and Mulholland "retired" in disgrace. There are others. Many others. Too many.

Physicians kill people one at a time; engineers generally kill people in large numbers, either intentionally with weapons of war or unintentionally (Oops!). I used to work in "weapons and delivery systems", and, if my work had been employed/deployed, many, many more than six hundred would have died. The philosophy which allowed me to retain what bit of sanity I might have had is that even more would have died without the work I and many others did. Mutually Assured Destruction worked with the Soviets, because they, too, wanted to live.

Today, things are different; I'm glad that I am fixing cars.

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#8

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 6:21 AM

GA by USBPort, and I'd like to add my $.02.

Starting at the very beginning, the basis for our U.S. patent system was originally set forth in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, which states that "Congress shall have the power…To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Congress has acted accordingly since 1790, passing and revising numerous patent laws.

Stated succinctly, a patent is a property right that is granted by a government authority, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It can be compared to a real estate deed in that it defines the metes and bounds of an invention. A patent is also considered to be a contract with the government that grants to the inventor a monopoly for a fixed period of time in return for a full disclosure to the public of how to make and use the invention. This monopoly can be quite valuable to the inventor should his/her invention become commercially successful. However, the contract is hardly a one sided deal: our patent system serves the public interest in a substantial way in return for the grant of that time-limited monopoly. When a patent expires, the public is free to use that full disclosure in the patent as a recipe to practice the invention, free of payment of any royalties to the inventor. Our U.S. Patent Office, and other patent offices worldwide, thus serve us as some of the largest repositories of technical knowledge in the world, on every subject that you could possibly imagine.

So as USBPort says, patents increase the flow of information. And while quite rarely but sometimes, "bad" patents get issued, and also sometimes but rarely some patent practitioners and/or patent applicants act unethically, there is nothing unethical about patents. To the contrary, because of the requirement for full disclosure of how to make and use an invention, the patent system, and that of the U.S. in particular, has been a hell of a deal for society. So seeing the blanket statement "Patents restrict the flow of information" in a posting on "Engineering ethics" makes me wonder what is being implied here.

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#21
In reply to #8

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 2:47 PM

I would like to add that there are some modern complications that affect patents:

(1) the rise of patent trolls (these seem to gain rights or apply for patents that are superfluous, marginal change of state of art, or down right faulty in design, for the express purpose of bringing legal actions against those who undeniably applied for and won primary patents on the technology.

(2) loss of individual rights to patents by assigning all intellectual property rights to an employer. Good luck getting the employer to waive anything patented through independent work, unrelated, done off their property, on one's own time, etc.

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#22
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Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 3:05 PM

From numerous sources this seems to be a very serious problem with inventors.

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/12/17/small-businesses-claim-us-government-stealing-their-ideas/

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#9

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 7:18 AM

HUSH, you are way out of line making this statement:

"How does a weapons system engineer remain ethical while designing a platform to kill people?"

You have no right to state such a line of BS.

It's just not ethical to say such a thing.

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#18
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Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 1:55 PM

Agreed. Ethics is one of those things where there is a small black area, a small white area and a large grey area open to interpretation and subject to change depending on the circumstances. I loved my Engineering ethics course when I did it, quite an eye opener regarding the grey areas.

For example, who is more unethical, a person builds and supplies products used in defensive military applications that never result in any deaths over the lifetime of the product or an Engineer who knowingly builds a substandard or imperfect product because of market pressures that results in actual deaths.

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Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 7:31 AM
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#11

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 8:27 AM

I hope you are not under the assumption that the Industrial medical Industry has ethics. Unfortunately this also includes doctors that do not speak out against FDA and the medical organizations that treat until death. These groups even have the corrupt money to purchase legislation to protect them from lawsuits for their toxic concoctions.

If engineers ever sink as low as the industrial medical operators then most of the world is in grave danger. My opinion only take it for what is its perceived value.

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#12

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 9:11 AM

Top ball game is on the management and finance level.

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#13

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 9:49 AM

Perhaps a little closer reading of Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The Sons of Martha," is in order:

Here is a link with a little explanation.

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/luke-10-34-42-the-sons-of-martha/

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#23

Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 3:30 PM

Ethics 101 for Engineers: "...Do Not Get Caught..."

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#24
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Re: Engineering Ethics in 2014

12/18/2014 4:41 PM

I worked at a place that had another rule:

'Do unto others........ Before they do it to you.'

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