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“The Importance of Engineering Ethics”


It is critical for an engineer to maintain an ethical reputation within his/her engineering career. The main principles that an engineer should work and live by are “to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, perform services only in areas of their competence, act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, avoid deceptive acts, and conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession” (NSPE Code of Ethics 1). It is the engineer’s responsibility to uphold his/her position to the fullest in taking everything into account before making a critical decision.


Ethical and moral decisions often have severe consequences. “In a world increasingly shaped by technology, engineers have a moral obligation to consider the consequences of their choices” (Ganssle 1). It is very important for an engineer to use clear judgment when a safety problem is at stake, especially in disaster recovery. When a safety problem is a concern it may be easy to not report it; however, an engineer has an ethical responsibility to report all safety issues even though by doing so, he/she may run the risk of being penalized, fired or blacklisted. The line between ethical, moral standards and circumstances where jobs are at stake becomes very thin. For example, “Engineer A learns that his employer is violating environmental regulations relating to acceptable toxicity levels of waste materials being released by the employer’s industrial facility. Does he report this fact to the public authorities or the media?” (Schwartz 1) In this case due to Section , 1F of the NSPE Code of Ethics which clearly states that “Engineers having knowledge of any alleged violation of this Code shall report thereon to appropriate professional bodies and, when relevant, also to public authorities, and cooperate with the proper authorities in furnishing such information or assistance as may be required,” there should be no question as to what response should be taken.


It is important to develop the moral skills needed to respond well to ethical problems. There is rarely an absolutely correct solution or response to a problem. Even if there is no absolutely correct answer, some answers are better than others. There may be several solutions to one problem. In these cases, judgment and experience must come into play. “As with law and medicine, engineering is a learned profession. As a profession, engineering constantly involves the expert judgment and discretion in the performance of services. Engineers are expected to use their education, training, and experience in a manner that comports with the public health and safety” (Schwartz 1). Being a learned profession, engineering ethics are taught in the classroom to prepare students who lack practical experience to handle situations in the industrial world where ethical decisions have real consequences (Stephan ).


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Judgment is usually a significant part of the engineer’s decision-making process. “The engineering effort is in knowing what to calculate, and how to model the real world, so that the solution, the real structure, actually performs the way the engineer wants it to. Even the best calculations only substantiate, but do not substitute for the judgment of the structural engineer” (Kardon 5). Codes of ethics set down by regulatory agencies provide for basic rules of conduct that an engineer must follow. They provide guidelines that assist engineers in various situations. “Except in the most basic circumstances, codes of ethics do not provide answers or solutions to ethical dilemmas faced by engineers” (Schwartz ).


Ethical engineering skills are developed from instances of “cases” which occurred over time. Different liability cases and their ultimate outcome have been the basis for educating engineers. Because engineering requires good and reliable judgment, experience is the best educator. Expertise and experience are very important qualifications. In addition to structural concerns, the concerns of the engineer are not unlike the concerns of management � limiting losses. However, these concerns must not over shadow the concerns of public welfare and safety. For example, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of America’s most famous bridges. It was the first large suspension bridge and it had many new construction ideas. The design required massive use of structural wire rope. The designer of the bridge, the best wire rope vendor of the day, was not awarded the wire contract. The firm that won the contract “provided knowingly and with almost criminal intent, substandard material that could have jeopardized the safety of thousands of commuters. The original bridge designer’s sensationally redundant design saved the project. The history of civil engineering is filled with stories of crooked contractors and lousy materials. In pursuit of the quick buck, ethics are consistently tossed to the winds” (Ganssle 4).


“Construction is a dangerous pastime, and builders sometimes take undue risks in order to save time or money” (Kardon 8). The engineer must consider the consequences of the risks taken under the worst circumstances. In business situations, profitability is always of the utmost importance. Although costs should not be ignored, much consideration should be given to safety, honesty, integrity and experience. Let’s face it, we all know but don’t care to admit that we are lazy. We tend to take the easy way out rather than do it right. “Disciplined development is a core value of any workable approach…but it’s tedious and, well, disciplined” (Ganssle 5). The ethical engineer should never compromise his/her standards by misrepresenting, concealing or ignoring a potential problem. “The law of unintended consequences means we cannot understand the implications of our actions over the long haul” (Ganssle ).


“All ethics are personal” (Ganssle ). Most responsible engineers try to do their job as ethically as possible. However, engineering in today’s world has become complex. Good intentions might not always be enough. Often the pressures of deadlines, profitability, time management, and competition cause great stress on engineers. It is easy to overlook minute details. In some cases these small details can be significant in the failure of a project. It is important for engineers to accept personal responsibility for their professional activities.


Years ago in engineering shops one person may have been the designer, business manager, salesperson, and service manager. Today, things are a little bit more complicated. There are many individuals and departments in the same firm or corporation that play different roles. “Issues of safety, liability, and business integrity can easily get lost even when all individuals are doing there assigned jobs” (Stephan ). Under these circumstances, it is more likely for engineers to rely on his/her peers to identify problems or shed light on a safety concern, in which case many issues will fall through the cracks. However, if the entire firm takes personal responsibility in each project the success rate will be higher.


In conclusion, the actions involved with carrying out the right and ethical solution to any engineering problem may not be easy, especially is today’s world. But the path that must be taken should be obvious. This type of decision-making comes with experience, but the basic principles can be learned. The work that an engineer does often impacts the lives of countless people. With such a responsibility it is up to them to act in the most ethical, honest and trustworthy manner possible.





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