The days when an engineer's only ethical commitment was loyalty to his or her employer have long passed. The expansiveness of technology is such that now, more than ever, society is holding engineering professions accountable for decisions that affect a full range of daily life activities. Engineers now are responsible for saying: "Can we do it, should we do it, if we do it, can we control it, and are we willing to be accountable for it?" There have been too many "headline type" instances of technology gone astray for it to be otherwise: Pinto automobiles that burn when hit from the rear, DC-10's that crash when cargo doors don't hold, bridges that collapse, Hyatt Regency walkways that fail, space shuttles that explode on national TV, gas leaks that kill thousands, nuclear plant accidents, computer viruses, oil tanker oil spills, and on and on.
Since engineers have been accorded professional status and the privileges that go with it, since they have literally created our way of life, and since their designs require experimentation with subjects - sometimes many subjects and without their knowledge or permission - it is no wonder that engineers are being held accountable for their actions. And for engineers, the implications are inescapable. Handling ethical dilemmas and making ethical decisions are very important elements of being a professional.
Dilemmas force hard moral choices. They cause us to deal with values. If we are going to deal with dilemmas in an organized manner that allows us to explain and defend our decisions and not start from ground zero with each new problem, we need to:
This process allows us to get in our minds clear ideas about what is right and wrong and helps us to decide what to do in other cases. Then we have to make important distinctions. We have to distinguish between:
This takes you back to the start of the list and the considerations of what morality really means.
Follow the above system when you analyze ethical dilemmas and you will be able to completely encircle the problem and approach its solution from many directions. But remember: you usually have to give up something of value to get something of value, and with ethics, there frequently is no absolute right answer, just a personal best answer, and it all comes down to you.
Consider the case of The Backwards Math. This case is reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill, Inc., publishers of Chemical Engineering magazine, the publication in which the case originally appeared.
Consider also the case of Political Contributions. This case is taken from the National Society of Professional Engineers publication "Opinions of the Board of Ethical Review."