Ethics Modules

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.

A Structured Way to Approach Ethical Problems

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:

  • Think about what we mean by such terms as good, bad, right, wrong, and necessary.
  • Consider, at the most general level, what kinds of actions are morally permissible. Is war ever justified? Can a price tag - any price tag - be put on human life? Is it ever permissible to eliminate a species?
  • Bring the general and theoretical to specifics which relate to the here and now of the real world. Is capital punishment a moral way to deal with those who are guilty of murder? Was the Persian Gulf War justified? Was it morally permissible to drop atomic bombs to end World War II?

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:

  • Conventional and Reflective Morality - Is what we have always done what we ought to do?
  • Morality and Law - Just because it is legal, is it right?
  • Morality and Prudence - Can we morally do it, just because it is in our best interest?
  • Morality and Economics - Is the most economic decision the most moral decision?
  • Morality and Obedience to Authority - Is following orders that are not proper a legal or a moral defense?
  • Morality and Mere Opinion - Are you obligated to search further for a reason to justify actions than mere opinion?

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.

Ethics Case 1

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.

Ethics Case 2

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."