Engineers are rarely in the spotlight unless and until a prominent failure occurs. Similarly, ethics typically does not generate headlines except in the aftermath of alleged misconduct, such as the manipulation of emissions testing by Volkswagen and the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Perhaps at least part of the problem is confusion about the nature of engineering ethics. Is it simply a set of rules to follow or a group of behaviors to avoid, over and above the technical aspects of the profession? Could there be more to ethics than that—maybe even something positive?
Of course, all engineers are familiar with the criteria documents that govern their work. For structural engineers like me, they include the International Building Code and its primary reference standards for minimum design loads, concrete and steel. Printed editions require a considerable amount of paper—nearly 4,000 pages just for these four publications—and other volumes provide requirements and guidance for additional materials and situations. Other disciplines of engineering are similar: The amount of relevant information is far beyond what any individual could reasonably be expected to memorize. As a result, engineers must regularly refer to such documents, which underlines their importance.
Engineers are also generally familiar with the codes of ethics that industry organizations have promulgated, such as the one adopted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Consisting of four Fundamental Principles, seven Fundamental Canons and numerous associated guidelines to practice, it fits on a total of just four pages; perhaps it would be reasonable to expect engineers to memorize it—if not in its entirety, then at least its primary elements. But it is doubtful that many engineers have taken this step; in fact, it seems likely that few engineers even feel the need to refer to the code of ethics on a regular basis. Does this reflect its relative unimportance in engineering practice?
As an alternative, I advocate treating ethics as something that is integral to practice, not supplemental to it. Rather than prescribing a code of ethics, this approach—known among philosophers as “virtue ethics”—involves identifying and focusing on certain key characteristics of engineering itself. These include engineering’s social aspect, by which it constitutes a combined human performance; its proper purpose, which is the material well-being of all people; its societal role, which is the assessment, management and communication of risk; its internal goods, which include safety, sustainability and efficiency; its moral virtues, which comprise objectivity, care and honesty; and its intellectual virtue, which is its distinctive form of practical judgment.
The result is a comprehensive framework that constitutes an aspirational vision of how an engineer practices with genuine integrity. For all of the details, visit www.VirtuousEngineers.org. Virtue ethics is less concerned with what someone has done and will do than with what kind of person and what kind of engineer someone is and will become. The goal isn’t so much better engineering decisions as better engineering decision-makers and better engineers.
With this in mind, it seems all engineers could benefit from being a little more intentional about integrating ethics into our practice. Consider who will be affected by our efforts, what financial and other risks our decisions might create or mitigate, and how best to assess, manage and communicate those risks to our clients and the general public. This exercise will be especially effective if we allow our moral imagination to engage our intellect and emotions along the way. Try to visualize the individuals who will live or work in, travel across or otherwise interact with our projects—and then be conscientiously objective, careful and honest for their sake.