Ethical issues in professional engineering
According to Chambers Dictionary, moral means 'of or relating to character or conduct considered as relating to good or evil'; ethical is a synonym. Ethics is the science of morals.
How does one distinguish between a moral and immoral act? This can be done by applying moral rules such as the Ten Commandments or by use of the 'law of the land'. In the past, religious laws had an important effect in inducing moral behaviour but they are now less powerful than state laws. A main issue must be the effect of the action on the environment (using the environment in a broad sense to encompass social activity). An immoral act would be one which has an adverse effect on the environment.
Social morality - morality as it relates to humans. We have in our social structure a hierarchy of communities: family, friends, neighbourhood, district, city, county, country, continent, etc. Moral decisions need to take account of all communities.
Morality in relation to the natural environment. The ecosystem of the planet is very important to us. We have a mainly symbiotic relationship with the other life forms (For example, 99.9% of all bacteria are working in our favour). Actions which are negative to the balance of nature are immoral.
Professional morality/ethics. The concept of a ‘profession’ encompasses the principles that the actions of the members of the profession have an important effect on the environment and that they work to a code of ethics which controls these actions in a moral direction. The health of a society depends on having a critical mass of such people. By 'health' in this context is meant that society is working to support all its members. This does not infer that everyone should be equal, but does mean equal opportunities.
Duty of Care. This is both a professional and a legal principle related to the need to provide a level of advice/service/support, etc. to the client that is appropriate to the appointment of an engineer.
Tidiness. The preservation of a tidy environment is a moral issue. When using space co-operatively (that almost everywhere) it is important to maintain it in a state which is consistent with the needs of others. It is important that professional engineers set a good example in this respect.
Some ethical issues in professional work:
- Telling the truth.
- Honouring an agreement.
- Seeking to provide quality outcomes for clients.
- Not using power to gain unreasonable advantage.
- Not taking bribes. If one takes a bribe then the quality of the resulting outcome is compromised; you have been bought and have lost control of the situation.
- Not disclosing confidential information.
- Giving credit to those who deserve it.
- Not accepting a commission for which the requirements are unsatisfactory.
- Not allowing commercial pressures to over-rule engineering judgement.
Are there absolute moral rules? This is a fundamental problem of morality. If valid exceptions can be found to moral rules how can they be enforced. The answer is that judgements have to be made. These are made externally (e.g. by judges) and personally (one decides on a course of action taking account of the situation). The concept of making a ‘judgement’ usually infers that reason alone does not provide an answer. When making judgements it is however very important to use reason as far as is practicable.
Individual moral attitudes. For some people, maintaining a moral approach in life poses no problem. Such actions are second nature. Some people seem to have very little or no moral sense; they need to be controlled by the rule of the law. We might say that the actions of immoral people are negative to the balance of nature and that those who naturally act in a moral fashion have an important mission to actively seek to maintain the balance of nature.
The work of professional engineers is very significant in the environment and the need for us to maintain a moral attitude and to make good moral judgements is paramount. Where the level of integrity of professional engineering is low, society tends to be in decline.
IM Nov 2012