Well, here's a paper from my archives of schoolwork (actually, a couple folders in my filing cabinet). It's basically an opinion piece concerning my particular views on ethical behavior. It was written for my engineering seminar class, like most of my archived papers. I apologize if you find it preachy and idealistic.
Ethics seems to be a slippery slope in today's professional world. With huge financial scandals from Enron and WorldCom, the public is left wondering what is actually going on in the world of business. Engineering has not been without it's problems as well. Visiting the National Institute of Engineering Ethics website reveals many cases over the past 25 years that bring to light some questionable judgment on the part of professional engineers.
The National Society of Professional Engineers has a professional code of ethics that is to serve as a guideline to making good ethical decisions. Although I consider the code well intentioned; such a code is overly wordy and rendered redundant when one considers the sole basis of ethics.
In my opinion, it should be unnecessary for such a code to exist, because of the fact that people should simply know better. I also believe the existence of such a code persuades people to sometimes try to find ways to circumvent it and gives them relief from guilt. For instance, they justify unethical behavior because they loosely interpret something from a written code.
BLACK AND WHITE IN AN OTHERWISE GRAY WORLD
My disagreement with the professional code of ethics is not a rejection of ethics in any way. It is an argument with attempts to formulate ethics into an all encompassing document. Ethics should be broken down into 2 categories: right and wrong. Following these black or white options should be all that any decent minded person, including engineers, needs to act in an ethical manner.
The three main fundamental canons that focus primarily on the aspects of right and wrong are these: 1) Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. 2) Perform services only in areas of competence. 3) Avoid deceptive acts.
HOLD PARAMOUNT, THE WELFARE OF THE PUBLIC
There are many times when this particular guideline gets pushed to the back burner, particularly regarding contracts and confidentiality. Often times it is difficult for an engineer to make a decision that could have them blacklisted as a whistle blower. However, it is often these decisions that need to be made.
An example of a lack of ethics causing casualties is the case of the Ford Pinto. Tests revealed that the Pinto was not a safe vehicle and that there were potentially dangerous problems that could arise. Despite these tests, engineers and managers allowed the car to be produced and sold; resulting in some extreme casualties. Citing responsibility to the company and stockholders, an unsafe product was allowed into the public realm.
Such decisions are in complete conflict with the previously mentioned canon. However, this behavior is much worse than simply violating an ethical canon. To knowingly release a product with potentially fatal faults is an unacceptable action by a human being in general. Consciously protecting the safety of others should never be second hand to making money, and it is tragic that such information need be explained in a formal document.
PERFORM SERVICES ONLY IN AREA OF COMPETENCE
Although violating this canon is not as despicable as the previous canon, it is still a common sense question of right and wrong. Engineer, unfortunately, is a broad term applied to many different types of employment; many which require little to no education. Some think that having that job tag makes them competent in certain areas. We, as true engineers, have a responsibility to realize that although we may be well educated in certain fields, we are not necessarily knowledgeable in others.
In order to promote the engineering profession and make people realize that we are highly educated and intelligent individuals, we must know the limits of our knowledge. We must be able to accept the fact that we may not know what is best in certain situations. I believe this canon appeals to good sense as well. Know your limits and provide your services only when you are capable of doing so in an effective manner.
AVOID DECEPTIVE ACTS
This seemingly simple rule has been constantly impressed on us since we were children. Simply stated, it says "Do not lie
." If you know some truth
and you act in such a way as to prevent that truth from being realized by others, you have committed a deceptive act
EXAMPLES OF ETHICS IN ACTION (OR THE LACK THERE OF)
From Case No. 00-5 of the National Institue of Engineering Ethics comes an example of engineering ethics. In summary, the case concerned the operations of a dilapidated bridge and the future repairs and inspections. Initially, an engineer found that the bridge was unsafe and reported that it should be closed until repairs could be made. This was done and eventually a retired, non-engineer bridge inspector suggested repairs. The repairs were made and the bridge was reopened with a weight restriction. The engineer that had initially filed the complaint noticed that the repairs seemed to be inadequate and the weight restriction was constantly being ignored by commercial vehicles. The question was posed as to the engineers ethical obligations.
This case deals primarily with the issue of public safety. The unsafe use of the bridge could lead to disastrous effects. Besides the fact that the bridge repairs may have been inadequate, the weight restriction was constantly being ignored. The engineer could not, with clear conscience, allow those activities to continue. Further issue needed to be taken with the retired bridge inspector who seemingly made recommendations that he was not necessarily competent to make. His decisions needed to be reviewed to determine if he acted in an ethical manner as well.
Case No. 90-5 also presented an example. In this case, some drums containing "questionable material" had been found on a clients property. These drums were never tested because of the fact that the engineer had suggested they simply be removed in a manner so as to prevent financial damage to the client. Although there was an overlap between confidentiality of the client and public protection, it should be obvious which route should have been chosen. The engineer should have made sure that the materials were tested and disposed of in a way to prevent damage to the general public. The engineer, however, chose to turn his head to the violation and not confirm the hazardousness of the materials due to the fact that he wanted to maintain friendly business relations. Such an action is inexcusable because it violates the public safety canon and puts a higher priority on business rather than safety.
Ethics are a very important part of our world. As engineers, we must be careful that we are not propagating potentially fatal problems. However, we must go a step further a take a proactive approach to keeping people safe. If we are to create a positive image of the engineering profession, we must always look to improve the quality of life for others.
Although engineers have a code of ethics outlined, it should be unnecessary because we should consciously exercise good ethical practices as human beings. The primary ways to do this are to unselfishly care for the wellness of others, to help when we are capable, and to be honest. These life lessons can be applied to our profession as well as to our daily lives. Ethics needs to supercede codes and standards if we are to live as decent people and productive members of a complex society.