Florman's book, _The Civilized Engineer_, dedicates three chapters
to the subject of engineering ethics. I'm going to summarize those
chapters here, pretty much as a response to a sci.engr reader who
suggested last week that we needed a "sci.engr.ethics" spinoff.
His most fundamental ideas on the subject appear to be as follows:
Chapter 6: There won't be a unified code of engineering ethics,
because the engineers won't agree on it.
Chapter 7: The engineers themselves will not be given the chance to
regulate their own behavior, because laws do a better job.
Chapter 8: Diligence and competence are more crucial to the engineer
than what we think of as morality.
Why will there be no unified code of ethics? Because we can't agree
on even first principles:
- WHAT is the public interest?
- HOW is it to be served?
- WHO is to regulate our code?
Nevertheless, there has been in recent years a surge of interest on
the subject -- even to the point of college programs (and degrees)
in engineering ethics being offered, starting pretty much in the 80's.
Ethics tend to arise in the career of the individual engineer when a
conflict is recognized between professional and corporate obligation.
And that conflict tends to chiefly arise when a failure, or risk of
failure, is involved. (Not that the conflict ever arises -- for some
of us, it never does.)
When engineering societies (or the AAES, for instance) have tried to
address the issue of a code of ethics, the following related subtopics
- disclosure of conflicts of interest
- improvement of the legal climate for the engineering profession
- support for education in safety and risk
- protection to the whistleblower
- service to worthy causes
And clauses pertaining to these, in proposed codes, have either been
voted down or watered down. Which is why there's no code of ethics.
There has been a great increase in the number (and scope) of laws
regulating various aspects of the profession in the USA since 1970.
Most of these involve safeguarding public safety, but also addressed
are confidentiality, industrial secrets and intellectual property.
You pretty much have to have these not just to govern the engineers,
but to protect them as well. Otherwise, industrial competition
dictates that corners may be cut to get the product out the door.
(Consider Kidder, _The Soul of a New Machine_.) Now there's a whole
science established around the definition of "acceptable risk." Laws
can dictate what corners are allowed to be cut. (Although those who
make the laws, considering they don't know engineering, can screw
that up -- consider the teeth being extracted during the current US
presidential and congressional administration of the Fastener Design
law signed by George Bush early in the 90's.) In the case of liability,
all good intentions come to naught. Quality ends up being defined as
"adherence to requirements" -- and hopefully, we got the requirements
This goes to failures. Florman shows that more than half of all
celebrated engineering failures can be attributed to some form of human
unreliability (again, not necessarily a "failure of the engineers"
to do the best they can) -- many of them could have been caught with
even *one inspection*. Florman's point: the great ethical need of
engineers is competence. "The greatest threats to moral engineering
are carelessness, sloppiness, laziness and lack of concentration."
The greatest likelihood of danger to the public from engineers comes
not from evil intent, but from miscalculation.
Here are some conflicts faced by the individual engineer:
- make the product safer v. make it more economical
- protect the environment v. use the available resources
- promote the military v. disarmament
- make food safer via pesticides v. protect all levels of the food chain
- drill for oil offshore v. protect beaches
- work for other people (or nations) who don't share your views but need
These conflicts can be broken down to *how the engineer feels* about
the military, the environment, product safety, etc. -- which are (and
according to Florman, need to be) political concerns, best decided by
society as a whole. And how the engineer feels isn't any different
than how anyone else feels, right?
Is there enough stuff here to start to build a FAQ? Or do we have
to agree on how we feel to even have a FAQ? :-)
"We've got quality control only equalled by NASA!!!"
- Jack Lemmon, as engineer Jack Godell, "The China Syndrome"