Why do engineers follow a code of ethics? So you can safely make your trip from New York to Paris. Because you expect to safely take off and land.
When you sit in a plane ready for your trip, you rarely think of a plane crash. Rather, you think about what movie you’ll watch on the flight. Also, what food you’ll get served, as you prefer rice over bread.
Now, I can go down the list of countless other things engineers have a direct impact on. But there’s no need when you can just look inside your own home.
Look no further than your HVAC, water, electricity, kitchen appliances, and so on. These are things you don’t ever think twice about.
Now, what if I told you unethical engineers designed these things? You’d without a doubt freak out.
Because your home would turn into a minefield. This highlights the importance of ethical principles in engineering. It’s why engineers need to follow the code of ethics.
Impact of engineering work on the modern world
Let’s drive this point home a little further.
I already discussed the dangers in your home if engineers didn’t follow a code of ethics.
But what about outside of your home?
Engineers design all the following, which again, you never think twice about:
- Roads, bridges, and tunnels
- Buildings and shopping malls
- Outdoor lights
- Operation of traffic signals
- Vehicles and all their electronics
I can go on and on.
It goes without saying, every part of modern-day living can kill you. But because engineers do such amazing work, we never think twice about these things.
Again, the importance of ethics in engineering is a no-brainer. But there’s still a bit more than meets the eye when it comes to our original question.
I’m going to go over “why do engineers follow a code of ethics?” as it relates to an engineer’s mindset.
#1 To make the world a safer place for everyone
We’ve come to the understanding that our safety highly depends on good engineering.
So, the more engineers who deeply subscribe to the code of ethics, the better. Thus, even fewer engineering failures will happen.
The thing is, even small engineering projects impact the safety of the public in a big way.
I use this example a lot, where specifying a simple 240-volt panel in a forested area may seem like a breeze. You can do it in your sleep!
BUT, if you undersize the conductors that connect the load to the panel, a fire can start. Simple as that!
If you live in a wildfire area, you know how a single match can ravage an entire state. This is why good engineering practice applies to all levels of projects.
Because what you view as insignificant work, can turn out to be the complete opposite.
Hence, the importance of hammering home the code of ethics in engineers. This way engineers will realize just how important EVERY part of their work is.
Thus, you apply the same ethical codes to small projects, as you would large projects. In return, the world becomes a safer place for everyone.
Just think about it. Even a perceived insignificant designed screw can save lives. It may become a critical component in an airplane that’s fighting to stay up.
Important Note: there are certain ethical subjects that are very dicey. Like designing weapons of war. So, where do you draw the ethical line?
This is not a part of my discussion, but it’s certainly a deeply controversial subject. The subject crosses many ethical boundaries.
Also, this highlights the subjectiveness of certain ethical issues. I discuss more on it here.
#2 To highlight the hidden complexities in engineering
Engineering ethics may seem straightforward. Do some calculations and then design what you think is safe. Then call it a day.
But the ethical decisions in designs aren’t all straightforward.
Just think about the difference between good and bad.
We all think we know what’s good to do, and what’s wrong to do. But there’s always a gray zone between the good and bad that makes us scratch our heads. You can’t tell if what you’re doing is good or bad.
This gray zone is where ethical dilemmas always sprout up. So, you need to find the best balance of good over bad in this gray zone.
To make matters worse, you need to consider the interest of all stakeholders. Interests that seemingly never align.
Through the code of ethics, you come to realize the issues you need to look out for. As a result, you can more easily spot and tackle them as they come up.
So engineers need to ask themselves the following questions with every project:
- Does your decision harm anyone?
- Will your decision violate any person’s rights?
- Will you break any promises or undermine anyone’s trust?
These are all classical ethical questions every engineer needs to consider.
Utilitarianism versus human rights in engineering projects
What’s more, certain ethical issues become overly tangled. Navigating these ethical issues becomes a problem. Especially when you don’t have a solid ethical foundation.
Hence, the importance of why engineers need to follow a code of ethics.
Let’s go over an example with utilitarianism. This is the belief that your actions are right if they benefit the majority of people.
Thus, you should try to always maximize the overall good your work will do. With every decision, you consider all the people your work will affect.
BUT, here’s the curveball. An engineer’s code of ethics also includes ethics over human rights. In other words, you need to respect the rights of individual people.
For example, people have the right to live. Thus, an engineer has a responsibility not to market misleading products. Products that could kill people.
Respect for others isn’t just ideal, but it’s necessary. This respect is regardless of your actions maximizing the overall good.
This is a catch-22 though. Because when you maximize the overall good, there will be a subset who won’t benefit.
So, do you sacrifice the human rights of a select few, to benefit the majority?
How do you even marry these two theories of utilitarianism and human rights?
In the end, there are always better alternative solutions. When ethical dilemmas come up, you need to figure out what else you can do.
And I know in some instances, it may seem impossible. Thus, the importance of not rushing a decision.
Engineers need to realize it’s never an all-or-nothing situation.
Plus, you’re never alone. Whenever you feel stumped, go ask for help. Others have been in your situation before.
There’s no shame in getting a second pair of eyes to tackle a problem.
Are engineers the pawns in engineering projects?
By following the code of ethics, you’ll soon realize you may be a pawn.
What I mean is, the big players in a project may try to control your every move for their own benefit.
That’s why engineers need to always figure out the stakeholders in a project. Find out how the stakeholders will benefit. Dig deep to try and understand their motivations.
At the same time, think about how your decisions will impact the different players in a project.
Because the larger the project, the more people will try to influence you.
The code of ethics teaches engineers to push back in these instances. Also, to never just look one way. Rather, always seeks alternatives paths when you hit a gray zone.
#3 To show how public safety trumps everything
When you understand the underlying message to the code of ethics, you’ll start to work differently.
Because you now have a single mission, which dictates how you approach all your work. Your mission is to keep the public safe, while still delivering awesome engineering.
At the same time, you’ll now more freely challenge the bad design work of others. You understand the end goal of every project is to keep the public safe. Also, of course, to problem solve what you’re tasked with.
Sometimes I’ve seen other engineers hesitant to call out another engineer’s work. Because they don’t want to hurt their feelings or become the “bad guy.”
But when something catches your eye that can possibly hurt someone, it’s your duty to call it out. You may feel bad about calling someone out, but you’ll feel much worse if someone later gets hurt.
The engineering code of ethics makes it your duty as an engineer to speak up. For myself, this has become ingrained in my mind.
If I see a bad design, I’ll kindly call it out. In the end, I’ve found the recipient design engineer always thanks me too.
Because no engineer wants their name on a faulty engineering design. Heck, I’d love to have multiple sets of eyes on all my designs. It’s a better filter for catching mistakes. Plus, I always learn something new.
Thus, the code of ethics teaches you the importance of public safety. So much so, that your decisions will all hinge on the safety of the public.
Unethical engineering customers
What do you before you go to sleep every night? You brush your teeth, even if you’re dead tired. It’s because your parents ingrained in you the importance of brushing your teeth.
The same applies to the importance of engineers following the code of ethics.
I’ve come across my fair share of unethical customers. They want to bend the rules to save a quick buck.
Without hesitation, I always reject unethical proposals. I don’t care who the customer is either, or what I’m offered.
When you ingrain the code of ethics in your mind, you’ll create a hard line that you’ll never cross.
Also always remember, the customer isn’t on your side when push comes to shove.
What happens if you do cross the ethical line and something goes wrong? The customer without hesitation will throw you under the bus.
They’ll play dumb and say you’re the professional with the expert knowledge. And frankly, they’re right about that. You’re the professional, and it’s YOUR fault for bending the rules.
Point is, don’t ever get yourself in these predicaments, to begin with. Because even if you’re never caught or nothing goes wrong, you’ll taint your conscience.
#4 To protect humanity from future technology
Look no further than Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Today, the reality of Skynet with robots killing humans seems farfetched. But three-hundred years down the line it can become a reality.
Maybe not robots knocking on your door and shooting you point-blank. But rather, software making all of our human comforts and dependencies run crazy.
As it is today, we can’t explain why AI makes certain decisions in some applications. Now compound this with the fact that we run our entire financial and energy sector on software.
If we lose power for more than just one week, mass hysteria would ensue. Then the longer power remains off, the more and more people will die.
In this scenario, I’m only looking at AI as an amazing tool. Another level up is if AI comes close to becoming a sentient being.
This takes us full circle back to the engineering code of ethics. Where the underlying principle is to protect the public.
This involves keeping an eye out for the evolution of technology.
I’m not at all saying to restrict the progression of AI. In fact, I’m all for AI. But, the work needs to be in a fenced area. Because we can’t predict possible future outcomes today, despite what anyone may think.
Thus, engineers today need to design and build around the future safety of humans.
Important Note: AI is a very hairy subject when it comes to ethics.
Would punishing AI be similar to punishing humans?
Consider we find it okay to enslave anything that’s more stupid than us humans. Look no further than zoos. So why would it be okay to enslave something that may be greatly more intelligent than us?
So where do we draw the line? These are all questions the engineering code of ethics will one day need to address.
Upcoming ethical dilemmas with autonomous cars
Utilitarianism and human rights connect back with our discussion on future technology.
Imagine an autonomous car. It’s driving down a street going 50 miles per hour.
Then all of a sudden, a guy sprints across the street in front of the car. The car doesn’t have time to stop though.
At this point, the car can either slam into this person, or swerve. But if it swerves, it’ll slam into a group of three people.
So what should the car do?
Not respect the human rights of the sprinting person, and hit him? Or, do what’s perceived as less good by slamming into the three people?
This is the classical philosophical question with autonomous cars. The ethics here comes into play on where you draw the ethical line with public safety.
What’s more, is it okay for a machine to decide who to kill?
To better address this question, let’s go one step further. What if the car has a database, to determine the value of the life of different people? Thus, it’ll tap into this database when it knows it’ll more than likely kill someone.
Sounds beyond crazy and dystopian, but isn’t this what humans already do? Except humans are much slower in their decision-making. Plus, humans have much less data than a machine to support their decisions.
Now keep in mind, autonomous cars are machine learning-based. The program learns to drive based on billions and billions of experienced scenarios.
As a result, the car will make millions of calculations in less than a second. It’ll evaluate the following, before every decision:
- Save as many lives as possible
- Reduce the amount of damage
- Follow road rules
Without a doubt, machines will eventually be much safer than human drivers. But when fatalities do still happen through an autonomous car, is that okay?
Or maybe the real future ethical question becomes, why do we still allow people to drive? People drive drunk, drive tired, and text while driving. Plus, most become paralyzed when faced with a life or death situation.
Ethics follows far behind technology
Technology most always leads ethics, and even laws and regulations too. New ethical principles and measures are only adopted after we see the impact of new technology.
It typically takes several years after the release of new technology for changes to happen.
For example, change may only come after some people die from new technology. And that’s when new ethics and laws come into play to control the technology.
With that said, engineers can reduce the severity of regulations. Engineers can do this by making safe designs from day 1. I’m talking about designing every facet of new technology with public safety in mind.
I know, sounds easier said than done. Also, this will probably slow down the progress of technology.
But in the end, it may be a net win. Because what if the technology ends up killing a bunch of people? The tech then may permanently go on the shelf to collect dust.
In short, we need to ingrain the code of ethics into engineers to ensure future public safety. Also, to ensure technology can continue to grow without avoidable human regulations.
“Why do engineers follow a code of ethics?” wrap up
Engineers have an obligation to the public. This obligation takes shape by understanding and following the code of ethics.
And the better you understand, the safer life becomes for everyone. Because it’s expected that all engineers follow the code of ethics to the best of their ability.
It’s no different than when you go grocery shopping, and you expect to buy safe produce. You don’t question the mushrooms in the grocery aisle, thinking they may be poisonous.
In the end, following the code of ethics in engineering will continue to advance humanity. It’s how we’ve successfully moved out of caves and now live in a high-tech world.
Do you think all engineers equally follow a code of ethics? What do you think is the most important part of the code of ethics for engineers?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.