Engineering Ethics

Engineering Ethics


The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) decides the overall standards and codes of ethics for all the engineering professions. The Preamble of the NSPE Code of Conduct for Engineers (2007) states:

Engineers shall recognize at all times that their primary duty is to protect the public’s safety, health, property, and welfare. If their professional judgment is overruled under circumstances where the safety, health, property, or welfare of the public are endangered, they shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate.”

This means that engineers should always be aware that their safety and the safety of those around them come before anything, including any engineering projects they take on, no matter how wonderful the end product might be. That being said, engineering standards change from one professional engineering society to the next because of the work that different types of engineers do. For example, the work that a civil engineer does (e.g. construct a bridge) will be different from the work that a biomedical engineer does (e.g. making an artificial heart) (e.g. making an artificial heart). However, no matter what type of engineer you are, Engineering Ethics is important because if you do not follow it you can be putting your and someone else’s life in danger.

Ethics for Electrical Engineering

Electrical Engineering is a type of engineering profession that deals with the creation of better electronics. Since our society is heading towards an era of technology, where all members of society will be affected, it is especially important for electrical engineers to follow a code of engineering ethics. For electrical engineers, an important set of guidelines is the Electrical Engineering Code of Ethics, published by IEEE (n.d.), the major professional association for engineers working in the fields of electrical, electronics, computer engineering, and communications. The Code emphasizes above all else honesty and avoidance of endangerment to the public or the environment.

Problem Solving Skills

Any engineer in a conflicting role will find himself. Consider, for instance, the case of a biomedical engineer developing a theoretically functioning artificial kidney. He has to determine whether to continue with research on humans while he is in the clinical trial process. If he continues, and the system fails, a human test subject may die. If he succeeds, he’ll save the lives of thousands of people in the future who need kidneys. While he is in a tough predicament, he will make his decision easier by using the steps of problem-solving in engineering ethics to help him make the right decision. The phases of Problem Solving in Engineering Ethics are:

  • State the Problem: Specifically, describe what the ethical engineering problem is.
  • Get the Facts: Gather all relevant facts to the matter (i.e. the various moral viewpoints) and then examine them all.
  • Identify and defend opposing moral points of view: examine the pros and cons of distinct moral points of view and select the best course of action.
  • Come up with a Course of Action: Choose the best course of action, and answer all unanswered questions.
  • Qualify the course of action: with evidence or figures, backup the course of action.

In the scenario above, the biomedical engineer should first state the dilemma, which is whether or not to continue with research knowing that he could save the lives of thousands, or else destroy the test subjects. He can then collect all the facts about the test subjects, the system he created, and the various moral opinions from others. Then he will make a pro and con list of all the moral points of view. From this, he must pick the best action to take and be prepared to defend it.

Why do some engineers stray from the Code of Ethics

There are two key reasons why Engineers sometimes break from their code of ethics. The first explanation is that they are overconfident in their job, which in turn leads them to ignore something that may be wrong with it. They can overlook small mistakes or remain adamant about their beliefs because they think highly of their education level. In engineering, however, these little errors can be the very thing that triggers a catastrophe (e.g. the Challenger and O-rings). Another explanation why engineers are overwhelmed is because they are nervous. They are excited about their job and want to see it in the world in motion, so before it’s ready, they send it out. It is sometimes not even their fault, but the fault of their figures of authority (i.e. boss or managers). Their figures of authority may be impatient and provide them with a short deadline to work on the project. Impatience does not make space for iterations of the processes involved in a product or project’s design, testing, and implementation. Iterations are also needed to increase confidence that the product is going to work and, more importantly, that it is going to work safely.

It is also recommended that engineers review their work at least twice and have others check their work, regardless of how little time they have left or how excited they are about submitting the proposal. They can either handle their time better and make space for more revisions or ask their manager for an extension if they realize they have a short deadline. Engineers should also attempt to be open to other opinions and accept that they may be incorrect.

Applications in Tech Ethics

Academic honesty is the biggest engineering ethics concern that college students face. By copying someone’s work, deliberate cheating, plagiarism, and/or self-plagiarism, intellectual honesty may demonstrate itself in the form of cheating.

However, even though it clashes with personal ethics, professional ethics is something that can be taught, such as a situation where you are personally okay with building a product that can hurt the environment but save lives. You will learn professional ethics and understand that it is not okay to do anything detrimental to the environment. Codes of ethics may also help you see the larger picture. These codes, for example, will help you re-evaluate your ethics in the previous situation and understand that anything that is detrimental to the world would actually be harmful to the people around you and yourself.

Thus, in universities around the globe, there are many ethics courses. Some colleges also require engineers to attend ethics courses. For instance, a model called the Air Model (AIR)SM was created by Cohen et al. (2005) to help students reflect and build their personal code of ethics. AIR stands for Knowledge (of ethical problems), Study (of those problems), and Response (to those issues).

Ethics of Engineering in the professional world

In the professional world, in many situations, ethical engineering issues occur. Each of these involves the case of a professional using the work of someone else published in the wider publishing industry. Another is the case of a professional using the work of someone else who has not yet been published and stealing their definition. There is also a strong sense of the importance of life for engineers who have good engineering ethics. They don’t hesitate to admit that they’ve made a mistake because they know that it can have devastating consequences for them not to own up to their mistakes. This might even cost a human life.

Ethics of Engineering at Work

It is not only for individual engineers to be mindful of engineering ethics but also for businesses. Companies need to be mindful of their corporate social responsibilities and responsibility for the environment. Corporate Social Responsibility is the obligation of a corporation to give back to the society that they profit from and to function ethically so that they can support both themselves and their community. Environmental Responsibility is the effort of an organization to leave the environment (where its resources are taken from) the same, if not better, as it is found.

Project Engineering Senior Concept related to Ethics

Thus, we are making the transition from an academic setting to a professional environment as seniors in college. The further we are in our career path, particularly engineering ethics, the more important ethics is. Thus, the earlier we begin to better describe our ethics, starting with our final college project and the first design project of our lives: our Senior Design Project.

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