Research Paper: Engineering Ethics

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Engineering Ethics

Ethics in the Study and Practice of Engineering: Pragmatic and Intrinsic Values in Science and Application

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and interdependent, issues of ethics and ethical missteps have become increasingly common and prominent in the media and in terms of public attention. The worldwide financial crisis is one example of how ethically questionable and/or ethically suspect decisions and behaviors can directly and negatively impact society with international rather than simply localized results. There are many other areas of human endeavors in which poor ethical decisions and behavioral trends have an equal if not greater potential for causing harm to communities, societies, and civilization as a whole, and indeed the issue of ethicality in practice and application is arguably more necessary for consideration in the modern era than at any other time in human history due to the extremity and long reach that the effects of poor ethical decisions have today.

Engineering is not a field in which the general public might immediately see a host of potential ethical problems. In the financial, political, and medical fields, there are clear and obvious ethical issues that practitioners must contend with in a codified manner generally well-known to the public. Here, many ethical breeches are quite obvious and unquestionable when they are brought to light. In engineering, however, many ethical considerations occupy more of a grey area, and they are less obvious both to the public and often to the professionals and practitioners in the engineering field. This can be a source of serious problems.

There are both directly pragmatic as well as more intrinsic ethical issues that lie at the heart of engineering practice and even the study of engineering theories and practices. This paper will examine many of the ethical constraints and considerations that must be accounted for in the general field of engineering, and will also comment briefly on current trends in the recognition and definition of ethical problems in the engineering field. Through an examination of published codes of ethics, scholarly investigations and discussions on the subject, and a look at several case studies, the ethics of engineering will be fully explored and comprehensively examined in a manner that provides clear, concise, and explicit knowledge of the engineering ethics. Though of course this discussion cannot examine ever facet of engineering ethics in this paper's limited space, examination from several angles and through the utilization of various sources will provide an accurate broad view of the issues.

Pragmatic Problems

While ethicality is often seen as a primarily intrinsic aspect of human behavior and decision making, there are also many direct external and practical issues involving engineering decisions that have ethical implications. This can be seen in a variety of ways, from the actual use and application of a specific engineering theory or project as well as through the actual realities and vicissitudes of how engineering projects actually some about. To put this perhaps more clearly, pragmatic ethical issues exist both in the scientific as well as the interpersonal development of engineering projects, and an awareness of these issues is essential.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) code of ethics includes a provision insisting on not only the early detection of problems but also specifically of dealing with problems in any project at the lowest managerial level possible (IEEE 1996). This has a direct pragmatic purpose, as it leads to the more efficient progression of engineering projects, and a proper use of resources (including time and human resources), in addition to creating a greater sense of personal responsibility for and commitment to specific engineering projects (IEEE 1996). Adhering to a managerial chain of command also ensures that the values and systems put into place as a part of the project parameters will be adhered to, such that the best interests of the engineering client as defined by that client are adhered to (IEEE 1996). This is only one example of the interpersonal pragmatic ethical considerations that must be accounted for in a given engineering project.

Other pragmatic ethical concerns in engineering beyond interpersonal and managerial issues can be found in design aspects of engineering projects. A reasonable standard of care is necessary in all engineering projects to minimize the risk of failure for the client (Harris et al. 2009). This is one of the most basic ethical obligations for engineers; extreme instances such as bridge failures based on inadequate design and/or research clearly demonstrate the need for a proper ethical consideration of design elements in engineering projects. Even in more subtle cases, risks to personal safety and to productivity and profitability exist for almost any engineering project, necessitating a careful consideration of design factors (Harris et al. 2009).

The pragmatic ethics that are inherent to most engineering projects are a simple matter of achieving the greatest possible efficacy and efficiency in the given project. In other words, pragmatic ethical success in engineering can be equated to success in the actual goals of the engineering project -- doing the job in the best manner possible, including in terms of cost effectiveness, public safety, and abiding by the internal rules and structures of the organization engaged in the engineering project means performing ethically well in the pragmatic sense. The fact that this is an ethical imperative in addition to a mere practical concern is reflective of the context in which most engineering projects and applications occur, namely that there are many stakeholders dependent on the successful outcome of any engineering endeavor, and that they are not typically ends in and of themselves.

Intrinsic Ethics

In addition to the pragmatic and directly practical ethical considerations of a typical engineering project, there are also intrinsic ethical values that exist for almost any engineering theory, mode of study, or application. That is, most engineering elements are useful not only within the scope defined by specific project parameters, but also help to advance the overall science of engineering and other areas of both pure and applied sciences and mathematics (NSPE 2010). This creates an additional layer of mandatory ethical considerations requiring an even greater level of responsibility and duty of care as the implications of any engineering project (according to this framework) extend well beyond a given engineering project.

It is for this reason that the ethical implications of engineering have increasingly become a matter of study for engineering students at all levels, including in undergraduate survey courses devoted to engineering principles and basic concepts (TAMU 2010). The qualitative and values-based elements of engineering and of engineering goals are being given increasing attention and importance in engineering programs in order to develop a scientific community that is more reflective of and responsive to the values and beliefs of modern society (TAMU 2010). Ethical rules such as, "Engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest" and, "Engineers shall not be influenced in their professional duties by conflicting interests" demonstrate the types of values that have been determined to be necessary for the continued ethical practice of engineering in the modern era (NSPE 2010).

There is, of course, some overlap in the intrinsic and pragmatic ethics that have been developed for the practice of engineering, and many of the essential intrinsic values of current Western and indeed global society are of course in line with the pragmatic concerns of this society. It is important to note, however, that these values are considered important in and of themselves and not simply for the practical effects that they have, meaning that these values transcend the basic parameters of most engineering projects. Incorporating an understanding of these ethical values earlier in the study of engineering is a part of attempting to make these values a more automatic part of engineering practice and a more foundational part of our society in general, leading to the greater expression of value sin practical concerns as well (TAMU 2010).

Case Examples

One of the best ways to examine the implications and impacts of ethics in the engineering field is to examine certain real-world case studies that exemplify ethical problems in engineering and the ways in which they were addressed by engineers and by society at large (often in the form of the government). Legal entanglements are almost exclusively the result of negative practical effects resulting from poor ethical decisions, or a misstep in one of the pragmatic areas of ethics, and most often involve a general failure in an engineering project due to neglect, negligence, or even ignorance one the part of engineers. There are thus certain similarities in many engineering ethics case studies, and these similarities can be observed in the following two case studies despite the significant differences.

In one well-known case, a series of spills, mishaps, and basic mishandlings of a variety of hazardous and toxic materials at the Aberdeen proving grounds, a facility operated by the U.S. Army, resulted in the convictions of three engineers that were also acting as managers of the facility (Harris et al. 2009). The guilt of these… [END OF PREVIEW]

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