Introduction to Engineering Ethics

Dr. Michael Loui is an Engineering Education Professor at Purdue University (formerly Professor of Electrical Engineering at Illinois-Urban/Champaign) and a friend of mine.  He created a series of videos on professional engineering ethics that starts from the idea of engineering as a profession.

Notice that he mentions judgement as one of the critical characteristics of a profession.  But what does judgement mean?  An how does judgement separate a professional from a technician (i.e., someone with specialized knowledge and skills, but lacking the authority and expertise to make judgements)?

In my view, judgement is not a exhibited in strict adherence to rules (or codes), but in understanding when those rules and codes either don’t apply, need to be broken, or are inadequate.

Also, Dr. Loui makes a distinction between the old adage, “The customer is always right” and the obligation of a professional to advance the client’s best interest over their own.  This is the most important distinguishing feature of a profession — the professional is expected to set aside their own interests (such as profit) and work in the interest of society.  In return, they enjoy a privileged position within that society (so long as they uphold the implied social contract).

In this video, Dr. Loui shows how ethical responsibilities don’t always align with legal responsibilities.  Nor are ethical failures always attributable to single individuals.  Sometimes failures occur at a larger, systemic level.  This includes the responsibility of an engineer to accept responsibilities that have not been specifically assigned to them.

I experienced a situation very similar to the example Dr. Louis describes in the video above.  On a job interview while I was in graduate school, I was touring labs at a University where I was hoping to secure a job offer.  During the tour, I noticed their compressed air tanks were not tied off.  It’s an obvious safety violation.  I pointed this out to the faculty member hosting the tour.

I didn’t get the offer.

Nonetheless, my self-interest in making a good impression on the search committee should not supplant my professional obligation to protect the safety of the students working in the lab.  Here’s Dr. Loui on conflicts of interest.

Because engineers (as professionals) are required to exercise judgement, they must avoid situations in which their judgement is subject to question.  That is, they must avoid the perception that they are acting in their own self-interest, rather than the interests of their clients.  It undermines the social contract, and thus risks damaging the privilege enjoyed by all engineering professionals.

In the last video in this post, Dr. Loui makes a distinction between ethical decisions, rather than technical or other kinds of decisions.

There are several philosophical approaches to moral reasoning and they do not always agree.  The conflict between different moral ideas is a popular basis for comedy.  The famously successful television series’ Seinfeld and M*A*S*H were based entirely on exploration of moral issues.  Professional ethics education typically focuses on the duties or obligations of the professional to society.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind.  If it does not involve personal risk, or sacrifice on the part of the decision-maker, it’s not a moral decision.  For example, if you are getting paid to do the “right” thing, then this hardly constitutes a test of your moral character.

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3 thoughts on “Introduction to Engineering Ethics

  1. Jonathan Edgington

    Dr. Michael Loui makes some valid points but as the syllabus states “In my view, judgement is not exhibited in a strict adherence to rules (or codes), but in understanding when those rules and codes either don’t apply, need to be broken, or are inadequate.”
    All valid points but in addition this is my opinion below.

    Knowledge is not wisdom and without understanding how, what, where, and when to make the best possible decision your comprehension of the issue is linked to your limitations as an individual.

    Common sense makes sense to those who don’t understand the liabilities of the laws.
    “I thought I knew best” or I didn’t know any better, ” about the issue are not viable defenses in a court of law.

    I know this from personal experience.

    1. Thomas P Seager

      Be sure to keep the distinction between legal and ethical in mind. They’re different.

      That means you can be legal, but unethical. Sometimes, you can also be ethical, but illegal!

  2. Trevor W

    At my previous job; the demand for operating equipment in a safe manner and making ethically sound decisions, greatly outweighed the value of production production. While I was employed there, the company went from “turning a blind eye” on a simple maintenance issue such as a brake light not working, to not operating that vehicle until it passed a pre-shift inspection report and was verified by a supervisor.


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