J. Eric Schonblom

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Abstract: Universities teach "engineering ethics" using idiosyncratic codes with their roots in the profession's accrediting agency. Who's in charge here? Does it matter?

Background: Traditionally, philosophers and engineers have not had much to say to each other. The engineering paradigm is to look for truth and expect to find it in the latest technical journal. While a natural skepticism accompanies announcements such as superconductivity at elevated temperatures or nuclear fusion at lower ones, engineers remain confident that "truth will out," and they expect that to happen quickly. Ethics is not an exception. Since ethical truths are older than engineering principles, engineers are disinclined to debate what, in their view, everyone knows. They agree with philosopher John Ladd, whom I am quoting out of context, "The principles of ethics (or morals), in contrast [to rules], are not the kind of thing that can be arbitrarily created, changed or rescinded. Ethics cannot be dictated. In old-fashioned terminology, the principles of ethics are "discovered" rather than created by fiat." [1] To which most engineers would add, "and these principles were discovered a long time ago."

Don Wilson, lawyer and former engineer, attended a "three-week indoctrination" sponsored by Robert J. Baum at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1979. Says Wilson of the participants, "...the philosophers were skeptical of finding even one question of philosophical interest. We talked about bribery and whistleblowing, but the initial reaction was, 'What can philosophers contribute to these relatively simple issues?'" [2] Despite this gloomy premise that engineers and philosophers have nothing substantive to talk about, I will review the history of "engineering ethics."

Engineering Ethics: Recently I entertained myself perusing a 19th century civil engineering handbook by John Trautwine in search of ethics. In over 800 pages of very fine print, I found (only) the following ethical admonitions:

Water, either when very pure, as rain water; or when it contains carbonic acid, (as most water does,) produces carbonate of lead in lead pipes; and as this is an active poison, such pipes should not be used for such waters. [3]

Evidently, if water is drawn from a lime formation and is not so pure, precautions are unnecessary. Lacking a classical education, I have not attempted to improve on the author's punctuation.

A teaspoon of powdered alum, well stirred into a bucket of dirty water, will generally purify it sufficiently within several hours to be drinkable... It is also stated that water may be preserved sweet for many years by placing in the containing vessel 1 ounce of black oxide of manganese for each gallon of water. ...Ice may be so impure that its water is dangerous to drink. [4]

Although it is nice to have it affirmed by an authority, I grew up in western Pennsylvania where no one eats yellow snow. Here's an environmental observation.

Sea-worms. The limnoria terebrans works from near high-water mark to a little below the surface of mud bottom; the teredo navalis within somewhat less limits. The teredo is said to be rendered less active by the presence of sewage in water. [5]

Since sea-worms attack timber, a sick sea-worm is something an engineer can live with. Here's good news for the work force:

The working day must be understood to include necessary rests, and such intermissions as the nature of the work demands; but does not include time lost at meals. A working day of 10 hours may, therefore, have but 8, 7, or 6, &c hours of actual labor. [6]

I regret that I was unable to locate for this paper Trautwine's caution that to expect a laborer to work the full 10-hour day one must be willing to pay him a dollar; however, several tables [7] verify Trautwine's commitment to this wage.

Against this background of concern, the engineering "Founder Societies," beginning in 1912 with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now "the IEEE"), published ethical codes. These contained no explicit reference to the public or to the environment The loyalty is to the employer. The AIEE code says: "The engineer should consider the protection of a client's or employer's interests his first professional obligation, and therefore avoid every act contrary to this duty." [8] Efforts by line engineers in the early part of the century to promote professionalism met resistance from the older engineers who supervised them. [9] It was not until much later that public responsibility was given a prominent place in an engineering code. On October 28, 1946, the Board of Directors of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) adopted a "Canon of Ethics for Engineers" that was prepared by the Engineers' Council for Professional Development (ECPD). Among the provisions of this code were these:

As the keystone of professional conduct is integrity, the engineer will discharge his duties with fidelity to the public, his employers and clients, and with fairness and impartiality to all. It is his duty to interest himself in public welfare, and to be ready to apply his special knowledge for the benefit of mankind. [10]

In 1957 ECPD strengthened their code to read as follows:


Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor, and dignity of the engineering profession by:

I. using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare;
II. being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients;
III. striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession; and
IV. supporting the professional and technical societies of their disciplines.


1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties... [11]

The Engineers' Council for Professional Development has been renamed the Accreditation Society for Engineering and Technology (ABET), but continues to publish its code. Fifteen years ago, Taft Broome surveyed 29 engineering societies, and of the 25 that answered, "Nineteen respondees indicated that they had established codes, and six indicated that they had not. Of the 19 with codes, 14 reported that they either endorsed the ECPD/ABET code or that only minor differences in format and language existed between their code and the ECPD/ABET code." [12] Today, with minor modifications, this code remains the de facto standard across the United States. For example, the fundamental canons recur in the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers, where each canon is expanded with "rules of practice" to provide guidance to NSPE members. Thus, under the first canon, they write:

Engineers shall at all times recognize that their primary obligation is to protect the safety, health, property and welfare of the public. 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. [13]
The various technical societies, as Broome told us, have codes that follow the ECPD/ABET model. Another source of ethical guidance is provided to engineers by the Rules of Professional Conduct that govern engineers licensed in the states and commonwealths. In Tennessee, for example, the Proper Conduct of Practice begins with the words,

(1) The registrant shall at all times recognize the primary obligation to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of the registrant's professional duties.
(2) If the registrant becomes aware of a decision taken by an employer or contractor, against the registrant's advice, which violates applicable federal, state or local building laws and regulations or which may affect adversely the safety of the public, the registrant shall :
(a) report the decision;
(b) refuse to consent to the decision; and
(c) terminate services with reference to the project. [14]

Other states use similar language. Many, like the Alabama code, begin

(1) In order to... safeguard the life, health, property, and welfare, of the public and to maintain a high standard of integrity, skills, and practice... the following Rules are promulgated... [15]

There follow proscriptions against conflicts of interest, work outside the engineer's education and experience, violations of confidence, unfair competition, and illegal practices; however, whistleblowing is not mandatory in Alabama.

The latest ECPD/ABET recurrence is in the ethical code of the 1995 NAFTA agreement: "In the practice of engineering: I. Engineers shall hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public in the practice of their profession." [16]

Implications: If, like Bernard Shaw's Don Juan [17], we assume, "for the sake of avoiding argument," that the ECPD/ABET document is the common ethical code for North American engineers, where does that leave us? The present accrediting agency for American engineering programs is the same Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) which evolved from ECPD and adopted its instructions "to hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public." As an ABET-accredited degree is required for professional registration in most states, engineering programs may no longer opt out of the accreditation process as many did 40 years ago. Here is the how the ABET discussion of an accreditable engineering curriculum begins.

Engineering is the profession in which knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience, and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind. A significant measure of an engineering education is the degree to which it has prepared the graduate to pursue a productive engineering career that is characterized by continued professional growth.

This section of the criteria relates to the extent to which a program develops the ability to apply pertinent knowledge to the practice of engineering in an effective and professional manner.

Included are the development of: (1) a capability to delineate and solve in a practical way the problems of society that are susceptible to engineering treatment, (2) a sensitivity to the socially-related technical problems which confront the profession, (3) an understanding of the ethical characteristics of the engineering profession and practice, (4) an understanding of the engineer's responsibility to protect both occupational and public health and safety, and (5)Jan ability to maintain professional competence through lifelong learning. [18]

The continuation of professional development throughout an engineer's career is one of the ECPD/ABET Canons, but it is hard to see how it can be accomplished by the undergraduate curriculum. Inclusion of lifelong learning here attests to the importance attached to the Canons in program evaluation. Instructions for teaching ethics are open ended:

An understanding of the ethical, social, economic, and safety considerations in engineering practice is essential for a successful engineering career. Course work may be provided for this purpose, but as a minimum it should be the responsibility of the engineering faculty to infuse professional concepts into all engineering course work." [19]

At my institution each instructor files a course report that lists, among other ABET objectives, ethical topics taught during that term. These reports are reviewed as a routine part of accreditation visits. I have never heard that a program was denied accreditation for a failure to teach professional ethics, but ABET visitors do comment about achievements or shortcomings in this area.

Does It Matter? The ECPD/ABET Principles and Canons have been around for decades, are plagiarized everywhere, and are not under attack by universities or the profession. Accreditors do look for the familiar ECPD/ABET language when they evaluate programs, but there is no requirement for explicit instruction of their guidelines. No one has complained of loss of accreditation under the present system. What, if anything, is the problem?

Engineering ethics are not restricted to a concern for human welfare. They have their idiosyncrasies. Some examples follow.

In contrast to the confidentiality practiced by physicians, attorneys, and the clergy, communications between engineers and their clients are not privileged, and engineers are enjoined or required to report unsafe practices by employers to regulatory bodies.

Until the provision was overturned by a Supreme Court decision in 1978, it was unethical under the NSPE code to "...compete for an engineering assignment on a price basis..." [20]

The NSPE code specifies under Professional Obligations: "1. Engineers shall be guided in all professional relations by the highest standard of integrity." Specifically, "Engineers shall not actively participate in strikes, picket lines, or other collective coercive action."

Later, the code states, "7. Engineers shall not attempt to obtain employment or advancement or professional engagements by untruthfully criticizing other engineers, or by other improper or questionable methods."

One such improper method: "Engineers shall not request, propose, or accept a professional commission on a contingent basis under circumstances in which their professional judgment may be compromised." [13]

Even the general ECPD/ABET Principles call on engineers to "Support the professional and technical societies of their disciplines," [11] a call that an outsider might regard as self-serving.

In addition to reservations about subject matter, there are questions about those who do the teaching. Baum's comments in 1980 ought to be out of date by now, and the specific statistics he quotes have changed, but it is probable his conclusions, which I summarize, are still accurate: Engineering faculty concur that four years are inadequate for the technical topics in an engineering education, but show little concern over the few hours allotted to the humanities and social sciences. Few of these instructors find space for ethical concerns in their syllabuses. [21] Although instructors may expose students to one or more codes and use a case study or two to illustrate differences, few engineers, especially, encourage criticism of the codes. [22] Nor does one encounter often Baum's ideal instructor: a non-engineer with a background in ethical theory and its application to engineering, supported by a knowledge of the engineering catalog and "the values and belief systems of the students and engineering faculty." [23]

Conclusion and Call for Discussion. There you have it! A university that seeks accreditation for an engineering program is expected to teach "professional ethics," for which the accrediting agency provides a model code. Ethics is not often taught comprehensively, and the instructor may be selected by default without qualifications or special interest in the subject; however, an "exposure to ethics" is usually adequate to satisfy ABET visitors if forms of compliance are observed.

So, I ask you: "Is there a problem, or do our universities have more serious concerns?"


1. John Ladd, Collective and Individual Moral Responsibility in Engineering: Some Questions, in "Beyond Whistleblowing: Defining Engineers' Responsibilities," Vivian Weil, ed., Proceedings of the Second National Conference on Ethics in Engineering, March, 1982, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, p. 103.

2. Don Wilson, Charting a New Course, in "Beyond Whistleblowing," op. cit., p. 247 .

3. John C. Trautwine, The Civil Engineer's Pocket-Book, 11th Ed., John Wiley & Sons, New York, p. 218.

4. Ibid., p. 219 .

5. Ibid., p. 425.

6. Ibid., p. 378n.

7. Ibid., pp. 744-53.

8. Robert J. Baum, Ethics and Engineering Curricula, Hastings Center, Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., 1980, p. 8 .

9. Edwin T. Layton, Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession, Case Western Reserve Press, Cleveland, OH, 1971.

10. John D. Constance, How to Become a Professional Engineer, 3rd Ed., McGraw-Hill Book Co., NYC, 1978, pp. 14-1611. Mike W. Martin and Roland Schinzinger, Ethics in Engineering, McGraw-Hill Book Co., NYC, 1983, p.J300.

12. Taft H. Broome, Jr., New Developments in Engineering Ethics: The AAES Plan, "Beyond Whistleblowing," op. cit., p. 235.

13. National Society of Professional Engineers, Code of Ethics for Engineers, 1420 King St., Alexandria, VA 22314 .

14. State of Tennessee, Rules of Professional Conduct, Chapter 0120-2, Board of Architectural and Engineering Examiners, Nashville, TN, 1995, p. 18.

15. State of Alabama, Professional Conduct (Code of Ethics), Chapter 330-X-14, Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors, Montgomery, AL, 1994, p. 32.

16. Principles of Ethical Conduct in Engineering Practice, NAFTA Forum on Engineering Licensure and Practice, 1/28/95, p. A.288.

17. G. Bernard Shaw, Don Juan in Hell, Act III of "Man and Superman," 1903.

18. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Curricular Objectives, para. IV.C.2. of "ABET 1993-94 Accreditation Yearbook," p. 61.

19. Ibid., Curricular Content, para. IV.C.3.j., p. 64.

20. Murray I. Mantell, Ethics and Professionalism in Engineering, Macmillan Co., NYC, 1964, p. 69.

21. Baum, op. cit., pp. 18-19.

22. Ibid., pp. 22, 51-52, 57-59.

23. Ibid., pp. 37-40.


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