Otto J. Helweg

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This paper examines classes on ethics from the perspective of the professions, in the case of the author, engineering. There is considerable encouragement (even pressure) from most professions to include ethics in the curricula of their respective fields. To the knowledge of the author, without exception, the suggestions and guidelines for these courses concentrate on accepted practice such as communicating codes and illustrating ethical behavior. The exclusion of incentives to act ethical is almost completely ignored.

When the incentive to act ethically is considered, it usually is limited to investigating rewards and punishment in a social setting. For example, Festinger's book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), sets forth an approach to ethical behavior in which acting ethically is proportional to emotional pain (cognitive dissonance) of unethical actions. In other words, the strength of one's conscience is the determinative force for ethical actions. There is, however, no discussion of how to strengthen the conscience or what should determine a healthy versus an impoverished conscience. In order to examine the theses that (1) increasing cognitive dissonance is an (the most?) important element in promoting ethical behavior; and, (2) religion is a necessary condition for a consistent philosophical foundation in ethical behavior, it is helpful to briefly review the theoretical domain of ethics.

The field of ethics can be divided into two parts; first, what ought one to do?; and second, why should one do what one ought? As previously stated, ethical literature concentrates, almost exclusively, on the first question as illustrated by the "Engineering Ethics" column in The Professional Engineer as well as the various codes (ASCE, 1962; Baier, 1965; Baum, 1980; Canfield & Bowman, 1954; Flores, 1980; Ladenson, et al., 1980; Mantell, 1964; Martin & Schinzinger, 1983; and Mock, 1969). However, most of the ethical code violations indicate that the problem is "not knowing what to do, but failing to do what one knows" (Alger, et al., 1965). Consequently, this study attempts to redress this imbalance by dealing with the individual's motivation to be ethical.

Most professors would agree that possessing a knowledge of a correct ethical system but failing to live it out is hypocritical. Just as a successfully trained engineer or business major is one that correctly applies the theory and skills learned, so a successfully educated student in ethics is one that correctly acts on a desirable ethical system. An example of one professor who attempted to address this problem was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Coles, 1996). In this article, Professor Coles suggests a kind of cajoling without resorting to articulating a reason for ethical behavior. It would seem that a thinking student would eventually ask, "Why should I behave ethically just because Professor Coles says I should?"


Laymen have been frustrated because philosophers do not agree on an ethical system. That is, philosophers do have have consistent answers to the two questions raised previously. Some professionals have interpreted this diversity of opinion as meaning there is no definition (Vesilind, 1988) or no definition is possible. Such an attitude is understandable for engineers, scientists, and others who are used to statistical if not mathematical rigor. Nevertheless, two points may be made; first, disagreement concerning which ethical system is correct does not mean a correct system does not exist and second, in spite of seeming confusion, each person must choose the ethical system he or she will follow. In a sense to not choose is to choose by default.

It is this second point that is buried under the metaphysical relativism that pervades our society and especially the University. Nevertheless, the first question one encounters when deciding what one ought to do is whether ethics is normative (prescriptive) or empirical (descriptive). The former would accept an absolute standard of "good" while the latter would declare that "good" is relative, such as situational ethics. The following list of ethical systems will generally fall into one of these two camps.


First in considering what one ought to do, that is, which system of ethics is right (if any), it is helpful to list the alternatives. Though any taxonomy is somewhat arbitrary, the one suggested by Holmes (1984) will be followed.

Emotive Ethics

Ethical emotivism holds that talk about ethics is based on emotion or feelings and as such has no objective content. For example, the logical positivists would allow ethical terms to be defined but would deny that emotive words have meaning because moral judgments are not definitions nor are they empirically verifiable. The emotive ethicist would not say, "stealing is wrong," but "people in Memphis feel stealing is not acceptable." Therefore, ethics is subjective (empirical, descriptive).

In support of this position, most would agree that the subject of ethics is highly emotional; notwithstanding, how does the emotive ethicist know ethical terms do not refer to something external to ourselves? To what would they attribute mankind's universal "judicial instinct" (Carnal, 1957).

Ethical Egoism

This ethical school is similar to utilitarianism (which follows) but ethical egoism bases "oughtness" on what is best for oneself while utilitarianism is based on what is best for society. Ethical egoism ranges from crass (destructive) selfishness to a "benign" selfishness (Scriven, 1966). The former would base "oughtness" on whatever satisfies one's wants, no matter how materialistic. Benign selfishness (really unselfishness) argues that seeking the good of society really maximizes our selfish desires because (among other things) it promotes a safe environment.

Of course strict selfishness would produce anarchy of the worst sort, but unselfish behavior may, indeed, produce a desirable society. The problem would be convincing people that unselfishness would, in fact, benefit them more than crass selfishness. Such a theory would be severely tested when it came time to sacrifice one's own life for the sake of society. This seems to be the reverse of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" (Ferguson and Gould, 1975).


Utilitarianism, as mentioned above, defines "oughtness" as that which produces the best for society. This was recently popularized in the movie, "Star Treck II" in which Dr. Spock said, "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few." The problem is how to define "the good of the many." Would it be the dictator in Huxley's Brave New World, or a similar totalitarian system?

Again, we have our "oughtness" built on an empirical base. Without the ability to define "the good of the many" in a normative sense, our "oughtness" may not only be incorrect, but might not protect individual rights or minority interests. Moreover, we will have the problem of convincing people to be unselfish. This has proven to be the Achilles heel of Marxism. That is, why should I sacrifice now for a future that arrives (if it does) after I am dead?

One should know, however, that some atheistic philosophers have written extensively in an effort to promote a religionless ethical system. Two examples are the words by Nielsen (1973) and Knight (1955). Both rely, in the last analysis, on one agreeing with their definition of "good" and that one ought to follow their system a priori. While they may desire to do ethical actions, they cannot base this desire on logic or rational conclusions; consequently, we state that the basis of their ethical system is not rational.

Religious Ethics

Rather than define "religious ethics," Holmes chooses to deal with a subset, Christian ethics. Both religious ethics and Christian ethics are normative systems that define "oughtness" in terms of God's laws. Something is good or right because God says it is.

There are two problems with religious ethics. First, as an argument, it may be begging the question. One must presuppose a God who has created an ethical order as well as physical universe. (The failure of the Eastern Religions to accept this does not have a practical effect at this point.) Second, the various religions seem to have the same problem philosophers do by disagreeing on what Dog's ethical laws are. This second problem is not as severe as it may seem at first because all religions have remarkable agreement on the basic principles of ethics. For example, some form of the "golden rule" can be found in them all (Hume, 1959).

In spite of these common elements in the ethics of all the major religions, they (with the exception of Christianity) are built on a legal system which can easily degenerate into casuistry. The distinctive of Christianity is that it deals with principles (i.e., the "law" of love) as the foundation of individual commands. Though the operation of love is further defined in Christian writings (namely the Bible), even here there can be areas of disagreement in the actual outworkings. For example, some feel serving in the armed forces is wrong while other believe it is an obligation.

To conclude this descriptive section, it is interesting to note the frustration various sociobiologists have with altruism. Sociobiology is a school of neo-Darwinian thought that assumes present ethical systems have evolved over time. They would deny any normative ethical system, insisting that ethical systems are merely cultural conclusions of the evolutionary process. The frustration results because the facts do not fit the theory; that is, people do acts of kindness (altruistic acts) even when it is not in their interest to do so, such as Mother Teresa. How does this fit into the survival of the fittest?

For example, Herbert Simon writing in Science (1990) attempted to solve this dilemma by saying mankind is by nature docile and does not act in his own interest because his rationality is bounded. That is, as John Horgan (1991) said, man in docile and stupid. The Christian explanation for altruism rests in the assertion that man in created in the image of God and the vestige of this image remains in spite of the attempts to eradicate it. In fact, it is this fundamental ethical sense that has been an argument for the existence of God for three millennia. It appears that it still remains a formidable apologetic. One classical formulation of this is the ex gratibus argument Aquinas gives in his Summa Theologica (1952).


The main thrust of this paper resulted because the author has found no reference dealing with professional ethics that examines the second question of ethics, "Why should one be ethical?" Even if one agrees that if everyone acts ethically, life will be better, there is always the temptation to "beat the system." That is, preach ethical behavior; pretend to practice ethical behavior; but secretly act unethically to obtain selfish objectives. All the authors address what we ought to do and few, if any, even acknowledge the existence of the motivation to do what we ought. Many assume education produces motivation. The weakness of this assumption is obvious. However, in case it is not, two sets of data were examined in an attempt to quantify the thesis of this paper, that ethical motivation is a greater problem than ethical education. The first set of data was taken from the professional misconduct cases brought before the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The cases were divided into three categories, those in which willful misconduct was fairly certain, those in which willful misconduct was fairly uncertain, and those in which it appeared the defendant had not made a premeditated decision to commit an unethical act. Figure 1 shows that almost 80 percent of the cases where a judgment could be made were acts of willful ethical violations.

The second set of data were taken from the cases brought before the Tennessee Board of Registration. These are shown in Figure 2 in which about 70 percent were willful violations of the law. In spite of the small sample size and subjective nature of the evaluation, it is clear that a great majority of ethical violations are willful which supports the claims of the author. That is, if the majority of ethical violations are willful, the solution is no to produce more codes of conduct but to deal with the motivation of the people who were willfully unethical.

People may be motivated by external forces or internal forces. Our law enforcement system is designed to supply external motivation and is primarily negative in that it punishes but does not reward. It is usually the society or culture which offers positive rewards. The weakness with external motivation is the ability of some unethical individuals to not be caught--at least they accept the risk of illegal behavior because they believe they can outwit the law--so those who remain ethical experience the temptation to join the unethical group because in a zero-sum game, what others take is your loss. Also, an unacceptable burden is placed on the judicial system if a majority of individuals are not voluntarily "unselfish."

Whether it words or not, at least internal motivation is logically consistent for a theist. That is, the degree of cognitive dissonance should be greater for one who believes there is a God who knows of his or her actions. The theist's principal motivation ought not to be an escape from "being caught" but obeying God because in the final judgment, nothing is hid. There is, however, the problem of people fooling themselves into thinking they are obeying the divine command but in reality are engaging in casuistry. That is, they seek "legal ways" to be "illegal." Finally, there is the problem of just not doing the right thing in spite of this internal motivation (i.e., weak cognitive dissonance). The Apostle Paul describes this in Romans 7:21- 23 (NIV):

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

A Freudian might articulate this dilemma as stemming from the battle between the superego and the id (Freud, 1952).

Christian ethics are based on internal motivation also, but with the difference that one is to obey the divine command "from the heart" as a result of having been forgiven, not for any negative or positive reward. However, as the Romans passage declares, it is patently clear that even Christians, in spite of their internal motivation, do not always obey the law. At least, however, the internal motivation is there which is a prerequisite to conscious ethical behavior. And, to have an internal battle in which at least one of the forces seeks to do good, is preferable to having no battle at all.


There are three conclusions to draw from the above arguments. First, there are persuasive arguments that say a theistic presupposition is a prerequisite to rational internal ethical motivation. Anscombe (1958) supports this by saying, " . . . it is not possible to have such a concept unless you believe in God as lawgiver . . . . " The existence of a final judgment (completely fair with no hidden evidence) provides a minimum ethical motivation. Further motivation would be available to those who desire to obey God from gratitude rather than for reward or punishment. This is not to imply that atheists or non-theists are not ethical, but only that they do not have a compelling rational basis for their motivation.

Second, constructing a normative ethical system (which, by definition, codes of ethics are from a relative foundation is a non sequitur. It would seem that only a normative (prescriptive) ethical system can supply the principles and standards on which we base our professional codes. This seemingly obvious logic has been lost among many in academia as "Clear thinking about moral truth founders on the rocks of relativism and subjectivism" (Neuhaus, 1993). Pope John Paul II's recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, attacks the faulty reasoning in which freedom has been untethered from truth. He argues that freedom cannot stand alone without degenerating into license, and license in turn is the undoing of freedom.

Finally, it is not necessary to agree that a theistic world view is the only foundation for ethical action or ethical motivation. But, if one concedes that the individual's theological presuppositions can produce the existential motivation to "do what one ought," then these presuppositions should at least be tolerated if not encouraged.


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Alger, P. L., Christensen, N. A., and Olmsted, S. P. (1962) Ethical Problems in Engineering, John Wiley: New York.

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958) "Modern Moral Philosophy," Philosophy, Vol. 33.

ASCE, (1962) "Code of Practice of the American Society of Civil Engineers," Adopted, January 1927, reprinted 1962, ASCE, New York.

Baier, K. (1965) The Moral Point of View, Random House: New York.

Baum, R. J., ed. (1980) Ethical Problems in Engineering, Vol. II: Cases, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York.

Bronstein, D. J., Krikorian, Y. H., and Wiener, P. P. (1955) Basic Problems of Philosophy, 2nd ed., Prentice-Hall: New York.

Canfield, D.T., and Bowman, J.H. (1954) Business, Legal, and Ethical Phases of Engineering, McGraw-Hill: New York.

Carnell, E. J. (1975) Christian Commitment; an Apologetic, Macmillan: New York.

Coles, R. (1995) "The Disparity Between Intellect and Character," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 September, pg. A43 ("Point of View").

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Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Row Peterson: Evanston.

Flores, A., ed. (1980) Ethical Problems in Engineering, Vol. II: Readings, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York.

Freud, S. (1952) "The Ego and the Id," Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.: Chicago (Original work published 1932).

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Hume, R. E. (1959) The World's Living Religions, Charles Scribners Sons: New York.

Knight, M. (1955) Morals Without Religion, London.

Ladenson, R. F., Choromokos, J., d'Anjou, E., Pimsler, M., and Rosen, H. (1980) A Selected Annotated Bibliography of Professional Ethics and Social Responsibility in Engineering, Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago.

Mantell, M. I. (1964) Ethics and Professionalism in Engineering, Macmillan: New York.

Martin, M. W., and Schinzinger, R. (1983) Ethics in Engineering, McGraw-Hill: New York; Mock, J., ed. (1969) The Engineer's Responsibility to Society, ASME: New York.

Neuhaus, R. J. (1993) "The Truth About Freedom." The Wall Street Journal, 8 October.

Nielsen, K. (1973) Ethics Without God, Van Norstrad, Pemberton: London.

Scriven, M. (1966) Primary Philosophy, McGraw-Hill: New York.

Simon, H. A. (1990) "A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism." Science, Vol. 250, pgs. 1665-1668.

Vesilind, P. A. (1988) "Rules, Ethics, and Morals in Engineering Education," Engineering Education, Feb.

Copyright Otto J. Helweg

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