“Our very lives depend on the ethics of strangers, and most of us are always strangers to other people.”  — Bill Moyers

One definition of ethics is “the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior.” Which means that engineering ethics would be “the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior while performing engineering.”

Most of the time, our ethics don’t get much of a workout. We just do what we would do and it’s ethical. The times we are really challenged are when we have ethical dilemmas. Ethical dilemmas result from trying to balance competing, mutually exclusive priorities. Our moral principles contradict each other. The way we avoid ethical dilemmas is by having a clear understanding of our beliefs, values, and priorities. The more complicated our moral principles, the more likely it is that we will end up in an ethical dilemma.

Some people talk about ethics as being a way to choose between right and wrong. Usually that’s true, but even evil people have a set of principles that govern their behavior. A psychopath, for instance, lives by the simple principle of doing whatever is in their own best interest, as they understand it, no matter its impact on others. They never have ethical dilemmas. Not because they don’t have ethics, but because their ethics are so simple that they never have dilemmas.

Engineering codes of ethics

There are a lot of engineering disciplines, each with a professional organization. Every engineering society has a code of engineering ethics. The codes are similar. They all have three primary concerns: an engineer’s duty to society, an engineer’s duty to the organization that pays them, and an engineer’s duty to their profession of engineering.

There are two views of engineering.  The first is that engineering is a learned profession, depending on a combination of education, experience, and examination. These are professional engineers who offer their services to the public, which includes to other businesses, and who need to be licensed. The second view of engineering is as work performed by technical employees for their organization. These engineers, working in private industry, don’t need to be licensed.

When an engineering society’s members mostly work in private industry, there is much more emphasis in its code of ethics on an engineer’s duty to the organization that pays them. When an engineering society’s members are mostly Professional Engineers, there is much more emphasis in its code of ethics on an engineer’s duty to society.

This the code of ethics for the National Society of Professional Engineers:

  1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
  2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  5. Avoid deceptive acts.
  6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

The engineering professions want to be held in high regard. They want engineers to be respected and they don’t want to be embarrassed. So, all the engineering societies list a duty along the lines of “Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.” But it’s almost always the last thing on the list.

What does it mean to act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees?  What does it mean to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public?

Is acting lawfully enough to be ethical? 

Where do non-disclosure agreements fit into this? If an engineer simply doesn’t tell the public or federal officials something important, are they being deceptive? Is it a lie to remain silent? Why are witnesses sworn “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Are we being ethical when we follow the lawyers’ advice to “just answer the question they ask and don’t volunteer anything”?

The German Engineer’s Confession in the 1950s explicitly concluded that “lawfully” was not enough. This was because engineers designed the gas chambers. Engineers designed and oversaw construction of railroads to the concentration camps. Engineers designed the V2 rockets that rained down on the civilian population in and around London.  All of them were doing something legal because the Nazis controlled what was the law.  So, “legal” is not a very high bar.

Is it unethical to err?

Every organization, even the most ethical, will be comfortable doing something it knows to be safe. Likewise, every organization, even the most unethical, will be resistant to doing something it knows will end in disaster.  It is when the outcome is uncertain that individuals face ethical dilemmas. Unfortunately, we live in a world of uncertain outcomes.

Errors can be characterized as one of three types: lapses, mistakes, and violations. Lapses occur when someone knows what they are supposed to do, is able to do what they are supposed to do, intends to do what they are supposed to do, but for some reason, fails to do what they are supposed to do. Mistakes occur when someone doesn’t know what they are supposed to do, so they make the best choice they know to make, but it doesn’t work out. Violations occur when someone knows what they are supposed to do but decides to do something else.

The ethical dilemma occurs, not at the time of the error, but after the error is discovered. Except for violations, an error is not intentional, and even most violations are not intended to do harm.  It’s not the error that is unethical.  But after the error, and the harm it causes, are discovered, the actions then are choices.  And some choices are unethical.

John Darley said, “Whether that person denies the negativity of the consequences, denies the responsibility for those consequences, or conceals those consequences and becomes meshed in a widening circle of actions necessary to continue the concealment, he or she has become an independent and autonomous perpetuator of the harms done.  That person has become evil.


I would never ask anyone to be a whistleblower because I know how destructive that will be to them personally. They will be called tattletales and face retribution from their organizations and perhaps from their industry. Their relationships with peers and co-workers will be damaged, and in some cases, deal with open hostility. In the face of this toxic environment, they will lose focus on their work. Their career will be over or so sidetracked that it will be a long time before they ever get to be an engineer again.

As a member of society, though, I am counting on whistleblowers to keep us safe.  It’s a choice each person must make for themselves, however. The time to make that choice is now, in the calm, cool light of day, not during a crisis.  That’s never a good time to make a choice.

Guidelines for ethical choices

Making an ethical engineering choice shouldn’t have to be a complicated philosophical exercise. It may be a balance, but it begins by having a clear understanding of beliefs, values, and priorities. Then, when faced with an ethical dilemma, consider these possibilities:

  • Will you pass the red-faced test when you explain what you’ve chosen to someone whose good opinion you value? Or will you blush with shame?
  • Would you want to read about the choice you’ve made on the front page of the newspaper or see it described on the evening news?
  • Can you look yourself in the mirror and say with conviction, I made the right choice?

Pick the guidelines that work for you. Personally, I’m partial to role-reversal—the Golden Rule—that demands that we do to others as we would have others do to us, and asking the question, “What if everyone did this?” If the world would be a worse place if everyone did this, then for me, it’s not ethical.

It’s not easy making the world a safer place when there are so many choices that can pull us in a different direction. Best wishes when making your own choices.