Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Does Engineering Ethics Matter? Joe Carson Wonders. . . .

Last week, I said here that in light of a tragedy such as the shootings at Virginia Tech, engineering ethics paled into insignificance. The question for today is, why should engineering ethics deserve any attention at all, when there are so many more pressing matters demanding our attention?

There are those who take the view that codes of engineering ethics as they now exist are little more than window-dressing, apparently designed to create a good impression on the public, but not to do anything more substantial than that. One such is Joe Carson, an engineer whose experiences as an employee of the Department of Energy taught him that the engineering profession does not rush to defend every engineer who is fired or otherwised penalized for "whistle-blowing." According to Carson's website, many engineering-related disasters and hazards result from the engineering profession's reluctance to both take its codes of ethics seriously, and to defend its members from unjust retribution by employers who are made to look bad when engineers bring such problems to light. Carson has organized an Association of Christian Engineers whose purpose is to bring Christian-based ethical principles into engineering in a way that makes a real difference.

Carson makes some good points. As things now stand, nearly all engineering codes of ethics are not binding and have no force either of law or rule. In other words, the worst that can happen if an engineer, or an entire organization, violates ethical codes but otherwise stays within the limits of statutory laws, is a guilty conscience. And many of us are used to living with those.

One reason is that most engineers in the U. S. are not required to have a Professional Engineer license in order to work in industry. This is in marked contrast to the status quo in the legal and medical professions, and even such mundane enterprises as surveying and plumbing, where some form of state or federal licensure is needed in order to make money doing those jobs. People who violate legal or medical codes of ethics (which often have the force of law) can lose their privilege to practice by the action of a professional licensing board. This economic threat must have some effect, although cases of lawyers and doctors who lose their licensure through malpractice are not as common as you might think.

Another reason is the lack of solidarity among engineers as contrasted with, for example, trade unions. The grievance procedure is a time-honored feature of all unionized workplaces. Any employer who runs afoul of union-monitored workplace rules runs the risk of getting embroiled in a lengthy and costly battle with the union, which generally rushes to the aid of its allegedly wronged member. As in any conflict involving organizational power, abuse can take place on both sides, but at least there is a restraint in place to limit the power of the employer to act arbitrarily. Not so in the case of engineering societies, which for the most part strenuously avoid acting like unions. If Mr. Carson had been a member of a federally-recognized union instead of just belonging to the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Nuclear Society, the outcome of his conflicts with the Department of Energy might have been very different, at least for him personally, and perhaps for the people who are endangered by the hazards he has spoken about publicly.

So what should be done? Mr. Carson has several suggestions. One is to make licensure a requirement for employment in any engineering job, not just for those few engineers whose need to sign off on plans for public projects makes licensure a necessity for them. Standing in the way of this goal is the fact that all states have what is called an industrial exemption which waives the license requirement for jobs in the private sector, by and large. This is a matter for state legislatures, which are notoriously tied to local industry and will loosen those ties only if another powerful force will make itself felt. The engineering societies could move in this direction, but so far they have given little sign of any interest along these lines. Another suggestion, which requires no legislation, is for the professional engineering societies to take up arms in defense of members who unjustly lose their jobs or other privileges when they act in accordance with ethical principles. At various times in the past, organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have produced "friend-of-the-court" briefs in legal cases involving ethical engineers and unethical employers. But for the last decade or so, I have seen little evidence that IEEE is interested in such matters, although its Society for Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) does give out a Barus Award from time to time which honors notably courageous engineers who put their careers at risk to expose risky products or practices. (Full disclosure: I am currently treasurer of SSIT, which office is not as impressive as it may sound.)

Finally, Mr. Carson wishes that religious motivations for ethical behavior were not automatically ruled out of order in most modern technical societies. He writes that "engineering professional societies should acknowledge that faith-based motivations are valid . . . [and relate] to their efforts to uplift and defend the engineering profession, its code of ethics, and its service to society." As we have noted elsewhere (see the Jan. 2 blog herein "Science, Engineering, and Ethical Choice: Who's In Charge?"), without some larger encompassing narrative or worldview, all engineering activity becomes "sound and fury, signifying nothing." The significance of engineering must be placed in a larger context, or else the thing that should be only a means to human blessing becomes a monstrous and insatiable end in itself.

Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, says this about the dangers of technology unlimited by some kind of theological understanding: "Human beings have long aspired to control the ultimate foundations of ordinary reality. We have made a little progress, and there remains an unwavering sense that this is the direction of our destiny. That is the theological meaning of the scientific and technological enterprise. It has always presented itself as the instrument for solving human problems, though without its theological context it becomes idolatrous and goes mad."

Stern words. Does that mean I favor a religious belief test before any engineer can become licensed to practice in private or public enterprises? Absolutely not. But I do think we have gone so far in the other direction away from any acknowledgment of the role of supernatural belief (including but not limited to Christianity) in the engineering enterprise, that we should not be surprised when the rather feeble and often ineffective things we do regarding engineering ethics, often fail to improve the ethical behavior of people and organizations engaged in technology. I do not agree with everything Joe Carson says. But I do think he's on to something, and I hope that his efforts meet with greater success than they have so far.

Sources: Joe Carson is president of the Association of Christian Engineers, whose website is www.christianengineer.org. His account of his trials and tribulations with the Department of Energy can be found at www.carsonversusdoe.com. The quotation about engineering and faith-based motivations is from his article in the December 2005 issue of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's publication "Professional Ethics Report." Dallas Willard's words are from p. 336 of Willard's The Divine Conspiracy (Harper San Francisco, 1998). The list of engineers and others who have received the IEEE Society for Social Implications of Technology's Barus Award can be found at http://www.ieeessit.org/about.asp?Level2ItemID=5.


  1. Interesting post. I appreciate that you spoke positively about Joe Carson. It is about time. Some of us, who are his so-called friends, left him hanging alone. Joe might be guilty of being alittle different, but mostly he is guilty of being RIGHT.

  2. Great post! I have been contemplating these points for the last few years. Lots of food for thought here. I hope that engineering will take seriously its charge to "protect the welfare and safety of the public." Your illustration about engineering societies lack of defense for whistleblowers was also good. I have wondered why is it that engineers don't have a strong, national association like doctors and lawyers do (i.e. ABA, etc.)