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May 2012

The Importance of Understanding Engineering Ethics

Introduction

Mechanical engineer Roger Boisjoly, P.E., who passed away early this year at the age of 73, is best known as the engineer who advised delaying the launch of the space shuttle Challenger because of a design flaw in the rocket boosters that made it dangerous to launch at low temperatures.

His recommendations were overridden by the management team responsible for approving the launch, a decision that resulted in the loss of the Challenger and her seven crew members.

Although he had a long and distinguished career as a structural engineer, William J. LeMessurier, P.E., Hon.M.ASCE, is probably best remembered for his response to a disastrous mistake in his design of the Citicorp Center (later known as the Citigroup Center and now known as 601 Lexington Avenue), a New York City skyscraper. A student’s question about the design of the building, a 900 ft structure perched atop four massive stilts, led LeMessurier to the realization that he had failed to properly account for the effects of diagonal winds. Faced with the possibility that the building could suffer a cataclysmic failure during a severe storm, LeMessurier disclosed his error to the building’s owners and oversaw the necessary repairs.

In the late 1960s, a civil engineer by the name of Marvin Camper received a three-year suspension from the Society for violating ASCE’s Code of Ethics. The charges arose from the engineer’s testimony in the trial of a county engineer who was found guilty of extorting political contributions from engineers in exchange for highway design contract awards. The ASCE member did not deny making payments to the public official. He contended that he had succumbed to the scheme because of the pressure to sustain his young firm and that he believed participation in the scheme had been broadly accepted within the local engineering community as part of the cost of doing business in that area.

Although these situations are different in many ways, they are similar in one respect: each of the engineers involved went on to share his story with colleagues and students in the professional community in the interest of ethics education. Boisjoly wrote numerous papers on the role of decision making in the Challenger disaster and became a regular lecturer on the subject of workplace ethics. LeMessurier presented his story as a case study for engineering students at Harvard and other universities. And the ASCE member disciplined for unlawful political contributions participated in the development of an educational video about his experiences entitled Ethics on Trial: The Case of Marvin L. Camper.

Question

What lessons can be learned from these examples about the role of engineers in furthering ethics education?

Discussion

Ethics education entails more than learning a simple set of abstract principles that are codified in standards set by a professional society or adopted by a licensing board. It also includes understanding how situations can arise that test an engineer’s adherence to those principles and recognizing the costs and rewards of the decisions made in those times of ethical challenge. It is in serving this latter need that the importance of real-life case histories becomes so evident.

Whether presented formally at an ethics workshop or seminar or simply discussed informally among friends and colleagues, ethics case studies provide a helpful mechanism for sharing ideas and experiences among engineers at all levels of experience. While young members of the engineering profession may never encounter situations of the types described in these case studies, the ethical issues underlying the cases will in some form or another face every engineer at some point in his or her professional life. There may be pressure to take the easy path, fear of the consequences of admitting a costly mistake, or tension between engineering judgment and business or monetary concerns. Case studies give young engineers an opportunity to see ethical precepts at work in actual situations and, through discussion, to benefit from the views and experiences of other professionals.

Similarly, while experienced engineers may never have personally experienced a dangerous space launch or a flawed skyscraper design, they can still draw from a lifetime of facing similar ethical issues and challenges in their own professional lives. By relating case studies to situations they have seen in their own practices and offering insights gained from these experiences to younger colleagues and peers, these engineers can emphasize the point that ethics is not a subject that arises only in “exceptional” cases but rather is a base-line that must be observed in all professional decisions.

In fact, it could be argued that an open discussion of day-to-day ethical issues is even more beneficial than considering the issues explored in these three case studies. While it may be easy to define the ethical principles that come into play with regard to illegal acts or serious threats to public safety, in real life the ethical course of action may not be so clear. When does a gift from a vendor become a potential conflict of interest? How should a junior engineer deal with a supervisor’s order to make a billing entry that the engineer finds questionable? What ethical considerations are involved in seeking work from clients of a former employer? These are all areas in which the perspectives of engineers working “in the trenches” can make an invaluable contribution to ethics education.

While case histories help engineers recognize and meet their ethical obligations in discharging their professional duties, it could be argued that ethics education is itself a means of meeting one’s obligations under ASCE’s Code of Ethics. As stated in canon 7, “Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.” While the express language limits an engineer’s sphere of influence to those within his or her line of management, perhaps this canon should be more broadly interpreted to expect that engineers will seek opportunities to learn from the insights and experiences of their fellow professionals and, in exchange, to contribute to the learning and development of others. This reading is also in keeping with the third fundamental principle of the code: “Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor, and dignity of the engineering profession by...striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession.” Active involvement in ethics seminars and discussions is an effective way to further one’s own personal development while contributing to the betterment of the profession as a whole.

ASCE offers numerous opportunities for members to participate in ethics education. In addition to its own ethics webinars and conference sessions, ASCE encourages its geographic and technical units to offer ethics discussions and case history reviews as part of their membership meetings. ASCE’s ethics hotline is available for members with questions or concerns on ethical issues. Finally, this column welcomes the opportunity to discuss actual ethics issues or dilemmas faced by ASCE members in their daily practices. Anyone who wishes to submit a topic or scenario as the basis for an article is encouraged to do so by email to thoke@asce.org.

For more details on the three cases described here, see the June 2005, July 2007, and August 2011 editions of this column, available online at www.asce.org/Leadership-and-Management/Ethics/A-Question-of-Ethics/.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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