Use the questions posed in this section as starting points for group discussions on ethics in civil engineering.
From Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of “Ethics” is:
- (1929 Edition) – Science of duty and morality
- (1953 Edition) – Science of ideal human character
- (2007 Edition) – Principles of conduct governing an individual or a group
From Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of “Character” is:
- (1929 Edition) – Moral force or qualities
- (1953 Edition) – Moral vigor or firmness especially acquired through self-discipline
- (2007 Edition) – The complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation
A code of ethics is a basic set of values and behaviors that are intended to be embraced by users so they conduct themselves responsibly, in an irreproachable manner, with honor and integrity. A code of ethics is typically based on simple concepts that are of value to society as a whole, promote good behavior, foster trust, and result in respect of one another. A code of ethics should be easy to understand, and written in general terms so it can be applied to every situation.
A code of ethics is a document that serves as a reference for moral guidelines. It is used to inspire members to be ethical in their everyday pursuits. It works to define the moral aspects of being a professional and serves as a checklist of good behavior and desired attributes. If it is referenced regularly, it will raise consciousness and awareness of the moral obligations of a professional. It can serve as the basis of discipline for undesirable behavior. It can also be used as a resource when one is faced with a situation that involves moral perplexity or uncertainty. It sets a standard for professional behavior bound by the code that colleagues, the public, clients, and employees can expect.
The ASCE Code of Ethics is focused toward three constituencies:
1. The public,
2. The client and employer, and
3. Licensed civil engineers.
It is important to maintain a balance of responsibilities among the three, not only because of the realities of the work environment, but to sustain the “learned professional” status that enables practitioners to function as professional engineers (e.g., make considered judgments and decisions in the absence of complete information) and over the long term provide a benefit to the public.
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Because of the complexities of life, the application of a code of ethics can be complicated, and requires that one carefully evaluate all of the issues associated with the problem at hand. The purpose of the Code of Ethics is to provide guiding principles to help the individual decide what actions will be appropriate and therefore supported by the Code of Ethics. A review of the Code of Ethics and the fundamental principles discussed in the code should help you sort through the issues and determine what is ethical and what is unethical. Trusted colleagues may assist with this process, as can the ethical analytical tools presented in this document. When developing solutions to an issue based on applying the Code of Ethics, the goal should be to develop an approach and solution that is above reproach, handled with honor and implemented with integrity.
The Code of Ethics will not make a decision for you. It will provide founding principles for you to apply when you evaluate a problem, reason a conclusion, and take action. The decisions you make and the actions you take are yours alone, and you alone will be responsible for those decisions, regardless of the input given to you by others.
Stated in modern terms, a common test is the “60 Minutes” or publicity test. Simply stated, if your actions and response to a particular issue or situation were discussed and presented on the T.V. show “60 Minutes” or some other investigative reporting program, would you be proud of how you handled it, or would you want to hide and never be seen again?
Ethical behavior was codified to provide guidelines for fairness and integrity in one’s endeavors within a societal framework. The highest level a society can reach is one in which everyone treats one another with respect and does only what is in the best interest of society as a whole — as an individual decision, without coercion. The societies with the most freedom and the greatest thinkers value treating others with respect and doing the “right thing” in all situations as the highest attainable attribute an individual could achieve. Aristotle’s view, expressed in his book, the Nicomachean Ethics, was that ethics is a moral virtue that can be instilled in an individual through training and practice.
The codification of ethics has taken many forms: from the Ten Commandments, to the Doctrine of Socrates, to the Nicomachean Ethics, to the Code of Hammurabi, to the American Constitution, to the Golden Rule, to the ASCE Code of Ethics. The ASCE Code of Ethics is tailored to the professional civil engineer.
Between 1877 and 1914, the Society’s Board of Direction was very conservative and believed that ethics was a matter of an engineer’s personal responsibility and honor and not appropriate for a written code. In 1914, however, a special committee of the Board of Direction was appointed to draft a Code. The original Code contained six principles but has been amended over time to its current form. Proposed amendments must be published to the membership and then approved by a two-thirds vote of the Board of Direction.
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As a civil engineer you have been trained to design and oversee construction of various improvements to enhance civilization, growth, and society as a whole. In the course of making the decisions that will be required to plan, design, and oversee construction, you will be faced with many moral and ethical dilemmas. Many decisions will be made with regard to safety, public interest, and client interest. Having a code of ethics will help you make those decisions. As a professional your work is restricted by society such that only those having the training and proven credentials may perform it, limiting competition to only those individuals who are licensed. In return, professionals are required to perform their work to high ethical standards and always in consideration of and to the benefit of the public. Professionals are held to a higher standard than the general public, and the Code of Ethics provides the guidelines and standards that the professional engineer must follow to satisfy that commitment.
Ethical behavior is a way of conducting one’s life, not a measure of adherence to a specified set of arbitrary rules. Because an engineering professional is a professional twenty-four hours each day, seven days each week, all year long, ethical behavior should be a way of life, not just applied to a job. A misguided action or comment from an engineering professional is just as detrimental, whether rendered at work or on vacation. When one accepts the responsibilities associated with special engineering training and a professional career, one also accepts the responsibility to conduct life within a framework of norms and behaviors that won’t diminish the trust that society places in the engineering profession.
Unfortunately the answer to this question is no. Although ethics should be a priority for everyone, and especially for professionals, not everyone is focused on ethics. Those individuals who are looking for personal challenge, responsibility, and self-improvement will find that focusing on ethics and applying ethical behavior to their lives will promote personal growth.
If everyone practiced ethical behavior all the time, there would be no need for laws. You will meet a variety of people throughout your life and you will be faced with decisions, including determining who your friends, leaders, and mentors are. Selecting leaders and mentors with strong understanding and demonstration of ethical behavior will help you develop into a person of character and deserving of respect.
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One must always be careful when judging others. The intent of ethical behavior is personal growth and betterment as an individual. The evaluation of others to determine who can and who cannot be trusted, who has honor and who does not, or who has integrity and who does not, is acceptable as a method to learn from others’ behavior. Evaluating these traits can also serve to protect yourself and others from those who would harm you. It is always better to be a good example and leave the judging to others.
Ethics is important because it forms the foundation of your belief system. It governs how you
treat others; it is the basis of your decision-making process and how you react in various
situations. Because of its societal value, ethics is revered by others and held in high esteem.
Traits of a successful leader include trustworthiness, respect of others, and integrity. The implementation of ethical practices in your lifestyle is one way to develop a foundation to build strong relationships with others. The basic principles of ethics include taking responsibility for your actions, acting honorably, treating people with respect, and doing the right thing even when it is a difficult choice to make. People need to believe in you, trust you, and believe in what you stand for, if they are to be led by you.
Codes of ethics are generally derived from the same guiding principles of respect, trust, integrity, fairness, and doing what is right, no matter what the circumstance. The differences usually lie in fine-tuning the code to address the specifics of an industry, trade, or organization. ASCE’s Code of Ethics is presented in Part 2 of this manual, with the Guidelines to Practice in Part 3.
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Many states require that professionals report unethical behavior to the State Licensing Board for investigation, evaluation, and if required, discipline. ASCE requires that you report a member who violates the Code of Ethics.
You have a moral obligation to respond to unethical behavior. At a bare minimum, you should not be associated or involved with unethical behavior. A more active step would be to bring it to the individual’s attention and point out that what is being done is not ethical, why it is not ethical, and recommend that the activity cease. The next level would be to report the unethical behavior to an appropriate authority.
The reality is that it is your responsibility to report the unethical behavior to the appropriate authority. This is a decision that should weigh heavily on you for several reasons. First, the accusation must be accurate and real, because the repercussions to the accused can be life altering. Second, and it is unfortunate, people who bring unethical behavior to the attention of authorities may face repercussions instead of being commended. In the end, you have to make a decision that you can live with and know that you took the proper course of action.
Behavior that is ethically required is not always easy to determine. If it were, it would be a lot easier to apply and there would be nothing to discuss. A large amount of gray area and considerable complexities must be dealt with when making a decision. Because of the spectrum of issues involved in any situation that requires an ethical choice, there will be variance in how different people deal with a situation.
It is good to discuss ethical positions and to listen to the arguments in favor of and in disagreement with a particular position. Because of the nuances associated with any ethical decision, each should be thoroughly evaluated. Through discussion you will be exposed to other points of view and perspectives. All of this will give you a broader understanding to draw upon when making an ethical decision.
After all the discussion and debate, in the end, you must reach your own decision on the appropriate action(s) to take. The final decision always rests with you, and you have to make a decision that you are proud of, one that you are willing to stand behind and defend, and one that you can live with for the rest of your life.
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Compromise may be a tool for negotiation, but ethics should not be compromised. It is sometimes promoted that you should always find a middle ground that everyone can agree upon. But if everyone is agreeing about something that is fundamentally wrong, how can that be ethically correct? Compromise is not always a solution, and with ethical issues, one should do what is morally right and honorable, regardless of what the majority is promoting, or which peer pressure is being exerted, or what others think.
That said, there are typically a number of issues and points of view that must be evaluated any time ethical decisions are made. At the end of Part 1 of this manual, there are several tests and questions that can be asked when evaluating ethical issues that can help you arrive at a good ethical solution.
In ancient Egypt, Ma’at was the ethical concept of “truth,” “order,” and “cosmic balance.” The Greeks are credited with elevating ethics to a philosophical science through such noted individuals as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The goal was to promote harmony, happiness, and virtuous living. Aristotle wrote extensively on ethics and produced ten books on the subject. These books included The Study of Good, Moral Virtue, Courage and Temperance, Other Virtues, Justice, Intellectual Virtue, Evil and Pleasure, Friendship, and Pleasure and Politics.
No one knows exactly where ethics came from, but it is clear that ethical behavior benefits society and advances humanity. The fact that ethics has been a part of societal life throughout history validates the critical role that ethics plays in society and confirms that ethics continues to be worthy of study, understanding, and inclusion in each person’s life pursuits.
In a perfect world there would be no need to enforce ethics because everyone would strive to be the best person they can be. But we do not live in a perfect world. Since ethics is not the same as laws, there are no specific enforcing authorities. In the case of ASCE, the Society has elected to set ethical standards, becoming of professionals, as a basis of membership. Both ASCE’s Constitution (§2.2) and Bylaws (§3.0) require that all ASCE members subscribe to the Code of Ethics. ASCE then becomes the enforcing entity with regard to ethics issues that arise within the membership. In this case, enforcement is applied only to members since that is the only jurisdiction that ASCE has.
The enforcement of ethics isn’t that much different from the enforcement of law. Infractions are observed and reported by someone to a proper authority. A requirement of ASCE membership is to report violations of the Code of Ethics to the appropriate authorities in ASCE. ASCE has specific procedures that are used to investigate and provide due process to individuals who have been accused of unethical behavior. Those enforcement procedures are outlined in Article 3 of ASCE’s “Rules of Policy and Procedure,” published each year in the Official Register. The Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) investigates complaints and allegations of misconduct and makes recommendations to the Executive Committee, which makes the final determination on any disciplinary actions to be taken. CPC follows certain procedures outlined in their Procedures for Professional Conduct Cases.
Links to the Official Register, a copy of CPC’s procedures, the role of sections in professional conduct cases, and an ethics complaint form can be found at www.asce.org/Leadership-and-Management/Ethics/Ethics-Complaints/.
It has been historic practice for ASCE to use individual members or committees of ASCE Sections to assist in professional conduct investigations. However, the role of ASCE Sections in such investigations does not extend to determining whether or not a violation of the Code of Ethics has occurred, nor does it extend to taking disciplinary action against a member who has been accused of breach of the Code of Ethics. The Section’s role is limited purely to investigatory activities.
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Although many laws are based on punishing unethical behavior, there are many acts that are not illegal, but are unethical. To merely act within the law is not sufficient for a professional. A professional should be above reproach, have integrity, and always act honorably.
An example of unethical behavior that is not illegal is donating money to a politician in hopes of getting work. The donation is not illegal, but it is unethical to donate with the intent to receive benefit. Although our laws allow it, it is tantamount to bribery.
Ethics is not a religion. There are no sects or denominations. Ethics is more fundamental than that, and crosses all religions and cultures. It is based solely on treating all other people with respect, on treating them fairly and not taking advantage of them. It is about being honest, and living your life with honor and integrity.
Your ethics is made known to others through your actions. Your actions are who you are, and if your actions are different than what you say, it is your actions that will prevail. Actions are what others will use to assess you: your credibility, your integrity, your honor, and your competence. If what you say is different from what you do, you will be labeled a hypocrite, and you will find it difficult to earn the respect and trust of others.
Ethics and trust go hand in hand. Recall that an ethical person has integrity and honor, and is above reproach. This is a person on whom you can rely to do the right thing and respond appropriately to all situations. If all of the people in a profession reflect a high level of ethical behavior, then the public can rely on them. If the profession contains persons of marginal or unethical behavior, then the public cannot rely on or trust that profession’s members. The public’s view of a profession will reflect their perception based on the observed or reported actions of members of the profession.
For this reason, a professional who exhibits unethical behavior must be removed from the profession. Bad behavior is what is reported in the press and is what receives publicity. One unethical individual will get a lot of exposure, whereas many individuals performing good deeds will get little exposure. This is why it is so important for members of a profession to behave ethically, and to identify and remove those individuals who exhibit unethical behavior. The profession can either police itself, or else subject itself to discipline by those outside the profession. A learned and respected profession does the former.
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Good people are sought out because of their attributes of trust, fairness, respect of others, integrity, and honor. These traits will allow you to seek roles of responsibility and leadership. These traits coupled with professional knowledge will provide you mobility and opportunity.
Bringing ethics into your life can result in a better understanding of yourself (strengths and weaknesses) and improve your relationship with others. A code of ethics is intended to provide guidance, but not specific instruction. To utilize a code of ethics effectively, individuals must understand the guidelines of the code, and be aware of their actions and the potential consequences or outcomes, and be willing to candidly consider the impact and effect on others. On a larger scale, one should also ask, “Will the outcome be of benefit to society as a whole?”
Adherence to a code of ethics requires continuous awareness plus critical thinking skills. It is a very intentional way of life and it requires discipline, introspection, and evaluation of the impacts of your decisions. Beyond self-respect, the benefits of an ethical life are that people will know how you will respond to issues, they know you will strive to do what is right, they know you will treat them with respect, and they know you will act with integrity and honor.
Every decision you make, no matter how big or how small, is yours for the rest of your
life. Even if the decision is the result of coercion, peer pressure, bribery, or other source of influence, the decision ultimately made is always your decision and yours alone.
Those who choose to live an ethical life will earn the respect of others, will be trusted individuals, and will be able to live with themselves, knowing that the decisions they have made are fair and are made with integrity. These are traits that form the foundation of successful and honorable people — who are often leaders in a society.
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Professionals must always be ready and willing to take courses of action that are unpopular or may present economic risk or loss of power or status, if the professional believes such a course of action is in the best interest of the public or client and is the honorable thing to do. Society has provided a special status to engineers and in return, engineers must recognize that the profession relies on their individual ethical standards. In the long run, this standard will be to the benefit of all, including the profession and individual engineers.
You may lose a project or two, you may lose a client or two, but it is paramount that as a professional you always perform your duties with honor, integrity, and attention to public safety. A career spans a long time, and doing what is ethically right over the long-term will pay its own dividends personally and professionally. Trust takes time to build, but once built, it can last a lifetime. Having clients for life and being proud of the decisions you have made is the ultimate goal.
Ethics does not come in brands. Ethics is a set of personal values that one applies to the decisions that are made throughout life. It involves developing personal discipline to do what is right and to treat people right. The goal of applying ethics to your life is to improve yourself and your consideration of others. It is not about comparing yourself to others.
Only you know all the decisions you make; you can see their impact on others. You know what your weaknesses are and what your strengths are. If you are true to yourself, you will build on your strengths to improve your weaknesses and will always seek to improve yourself. You may be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of others, but there is no honor in comparing yourself to others to determine who is better. The value of comparison is to learn from others’ mistakes and to emulate those whom you respect and hold in high esteem. Your goal should be self-improvement.
The way you “get” ethics is to read the Code of Ethics, understand the Code of Ethics, and apply it to your work and life pursuits.
Ethics can be as simple as “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” “do what is right,” and “live an honorable life.” It is the application of these simple concepts that makes ethics seem so complicated. These simple concepts do not take into account all the different scenarios that can occur and all the issues associated with a particular situation. The more complicated your life, the more complicated it will be to apply the basic tenets and fundamental principles. There is value in simplicity.
Being a professional will bring complexity to your life. But being an engineer also means that you are trained in problem solving. The ability to understand complex issues and the ability to problem solve will help you apply ethics to your personal and professional life.
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You cannot buy ethics. No one can give it to you and you can’t take it from someone else. Ethics is learned and applied.
Ethical behavior is both public and personal. It is personal in that you choose how you live and you are responsible for the decisions that you make. It is public in the sense that you will be judged by others on how you live and on the decisions you make. So how you elect to live your life is personal, but how you impact others is public and the impact of your personal decisions will influence how you are received by others.
There has been an emphasis in society in recent years on trying to separate one’s personal life from one’s public life. There are those who state that what you do in private is nobody else’s business, and as long as it does not affect your job, it should have no impact on how you are judged. This is one approach to life; however, others will judge you on the whole and not just on the part that you try to present to the public. To act one way when people are watching and another way when you think people are not watching is hypocritical. A split life is not consonant with a person of integrity or with living an ethical life.
As with learning, developing your ethical understanding and applying it to your life is a lifelong commitment. Some things just take time.
For instance, how long does it take for you to trust another individual? What is required to earn another’s trust? How you conduct your life and treat others is viewed by everyone around you, all the time. The best way to let others know what kind of person you are is to always conduct yourself with the highest standards of behavior, morals, and honor. Relationships are built on knowing what to expect from one another, and on trust.
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Ethics is not based on any one culture. In fact, some cultures allow behaviors that those in another culture would view as wrong. Cultures surely add complexity to ethics and can result in a difference of opinion concerning what is ethical and what is not. There is scientific evidence that certain life and death scenarios are viewed the same across all religions and cultures. So, what is culture’s role in ethics, or what is ethic’s role in culture?
As you can see, this simple question sheds light on just how complex the subject of ethics is. As one delves into this particular issue, one can start to appreciate how difficult it is to develop international ethical standards. The short answer to this question is that ethics is not based on one culture, but that each culture drives what is considered ethical behavior in that culture. The long answer is still being worked on.
Many religions base their teachings on an ethical approach to life and refer to ethical issues in their writings. This is because of the high societal value of leading an ethical life. Being involved with a religion is not a prerequisite to learning and living an ethical life. By the same token, just because you are involved with a religion does not mean that you live an ethical life. With both, it is up to the individual to learn ethics and to have the discipline to apply what is learned to his or her life.
Ethics is personal, and others may or may not embrace it. Ethics is available for everybody but cannot be forced on others, because it is a personal decision of how and to what level you wish to pursue and commit to an ethical life. You have the ability to influence others by how you live your life. As a professional and a leader in your community, your actions will be evaluated by others. You can, by example, influence others as to the merits of ethics.
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There will be times when you will face an ethical issue with complexities that must be weighed and addressed. At times like these it is good to use your ethical mentor(s) to examine the problem and analyze it from various points of view. If no trusted individual is available and you are faced with making a decision, you can ask yourself various questions to perform the analysis yourself. Two resources are presented below with tests and questions you can use to assist with your analysis.
Also, ASCE maintains an Ethics Advisory Line available to all members and staffed by the Society’s legal counsel to answer questions and provide guidance on any area of ethical concern. The telephone number to reach an ethics legal expert is (800) 548-ASCE (2723) x6061 or (703) 295-6061.
Ethical Analysis Tools
When faced with questions and ethical decisions, the following tests and questions may help you determine how you should address it.
- Harm Test: Does this option do less harm than the alternatives?
- Publicity Test: Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper? Would I want my Grandma to know?
- Defensibility Test: Could I defend this choice of option before a committee of peers, or a Congressional committee, without appearing self-serving?
- Reversibility Test: Would I still think this choice of option was good if it were applied to me instead of others, especially if some of the effects are adverse?
- Colleague Test: What might my profession’s governing board or ethics committee say about this option?
- Organization Test: What does my organization’s ethics officer or legal counsel say about this?
- Virtue Test: Would a virtuous person do this? What kind of person does this? What kind of person would I become if I did this kind of thing all the time?
-- from “A Format for Ethical Decision Making” (2010), Michael Davis, Center for Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago
- Is it honorable?
- Is there anyone from whom you would like to hide the action?
- Is it honest?
- Does it violate any agreement, actual or implied, or otherwise betray a trust?
- Does it avoid the possibility of a conflict of interest? Are there other considerations that might bias your judgment?
- Is it within your area of competence?
- Is it possible that your best effort will not be adequate?
- Is it fair?
- Is it detrimental to the legitimate interest of others?
- Is it considerate?
- Will it violate confidentiality or privacy, or otherwise harm anyone or anything?
- Is it conservative?
- Does it unnecessarily squander time or other valuable resources?
-- from John McLeod, P.E., in “Ethical Conflicts in Information and Computer Science, Technology, and Business”, Parker, et al., QED Information Sciences,1990
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ASCE is working on several fronts to promote ethics. These include journal articles and workshops. Civil Engineering magazine has a regular column that addresses current ethics topics. Ethics case studies are published quarterly in Leadership and Management in Engineering. Many of ASCE’s conferences have programs and workshops whose purpose is to increase awareness of ethics and promote a forum to explore ethical issues among members. ASCE also promotes the Order of the Engineer (www.asce.org/orderengineer/) and conducts ring ceremonies, in which engineers make a pledge to fulfill their obligation to practice their profession with integrity, fair dealing, tolerance, and respect. Many of ASCE’s awards recognize those who have advanced ethics education, promoted application of ethical standards, or demonstrated dedication to ethical professional practice. These include the Daniel W. Mead prizes for younger members and students, the Professional Practice Ethics and Leadership Award for licensed engineers, and the Walter LeFevre Award for civil or related undergraduate engineering programs (www.asce.org/Leadership-and-Management/awards) .
ASCE and other professional organizations also provide many sources of information that evaluate and teach how to apply ethics in your daily personal and professional life. ASCE’s website lists many ethics resources at www.asce.org/Leadership-and-Management/Ethics/Ethics-Resources/. The list includes both suggested reading materials and resources for self-study.
Courses offered by ASCE include distance and in-person training opportunities that can broaden your understanding of the application of ethical principles and also help you earn CEUs or PDHs to satisfy licensure requirements. Descriptions of current offerings can be found at www.asce.org/conted.
From Wikipedia, Ethics is broken into three categories: “It is divided into three primary areas: meta-ethics (the study of the concept of ethics), normative ethics (the study of how to determine ethical values), and applied ethics (the study of the use of ethical values).”
The following web sites are just a few of the many sites available to help you broaden your understanding of ethics:
Ethics Guidelines for Professional Conduct for Civil Engineers
This guide was developed for use in the daily conduct of engineers’ professional and business-related activities. The guidelines reinforce ASCE’s Code of Ethics.
Guidance on Licensing and Ethical Responsibilities for Civil Engineers
This brochure discusses what licensure is, the importance of licensure for civil engineers, licensing requirements, and ethical responsibilities. It includes ethical situations drawn from real-life situations.
This site is designed to be an online information center for academics and students interested in business ethics.
International Journal of Ethics
This is a membership site, but some of their journals are available online to all users.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
This is a good source for an introduction to the various aspects of the field of ethical studies.
Personal Ethics versus Professional Ethics
This is an excellent essay that summarizes key aspects of the intertwining of personal and professional ethics. Although the focus is a military setting, it has application to all.
This is a good source for evaluating various aspects of business ethics.
Hunting and Fishing Ethics
This is an example of how ethics applies to all aspects of your life, including your leisure activities.
“ASCE Ethics: Edict, Enforcement and Education” is a white paper by ASCE Deputy Executive Director/General Counsel Thomas W. Smith III, Esq. CAE, M.ASCE that discusses ethics with respect to ASCE and provides some background on how ethics has evolved within the society and discusses what ethics is.
The only things that an individual truly owns and controls are his/her thoughts, actions, memories, and integrity. Everything else in life is borrowed. Choose your actions thoughtfully and responsibly.
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