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Development of the First ASCE Code of Ethics

Written codes of ethics, both as models for professional conduct and as measuring tools for regulatory compliance, have become such a central part of civil engineering practice that it may be difficult to imagine a time when the civil engineering community considered such codes to be unnecessary, if not an outright affront to professional practitioners. Yet this was the belief held by many civil engineers in the late 19th century, and this view was reflected in ASCE’s policies on professional ethics for the first half century of its existence.

While the concept of professional ethics may be traced back as far as ancient Greece, it was not until the 1800s that professional associations began codifying ethical standards. In 1803, after a dispute in Britain between physicians and administrators that crippled a Manchester hospital swamped with typhoid patients, the physician Thomas Percival proposed the first written code of medical ethics. Several professional associations in the United States soon followed with written codes of their own. In 1847 the American Medical Association adopted a code of conduct for its members based on Percival’s code, and in 1887 the Alabama State Bar Association became the first association of lawyers to draft a code of professional ethics.

Meanwhile the civil engineering profession also was weighing the establishment of written ethical standards. The first formal proposal of an ethics policy was brought before ASCE’s Board of Direction in 1877 by the Society’s secretary, Gabriel Leverich. Written as a board resolution, this policy read as follows:

Whereas: A Civil Engineer, in the practice of his profession, is sometimes restrained or overruled by his employers, in matters involving serious risk to property and life which he only, as the engineer, should determine; whence he must either discharge his duties in a manner contrary to his best judgment or resign his position;
Resolved: That in the opinion . . . of the American Society of Civil Engineers . . . it is unprofessional for a civil engineer to continue the discharge of his duties when so restrained or overruled.

But this simple resolution met with resistance from other members of the board. It was the prevailing view among the Society’s leadership at the time that professional conduct was a matter of personal honor. Because it believed that no respectable civil engineer would ever allow business or personal considerations to override his concern for the public welfare, the board saw this resolution as at best unneeded and at worst an affront to the professional integrity of the members. The ethics resolution was rejected, and the board instead adopted a resolution stating that it was “inexpedient for this Society to instruct its members as to their duties in private professional
matters.”

In the 30 years that followed that resolution, the idea of a professional code for civil engineers was raised only sporadically in journal articles and membership meetings. But in 1913, reflecting the growing view that an ethics code for civil engineers was not only desirable but also necessary if the profession was to maintain its status in relation to such other professions as medicine and law, the board appointed a committee to reconsider the establishment of ethical standards and to prepare a code for review.

That committee’s recommendations were approved by the board in June 1914, and in September of that year the membership approved the first edition of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, which read as follows:

It shall be considered unprofessional and inconsistent with honorable and dignified bearing for any member of the American Society of Civil Engineers:
1.   To act for his clients in professional matters otherwise than as a faithful agent or trustee, or to accept any remuneration other than his stated charges for services rendered his clients.
2.   To attempt to injure falsely or maliciously, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, or business, of another Engineer.
3.   To attempt to supplant another Engineer after definite steps have been taken toward his employment.
4.   To compete with another Engineer for employment on the basis of professional charges, by reducing his usual charges and in this manner attempting to underbid after being informed of the charges named by another.
5.   To review the work of another Engineer for the same client, except with the knowledge or consent of such Engineer, or unless the connection of such Engineer with the work has been terminated.
6.   To advertise in self-laudatory language, or in any other manner derogatory to the dignity of the Profession.

Although the 1914 code was an important step for ASCE in communicating the importance of high ethical standards, it is interesting to note that the first code continued to embody the view that a civil engineer’s obligation to safeguard the welfare of the public was best left to personal honor rather than to regulation. The canons of that first code deal only with an engineer’s interactions with other engineers and with clients and make no mention of an engineer’s duty to the public. It would not be until 1976 that the board adopted an express statement of the engineer’s fundamental ethical duty to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

It is also interesting to note that, of the original six canons, only the first two remain in a substantially similar form in ASCE’s current code. Canons 3 and 4 of the original code were removed in the 1970s to comply with a U.S. Department of Justice decree stating that codes of ethics that prohibited price competition were in violation of federal antitrust law. (See this column in the February and March 2007 issues for additional information.) Similarly, canon 6 was removed in the 1990s after the federal government advised that broad restrictions on advertising served to limit price competition and therefore also were an unlawful restraint of trade. Canon 5 was dropped from the code in a 1980 revision.

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 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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