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A survey of engineering ethics codes would reveal remarkable consistency in the language adopted by engineering communities around the globe and across all technical disciplines, suggesting that a clear consensus exists on the principles that define the ethical practice of engineering. In view of this finding, one might be tempted to question whether this common moral ground begins and ends within the engineering profession or whether the same basic principles set forth in codes like the ASCE Code of Ethics are mirrored in the ethical codes of other professions as well.

On first impression, this suggestion might seem implausible. If ethical codes serve to define the engineer’s role with respect to clients and other members of society, then how can the same ethical principles apply to professionals occupying different or even conflicting roles? An engineer who looks to an attorney’s ethical obligations might make statements that are inconsistent with the role of an expert witness; one who models his or her behavior on a psychiatrist’s ethical code might face censure for concealing a client’s fraud or misconduct.

On the other hand, it could be argued that members of all professions serve very similar roles when viewed from a moral standpoint. Wikipedia defines a profession as “an occupation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others.” This definition encapsulates many of the fundamental principles outlined in the ASCE Code of Ethics — attainment of knowledge, objectivity, and the desire to serve clients and advance the greater good. If these same sentiments are reflected in the codes of other professions, then it would appear that, despite differences in practical applications, the ethical principles that guide the various professions may be more alike than not.

Do the ethical codes for other professions differ greatly from the ASCE Code of Ethics, or are there common ethical principles across all professional disciplines?

Though it would be impossible in one column to take a comprehensive look at ethics across all professions, a few noteworthy insights can be drawn from comparing ASCE’s Code of Ethics with the ethical codes adopted by other professional societies. Referenced in this column are the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics, the Code of Professional Conduct for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification Model Code of Ethics for Educators.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest level of consistency among these codes concerns the basic requirement for entry into a so-called learned profession: competence. The ABA rules state that “a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client,” while the AMA’s code directs physicians to be “dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.” NASDTEC’s model code directs educators to demonstrate “the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required for professional competence,” and the AICPA code — in language that most closely matches the language in ASCE’s own code — states that accountants may “undertake only those professional services that the member or the member’s firm can reasonably expect to be completed with professional competence.” 

Likewise, the codes reviewed here share a common acknowledgment of the need to maintain and expand one’s competence through professional development. Under ASCE’s Code of Ethics, continuing education is not merely a best practice but an ethical obligation, and three of the remaining codes reflect similar views. NASDTEC’s code directs that educators must commit to “ongoing professional learning”; AICPA’s code states that “learning and professional improvement … must continue throughout a member’s professional life”; and the AMA exhorts doctors to “continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge (and) maintain a commitment to medical education.” While the ABA code is less prescriptive on this topic than the others, it nevertheless notes that a “lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice (and) engage in continuing study.”

Along with competence, loyalty is perhaps the most important ethical duty owed to a professional’s client, and this principle is captured in ASCE’s Code of Ethics by the requirement for engineers to serve as “faithful agents” for clients and employers. While the codes reviewed here do not directly mirror this language, elements of this obligation can be found throughout the codes. Each code mentioned in this article requires the professional to honor confidentiality, with the educators’ code emphasizing protection of “student records and … personal data” and the physicians’ credo focusing on “patient confidences and privacy.” Two of the four codes (ABA and AICPA) contain extensive treatment of conflicts of interest, while the others offer guidance on gifts from clients and other actions that might compromise the professional’s judgment. Other requirements of faithful service that can be found in these codes include the importance of clear communication (AMA and NASDTEC) and transparency with fees and other client funds (ABA and

While it should be no surprise that duty to clients is an important aspect in all professional codes, one distinct point of difference lies in the place this duty holds in the overall hierarchy of ethical obligations. ASCE’s Code of Ethics (and the codes of its fellow engineering societies) states that an engineer’s duty to protect the public health, safety, and welfare takes precedence over all other ethical obligations, even the duty of loyalty to clients. Conversely, the AMA code notes that “a physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount.” This disparity likely reflects the scope of impact of their professional services; while a physician’s work is typically focused on a particular patient’s welfare, engineers can expect their work to affect not only their clients but also a potentially innumerable number of downstream users.

Though one might assume the work of accountants and lawyers is similarly client-focused, the two professional codes are arguably closer to ASCE’s code in their recognition of superseding obligations. The AICPA code requires accountants to “act in a way that will serve the public interest” and calls upon professionals to acknowledge their responsibilities not only to clients but also to “credit grantors, governments, employers, investors, the business and financial community, and others who rely on the objectivity and integrity of members to maintain the orderly functioning of commerce.” Similarly, the ABA code notes that a lawyer is “a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice” and cautions the attorney against any conduct “that undermines the integrity of the adjudicative process.”

Finally, all the codes are imbued with a belief that membership in the profession is a badge of honor and that accordingly members of the profession must maintain and preserve the honor of the profession. The AICPA code speaks eloquently of the accountant’s “unswerving commitment to honorable behavior, even at the sacrifice of personal advantage,” while the AMA code notes that its ethical principles “define the essentials of honorable behavior for the physician.” Similarly, the ABA code devotes significant attention to the attorney’s obligation to maintain the integrity of the profession, and the NASDTEC code notes that “trust in the profession” dictates the highest standards of ethics and responsibility.

While this discussion barely scratches the surface in comparing the ethical norms of other professions, the examples given here support an argument that the engineering, legal, accounting, and medical codes of ethics rest on a common moral foundation, one that describes the professional’s duty to provide informed and faithful service to clients while preserving public trust and enhancing the image of the profession. Future columns may review other professional codes for adherence to these principles and may explore similarities and differences in other ethical obligations, such as interactions with other professionals, mentorship, and the professional’s role in policing those who fall short of their legal or ethical expectations. 

This article first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.