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Value of Live, Interactive Discussion of Engineering Ethics Issues

Apr 1, 2010

In the December 2009 column, we presented a hypothetical case in which an engineer who is redesigning a town's sewage plant headworks suspects that the treatment room does not comply with National Fire Protection Association requirements for "explosion-proofing," despite assurances from the local fire official. In a workshop discussion of the case, attendees felt that the engineer should investigate the issue and develop solutions if his research bears out his suspicions. Workshop participants also felt that he should bill the time and cost of this work to the project regardless of pressure from both his superior and the town commissioner to complete the project on time and under budget.

In response to that article, Joseph Biren, P.E., M.ASCE, writes as follows:

My response to the problem and the solution set forth in the above article is that it is just another symptom of the myopia that afflicts the engineering profession. What should have played a most important part in the considerations of the session attendees was omitted from the statement of the problem: the nature of the plant's deficiency that provoked a state mandate to effect repairs. If the plant was noisy, odoriferous, or otherwise a bad neighbor, that is one level of concern. If, however, the treatment by the plant was deficient and thereby was causing pollution of a drinking water source downstream, then another set of criteria should have been addressed. Among them, how time critical was the need to provide for the public's safety from the chemical- or germ-laden effluent?

Given the limited statement of the problem, I agree with the solution set forth by the majority of the attendees. However, multiple-choice problems, though easier for both takers and graders of examinations, have a tendency to ignore the real world. I suggest that future ethical questions should be posed in a more open manner. If it is desired that the public look up to engineers on matters of policy as well as technical details, I recommend that we be both permitted and forced to address those "alien" matters in our schools and in our professional societies.

While Biren makes an excellent point about the need to balance public safety concerns over explosion-proofing with the concerns that prompted the redesign in the first place, of equal importance is his observation about the limitations imposed by the multiple-choice answer format. Though case studies are an invaluable resource for framing ethical issues, a single article with limited choices for responses cannot convey all the details that may characterize a situation in the real world; nor can it present all the alternatives an engineer might consider in settling on an ethical course of action. As is evident from Biren's observations, however, a single article can help to illustrate the many complexities, questions, and gray areas that come into play in ethics issues, further highlighting the need for engineers to pause and assess the ethical implications of their decisions in light of their paramount responsibility to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

For this reason, ethics education is most successful when it is delivered in a live, interactive format. In this way a thorough discussion of problems and concerns that come up in the real world is possible, and those in attendance can offer a range of perspectives by drawing on their experience.

Universities have increasingly recognized the importance of presenting ethical issues as a central theme throughout a student's course of study in civil engineering; however, ethical considerations should also loom large in the lifelong learning of all professionals in the field.

ASCE and its sister engineering associations have assembled a variety of materials that may be of use to individuals seeking to organize an ethics workshop in their workplace or at a local professional meeting. In addition to the case studies presented in this column and ASCE's ethics webinars and distance learning materials, the Society recently helped to develop and release the video  Ethicana , which concerns itself with corruption in engineering and construction around the world ( ). Last month 3,000 copies of this video were distributed by ASCE and its partner associations to major engineering and construction firms, engineering colleges, government agencies, financial institutions, and lenders worldwide.

The National Institute for Engineering Ethics, one of ASCE's partners in developing  Ethicana , has produced a number of other videos in this vein, including  Gilbane Gold, Incident at Morales , and a video soon to be released entitled  Henry's Daughters , which explores ethical issues in government and academic settings ( ).

As a supplement to workshop discussions on ethics issues, members may also wish to review ASCE's booklets Guidance on Licensing and Ethical Responsibilities for Civil Engineers and Ethics: Guidelines for Professional Conduct for Civil Engineers (

© ASCE, ASCE News, April, 2010

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) 295-6151 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6151. 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.