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Part 1 of 2: ASCE’s new code of ethics explained

Dec 1, 2020

On Oct. 26, 2020, the ASCE Board of Direction approved a comprehensive rewrite of the ASCE Code of Ethics, the most extensive change to the Society's ethical code in more than 45 years. This is the first of two columns that will review the new code and highlight noteworthy areas of difference from, and consistency with, the code it replaces.

Question

How does the new Code of Ethics compare with its predecessor?

Discussion

Looking first to the overall structure of the new Code of Ethics, one of the most significant changes in the new code is its abandonment of the "canon model" in favor of what has been termed a "stakeholder model." Whereas the prior code grouped its ethical guidelines into a set of eight canons -- each outlining a broad ethical principle such as competence, fidelity, or integrity - the new code organizes ethical duties under the specific stakeholder to which the duty is owed. The goal of this change is to make the code's structure more intuitive to engineers seeking to resolve ethical concerns. For example, an engineer with qualms about critiquing another professional's work might not immediately look for guidance from a canon on "unfair competition" but would quickly recognize the applicability of a section outlining the engineer's ethical duty to peers.

A second important change is the ordering of the five stakeholders: Society; Natural and Built Environment; Profession; Clients and Employers; and Peers. One common criticism of the previous Code of Ethics was that it lacked a clear hierarchy among ethical principles, except for the express obligation to "hold paramount" the public health, safety, and welfare. As such, the previous code offered little assistance to engineers in resolving dilemmas raised by two conflicting ethical principles, such as a conflict between truthfulness (the central precept of the old code's canon 3) and protection of a client's confidences (an element of faithful service under canon 4). Conversely, the new code expressly states that in cases of conflict, the stakeholders are listed in order of priority, meaning that an ethical obligation to the profession takes precedence over a conflicting obligation to clients and employers, which in turn takes precedence over duties to peers. While not a complete solution to the problem of competing ethical obligations - conflicts may still arise within a category of stakeholders, such as conflicting duties to an employer and client -- the new direction is yet another illustration of the new code's aim of easing the application of its ethical guidance to the professional practice.

Perhaps the most visually evident change in the new code is its significant reduction in size. Including its Fundamental Principles, Canons, and Guidelines to Practice, the previous ASCE Code of Ethics totaled some 2,200 words, while the new code is less than a third of that length. While this reduction means some loss of specificity in the ethical guidance provided, this change is not necessarily a detriment to users. For example, an engineer grappling with a potential conflict of interest can still be guided by the general language on conflicts regardless of the specific facts of the case; plus, there may be less temptation for the engineer to assume a questionable action is permitted if it is not one of the specific scenarios directly addressed in the code.

Moving to the text itself, the new Code of Ethics begins with a brief Preamble. Like the Fundamental Principles that served as a preface to the previous Code of Ethics, the new Preamble is not intended to be an enforceable statement of ethical obligations itself; rather, it is an aspirational statement of the moral aims that underpin the code's provisions. While both the new code and its predecessor identify four underlying principles, the specific principles themselves have substantial differences. 

The new Preamble states that engineers:

  • Create safe, resilient, and sustainable infrastructure.
  • Treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness in a manner that fosters equitable participation without regard to personal identity.
  • Consider the current and anticipated needs of society.
  • Utilize their knowledge and skills to enhance the quality of life for humanity.

Though the fourth bullet roughly mirrors one of the prior code's Fundamental Principles, the remaining principles of that code had a distinctly business-centric focus: the commitment to serve clients and employers faithfully, increase the stature of the profession, and support professional societies. This difference suggests a substantial shift in emphasis between the old and new codes. While sustainability and inclusivity were important parts of the prior code and fidelity and reputation are certainly not lost in the new code, the new Preamble elevates the engineer's role in shaping the lives of others over more pragmatic and internal goals of business needs and professional advancement. 

The first stakeholder in the new Code of Ethics is Society, and the nine provisions in this section describe the engineer's ethical obligations to the public at large. As the foremost ethical duty defined in the new code, this section roughly takes the place of the prior code's Canon 1, and indeed, two provisions in particular are direct corollaries to this canon. Section 1(a) of the new code states that engineers must "first and foremost, protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public," while section 1(i) directs engineers to "report misconduct to the appropriate authorities where necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public."

Yet while protecting the public remains "first and foremost" over all other ethical duties, the new Code of Ethics reflects an understanding that this is by no means the engineer's only ethical duty to society. Truthfulness and objectivity play vital roles in preserving the public's trust in engineers; thus, section 1(c) of the new code directs engineers to "express professional opinions truthfully and only when founded on adequate knowledge and honest conviction." 

The concept of equity and inclusion supports communities and professionals with diverse needs and objectives, so section 1(f) instructs members to "treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness, and reject all forms of discrimination and harassment."

Much of this section of the new code closely approximates language in the prior Code of Ethics, but there are a few notable additions. Section 1(d) incorporates the old Canon 6 mandate of "zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption," but it also directs engineers to report violations to the proper authorities -- a significant change from the previous code, which imposed a reporting obligation on engineers only in cases of threats to the public health, safety, and welfare.

In addition, section 1(h) directs engineers to "consider the capabilities, limitations, and implications of current and emerging technologies when part of their work." Projecting that the coming years will continue to see rapid advancements in artificial intelligence and other technological innovations, this new provision incorporates both an encouragement for engineers to embrace new tools and methods for delivering services and a caution to use good engineering judgment and relentless attention to safety when using such innovations.

Though the structure and style of the new code are dramatically different from the canon-based model of ASCE's past Code of Ethics, the text of the first stakeholder category -- Society -- suggests that many of the prior code's core ethical principles remain fundamentally unchanged. The January column will offer a similar overview of the remaining stakeholder categories: Natural and Built Environment; Profession; Clients and Employers; and Peers. 

This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of  Civil Engineering  as "ASCE Adopts New Code of Ethics."

 


Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to  Civil Engineering.