Ethical Discussion -- Engineering used to create innovation versus destruction

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I have always wondered about the ethical aspect of engineering in general. Considering engineers of all kind are responsible for the creation of some of the worlds most useful and innovative technology and some of the most destructive, do engineers feel that they may hold responsibility in what they help create. I want to know what some on this forum think about this in terms of ethics and own personal emotions and opinions. Would you feel a certain way if what you helped create is used for purposes you don't agree with or do you feel that your job is to innovate and the world is responsible for how they used technology?
 

Klystron

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Welcome to Physics Forums. Your questions appear more suited to Discussion forums rather than Mechanical Engineering. Perhaps a mentor will move or close this thread as appropriate. Ethical questions can be addressed without "personal emotions and opinions". Please read and follow PF terms of service posting rules.

If you are pursuing of have attained an education as an engineer, what were your goals?
 

anorlunda

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I think this thread is OK under engineering rather than general discussion. Engineers do think about ethics. We do have codes of ethics that we follow. Ethical considerations are sometimes slightly different for engineers, scientists and other professions.

My field has been electric power. I always felt good about it, despite some of the bad things that power brings. I feel good because affordable and reliable electric power perhaps more than anything else, enabled modern society to exist. If electric power had not been invented in the 1880s, the world today might not look much different than it did in the 1880.

So it is fair to say that nearly all choices bring advantages and disadvantages, good and bad. That applies to everything, not just engineering. The discovery of fire helped life early man from the stone age, but fire is also the basis for many weapons. So it is a silly question to ask i fire is good or bad; it is both of course. The same applies to language, and almost everything, technical or non-technical.

FIY, here is the IEEE Code of Ethics:

  1. to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, to strive to comply with ethical design and sustainable development practices, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;
  2. to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist;
  3. to be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data;
  4. to reject bribery in all its forms;
  5. to improve the understanding by individuals and society of the capabilities and societal implications of conventional and emerging technologies, including intelligent systems;
  6. to maintain and improve our technical competence and to undertake technological tasks for others only if qualified by training or experience, or after full disclosure of pertinent limitations;
  7. to seek, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, and to credit properly the contributions of others;
  8. to treat fairly all persons and to not engage in acts of discrimination based on race, religion, gender, disability, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression;
  9. to avoid injuring others, their property, reputation, or employment by false or malicious action;
  10. to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics.
 

berkeman

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I have always wondered about the ethical aspect of engineering in general
It's clear that we should put most of the blame on the physicists...

 

BillTre

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FIY, here is the IEEE Code of Ethics:
Are there any consequences for violating the code of ethics?
 

Klystron

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Ethical questions and concomitant moral dilemmas present constantly in computer science and communication engineering. The following experience is almost trivial but current.

I recently helped two engineers design and install a security camera system with video recording and electronic access cards at a condominium complex where we act as board members. While testing and tuning the installation, I installed what amounts to a video surveillance system on my workstation. All 'cut and dried', correct?

Saturday night some community property was damaged for the second time. Maintenance wants to identify the residents responsible for the damage with Managment off duty. While I could locate the time interval, watch the video and probably identify the culprits, should I?

Does my moral responsibility to the community outweigh neighbors's expectation of privacy?

Yes, I participated in purchasing, installing and testing the system; but what responsibility adheres to me for how the system is used? Personally, I find spying repugnant.
 
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anorlunda

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Are there any consequences for violating the code of ethics?
Excellent question. Certainly the IEEE doesn't enforce it, that I heard of.

It may result in loss of business if customers object.
It may result in loos of employment if employers object.

For those requiring a license, breach of ethics can result in loss of license. Disbarment of an attorney is an example. Doctors can also loose their license to practice. A small fraction of engineers require a professional engineering license, and license could be lost.

But I hazard a guess that in most cases, violation of ethics in any profession has no direct consequences for the violator.

@Klystron 's example with surveillance helps illustrate why ethics are hard to enforce. Each decision must steer a way between conflicting principles. We deal with grey much of the time, not black and white.
 

JBA

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I think in all such cases the issue comes down to personal integrity and the definition of that can vary considerably from one society and one individual to another. For engineers, I believe they must always be consider the consequences of their choices of professional activities; but, that is also true of all professions.

The Society of Professional Engineers is a general effort to insure quality of a engineer's services; but, I don't know, it also has an official code of conduct or consequences for violation of such a code.

For me, we have laws for good reason and those that grievously violate them should do so with the understanding that they must be willing to face the consequences of their action, but most don't.

Admittedly, as stated above, those laws are not always appropriately or evenly enforced and I think that is what causes resistance in reporting violations.

The records show that if an individual has performed a crime there is a very significant probability that individual may well have done it in the past and repeat it in the future without any regard to its effect on the victims as long as those consequences are avoided.

With security systems, I think the greatest concern is whether or not the information they obtain will be improperly used, not that those identified acting in a criminal manner should have an expectancy that this information will not be used against them.

Edit:
In the above case, it would appear to come down to a decision between whether to lie to the board by omission or denial to protect the other person from the consequences of the action and risk the chance that a second investigation of the tape that will reveal which has been done.
 
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Klystron

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I think in all such cases the issue comes down to personal integrity and the definition of that can vary considerably from one society and one individual to another. For engineers, I believe they must always be consider the consequences of their choices of professional activities; but, that is also true of all professions.

[snip]
With security systems, I think the greatest concern is whether or not the information they obtain will be improperly used, not that those identified acting in a criminal manner should have an expectancy that this information will not be used against them.

Edit:
In the above case, it would appear to come down to a decision between whether to lie to the board by omission or denial to protect the other person from the consequences of the action and risk the chance that a second investigation of the tape that will reveal which has been done.
If this refers to the video surveillance in my post, I helped Maintenance inspect and retrieve the damaged furniture but did not view the tapes (digital files) myself, so do not know who damaged the furniture. Excellent point about responsibility as a Board member. I will assist Management and the Security contractors with information as to time and place. Then support Board efforts to obtain compensation from the homeowner for damage by her renters to community property.

As others have indicated, ethical solutions are rarely straightforward. In this situation I am an unpaid volunteer helping to improve safety and reduce criminal activity in the community. So, I can choose when and how to get involved without straining ethics while still supporting the community.

In my professional life following active duty service I experienced much stronger ethical dilemmas while employed by contractors who also performed classified government work. I declined many lucrative assignments actually better suited to my ability and skills but that involved weapons development. I missed working on radar systems for instance, but felt great satisfaction as a software engineer concentrating on flight safety and later, crew factor research.

While we may not vow a public oath, I try to live by the challenge "First do no harm.".
 

anorlunda

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It is worth mentioning humility. In my case as a power engineer, I know that making power creates pollution, and that it brings many benefits to the public. There is a trade-off.

Is it up to me as an engineer, or to the public to decide if the trade-off is worth it? It would strike me a arrogant or hubris to put my judgement superior to the public's judgment.

What I'm trying to say: If I think the trade-off of my work are evil, but the public thinks the trade-off is beneficial, I should have the humility to accept that. I can still work on making the negative consequences smaller, and the benefits larger.

Another way to say it, ethics should not be entirely personal. Lack of humility can lead to megalomania.
 

russ_watters

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I feel like there are two separate contexts to this question:

1. Basic professional conduct.
2. Ethics in terms of the project goals.

I feel like the OP is mostly interested in #2, but most people are answering #1.

I think for engineers, #2 is pretty straightforward, though; if you are a pacifist (for example), don't take a job at a weapons company. I think that is pretty straightforward for most engineering jobs, because they are designing specific products. It is tougher for scientists because they tend to be further away from the application of their research and thus have less control over the applications.
 
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Is it up to me as an engineer, or to the public to decide if the trade-off is worth it? It would strike me a arrogant or hubris to put my judgement superior to the public's judgment.
This is a really interesting point. I think that there are a couple of ways to look at this.

1) You as the engineer bring a well informed opinion to evaluation of both the benefits and costs of power generation. The public at large blows hot and cold, largely swayed by emotionalism with very little reason or factual basis in many cases.

2) On any particular day, the public may be against a particular aspect of power generation, say coal fired power plants, but over the long term, the public has endorsed this form of power generation by issuing permits for plant construction and by investment in such projects. The point I want to make here is that there is a difference between long term opinion and an instantaneous sample.

Similar concerns and comments apply to most areas of engineering.
 

Klystron

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Our education never completes. The inquisitive mind finds new knowledge, reads improved information and considers other viewpoints. Ethical and moral education also continue throughout our career. Adults should reflect on choices made in youth, not to wallow in regret as much as learn from the negative and positive experiences and help others facing difficult moral decisions.

The scientists, engineers, mathematicians and maintenance workers who delivered the Manhattan Engineering Project provide profound examples in so many ways. Certainly the physicists and chemists realized how dangerous the substances were that they handled, many suffering the consequences of exposure, even as the public scarcely knew such material existed.

Perhaps skilled engineers and scientists with strong ethics should consider contributing to weapon systems projects, not eschew them only on moral grounds. If one can honestly contribute, the project should benefit from your ethical views.

Take positioning high voltage power distribution cables. A purely functional approach might not consider safety of residents living close to the lines. A project designing next season's toys would benefit from an ethical engineer who recognizes choking hazards and potentially toxic materials not only because of laws but because they genuinely care about end user safety.
 
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I feel like there are two separate contexts to this question:

1. Basic professional conduct.
2. Ethics in terms of the project goals.
Russ makes a good point here, and he also has observed that most of the discussion is regarding the second meaning. I think that the reason for the trend in the discussion is that the first is mostly a matter of basic morality.

The first includes things like a correct and impartial evaluation of alternatives, but also as to project approaches and also supplier choices. It includes proper conduct toward other employees, and to superiors. It is unlikely that there will be much disagreement in any of these areas (although that does not mean that everyone always does these things correctly).

The second item, the ethics of the project goals, is the area where there is more likely to be disagreement in the public at large. There is not uniformity of opinion in matters like nuclear power, human cloning, and a host of other topics. This is what spurs debate about the ethics of participation.
 
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