In the United States, much of the moral concern of the nation has been with how to avoid damage to the welfare of minorities who may, otherwise, lose out in an elective process that depends upon majority rule. Most ethical systems seek to reduce the distress level in a society. In primitive societies, the notions of duty arise in response to the desire to avoid causing suffering or inconvenience to other members of the community. Ultimately, these duties are crystallized in taboos and are observed automatically. Thus, are ethical codes of behaviour born? And so, it is with us today. Ethics constitute the basic codes of civilized behaviour, without which our environment, as we know it, would be impossible.
Such rules embody the basic constraints each of us agrees to practice in relationships with others. We consent to these constraints in the knowledge that, in so doing, we make the existence of all, including ourselves, more agreeable. Ethical codes can be of help in most instances that confront us, but dilemmas do arise in which it seems there are no suitable alternatives. In such a case, all external guides are helpless, and it is, indeed, necessary to resort to one’s own internal values. The greatest moral dilemmas, in society, are those related to war. Engineers, say some, are immoral if they work on weapons, because their clear moral duty is to oppose war by refusing to be involved in those activities which support it. It has been said that medicine has given people health that the humanities have given people pleasure and that technology has given people the time to enjoy both. Since the mid-1960, there has been a growing concern over the legal responsibility of manufacturers for product safety.
The landmark event which is generally accepted as the beginning of this trend is the case of Green man V. Yuba Power products, Inc., which established the principle of strict product liability. Under this principle, a manufacturer is held liable for a product which proves to have a defect resulting in injury, even though there may be intervening sellers. During about the same period of time, there has also been a mounting debate over the moral obligations of engineers, not only with regard to safety, but also relating to other matters such as pollution, nuclear weapons and war. Undoubtedly, the best known critic of product safety (and of engineers) is Ralph Nader. It is his thesis that engineers identify their personal objectives too closely with those of the companies for which they work.
He feels that the professional creed of engineers should require them to be independent of corporate directions. A more militant approach is that taken by the committee for social responsibility in engineering (CSRE). CSRE seeks to challenge the present orientation of engineering and declares that its objectives are to “end unemployment and pollution and provide adequate medical care, housing, education, transportation and communication systems for all people”. To implement these objectives, engineers are to be organized in groups to oppose corporate power. These are difficult and important matters. The crux of the matter is: What is the engineers’ role in a company? Is it proper to adapt to the corporation’s directions? Or, is it proper to assume a role of independence, reach a moral judgement on an issue, and, then, to demand that the corporation accept that judgement, while not relinquishing any claim to a salary? Presumably, if the latter course is chosen, the engineers in a company will have to organise themselves into something like a union, withholding their services (that is, going on strike) if their wishes are not met. Implicit in this arrangement is the existence of a mechanism for reaching a collective moral judgment on an issue.
However, to be honest, in reading the works of those who propose such measures, there appears to be an automatic expectation in the proposals that the groups, once formed, will adopt the moral views of the proposers. Such an expectation may be unrealistic. Nuclear diplomacy on the world stage is beyond the scope of action of most engineers. Product safety is another matter. Virtually all engineers become involved with safety as a regular part of their professional activities.
Few engineers would knowingly design unsafe devices. But safety frequently comes at increased cost; the engineer must inevitably balance safety against cost. If, to make a product safer, it must be made stronger and heavier, or must be equipped with extra devices, or made of superior materials, to the point that it is so much more expensive that few will buy it, what has been accomplished? The manufacturer may have to close his doors if he cannot sell product, but it is hard to see how morality has been served thereby. A result of the company’s closure may also be that some useful products have been denied the public.
Corporations are neither as perfect as portrayed by some, nor as evil as portrayed by others. They are simply the economic units in our society that are necessary to supply the goods and services we need. No better means to serve this purpose has yet been found. While corporations obviously would prefer to market safe products rather than unsafe ones, they feel justified in asking why they should voluntarily increase the safety of a product if the result is that sales suffer. The provision of safety belts in autos is a good example. The leveling effect of governmental action is indispensable in producing improvements in product safety and pollution reduction. It does little good to exhort engineers to insist that their ideas on safety or pollution be adopted, if the effect would be to jeopardize their employer’s welfare. If such actions result in damaging their employers, have they properly fulfilled the ethical obligations they assumed when they accepted employment? In return for a salary, there is an implied obligation that an employee will help advance the employer’s interests.
The individual engineer cannot be expected to assume a hard line moral position that moves very far ahead of public opinion. If engineers as a group presumed to take on themselves the authority to act as moral judges for the rest of the society and to provide or withhold certain items from the public, such action would be to assume totalitarian powers over others. The justification for applying the word totalitarian in this context lies in the fact that a small group – the engineers would be making decisions for the society, which were not subject to review by elected officials or by the functioning of the market system. This arrogation of power would act to cancel the authority of the body politic, which is supposed to decide the questions of public policy. Furthermore, engineers posses no special qualities which make them superior moral authorities, to justify such a presumption of power.
Engineers have an obvious ethical obligation to the public when out and out violations of the law and /or safety codes occur or when known safety hazards are concealed. Even if moral obligations were to be set aside for a moment and the most selfish personal motive invoked, engineers should ask whether their own long range interests are well served by continued employment with a company which would knowingly conceal a safety hazard or violate the law. The appropriate course of action for the engineer is best phrased by the Board of Ethical Review of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). The engineer should make every effort within the company to have the corrective action taken. Some have insisted that engineers aim for no less than 100% safety, or that society should allow no new technological undertakings unless it can be guaranteed that there will be no undesirable side effects.
Neither of these conditions is achievable, of course. Life cannot be made 100 percent safe, nor can any human being guarantee the future. We are always going to be faced with the presence of a certain amount of risk, although engineers, with their special technical knowledge of materials and the like, are in a better position to reduce risks than almost any other group. Furthermore, an engineer who is constantly thinking about matters such as safety and pollution is much more likely to produce designs that excelled the categories that one who does not think about them. The preceding material on Engineering Ethics has been developed as it is practiced in U.