Engineering is a discipline which has many old traditions and many rules guiding the conduct of its practitioners. It has a very strict and structured code of ethics set out by the IEI (the governing body for engineering in Ireland).
One of the most important sub-sets of these codes of ethics is regarding the social and environment obligations of Engineers. Code 2. 1 Members shall exercise due consideration of the effects of their work on the health and safety of individuals and on the welfare of society and on its impacts of the natural environment. Now while in theory this seems like a very obvious and straight forward rule to adhere to, the reality of things is that it is not always followed and as a result the health and safety of the public is put at risk sometimes with disastrous consequences.
The following is an example of how an engineer ignored his ethical duty. (Example 1) Safe Comp is a company that, among other things, designs and makes sensing devices for automobile air bags. Bob Baines was hired to work in the quality control department. About six weeks after starting work, he was asked to sign off on a design that he felt very uncertain about.
He checked with people involved in the design and found the situation, at best, ambiguous. Bob told his manager that he would not feel right about signing off, and, since he was relatively inexperienced with Safe Comp’s procedures, asked that he not be required to do this. His manager kept applying pressure. Eventually, Bob decided that he wished neither to violate his principles by doing something that he thought was wrong, nor to become involved in a battle in which his career would certainly be major casualty.
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He quietly resigned. Bob’s Utilitarian view of this case was certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the code of ethics, which as an Engineer he is sworn to uphold. I think his actions while good for his career in the long run could have caused the public serious injury if not death. I think the proper course of action would have been to tell an out side body in charge of safety the misdoings of his company. Today’s businesses are under great pressure to perform. The globalisation of the market place has offered customers a world of choice for products and services which were never there before.
As a result businesses have to try and get everything done cheaper and faster than their competitors. This pressure has filtered down to the engineers who are constantly told time is money and cutting costs is better for the company and them. Today’s Engineer has two major responsibilities one to himself, his own moral and ethical values and on to the company which employ’s him. I believe it is this duality were the problem lies. The following is an example were a engineer’s loyalty to his company and himself came into conflict (Example 2).
Sam Wilson, an experienced engineer was employed by MedTech, a company that made medical equipment.
An important line of products were respirators, used in hospitals. A colleague of Sam asked him to check out one of these respirators, one designed for infant use. He soon determined that a relief valve intended to protect against overpressure being applied to the infant’s lungs was incorrectly placed, so that, under certain circumstances, the infant could experience dangerously high pressure. Correcting the error would not be difficult, since all that was needed was to reposition the relief valve. In similar circumstances in the past, Sam had seen such problems handled with dispatch. He called the matter to the attention of the appropriate manager and assumed that it would be taken care of.
A month or so later (Sam was not directly involved with this particular device) he learned that nothing had been done. Hundreds of these devices were already in use, and Sam was concerned about the increasing likelihood of a tragic event. He went back to the manager and urged him to take appropriate action. When the manager fended him off, Sam said that if prompt measures were not taken to correct the problem he would have to report it to the cognizant regulatory agency.
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The response of MedTech was to fire Sam. Apparently the then current president of MedTech did not have the same attitude toward product quality that had been prevalent in the past. At about the same time, the respirator problem was identified by a physician who had encountered one in hospital practice. Sam brought suit against MedTech for wrongful discharge, claiming that his actions in calling attention to the problem were mandated by the code of ethics that binds professional engineers.
In this example Sam took a leave out of the Kantian book of ethics; he put his duty to the safety of the public before his own immediate needs (i. e. his job).
I think Sam chose the only option he had, which put his own ethical views ahead of the company’s selfish needs. One of the most important ethical conflicts arises in the area of public safety and the idea of “acceptable risk.” Many projects have safety related issues such as nuclear, aviation construction etc.
It is the engineer who usually has to deal with the notions of safety in these projects. As the following example shows the idea of “acceptable risk “is one very relevant to engineer’s Example 3. There is an urgent need to find ways of disposing large quantities of carbon dioxide from factories. Geological disposal looks to be a good option, but will there be leaks? The assumption is that there will. The leakage may occur while delivering the gas to the deposition site or after the disposal has taken place. There are already some examples of underground storage facilities failing – the Y aggy event, and there are examples of natural disasters such as Lake N yos.
Some of the risks can be manage to reduce their impact – small leakages of gas will present little risk unless they occur in confined spaces with little ventilation – such risks are everyday problems in mines. A slow leak of a tonne of carbon dioxide in the open may have few if any consequences particularly in windy conditions. A sudden leak of 100 tonnes may be more serious, and a catastrophic 1000 tonnes leak would be highly dangerous. A one in a million chance of such a leak occurring somewhere in the World might be considered an acceptable risk, but of happening to an individual might not. To define such risks will require carefully designed experiments. In making these decisions it is the engineer who must do the experiments and cope with these ethical decisions and suffer the consequences when the resulting incident occurs.
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The idea of acceptable risk also raises questions which engineers must address such as — What level of safety should the public expect and, — Are engineers in a position to know what is best for the public, and if so how should they decide this. So even when engineering ethics rests on the welfare of the public, it is still complex and full of potential conflicts. Another conflict which arises is that engineers are often asked to think like managers (Which brings us back to the Duality dilemma which I mentioned earlier).
They have to consider the Tangible Costs of there decisions and the impact it has on the business, which could inhibit the engineer from finishing a project to the best of his ability.
This has never been more apparent then in the recent challenger shuttle disaster. An engineer who worked for the Thiokol (the company which made the solid rocket boosters) had concerns about their safety, he was told to take off his engineering hat (which effectively meant he had to put his own ethical believes to one side) and put on his management hat at which he capitulated and agreed. This action resulted in the death of seven astronauts. When talking about ethics and ethics relating to the public we have to ask the question just who is the public? Does it include everyone who might be affected by a decision and does the public include future generations, and if so how far into the future. This is a complexity that if not considered could have major consequences. One such problem arose fairly recently With the Y 2 K fiasco.
This problem highlighted the fact that today’s actions could have a major effect on the safety of future generations. (Example 4) At the heart of the Y 2 K issue is the fact that computer programs which refer to years, use two digits to represent years. Thus, 98 refers to 1998. So when 1999 ends, computers might not understand that 00 refers to the next year, 2000. It might believe it is 1000. Affected programs in utilities include manufacturing plants, one’s automobile or personal computer or more worryingly hospital heart monitors or respirators.
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Since computers run everything from ATM bank machines to telephones and hospitals to airplanes, they are all vulnerable to embedded computer programs which may be inadvertently affected by the ”millennium bug.’ ‘ An estimated 25 to 70 billion microprocessors (computer ”chips”) make our lives more efficient, but also put us at very substantial risk of disruption. ”With such an immense volume, even a tiny percentage of chip malfunctions could have grave consequences. The task of resolving the Year 2000 problem is enormous, involving millions of man-hours, billions of lines of code and trillions of dollars worldwide,’ ‘ I think Engineer’s duty to the public stretches way into the future as it is unethical to impose risks on future generations even if you will not be around for the repercussions. How ethical problems can be resolved I think most if not all ethical dilemmas can be resolved by forming an ethical framework to which to guide your actions, Weather it be Duty based (Christian and Kantian), Consequential ist based (Utilitarian) or virtue based (Aristotle’s Nicomachea n).
You might choose one of these systems to guide you or you might decide to use them as appropriate.
Similar ethical issues may produce differing ethical responses according to the ethical theory used. There are nine basic steps which you also might use to guide your ethical decision making. 1. Practice ethical behaviour actively 2. Beware of “new ethics” programs 3. Define the ethical problem when it arises 4.
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Formulate alternatives 5. Evaluate the alternatives 6. Seek additional assistance 7. Choose the best ethical alternative 8.
Implement the best alternative 9. Monitor and asses the outcome Follow these steps and you are sure to resolve most ethical dilemmas Conclusion Engineering as one of the professions is meant to serve the public and to serve the public safely and honestly ethics play’s a big part. But for all engineers’ inherent good traits and best intentions this is the real world for which good is seldom rewarded. One of the major complexities and rigorous conflicts that engineer’s face has got to do with the duality dilemma and the fight between his one moral value and his managerial responsibilities The company that undertakes pollution controls because of moral conviction will be at a competitive disadvantage in its industry. The buying public has shown very little inclination to reward “good” companies at the cost of paying higher prices. Individual engineers who refuse to work on a project that they consider to be contrary to the public interest will make way for less sensitive engineers.
Voluntary good works are to be admired wherever they occur. But in the world of industry, compulsory good works, ordered by legislation, provide much better protection for society and for men of good conscience. It is toward sensible and workable controls that we should all be exerting our efforts, rather than relying on the ethics of business men which are not likely to be scrutinised until the Day of Judgment.