Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology. This lecture explores the possibilities of developing international ethical standards.
Author: Vivian Weil
Presented at the OEC International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science, March 1999
It is exciting to hear about initiatives in engineering ethics in other countries and instructive to learn how our colleagues abroad deal with obstacles. Two components of the teaching of engineering ethics are so demonstrably necessary that we can assume that they are applicable in every country where engineering has a presence. One is the use of concrete instances, that is, cases. The other is the appeal to engineers' special ethical standards in devising responses to problems in the cases.
A concrete situation brings out how practical, technical, and ethical considerations are interwoven in defining and solving engineering problems. In analyzing cases and constructing solutions, engineers need their technical skills. The imagination to see how to deploy technical insight is essential. But engineers also need to be able to express their viewpoints clearly (sometimes forcefully); they have to appreciate the perspectives of other parties to the situation; they have to understand the social relationships around them; they need to be able to imagine consequences of alternative courses of action; and they need to be able to negotiate with others.
One issue that has troubled some teachers about using cases concerns what moral or ethical framework to appeal to in analyzing cases and making recommendations for action. They find a plurality of religious and other traditions and outlooks among people and peoples, between and within countries. Teachers may be puzzled, therefore, about whether there are common standards to which they can legitimately appeal. If there are not, it seems that the effort of teaching cases cannot go forward.
A little reflection reveals that there are common moral standards; we refer to them as our common morality. My colleague, Michael Davis has usefully characterized our common morality as, "Those standards of conduct everyone (that is, every reasonable person) wants everyone else to follow even if everyone's following them would mean having to follow them oneself." "Don't kill," "Don't deceive," and "Don't cheat" are among the standards of our common morality. Different people and groups may have different reasons for acknowledging the same standard, such as religious principles, self-interest, or a process of reasoning. What is important is agreement on the standards. Though we encounter violations and even patterns of violation at some times and places, these are the standards to which we hold one another. Violations stand out and command attention against the background of our common standards and expectations.
Our common morality, then, provides a fundamental framework of standards to appeal to in reasoning about cases. In teaching professional ethics, we have an additional framework: the codes of ethics promulgated by the professions through their professional associations. These ethical standards are special sets of standards adopted by occupational groups and binding upon the members of the group because they are members of the group. Drawing from the characterization I have given of our common morality, we can describe professional standards as those "morally permissible standards of conduct each member of some particular occupational group wants every other member of the group to follow even if everyone else's following them would mean having to follow them too."
A profession's ethical standards must be compatible with our common morality, but they go beyond our common morality. You could say that they interpret our common morality for the specific details of work of a particular occupational group. For example, almost all the engineering codes of ethics in the U.S. include as a provision, "Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents." Avoiding injury to the employer or client is a requirement for engineers specific to their conditions of practice.
Professional codes, then, reflect our common morality and the circumstances of practice in a particular society. Circumstances change and codes undergo revision, as professional societies respond to pressures from outside and from within the world of practice. Currently, professional engineering societies in the U.S. are beginning to respond to widespread concern about the environment. Some engineering societies have considered whether existing codes already encompass protection of the environment, by way of Canon 1: "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties." Two societies have added provisions regarding the environment to their codes. In view changes such as these, we can speak about an evolving morality in the profession, or an evolving ethics, ethics being the conventional term in the U.S. for professional standards.
Debates are an important feature of the process of drafting and revising codes; accordingly, I will concentrate on debates in engineering societies. Participants resolve debates by negotiation and compromise, and code provisions reflect the work of committees. In the U.S., periods of energetic activity in revising codes followed World War I and World War II. Perhaps the most intense activity of this kind in the U.S. occurred in response to the social ferment of the late 60s and early 70s. It is in this last period that almost all engineering codes in the U.S. adopted Canon One above. At that time, all the major professions came under closer scrutiny than before, and they had to respond to demands for accountability to the public. Canon One of the engineers' codes serves as a touchstone for engineers and engineering students who are trying to resolve problems. It does not imply specific solutions, but it reminds engineers of their weightiest obligation as professionals.
From the recently published article of a Russian colleague, we learn about debates over engineering codes in Russia in the period just before the Revolution, of course, a time of social ferment in Russia. Some in the debate were inclined to adopt the code of a U.S. society that was an ancestor of the IEEE. That code emphasized personal honor and engineers' obligations to their employers, giving less importance to obligations to the public. A figure in that Russian debate was an engineer named Osadchiy, a contemporary of the engineer Peter Palchinsky, who is known to us from Loren Grahm's historical study, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer. It seems that Osadchiy challenged the view that an engineer is "a hired executor of the owner's directives." That was about sixty years ahead of systematic discussion of this issue in the U.S. and the adoption of Canon One.
Osadchiy also objected to a U.S. Code's provision that "All projects, data, notes, etc. made by the engineer at the time of his ... service and related directly to his field of work are property of the principal." In this objection, Osadchiy focused on a provision reflecting a legal ground rule of business competition in the U.S. that is still accepted. This kind of vigorous debate was choked off when the political authority that crystallized after the Revolution deprived engineering societies of their independence and brought a halt to the evolution of codes in the U.S.S.R.
These examples from the U.S. and Russia/U.S.S.R. show how codes evolved to reflect our common morality and the national circumstances of business. They show that ways of doing business as well as ethical issues were comprehensible across national boundaries. They show the possibility of reasoned debate where there are differences in professional standards across national boundaries. Finally, in the adoption of the paramountcy obligation in the U.S. long after it was favored in Russia, they show the convergence of standards across national borders. It is interesting to note that periods of social ferment seem to be associated with increased focus on ethics within professions.
In view of the ease with which engineers, companies, and engineering products cross borders and move over vast regions of the world, these observations of comprehensibility and convergence of standards across borders should not surprise us. The strong increase in international business and engineering should alert us to the need for international agreement or convergence on ethical standards for engineers. However, we are not yet close to articulating international codes of ethics that could be presumed to be binding on engineers in all countries. It is, therefore, important to consider the prospects for producing international codes. A more detailed consideration of the conditions for arriving at that goal should be illuminating in itself and may even inspire some activity in that direction by professional societies and engineering educators.
Ethical codes, like technical codes, respond to problems that engineers commonly encounter. At each stage in their development, codes represent the consensus of a particular community of engineering professionals, and they, in turn, help to define a community of engineering professionals. Both ethical and technical standards are part of and expressions of the expertise of engineers. The Wright brothers, working just before the promulgation of the first ethics codes in the U.S., began their experiments that led to successful aircraft only after studying the codified knowledge of European predecessors. They understood that such information was crucial to their safety and the safety of others.
Safety is a leading ethical concern in engineering; this concern underlies technical standards and becomes explicit in codes of ethics. We can array tables, codes, standards, and rules on a continuum from the technical to the ethical. All this guidance is translated into routines of practice that shape the discretionary space of engineers. But these routines leave room for individual judgment.
Some may have taken it for granted that codes are produced and guide practice in a straightforward way. Perhaps this view is attractive because in a single national context, codes look like engineering end-products that just go on to fulfill their function, like certain other engineering products - engines, for example. However, products of engineering activities, whether technological products for the marketplace, technical codes, or ethical codes, embody a variety of interests, tensions, and assumptions. All are produced from a process that is deliberative, political, and marked by negotiation and compromise. Consider, for example, the process of producing a new sport utility vehicle. You can observe the process in the response of the American Society of Civil Engineers, following the 1979 Hyatt Walkways collapse. Out of their effort came more detailed standards regarding oversight responsibilities of structural engineers for shop drawings prepared by others.
Nor is the process by which codes shape practice straightforward. As a British scholar recently put this point, "Why should the use of standards be more straightforward than their development?" This scholar went on to point out that issues and arguments that come up in the development of codes tell us not only about the standards setting process but also about the social process of engineering.
Fortunately, we have sources that reveal some of the pitfalls in the process of formulating standards. Engineering societies produce not only standards but also documented discussions and accounts of debates that occur in the process of deliberating about standards. These are published in journals, that are among the societies' key resources for fostering professionalism. Recent research on discussion about standards in the British journal, The Structural Engineer, reveals some issues likely to arise in other areas of engineering and surely in the international context.
One issue in the debates concerned the relation of engineering codes of practice to statutory building regulations. In the United Kingdom, there are building regulations that include a so-called "deemed to satisfy" provision. According to this provision, work performed in conformity with the engineers' codes of practice will automatically satisfy the statutory building regulations. This link between legal codes and engineers' voluntary codes troubled some who feared it would turn the codes of practice into de facto mandatory codes. Although it is not legally mandatory to conform to engineering codes, following them satisfies the regulations which are mandatory and avoids a customized analysis to prove conformity with building regulations. Some worried that as a result new information would not be used in practice unless it had been incorporated in the engineers' Code of Practice. Such outcomes, some feared, would put the emphasis on conformity to government regulations rather than on good engineering. Those drafting codes would keep their eyes on regulations rather than making engineering standards their principal concern.
However, there is a response to this worry that supports the prospect of formulating international professional standards for engineers. Consider that in countries like the U.S., pointing to conformity with government regulations does not provide a defense in consumer product liability litigation. The failure to meet appropriate engineering standards, even when there is no violation of government regulations, can leave a company vulnerable in a product liability lawsuit. There is, then, in the face of legal standards, a basis for continuing to emphasize good engineering standards, ethical as well as technical, and to advance those standards by incorporating new knowledge. This line of thinking can be used to advance the enterprise of formulating international ethical standards.
Another issue that came out in the debate recorded in the British journal and likely to arise in any effort to arrive at international standards is the influence of academics and the relevance of academic research. Debate about this issue brought to the surface tension between research and practice, hardly a new phenomenon. Some complained that self-interested academics promoted guidelines based on their research but not sufficiently tested in practice. While others replied that lack of knowledge of developments in research on the part of tradition-bound practitioners prevented inclusion of desirable, clear reference to basic concepts. This tension between academics and practitioners also surfaced in the process of drafting a code for software developers in a recent joint project of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery. When practitioners sent comments on the code that had been drafted on-line under the leadership of an academic, some complained that the code was not sufficiently attuned to the workplace.
Such disagreements may reflect conflicts over turf, over the ownership and control of standards. But that may be only part of the story. To do full justice to the complexity and interest of these debates, we should recognize that different conceptions of technological work and the role of professional standards in shaping that work may be playing out. If that is so, these disagreements in the process of formulating (and ultimately in using) standards may be productive. That is because they allow differing views to be expressed and progressive accommodations to be made. Among the conditions for arriving at international standards for practice is the provision of opportunities for such debates to take place. There is a model in a recent project to devise common standards for American, Canadian, and Mexican engineers under the NAFTA treaty. Initially somewhat skeptical, engineers representing the three countries eventually succeeded in gaining formal agreement on a robust common code.
Finally, it is necessary to acknowledge the challenge to international standards from differences in local conditions. For example, in some places, the resources to make standards affordable are lacking. To deal with variations in local conditions, it will help to understand standards as conditional statements. If you want X, under conditions Y, then do Z. If you are an engineer designing a building for a locale that is not earthquake-prone, you can ignore certain conditions that an engineer in such a locale must take into account.
It will also help to be realistically modest about the claims we make for what standards can accomplish. They provide rough boundaries for practice and a vocabulary for carrying on discussion. They contribute to predictability and a degree of uniformity that makes other benefits possible.