What Every Engineer Should Know About Ethics Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Kenneth K. Humphreys' book, What Every Engineer should Know about Ethics, is a fairly useful and comprehensive guide to the ethics and ethical codes involved in modern engineering. He begins his book with a chapter entitled "Problem-Solving in Engineering Ethics," and he introduces the reader to the topic by first posing an imagined moral dilemma that could occur in engineering: "The dilemma for our engineer, then, is whether to serve his own and his employers' interests by doing what he is told and, thereby, keep his job or serve the public interest by refusing to participate in the development of a device that will help enable activities that are a threat to public safety." (Humphreys, 2). Obviously, the point of this opening chapter is to illustrate the fact that engineers sometimes need to make important ethical decisions and that if they are not equipped with the right tools to make these decisions they could harm themselves and others. In this chapter, once Humphreys identifies some very basic moral positions that an individual interested in promoting the public good could take, he provides his five step problem solving model and suggests that ethics committees can make use of this model for charting courses of action in difficult situations.

Next, Humphreys tackles the issue of attempting to define engineering ethics in a coherent manner in his second chapter. Essentially, having equipped the reader with a general understanding of how ethical issues can be approached, Humphreys endeavors to establish specifically when ethical problem solving should be applied. He notes that, "Ethics clearly is not black or white -- it is many shades of gray depending upon the situation." (Humphreys 30). He provides the code of ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers' fundamental canons and argues that they are in accordance with common sense.

Generally the second chapter seems to be truly what could have been the first chapter; Humphreys more formally identifies what ethics should be to an engineer. However, the first chapter was required, it would seem, to establish that ethics are important to engineers and that problematic situations can be adequately addressed. Still, chapter two asserts what the broad ethical stance of all engineers should be, that this stance is common sense, and sets the stage for more complex discussion.

Chapter three, "Ethical Technologies in Engineering, Construction, and Project Management," attaches renewed importance to ethical teaching within engineering by recognizing the increased stakes that ever-evolving technology introduces into engineering decision making. Humphreys argues that today, not only are technologies more influential, but that there are so many more of them, and in so many fields that the potential for ethical lapses is significantly amplified. The Chernobyl accident is used as a background from which the significance of ethical frameworks is discussed. Humphreys identifies some major ethical foundations -- egoism, utilitarianism, deontology, and altruism -- and then lists the three most important questions that need to be asked in order to evaluate a project in ethical terms in the evolving world: "1. What is the extent of interconnectedness in this activity? 2. What level of smartness is attached to it? 3. What level of ethical fitness exists in the operations?" (Humphreys, 45).

This is a fairly successful chapter because Humphreys makes it clear that although the type of nuclear reactors that failed at Chernobyl are somewhat dangerous, ultimately, it was human decisions that made the mishap so disastrous. The implications, then, for engineering ethics are obvious; even acts that seem as benign as accepting gifts from contractors or rewards way lead to major catastrophes.

Humphrey's fourth chapter, "Continuing Professional Development in Engineering," agues that the ongoing education and certification of working engineers is not only essential for practical reasons, but for ethical reasons as well. Although this is the motivation behind this chapter, very little room is dedicated to backing up this position; instead, Humphreys investigates the evolving nature of certification programs, the difficulty in defining certification, and the contradictions involved in attempting to apply regulations to these processes.

This chapter is clearly intended to lead into the later topics of the book, but it is a less than smooth transition from the broad scope of the previous chapters. Only at the end of the chapter does Humphreys tie the issue of certification back into ethical dilemmas, but this connection could have been made throughout.

Humphreys' fifth chapter takes his discussion of licensing further. He notes that engineering is unlike other fields, like medicine or law, in that although it is often preferred that individuals be licensed, there are many areas in which engineers can work unlicensed. This, though it goes largely unstated, introduces an interesting ethical exemption that is afforded to engineers, despite the fact that -- like doctors -- they are often put in charge of making decisions that could potentially harm people. Accordingly, the majority of the chapter is devoted to outlining the elemental advantages to becoming a licensed professional engineer, and how to go about doing so most successfully.

The ethical problems associated with certification and licensing are brought to their conclusion in this chapter. It seems that Humphreys' advocates licensing in all fields and that, additionally, becoming licensed demands that the engineer adhere to the ethical canons of engineering.

In his sixth chapter, Humphreys introduces the reader to the Engineers Creed. Essentially, this is seen as the analog to the Physicians Creed. Humphreys provides both, word for word, in his chapter to underline a point: the consequences that go along with entering a medical profession are in many ways similar to those associated with engineering professions. The reader is also introduced to the practice of wearing an iron or stainless steel ring, by many engineers, to symbolize their commitment to the "Order of the Engineer" for their respective nation. In addition to the respect that is afforded individuals who wear these rings, Humphreys emphasizes, they must uphold the position that they are "self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of [themselves] and [their] client to society as a whole." (Humphreys, 72).

Again, this chapter does fit into the framework of the book, but its importance to the discussion not completely explained. Certainly, it is interesting to know the symbolism involved in the iron rings that some engineers wear and the history behind it, but it may have been more useful to explain any ethical concerns that led to this cult-like behavior.

"What Constitutes Professionalism" is the title of Humphreys' seventh chapter, and it discusses almost exactly what the title would imply. Essentially, the author covers the various lessons he learned throughout his career as to what professionalism truly was, and found that many aspects of it were contradictory. Whereas he was told by one of his early employers that professionals must wear ties to work, he found that in many fields this is fundamentally untrue. Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that "a necessary ingredient is participation and membership in the professional societies related to our individual fields of personal specialty." (Humphreys, 74).

This is a useful chapter because it strengthens the idea that in order to be a professional engineer it is essential to take part in the organizations that move your efforts forward in society as a whole. The two examples of engineering catastrophes reiterate this point, and solidify the notion that an engineer's influence spreads beyond the day-to-day routine.

Chapter eight is a particularly interesting chapter because Humphreys takes the aforementioned code of ethics and forces each individual engineer to turn it inward on themselves to make a personal decision. It is significant that he already discussed the motivating fact that the fields of engineering are ever-evolving and loosely defined and that he has illustrated how to use the code of ethics for decision making. According to Humphreys, it is each individual engineer's ethical duty to only work with the areas of specialty in which they are qualified. Centrally, it is the individual's decision because it is often difficult for employers to properly evaluate qualifications.

This is one of the most universally applicable chapters in Humphreys' book because every engineer, most likely, will need to make this decision. Also, it ties into his licensing debate because licensing, to him, ties an engineer most strongly to the code of ethics than to demonstrating proper qualifications.

Humphreys' ninth chapter handles design safety; he begins by recognizing that the news media tends to report on many recalls and design failures that endanger the public, but he believes that if engineers act as professionals who adhere to the code of ethics, then such mishaps should happen only very rarely. Legal standards are but one aspect of liability that engineers should be familiar with, because they must not only be able to identify hazards through testing, but also through the design process itself. There is additional emphasis placed upon the setting of standards and the modes by which these can be communicated to the public.

"Reasonable Safety vs. Foolproof Design" is a good chapter because it briefly addresses…

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