Engineering Ethics Research Paper

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Engineering ethics concerns the decisions and actions of engineers, individually as well as collectively. It exists as a field of teaching and research since the 1980s. The professional approach to engineering ethics that initially was dominant in the field is discussed, and codes of ethics are explained. Various general ethical issues in engineering like whistle-blowing, loyalty, conflicts of interests, risk and safety, and the environment and sustainability are highlighted. Attention is also paid to recent developments in engineering ethics, in particular to how new technologies may give rise to new ethical issues, and to more proactive approaches to engineering ethics, like value-sensitive design and responsible innovation.


Engineering ethics is the field of applied ethics that is concerned with the decisions and actions of engineers and the consequences of these actions and decisions, both individually and collectively. Engineering may be roughly understood as the activities that relate to the research, development, design, testing, maintaining, and scrapping of technology.

Engineering ethics started off in the 1980s with a focus on teaching, and this is still an important concern. Accreditation organizations like the ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) in the United States have included ethics as one of the student outcomes that should be achieved by engineering course programs. In the course of time, there has been an increasing amount of research on engineering ethics, both more generally and with a focus on specific technologies.

Traditionally, engineering ethics often focused on engineering as a profession and the responsibilities and obligations of engineers as laid down in codes of ethics. In the course of time, there has been a development from micro-ethical issues such as integrity, honesty, and loyalty toward more macro-ethical issues that concern the impact of engineering and technology on society. More recently, there is also a development toward more attention to proactive approaches that try to integrate ethics from early in the process of technological development, engineering design, and innovation.

The Professional Approach To Engineering Ethics And Codes Of Conduct

The central tenet of what might be called the professional approach to engineering ethics is the idea that engineering is a profession like, for example, medicine and accounting. A profession may be understood as an occupation with a number of specific features. The features that are often mentioned in this respect include the use of specialized knowledge and skills and a (legal) monopoly on the carrying out of the occupation. The latter, for example, would mean that not everybody can call himself an engineer or do engineering work. Exercising a profession is also usually connected to a legal protection of titles and of university or college degrees. The notion of a profession is also connected to the idea that the evaluation of professional work and the judgment that some professional has done his or her work (in)competently or (im)properly can only be done by peers, as these are the only ones who possess the knowledge and skills to apply the right standards of judgment. While engineering without doubt possesses some of the above features, in most countries, it does so clearly to a lesser degree as, for example, medicine. For example, in the United States, engineers have to be licensed as an engineer to do engineering work, and this implies certain checks on, for example, their knowledge and skills, but there is an exemption for engineers working in the industry, which is arguably the largest portion of engineers. In many other countries, there are no licensing or registration obligations or only for some quite specific groups of engineers. Whereas in medicine, most doctors are subject to disciplinary law and have to go to a disciplinary court, for example, in the case of patient complaints, in engineering, this is usually not the case (with some exceptions). Most engineering work does not fall under disciplinary law.

In addition to these more descriptive features, a profession is often believed to be committed to an ideal of serving society and certain moral ends. According to what may be called the conceptualist approaches to professional ethics, each profession corresponds with a specific end that is internally defined by that profession (Davis 1998). In the case of medicine, the end would be something like human health. In the case of engineering, one might think of human well-being as end to be served. However, one difference between medicine and engineering seems to be that whereas doctors have specialized knowledge that helps to define health, engineers do not have specialized knowledge about human well-being. Moreover, whereas medicine seems to be the main profession concerned with human health, engineering certainly has not such a privileged position in connection to human well-being.

As an alternative to conceptualist approaches, Michael Davis, one of the main authors in the professional tradition in engineering ethics, has proposed a more historical approach to defining a profession. He defines a profession as “a number of individuals in the same occupation voluntarily organized to earn a living by openly serving a certain moral ideal in a morally-permissible way beyond what law, market, and morality would otherwise require” (Davis 1998, p. 417). According to this definition, the main criterion whether an occupation amounts to a profession is whether there is a voluntary commitment to a moral ideal. Consequently, for Davis, the earlier mentioned descriptive features are not relevant for calling engineering a profession.

Davis believes that in most countries, engineering is a profession as engineers have committed themselves to certain moral ideals, for example, through engineering codes of ethics. In many countries, engineers and engineering societies have indeed formulated codes of ethics. The oldest one is probably the codes of ethics of the Smeatonian Society in England that was formulated in 1771 (Van de Poel and Royakkers 2011). In the early twentieth century, it was especially American engineering societies, like that for civil engineering and mechanical engineering, that formulated codes of ethics, also as part of their aspiration to be recognized as true professions. While these earlier codes often stressed etiquette and proper behavior toward other professionals, clients, and employers, especially after the Second World War, the engineering codes of ethics began also to stress obligations toward the public and society.

Many codes of ethics now state that “engineers should hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public” (NSPE 2007), suggesting that this moral obligation overrides other moral obligations that engineers might have toward, for example, clients or employers. This indeed seems to be the kind of moral ideal that characterizes a profession according to Davis.

Most current codes of ethics address three main types of obligations and responsibilities of engineers, namely, (1) the competent and integer carrying out of the profession, including upholding such moral values as honesty, integrity, competence, independence, and impartiality; (2) acting as faithful and trustworthy agents to their clients and employers, including such values as loyalty, confidentiality, and faithfulness; and (3) meeting certain obligations toward the public, including holding paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and serving the public interest, sustainability, and social responsibility.

The codes of ethics of engineering societies are usually aspirational or advisory in nature. They express the values engineers are committed to, and they often also try to provide advice to practicing engineers who want to behave ethically. In most cases, they are not disciplinary, that is to say, they usually do not have a (semi)legal status. In most countries, engineering codes of ethics are also not actively enforced, in the sense that people can be convicted for not following the code and, for example, be banned from the professional society. Nevertheless, there have been some cases, in particular in Anglo-Saxon countries, where engineers were banned from an engineering society for (allegedly) breaking the code of ethics.

Some Moral Issues In Engineering

Below, five ethical issues are discussed that have received ample attention in engineering ethics, in particular, when a professional approach is followed: whistle-blowing, loyalty, conflicts of interest, risk and safety, and environmental care and sustainability. This list of issues is certainly not exhaustive of the ethical issues in engineering but it is illustrative, as all issues are somehow characteristic of the ethical issues that play in engineering, even if most of them also occur in other professions.


Whistle-blowing could be defined as: the making public of certain abuses within an organization by an employee against the will (or order) of his or her direct superiors and with an eye to remedying these abuses or informing the proper authorities or the public about these abuses. Whistle-blowing can be internal in the organization, for example, if the whistle-blower informs the upper management of the company of certain abuses against the will of his or her direct superior, but also outside the company, in the latter case, it can address, for example, regulatory authorities, the media, or the public.

Whistle-blowing is of course not unique to engineering, but there are a number of reasons why it is relevant in engineering and has received quite some attention, particularly in the early days of engineering ethics. One reason is that engineers may due to their specialized knowledge and skills have knowledge of risks and adverse effects of certain technologies or of certain engineering projects that others do not possess. Secondly, engineers are often employed in hierarchical organizations (like companies). This means that they may be caught in a conflict between serving the interests of their employer and serving the public interest. Although codes of ethics of engineering societies nowadays often stress the latter, legally their obligation is often first and foremost to their employer. This can bring them in a situation in which they have to blow the whistle to serve the public interest.

This situation has led to debates in engineering ethics and has resulted in attempts to improve the organizational and legal position of potential whistle-blowers. Some companies have, for example, adopted internal procedures for whistle-blowing. Countries have adopted laws to protect whistle-blowers. Still, in many cases, whistle-blowing has major drawbacks for the whistle-blower despite such attempts. The solution probably is not to be sought in still better protection of whistle-blowers but rather in reforms that avoid whistle-blowing or make it into a strategy that is only to be used as last resort.

Also more generally, whistle-blowing is not the best way to deal with ethical issues in engineering. It would be much better to strive for a situation in which ethical issues can be openly and freely discussed within organizations and with the relevant stakeholders. This may require further organizational and institutional reforms; in addition, it requires that engineers possess the skills to discuss ethical issues with managers, clients, stakeholders, and the public.


Codes of ethics of engineering societies often state that engineers should be loyal to their employers and clients. For example, the code of conduct of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in the United States states that engineers “shall act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees” (NSPE 2007). This loyalty may conflict with the obligation to serve the public interest. The NSPE code suggests that at least in some situation, the latter obligation is more important. It, for example, states that “Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project” (NSPE 2007).

One may interpret this research paper as saying that sometimes the obligations to the public override the obligation to be loyal to one’s employer. One might, however, also argue that loyalty does not necessarily imply doing everything that an employer asks or wants. The latter track is, for example, chosen by Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins in their book about engineering ethics. They make a distinction between what they call uncritical and critical loyalty. They define uncritical loyalty as “placing the interests of the employer, as the employer defines those interests, above any other consideration” (Harris et al. 2005, p. 191). Such uncritical loyalty may, however, be misguided. One might not only disagree about what exactly the interests of the employer are, so making room for some critical reflection, it might also be doubted whether the interests of the company should always override any other concerns, especially in cases when the public is put at danger. Therefore, Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins propose the notion of critical loyalty which they define as “giving due regard to the interest of the employer, insofar as this is possible within the constraints of the employee’s personal and professional ethics” (Harris et al. 2005, p. 192).

Conflicts Of Interest

A conflict of interest occurs if a professional has an interest that, when pursued, would conflict with meeting his or her professional obligations (including the obligations to clients and employers) or would impair his or her professional judgment. A few remarks about this definition are in place. First, the occurrence of a conflict of interest does not imply actual wrongdoing or not fulfilling one’s professional obligations. Harris et al. (2005) make a distinction between actual, potential, and apparent conflicts of interest; in an actual conflict of interest, the professional is guided by the distorting interest; in a potential conflict of interest, the professional may acquire an interest that conflicts with his or her professional obligations (e.g., by buying stock); and in an apparent conflict of interest, the professional is not guided by the conflicting interest but still has such a conflicting interest. Although apparent conflicts of interest do not imply moral wrongdoing, they may still undermine the objectivity and trustworthiness of professional engineers because the professional is in a situation that his professional judgment may be compromised, even if this does not actually occur. Also apparent conflicts of interest are therefore best avoided.

Second, not any case of conflicting interests is a conflict of interest in the sense of the definition above. Rather, the term refers to a potential impairment of someone’s judgment or a compromising of someone’s obligations as a professional. Third, the interest that can conflict with the professional judgment or obligations should be understood broadly; it can be a professional interest but also a personal interest; and it can also include influences, loyalties, or temptations that are perhaps strictly speaking not interests but that nevertheless may impair someone’s professional judgment.

Conflicts of interest can take different forms in engineering; an example of a clearly unacceptable conflict of interest is bribery; but there are also less clear-cut cases, for example, when it comes to accepting gifts. Conflicts of interest may also occur if, for example, company engineers serve on a standardization committee, whereas the company may have an interest in certain standards rather than others being accepted. In general, it is best to avoid conflicts of interest, but that is not always possible; for example, in the case of standardization committees, it may be desirable to involve company engineers because of their competence and knowledge. In cases in which conflicts of interest cannot be avoided, they should at least be disclosed to the relevant parties. Apart from avoiding conflicts of interest and disclosure, there may be other strategies to properly deal with conflicts of interest, for example, withdrawing from the decision-making process or independent review of certain engineering decisions or judgments.

Safety And Risk

Ensuring safety is often seen as one of the main professional responsibilities of engineers. In fact in many engineering disciplines like chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering, safety and the protection of human health are a prime concern. Although safety is a prime concern in engineering, it is not always obvious how the notion of safety is best understood. One possible definition is that safety is the absence of risk. The disadvantage of such a definition is that technical installations are never fully safe in the sense that there is no risk. Zero risk is impossible, and, in as far it can be approached, it is often undesirable because it will increase costs or come at the cost of other values in engineering like sustainability (or privacy).

Safety may therefore perhaps be better understood in terms of a reduction of risks as far as practically feasible and morally desirable (given trade-offs with other values in engineering). In engineering, risk is usually defined as the product of the probability of an undesirable event times the consequences of that event, although there are also other definitions of risk, also in the engineering literature (Hansson 2009). Engineers often believe that the (moral) acceptability of risks is linearly related to the magnitude of risks (defined as probability times consequences). However, the ethical literature on risk has shown that a host of other considerations are relevant when it comes to deciding about the moral acceptability of technological risks.

The following considerations have been articulated as being relevant when deciding about the moral acceptability of risk (e.g., Van de Poel and Royakkers 2011). A first consideration is the ratio or balance between risks and benefits, which is mainly a utilitarian concern. A second concern is whether the risks are taken voluntarily and whether people have given their informed consent to a certain risk. A third consideration is the distribution of risk and benefits and to what extent that distribution may be concerned fair or just. A fourth concern is whether there are alternative technologies available that achieve the same end with lower risk. Finally, it may also be relevant whether the ones causing or introducing the risk have good or bad intentions, with possibly intermediary cases of risks that are due to negligence or recklessness. Here, the distinction between safety risks and security risks may be relevant. Whereas safety risks are due to unintentional harm (like natural causes or unintentional human error), security risks are due to intentional harm (like terrorism, hacking, or theft).

Environmental Care And Sustainability

Whereas safety (and the protection of human health) has long been recognized in engineering codes of ethics, attention for environmental care and sustainability is of a more recent date, at least in codes of ethics. One reason may be that also in society at large environmental care and sustainability became prominent concerns at a later point in time than safety. One may say that they have received increased societal attention since roughly the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps engineering codes of ethics are just lagging behind. In connection to this, it also seems that whereas engineers perceive safety as a value that is internal to engineering already for quite some time, sustainability was long seen as a more political issue and therefore also as somewhat more controversial. However, this now seems to be changing, and environmental care and sustainability are increasingly included in codes of ethics of engineering societies and considered important values in engineering.

The relation between engineering and the environment is obviously ambivalent. Engineering and technology have been, and still are, a source of unsustainability in many areas. At the same time, engineering and technology may contribute to environmental care and to sustainable development and are perhaps even indispensable to achieve such goals.

The notion of sustainability can be understood and defined in many different ways, but the most prominent definition is probably the Brundtland definition of sustainable development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, p. 43). As this definition already witnesses, the notion of sustainability is broader than the notion of environmental care, also referring to social justice issues. In particular, it can be argued that sustainability in addition to the value of environmental care refers to the values of intragenerational justice (justice within the current generation) and intergenerational justice (justice between generations).

The various value dimensions of sustainability may in fact sometimes conflict with each other, as in the case of biofuels. It can be argued that biofuels are a positive development from the viewpoint of intergenerational justice, as they may be a means to ensure the availability of fuels also for future generations. From an environmental or intragenerational point of view, their desirability is much more open to debate, as their total environmental impact may sometimes be worse than traditional fuels and, by competing with food stocks, they may lead to rising food prices and negatively impact food security in especially developing countries.

There are now various tools and approaches that can be used to integrate sustainability and environmental considerations in engineering and technological development and design, for example, environmental impact assessments, life cycle analysis, circular economy, and the so-called design for sustainability and eco-design approaches.

Recent Developments In Engineering Ethics

Next, a number of more recent developments in engineering ethics are described to show some of the trends in the field. Again, the overview is more illustrative than exhaustive. The two main developments that will be discussed are how new technological developments have led to new ethical issues in engineering and the development of a more proactive approach to engineering ethics.

New Technologies And New Ethical Issues

 New technologies may raise new ethical issues that did not exist before. It has, for example, been suggested that information and communication technology and software engineering have raised ethical issues like privacy that did not exist in this form before, although other authors have suggested that these issues are not really new (Tavani 2002). Similarly, it has been suggested that technologies like nanotechnologies raise new ethical issues, for example, with respect to the possibilities of human enhancement that did not exist before, although again others have denied that these are really new ethical issues (Bacchini 2013).

More important than the question whether the ethical issues raised by new technologies are really and completely new is perhaps the observation that different technologies raise different specific ethical issues that need attention. So apart from the quite general ethical issues in engineering that were discussed before, there is large array of much more specific ethical issues raised by different technologies. What also need mentioning in this respect are the issues raised by technologies that (more or less) autonomously make decisions; think, for example, of unmanned drones or self-driving cars. These technologies raise important ethical questions about how to design the relevant decision algorithms (e.g., when to attack an enemy or where to steer the car in case of an accident) and about responsibility.

In addition to these more technology-specific issues, there is perhaps a more general ethically relevant issue that is raised by many new technologies, i.e., how to deal with uncertainty. This issue is particularly important for a range of new technologies of which the consequences and risks are still largely unknown or contested; think of nanotechnology, synthetic biology, neurotechnology, and the Internet of Things, for example. For many of these new technologies, there is uncertainty not only with respect to what the exact (social) impacts and risks of these technologies will be but also about the very ethical issues that these technologies will raise. An important principle that has been proposed to deal with uncertainty is the precautionary principle.

A well-known formulation of the precautionary principle is the so-called Wingspread Statement: “When an activity raises threats to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause-andeffect relationships are not fully established scientifically” (Raffensberger and Tickner 1999, pp. 354–355). There are, however, also other formulations. Sandin (1999, p. 891) has suggested that the various formulations of the precautionary principle as a prescriptive principle can be caught in the following formula: “If there is (1) a threat, which is (2) uncertain, then (3) some kind of action (4) is mandatory.” Depending on how these four dimensions are filled out, the principle becomes more or less stringent.

There is no agreement on the issue whether the precautionary principle is a good way to deal with uncertainty. Some authors have argued that the principle basically expresses prudence (Hansson 2009). Others believe the principle is incoherent because “it forbids the very measures it requires” (Sunstein 2005, p. 366). Partly, the controversy seems to be based on different understandings of the “precautionary principle.” Those who believe that the principle is basically a form of prudence see as the core of the principle that decisions are not only to be based on scientifically established risks but also on uncertain or debated risks and impacts. Those who argue that the principle is incoherent have in mind a strong version of the principle that forbids any activity that potentially brings risks that have not yet been established scientifically. Since such potential risks are often inherent both to doing something and refraining from that something, they consider the principle as incoherent.

Another way to deal with the uncertainties that are inherent to the introduction of new technologies into society is to argue that when these technologies enter into society, they amount to a kind of social experiment. Martin and Schinzinger (1996) have proposed the principle of informed consent to decide about the ethical acceptability of such experiments.

From Reactive To Proactive Engineering Ethics

Traditionally, ethical reflection on technology and engineering has often been reactive, i.e., after a technology was already developed and designed. In recent years, attempts have been made to integrate ethics already proactively from early on in the design, development, and innovation process of technology. In such approaches, ethics is constructively used to improve new technologies, rather than that ethics is used to decide whether a technology is as such acceptable or not. Moreover, the emphasis is also increasingly on doing good through technology, rather than on avoiding harm as traditionally was often the focus. Below, two approaches for proactively integrating ethical concerns in technological development are elaborated, namely, value-sensitive design and responsible innovation.

Value-sensitive design (VSD) was developed in information and communication technology as a systematic approach to integrating values of ethical importance into the design of new technologies. The approach aims at integrating empirical, conceptual, and technical investigations on values into design (Friedman et al. 2006). The empirical investigations aim at understanding the concerns and experiences of the stakeholders that are affected by a technology; the conceptual investigations aim at clarifying the values at stake conceptually and making trade-offs; technical investigations are relevant for including the values into the technological design itself but also to reveal what values may already be (tacitly) built into the design of a technology. The overarching aim of VSD is to integrate values from the start in the design process. Values that have been articulated in the VSD literature include: human welfare, property, privacy, freedom from bias, universal usability, trust, autonomy, informed consent, accountability, courtesy, identity, calmness, and environmental sustainability.

Whereas VSD may be seen as a specific approach for integrating values into design, similar efforts have been undertaken under somewhat different headings including Values at Play, Design and Values, and Design for Values. Design for Values may be seen as a variety of designs for X approaches that have become popular in engineering, where X can stand for a certain virtue or value or for a phase of the product life cycle like production, maintenance, recycling, or scrapping. Such approaches have been developed for a broad range of values (including safety, sustainability, privacy, justice, trust, responsibility, accountability, inclusiveness) and for a large variety of domains (including engineering, nanotechnology, biotechnology, military technology, medical technology, water technology). For a recent overview, see van den Hoven et al. (2015).

The notion of responsible innovation has become popular in recent years to denote innovations and innovation processes that meet certain (ethical) values. The notion has been popularized through the Horizon 2020 research program of the European Union in which what is called responsible research and innovation (RRI) is a main crosscutting theme. The notion also finds its background partly in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in the United States in which the idea of responsible development of nanotechnology is an important theme.

The Rome Declaration on Responsible Research and Innovation in Europe has defined RRI as an “on-going process of aligning research and innovation to the values, needs and expectations of society” (European Union 2014). It requires attention for the process of innovation that should meet such criteria as being anticipatory, reflective, deliberative, and responsive (Owen et al. 2013). It also requires attention for the products or outcomes of innovation that should meet deeply held moral values; in the latter case, it becomes more similar to VSD or Design for Values.


Engineering ethics started off as a field of applied ethics teaching and research in the 1980s. The initial approach was based on the idea that engineering is a profession, similar to other professions like medicine and law. Such professions are believed to be committed to a certain moral ideal, which in the case of engineering may be understood as “holding paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” as it is expressed in several engineering codes of ethics. A number of ethical issues in engineering which are typical for a professional approach were discussed: whistleblowing, loyalty, conflicts of interest, safety and risk, and the environment and sustainability. Of these, the latter have only more recently been included in engineering codes of ethics. Although the discussed ethical issues are neither exhaustive of the ethical issues in engineering nor unique to engineering, they give a good impression of some of the main ethical issues that have drawn attention in engineering ethics.

Also two more recent developments in engineering ethics were discussed. One is the growing attention for specific ethical issues raised by specific technologies. Although it is questionable whether the ethical issues raised by new technologies are completely new or unique to certain technologies, there is little doubt that they deserve attention. Moreover, it is clear that for different technologies, different ethical issues are relevant that require due attention. This also suggests an approach that pays explicit attention to the specific technologies developed in the different domains of engineering rather than just focusing on engineering as a profession. It also requires attention for the uncertainty surrounding new technologies, which may require new approaches such as the precautionary principle or conceiving of the introduction of new technology in society as a social experiment. Another important development in engineering ethics is a growing emphasis on proactive approaches, like value-sensitive design and responsible innovation that integrate ethical concerns from the start in the development process of new technology.

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