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Engineering Ethics and Conflict of Interests Essay

In any field of human activity, the question of ethics is multi-layered and complicated. The engineering is no different. The engineer is responsible for achieving the goals of the organization he works for, as well as, answering the concerns of the public safety. This paper will explore how this conflict of interests can be resolved without compromising any of the ethical responsibilities.

Concept of Engineering Ethics

Simply speaking, the engineering ethics are a code of conduct combined with personal judgments of separate workers in the field. A moral code usually appears when an occupation organizes itself into a true profession (“Thinking Like an Engineer” 153).

It is worth considering that the early codes were frequently misinterpreted as to what were the primary ethical obligations of an engineer. For instance, the commentators found the employers’ satisfaction and content to be valued higher than the engineers’ public duties. Another argument disadvantageous to those codes is that its legal nature was debatable; consequently, the codes were to be regarded as guidelines which were not necessarily compulsory. Finally, in relation to the codes being no more than guidelines, it is argued that they did not provide enough specificity to actually guide (“Three Myths” 9).

Davis argues that these arguments appear far-fetched, uncrowning them as myths. First off, there is no evidence of loyalty to “the employer;” instead, the codes are client-oriented, but not necessarily bid engineers to prioritize their clients’ satisfaction. Furthermore, the imperative of avoiding public conflict in itself subsumes the engineers’ conforming to the public interest. Also, the purpose of these codes (which is, in fact, guide ethical conduct, not regulate the legality of actions) is often misunderstood, resulting in claims of the illegitimacy of the codes and suchlike (“Three Myths” 10-14).

It is important to consider that a code – any code – is a convention agreed on by professional ruling out the moral obligations of the workers in that field. Professions are organized to serve and as such the moral code contains obligations towards people affected by the job and its results. Thus, for a worker in a certain field to be considered ethical that person must follow the rules outlined in the code of his profession.

For the longest time, there have been no strictly codified sets of rules for engineers. However, from the ancient times to the second half of the 19th century engineers followed certain rules which were generally defined but the concepts of virtue in their contemporary societies (Moriarty 33). The ethical codes of today also take the general concepts of morality into consideration though they tend to be more comprehensive covering a wider range of social interactions. First sets of ethical rules for engineers date back to the beginning of the 20th century (“Three Myths” 9). Since then, the codes have been rewritten and improved countless times.

They cover not only the questions of the relationship between the engineer and his employee but also the limits of one’s competence as an engineer, the issues of protecting confidential information, and upholding the modern laws. More impactful technologies require new changes to the morale codes. At the same time engineers need to uphold “classic values” (Ramirez, Seco, and Cobo 212).

At that, it worth considering that the obligations assigned to engineers are seldom understood by the society. Also, despite the fact that the understanding is impaired, there is a common belief that engineers are bound to demonstrate perfection in problem-solving, regardless of the complexity of the issues they solve. Such view was commonly adopted historically and was maintaining the engineers’ prestige because their achievements back then could be regarded as miracles. Today, there is a discrepancy between what society deems as possible and what is possible as yet, which further complexifies the engineers’ responsibility to comply to the public expectations (Ramirez, Seco, and Cobo 211). All these complications place a heavy moral burden on a modern engineer.

The other side of ethics is the personal judgment. That field is much murkier than ethical codes since there are no clear definitions or descriptions of a morally correct decision. What one may consider an ethical choice can be persecuted by society or the employer. In the infamous Challenger shuttle case, the decision by Robert Lund to side with his organization has led to a disaster. Nonetheless, his judgment can be considered absolutely ethical since he did not neglect his responsibility to inform his colleagues of the potential problems and risks.

And on the other hand, he preferred to submit to the management requirement rather than stand his ground (“Thinking Like an Engineer” 152). This case illustrates perfectly how morally unclear certain judgments can be. Thus, the codes of ethics are required to help the engineers avoid moral mistakes and their often catastrophic consequences.

Interests of Organization and Public

However, there is a problem with the codes of conduct. Since an engineer has responsibilities both towards the employer and the society as a whole, the question of priority becomes an essential one. It should be pretty clear that the public good should always be the primary concern from the standpoint of ethics. However, the organizational culture of the employing company tends to severely limit the engineer’s ability to make weighted and reasonable decisions (“Engineering Ethics” 224).

Flawed practices might be the focus of the company’s workflow and changing might be well outside of the scope of a single engineer (Lynch and Kline 200). Moreover, changing the operations of the company might be considered detrimental by the management. And identifying the long-term consequences of certain issues can be a problem. All of these factors contribute to the unclear view the engineers have of the consequences their actions might have.

One of the critical points of the moral dilemma of the engineers’ conduct consequences is disaster prevention and warning. An issue such as this should be discussed separately since, broadly speaking, disasters are an indispensable part of the engineering history (“Engineering Ethics” 225). Densely intertwined with public safety, the problem might reveal serious flaws on all levels of engineering establishments, including management.

For engineers, however, taking or not taking actions in case of an accident will not only result in a public scandal but might also seriously shatter their financial situation. Routine actions are sufficient in preventing the scandal; one such action is cooperation and reaching a point of contact with fellow workers. Some of the catastrophes could have been, in fact, prevented: the notorious Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, for one, could have resulted differently if only the consensus had been achieved (“Engineering Ethics” 225). Another constituent of this dilemma is the warning and the decisions related to that. At that, sociology regards disaster preventions and corresponding decisions – or lack of them – as the result of social constructs embedded in each individual’s consciousness.

Which is to say that, apart from what is expected from the engineers, they are limited in their choices. Since individual engineering decision-making is reliant on cultural context, it would be true to say that culture serves as another source of limitation here. Although there are organizational rules bidding engineers to cooperate, consult, and receive guidance on the subject, the burden of responsibility concerning disaster warning and prevention remains tangible for each individual engineer, particularly the ways of warning and discussing issues, whether such issues should be raised at all, with whom, and in what particular circumstances.

Another problem is the question of the malicious intent. The engineer can never be absolutely sure that an issue he encounters is a willful violation of the principles of public safety. And acting under the assumption that every conflict of interests in the field of ethics is a result of some illicit scheme can do a lot of harm to the employer. And, in this case, the organization might be no less concerned for the wellbeing of the public than the engineer. Thus, acting under the assumption that some criminal scheme is at work can harm the employer’s reputation without any reason and misrepresent the company to the public. This is probably the clearest example of the conflict of interest between the organizational and public interests.

Possible Solutions

Perhaps the most obvious solution to the issue of social and cultural consctructedness of the engineers’ moral and ethical conduct would be to start at school. An open dialog on ethics and its application to the realia of workplace and issues that arise during the work process can be facilitated on the educational level. In addition, the students of engineering can be encouraged to explore the implications of virtue and conceptual ethics as well as that of materialism (Moriarty 38).

Moriarty also suggests a universal threefold set of values that must be brought out to the students, which is focused on the “how” of engineering as well as the reasons of each particular action and the tools and materials employed for accomplishing the goal (38). The reasons, the “why” of engineering is suggested as a motive and a common thread in classroom discussions. As a matter of fact, the issue of unclear perception of the possible problems is not the most difficult one to resolve. The main thing to keep in mind is that personal vigilance will often not be enough. The results of engineering decisions might have unexpected implications in the field far removed from the engineer’s competence.

Lynch and Kline suggest the engineer should turn to history and sociology (Lynch and Kline 201). However, that solution seems rather unrealistic since conducting such a study is a complex task requiring vast knowledge in the fields completely unrelated to the engineering. If the issue can be identified as potentially problematic turning to the unions and professional organizations for advice is a better course of action. Other engineers might have encountered similar problems in their work or might possess a better understanding of the related issues and the necessary analysis.

Identifying a willful violation of public safety is much more difficult and presents a real moral dilemma. Moreover, stumbling into an illicit scheme can be dangerous in the first place and accidently admitting that you did to the criminals can be even more perilous.

However, there is a solution. First of all, the scope of the problem should be identified. If the violation is minor and is only tied to a small number of people within the organization, it is likely to be an honest mistake and even if it is not, the violators can be persecuted within the company itself maintaining the interests of the public and organization at the same time. Even a problem affecting an entire company can still be a mistake but trying to deal with it on your own is useless. In such case, it is best to use the personal judgment to decide who should be asked for help. Professional unions are, again, a good place to start but upholding the ethics in this scenario might require the engineer to work with law enforcement organizations.

The alternative to both of the suggested approaches is becoming a whistleblower. That means bringing the issue to the public, without using your personal judgment. Most theorists argue against such behavior since it compromises the interests of the employer which should be secondary to the public concerns but should not be ignored completely. And using whistle-blowing as an only measure to address the problems in the workplace is one-sided from the ethical standpoint (Lynch and Kline 198).


The conflict between public and organizational interests is essential in any field of professional ethics. Since the work of engineers can have long-term effects on the public well-being, approaching this conflict of interests calmly and reasonably is extremely important to maintaining professional integrity. At that, the most pressing issue appears to be the problem of priority of organizational interest over the public interest.

Other issues include individual decision-making that is constructed by social and cultural factors and organizational interests, leaving engineers very little opportunities, and a willful violation of the principles of public safety which exemplifies the discrepancy of organizational and public interests. Educating engineers on the practical implications of ethics seems to be a solution but then, it can be argued that educational institutions already provide such courses in abundance. Encouraging the usage of personal judgment or instantaneous public awareness appear to be more efficient in this respect.

Works Cited

Davis, Michael. “Engineering Ethics, Individuals, and Organizations.” Science and Engineering Ethics 12.2 (2006): 223-231. Print.

Davis, Michael. “Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 20.2 (1991): 150-167. Print.

Davis, Michael. “Three Myths about Codes of Engineering Ethics.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 20.3 (2001): 8-22. Print.

Lynch, William T., and Ronald Kline. “Engineering Practice and Engineering Ethics.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 25.2 (2000): 195-225. Print.

Moriarty, Gene. “Three Kinds of Ethics for Three Kinds of Engineering.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 20.3 (2001): 31-38. Print.

Ramirez, Francisco, Andres Seco, and Eduardo P. Cobo. “New Values for Twenty-First Century Engineering.” Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education & Practice 137.4 (2011): 211-214. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Engineering Ethics and Conflict of Interests'. 7 September.

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