Ethics and Values in Engineering Profession: Basic Concepts of Ethics and Values

By Akhil Gupta|Updated : May 3rd, 2021

















 1. Introduction to Ethics and Values:

Engineering is transforming science into useful products for human comfort. Engineering is something that engineers do, and what they do has profound effects on others. Ethics in engineering then s the ability as well as responsibility of an engineer to judge his decision from the context of the general wellbeing of the society. It is the study of moral issues that confront engineers and engineering organizations when some crucial decisions are taken. Engineering research and practice requires that the being performed considers all the pros and cons of a certain action and its implementation Professional engineering bodies like IEEE, ASME. IEI etc., have evolved comprehensive ethics codes relevant to their respective professions, based on the rich experience of their members. Independent organizations like NSPE have prepared value based ethical codes applicable to all engineering professions.

By studying engineering ethics, the students develop awareness and assessment skill of the likely impact of their future decisions on moral and ethical grounds. Ethical standards in engineering are influenced by many factors:

  1. Engineering as an experimentation for the good of maid is a notable factor involving far reaching consequence,
  2. Ethical dilemmas make engineering decisions relatively difficult to make.
  3. Risk and safety of citizens as a social responsibility is a prime concern of an engineer,
  4. Technological advancement can be very demanding on the engineering skill in the global context
  5. Moral values and responsible conduct will play a crucial role in decision making.


1.1 Definition of Profession

Professions are those forms of work which involve advanced expertise, self-regulation, and concerted service to the public good.

(i). Advanced expertise: Professions require sophisticated skills (knowing-how) and theoretical, knowledge (knowing-that) in exercising judgment that is not entirely routine or susceptible to mechanization. Preparation to engage Work typically requires extensive formal education, including technical studies in one or more areas of systematic knowledge as well as some broader studies in the liberal arts (humanities, sciences, arts) Generally, continuing education and updating knowledge are also require.

(ii). Self-regulation: Well-established societies of professionals are allowed by the public to play a major role in setting standards for admission to the profession drafting codes of ethics, enforcing standards of conduct, and representing the profession before the public and the government. Often this is referred to as the “autonomy of the profession,” which forms the basis for individual professionals to exerciser autonomous professional judgment in their work.

(iii). Public good: The occupation serves some important public good, or aspect of the public good, and it does so by making a concerted effort to maintain high ethical standards throughout the profession. For example, medicine is directed toward promoting health, law toward protecting the public’s legal rights, and engineering toward technological solutions to problems concerning the public's well-being, safety, and health. The alms and guidelines in serving the public good are detailed in professional codes of ethics.

Some other features that are important in the concept of professionalism are:

  1. A profession cannot be composed of only one person. It is always composed of a number of individuals.
  2. A profession involves a public element. One must openly “profess” to be a physician or an engineer, much as the dictionary accounts of the term “professions” suggest.
  3. A profession is a way people earn a living and is usually something that occupies them during their working hours.

4 A profession is something that people enter into voluntarily and that they can leave voluntarily.

  1. A profession must serve some morally praiseworthy goal, although this goal may not be unique to a given profession, Physicians cure the sick and comfort the dying. Lawyers help people obtain justice within the law.
  2. Professionals must pursue a morally praiseworthy goal by morally permissible means. For example, medicine cannot pursue the goal of health by cruel experimentation or by deception or coercion.
  3. Ethical standards in a profess, should obligate professionals to act in some way that beyond what law, market, morality, and public opinion would otherwise require.

1.2 Definition of Ethics

Ethics has sometimes been viewed by engineers as a somewhat vague theoretical aspect of philosophy having little relevance to their practical activities in the world. Ethics certainly involves philosophical activities such as careful conceptual analysis and reflection. However, ethics is in essence practical, for the way in which we choose to act and live is the primary objective of such analysis and reflection.

Ethics at its core is about how we relate. In such relationships, problems may arise for several reasons, including limited resources and limited sympathy generating competition and conflict rather than mutually beneficial cooperation; limited agreement on goals and different conceptions of “good”; inadequate rationality, insufficient information and limited understanding; poor communication.

In everyday use “ethics” often refers to principles of action that implement or promote moral or ethical values

Morals (derived from the Latin mores, or customs) refers to standards of right conduct.

What makes ethics so important to public service engineering is that it goes beyond thought and talk to performance and action. As a guideline for action, ethics draws on what is right and important. Rooted in the idea of responsibility, ethics implies the willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions.

 1.3 professional Ethics

  • Professional ethics as distinguished from common morality and personal ethics
  • Common morality is the set of moral beliefs shared by almost everyone.
  • Personal ethics or morality is the set of moral beliefs that a person holds.
  • Professional ethics is the set of standards adopted by professionals insofar as they view themselves acting as Professionals. Engineering ethics is that set of ethical standards that applies to the profession of engineering.


1.3.1 There are several important characteristics of professional ethics:

  • Unlike common morality and personal ethics, professional ethics s usually stated in a formal code.
  • The professional codes of ethics of a given profession focus on the issues that are important in that profession.
  • When one is in a professional relationship, professional ethics is supposed to take precedence over personal morality.
  • Professional ethics, like ethics generally has a negative and a positive dimension. Being ethical has two aspect: preventing and avoiding evil and doing or promoting good. On the one hand, we should not lie, cheat, or steal, and in certain circumstances we may have an obligation to see that others do not do as well. On the other hand, we have some general obligation to promote human well-being. This general obligation to avoid evil and do good is intensified and made more specific roles and have special relationships with others.

Role morality is the name given to moral obligations based on special roles and relationships. One example of role morality is the set of special obligations of parents to their children. Parents have an obligation not only not to harm their children but also to care for them and promote their flourishing. Another example of role morality is the obligation of political leaders to promote the well-being of citizens.

Professional ethics is another example of role morality. Professionals have both an obligation not to harm their clients, patients, and employers, and an obligation to contribute to their well-being. The negative aspect of professional ethics is oriented toward the prevention of professional malpractice and harm to the public. Let us call this dimension of professional ethics preventive ethics because of its focus on preventing professional misconduct and harm to the public. Professionals also have an obligation to use their knowledge and expertise to promote the public good. Let us call this more positive dimension of professional ethics aspirational ethics because it encourages aspirations or ideals in professionals to promote the welfare of the public.

There are two faces of professional ethics when applied to engineering:

(a) The negative face of engineering ethics: preventive ethics

During the past few decades professional ethics for engineers has, focused on its negative face, or what we have called preventive ethics. Preventive ethics is commonly formulated in rules, and these rules are usually stated in codes of ethics. A look at engineering codes of ethics will show not only that they are primarily sets of rules but also that these rules are for the most part negative in character. The rules are often en the form of prohibitions, or statements that probably should be understood primarily as prohibitions. For example, by one way of counting, 80 percent of the code of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) consists of provisions that are, either explicitly or implicitly, negative and prohibitive in character. Many of the provision are explicitly negative en that they use terms such as “not” or “only.”

(b) The positive face of engineering ethics: aspirational ethics

It is easy to see the limitations of a professional ethics that is confined to the negative dimension. One of the limitations is the relative absence of the motivational dimension. Engineers do not choose engineering as a career in order to prevent disasters and avoid professional misconduct. To be Sure many engineering students desire the financial rewards and social position that an engineering career promises, and this is legitimate. We have found, however, that engineering students are also attracted by the prospect of making a difference in the world and doing so in a positive way.

They are excited by projects that alleviate human drudgery through labor-saving devices, eliminate disease by providing clean water and sanitation, develop new medical devices that save lives, create automobiles that run on less fuel and are less polluting, and preserve the environment with recyclable products. Most of us probably believe that these activities-and many others-improve the quality of human life. This more positive aspect of engineering is recognized to some extent in engineering codes of ethics. The first Fundamental Canon of the NSPE code of ethics requires engineers to promote the welfare” of the public, as well as prevent violations of safety and health. Virtually all of the major engineering codes begin with similar statements. Nevertheless, the positive face of engineering ethics has taken second place to the negative face in most engineering ethics textbooks, including our own. In this edition, we include this more positive or aspirational aspect of engineering ethics.

1.4 Branches of Ethics

  • Ethics is a requirement for practicing engineering as it serves as a tool for deciding any course of action. Without it, engineers’ actions would be random and aimless. They would have no means of considering what will b right (ethics) or what will be wrong (unethical) in their actions; and would have limited guidance for decisions aimed at resolving ethical dilemmas in practice. The four main branches of ethics are applied ethics, normative ethics, meta-ethics, and descriptive ethics; each is a potential tool for analyzing ethical problems and making ethical decisions.

 1.4.1 Applied ethics is the branch of ethics that consists of the analysis of specific, controversial moral issues such as genetic manipulation of fetuses, euthanasia, whistle blowing, mandatory screening for HIV and so on. It helps professionals to identify relevant issues and ask what is right or wrong in the particular situation and attempts to provide an objective answer. It may be termed the most specific type of moral philosophy as it aims to address the problem of knowing what is right wrong, good, and bad However, what is right or wrong varies from society to society. It varies from one person to another person and can also vary among different cultures, religions, nationalities, and professions. As specific type of moral philosophy, applied ethics is concerned with the basis upon which people either in person or jointly, decides that certain actions are right or wrong, and  whether one ought to do something or has a duty to do something.

1.4.2 Normative ethics looks for an ideal litmus test of reasonable behaviour. Fieser states that it provides ‘The Golden Rule’ of doing to other as we want them do to us. For example since we do not want our behaviour to throw stone through our glass window, then it will be wise not to first throw stone through the neighbour window. Based on this type of reasoning, one could theoretically determine whether any possible action is good, bad, right, or wrong.

1.4.3 Meta-ethics differs remarkably from applied and normative ethics, in that, it does not concern with determining what is right or wrong but instead, it asks questions about the nature of morality, rather than the specifics of right or wrong. For example, meta-ethics questions whether morals as we know it exist in the world naturally or are the invention of men, and it so, can they be objective, Metaethics can be viewed as synonymous with analytical ethics because it concerns analytical inquiry into what is goodness, excellence, amoral, immoral, and so on. The knowledge of the ethical theories and principles will be useful in terms of elucidating the meaning of ethical terms and developing of principles for distinguishing between good and bad conduct. For example, Meta-ethics asks the questions such as what does it mean to say that a decision is good or how one could know or recognize that something is ethically good.

1.4.4 Descriptive ethics concerns what one believes to be right or wrong, and holds, condemns or punishes in law or custom. It is sometimes referred as comparative ethics because it involves comparing ethical systems, comparing the ethics of the past and present, comparing the ethics of one society against another, and comparing the ethics which people claim to follow with the actual rules of behavior that explain their conducts.

1.5 Need of Ethics in Engineering

  • First, many of the ethical decisions that individual engineers must make are not settled by rules. After all, rules do not encompass every situation: often the rules only set limits within which decisions must be made, and some situations are not covered at all. In addition, rules require interpretation. In some cases, it may be easy to see which interpretation of a rule is best, but in others, it is not so easy. No set of rules or policies can anticipate every ethical problem that may arise, and even the sincerest engineers may need help in understanding the ethical aspects of

some situations. So only ethically aware engineers can correctly apply ethical rules to complex situations, keeping to the spirit as well as the letter of ethical rules.

  • Second, engineers should be sensitive to ethical questions because engineers who understand the ethical dimension of engineering are better and happier engineers.
  • Third, good ethical behavior usually leads to good consequences, both for ourselves and for society.
  • Fourth, engineers make decisions crucial to society at large and therefore shoulder an enormous burden of public trust. When important and complex questions of right and wrong confront engineers in their professional work, they sometimes find themselves inadequately prepared about how to approach the issues or to communicate their advice clearly. The formal study of ethics can help to overcome these problems.

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Akhil GuptaAkhil GuptaMember since Oct 2019
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