Article - Issue 25, December 2005

Ethics and the Engineer

Anthony Eades

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Paolozzi's sculpture of Isaac Newton in the forecourt of the British Library.Of Newton it was said that he had an exceptionally high standard of morality, having, as a contemporary Bishop Burnet said,

Paolozzi's sculpture of Isaac Newton in the forecourt of the British Library.Of Newton it was said that he had an exceptionally high standard of morality, having, as a contemporary Bishop Burnet said, "the whitest soul" he ever knew! © Brian Doble

The Royal Academy of Engineering has led a concerted effort to reach agreement on the high-level ethical principles it believes all professional engineers and related bodies should subscribe to. It has also suggested how ethics should be incorporated within the curriculum of undergraduate engineering courses. Anthony Eades, the Manager of Engineering Projects at the Academy, introduces these initiatives, whose findings were presented at a conference at the British Library in October 2005.

Only the most cloistered engineer could fail to recognise the growing public disillusion with expert opinion. Justified or not, this has the potential to damage the image of a profession. The various codes of conduct of the engineering institutions, by themselves, are not sufficient to address this issue. They are rule-based, and do not deliver an expression of the overarching values to which engineers should adhere.

This was noted by the President of The Royal Academy of Engineering, at a meeting of engineering institutions in May 2004. Professor John Uff CBE QC FREng, in his Lloyds Register lecture some two years earlier, had referred to the need for some common adherence within the engineering community to a statement of ethical principles, and the linking of the engineer’s professional duty with a wider duty to the community.

Meetings with the major institutions and collaboration with Engineering Council (UK) resulted in a Statement of Ethical Principles: a set of ‘four fundamental principles which guide an engineer in achieving the high ideals of professional life’. This statement has been supported by many of the large engineering institutions and its short preamble concisely summarises the purpose of the Statement.

Our findings also noted the growing awareness that ethics needed embedding during the course of an engineering education. With the assistance of the Engineering Professors’Council, and from academics in engineering and philosophy, an Ethics Curriculum Map was developed.

This document outlines the ways in which the teaching of engineering ethics can be introduced into the curriculum and can be found at: www.raeng.org.uk/ecm.pdf. All 263 university engineering departments in the UK were contacted and those who responded have expressed support for the approach, but point out that there is a paucity of resources to action and implement the Map to the level that is required.

Launch at the British Library

On 13 October a conference was organised as a platform at which to present the Statement of Ethical Principles and the Ethics Curriculum Map. 150 people listened to speakers from the corporate world, the law, medicine, science, and philosophy disciplines, and leaders of institutional and educational activities, discuss ethics.

Professor Kel Fidler FREng, Chairman of Engineering Council (UK), launched the Principles with the words: “At last we have the real possibility of offering the profession a set of precepts against which they can measure their practice of their profession. If, as I hope, the principles are adopted widely, then I believe we can look forward to greater support for individual engineers from their institutions.”

Statement of Ethical Principles

The decisions and actions of engineers have a profound impact on the world we live in, and society at large. Making a clear and public commitment to operating with integrity and honesty is essential to create a greater level of trust and confidence, and a positive perception of the engineering profession.

Engineering is the knowledge required, and the process applied, to conceive, design, make, build, operate, sustain, recycle or retire, something of significant technical content for a specific purpose: a concept, a model, a product, a device, a process, a system, a technology.

Engineers are individuals who apply this creative process. Professional Engineers work to enhance the welfare, health and safety of all whilst paying due regard to the environment and the sustainability of resources. They have made personal and professional commitments to enhance the wellbeing of society through the exploitation of knowledge to create new things and the management of creative teams.

This Statement of Ethical Principles, led by The Royal Academy of Engineering in conjunction with the Engineering Council (UK), establishes the standard which the members of the engineering profession adopt to regulate their working habits and relationships. The values on which it is based should apply whether or not an engineer is acting in a professional capacity.

There are four fundamental principles which guide an engineer in achieving the high ideals of professional life. These express the beliefs and values of the profession and are amplified below. To aid interpretation in practical situations guidance notes will be provided.

Accuracy and veracity

Professional Engineers have a duty to ensure that they acquire and use wisely and faithfully all knowledge relevant to the engineering skills needed in their work in the service of others. They should:

  • act with care and competence in all matters relating to duties

  • maintain up to date knowledge and skills and assist their development in others

  • perform services only in areas of current competence

  • not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about engineering matters

  • present and review engineering evidence, theory and interpretation honestly, accurately and without bias and quantify all risks.

Honesty and integrity

There are fundamental common values that bind all humanity together: the profession derives its ultimate value from people. Accordingly, all dealings with others should be conducted with fairness and honesty and Professional Engineers should accord the highest importance to freedom of choice, equality of opportunity and social justice. They should:

  • be alert to the ways in which their duties derive from and affect the work of other people; respect the rights and reputations of others

  • avoid deceptive acts and take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct; declare conflicts of interest

  • reject bribery or improper influence

  • act for each employer or client in a reliable and trustworthy manner.

Respect for life, law and the public good

In making choices Professional Engineers should give due weight to all relevant law, facts and guiding principles and to the public interest. They should:

  • ensure that all work is lawful and justified

  • minimise and justify any adverse effect on wealth creation, the natural environment and social justice whilst ensuring that all developments meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

  • act honourably, responsibly and lawfully so as to uphold the reputation, standing and dignity of the profession.

Responsible leadership: listening and informing

Professional Engineers should exercise high standards of leadership in the exploitation and management of technology. They hold a privileged and trusted position in society and have a duty to ensure that their position is not used to the benefit of personal or sectional interests or to the detriment of the wider community but is seen to reflect public concern. They should:

  • identify and be aware of the issues that engineering raises for society; listen to the aspirations and concerns of others

  • lead in promoting public awareness and understanding of the impact and benefits of engineering achievements

  • issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner

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