Addressing the ethical dimension

Stuart Nathan
Features editor

The Engineering Council and Royal Academy of Engineering have today jointly published a revised set of ethical principles that they believe all engineers should adhere to in their professional lives. First issued in 2005, the principles are regularly reviewed and revised to ensure that they remain current.

The principles are organised around four pillars: honesty and integrity; respect for life, law, the environment and public good; accuracy and rigour; and leadership and communication. Each of these is broken down further into a set of points on how engineers should behave, such as (taking one from each pillar): engineers should “avoid deception and take steps to prevent or report corrupt practices of professional misconduct”; “protect and, where possible, improve the quality of built and natural environments”; “perform services only in areas in which they are currently competent or under competent supervision”; and “challenge statements or policies that cause them professional concern”.

SELA bootcamp
Communication and leadership is one of the pillars of the professional ethics, which the RAEng and EC insist must be part of engineers’ training

On the face of it, there can be little in these principles that anyone would disagree with; they come under the heading of what Americans sometimes call “motherhood and apple pie”: things that everyone agrees are self-evidently good. And it is clearly not entirely simple. We can all think of situations in the very recent past where engineers have been involved in projects where ethical slips have had disastrous consequences. In the fire at Grenfell Tower, for example, engineers will have been involved in the selection of materials for its refit, and if (as seems likely) the cladding panels were in some way at fault, then this code of conduct implies that somebody should have raised the alarm.

It is tempting to say that it’s not only engineers that should have formally set out ethical principles; while many professions do (medicine and law are the ones that spring to mind first) and the Academy states specifically that it also applies to people who manage or train engineers. This is an important point: it’s often observed that engineers relatively rarely go into management positions, so in most cases professionals are working under instructions. Moreover, some industries that employ large numbers of engineers — most notably the oil and gas, chemicals and defence sectors — are sometimes criticised for being inherently unethical in the way that they affect the environment or are fundamentally involved in causing harm to people.

Some reports suggest that these sectors are finding it increasingly difficult to attract younger recruits (and also that they are less attractive to women and a reason that there are fewer women in engineering than men) because what is referred to as “youthful idealism” means that sectors whose public face, at least, is “doing good” are more attractive.

In this argument, sectors such as renewable energy and medical engineering are the more attractive options. Certainly, it’s true that at Imperial College, medical is the only engineering course that is 50 per cent female. We have also heard at a recent roundtable discussion that the civil engineering sector, which directly affects people’s lives in helping them physically connect with other places through infrastructure and is involved with the buildings in which they spend their lives, is seeing increasing interest from graduates; however, equally, whenever we raise this issue with the defence sector we are told that it has no problem attracting young recruits.

It is, of course, up to individual engineers which sectors they work in, and if there are ethical dimensions to their work then these are matters they must come to terms with. However, there are some points raised in the ethics document which are likely to be problematic. For example, it’s easy to say that engineers should “present and review theory, evidence and interpretation honestly,accurately, objectively and without bias, while respecting reasoned alternative views”, but one only has to take a quick look at the comments section to any article we publish concerned in any way with climate change, or more recently Brexit, to see that “respecting reasoned alternative views” seems to be quite beyond some people, even within our community. It’s even open to interpretation what comprises a reasoned alternative view.

Ethics will clearly continue to be a relevant discussion for engineers, and one that we all need to be aware of. However, there needs to be a balance between what can be set out by a professional body and interpretations from the individual’s conscience, and we can only hope that everybody involved in an engineering project, whether engineer or no, adheres to the same set of principles.