Ethics are a matter of principle

Medicine, law and science all raise ethical issues of interest to the general public. Those applied to mainstream engineering deserve to be treated with the same degree of respect, argues John Uff

Later this month a special conference will unveil The Royal Academy’s re-drafted statement of Ethical Principles (SEP) for engineers, first launched in October 2005.

The revised version — drafted in collaboration with the Engineering Council (UK) and the professional institutions — deals with the level of performance to be expected (accuracy and rigour); the moral duties undertaken (honesty and integrity); the focus of the engineer’s duty (respect for life, law and the public good) and the duties implicit in professional engineering (responsible leadership: listening and informing).

The SEP is a document with which engineers can associate themselves with pride and confidence. Yet is this enough? In the 18 months since the SEP’s initial launch no major ethical engineering issues have hit the national headlines. Debate on industry issues have continued in the trade press and professional journals but engineers have not noticeably changed their lifestyles, or attitudes to safety, the environment or the wellbeing of society.

Major incidents

Could it be that the new principles of engineering ethics are failing to engage with events in the real world? And will SEP manage to persuade professionals that their established practices represent the best ethical standards anyway?

Industries that are regularly challenged by ethical issues include railways and chemical processing, which have both recently faced major incidents resulting in loss of life and property.

The perception at least is that despite the inquiry process — both internal and external — little or nothing has been heard of the ethical issues generated by such incidents that have usually concentrated on finding a ‘scapegoat’. This approach leaves the impression that, with the exception of the ‘culprits’, the rest of the personnel including many engineers, can continue as normal.

Most incidents of this sort have been dealt with through Health and Safety legislation and inquiries (or in their absence, through inquests) with the mind of the public being concentrated on blame and legal liability. This has been exacerbated by repeated attempts by the prosecuting authorities to pursue manslaughter charges, most of which have ended in failure.

Little or no attention is paid to ethical issues that do not centre on one or two individuals, but potentially on many engineers within these industries who were in a position to influence the running of the particular operation and the likelihood of mishap.

This is in contrast to the broad acceptance and practical application of the role of ethics in many other fields. There is a regular stream of medical issues ranging from the treatment of terminal illness to attitudes towards obesity, all of which engage an ethical dimension.

In science, projected research into stem cell technology and hybrid embryos has raised the clearest and most difficult ethical questions; and in law, the treatment of suspected terrorists involves an obvious tension between competing principles of security of the population against liberty of the individual. So why are the ethical issues in engineering not given more attention?

Perhaps one answer is that engineering and technology in general have grown up within a framework that has recognised legal restraints but not other forms of control. Medicine and law each have a much more developed system of professional regulation, where ‘striking off’ is a real sanction and codes of conduct, including ethical standards, have a palpable effect on everyday conduct and decision-making.

The contrast was well demonstrated in the recent litigation concerning expert evidence given by paediatrician Prof Sir Roy Meadow, where the level of public concern was such that the attorney-general intervened in the Court of Appeal proceedings, and for this purpose ascertained the views of relevant interested bodies including many of the engineering institutions. The principles debated in this case apply with equal force to the activities of many engineers who perform a similar role.

Professional ethics in real life, therefore, do impinge on engineering at the fringe. It is necessary to show that ethics applied to mainstream engineering deserve to be treated with the same degree of respect.

Missing element

Perhaps the missing element in the structure of engineering ethics lies in the issues of sanction and enforcement. The point has been made that there is no point in creating a carefully-drafted rulebook that can be ignored with impunity. Sanction and enforcement depend on the individual institutions which have signed up to the SEP.

However, before any question of enforcement arises there needs to be a clearer understanding of the impact and effect of the SEP on the conduct of engineers at many levels. Industry must demonstrate that it has the will and intention to apply ethical principles to its own activities and personnel. A clear breach of principles should result in the industry and its institutions standing up and demanding appropriate action and recognition of the breach.

John Uff is a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering. Details of the ethics conference are available on