UVA professor questions purpose of code of ethics in engineering profession

Professor Deborah G. Johnson discusses the necessity, successes and shortcomings of an engineering code of ethics

Elyse Ferris

It’s important to realize the role that a code of ethics can play in the engineering profession, according to Deborah G. Johnson, a professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia.

Her talk, hosted by the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics and the Physics and Engineering Departments at Washington and Lee, was titled, “Does Engineering Need a Code of Ethics?”

Physics, Engineering and Poverty students from Washington and Lee attended the lecture on March 8 in the Hillel House.

Johnson’s discussion opened with context on contemporary discussions about the issue.

Each discipline of engineering has its own codes of ethics, many of which look very similar. Some wonder whether the profession as a whole needs one single code. She acknowledged that while such codes do draw some criticisms for their shortcomings, most people agree that some form of an engineering code of ethics is necessary. Debate is necessary to keep the topic alive. Johnson quoted John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, and said that undiscussed issues “will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” Johnson’s book, Engineering Ethics: Contemporary Debates, explores controversial and philosophical topics. Some chapters in the book include, “Are Whistle-blowing Engineers Heroes or Traitors?,” “Will Autonomous Cars Ever be Safe Enough?,” and “Is Wrongdoing Caused by Bad Apples or Bad Barrels?”

“There are lots of codes of ethics in the field of engineering,” Johnson said. “No one really seriously challenges this idea that engineers need a code of ethics.”

The National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics emphasizes the public’s safety, health and welfare should be important to engineers.

“It implies that engineers should put [public welfare] before everything, including being faithful to their employers and their clients,” Johnson argued. Still, she said, such codes are vague and lack concrete instruction.

Other criticisms are that codes are created solely for public image, and that they have no real enforcement power or effect on behavior. Many engineers are employed with larger organizations who have their own codes of ethics anyway.

Why is a code of ethics necessary? To answer this, Johnson delved into the development of engineering as a profession.

Johnson explored the characteristics of a profession. First, she noted that a professional masters an esoteric body of knowledge. These professionals must also have an autonomy because of their knowledge. There must also be an organization to control admissions and standards. Finally, a profession must have a code of ethics and a distinct culture.

“The striking thing about engineering was that it was somewhat unlike these other professions in that engineers were employees rather than in private practice,” Johnson said.

This begs the question, how do engineers balance that struggle between being an employee and being a professional?

She cited a theory by Elizabeth Gorman and Rebecca Sandefur that states professionals have expert knowledge, technical autonomy, a normative orientation toward service to others and high status, income and rewards.

This theory acknowledges that engineers have knowledge that their clients and employers often lack. Therefore, they have a responsibility to use their knowledge fairly and to not exploit the ignorance of others.

“The existence of codes of ethics is part of a strategy to establish and maintain engineering as part of a profession. To establish itself as a group worthy of public autonomy and worthy of public trust,” Johnson said. “It helps to think as if professions have a social contract with the public, and codes of ethics say to the public, ‘we promise to abide by these rules in exchange for you giving us power to control our membership.’”

Despite the criticism that ethics codes are all about public image, Johnson said that their presence has deeper significance for the profession.

“Reputation is what public trust is all about,” she said.

Codes of ethics are certainly statements to the public, but they also send a clear message to employers.

“It’s better to think of the [codes] as representing the collective wisdom of other engineers,” Johnson said. “Not in the form of rules, but in the form of principles.”

For example, engineers may point to their profession’s code of ethics to free themselves from bad pressure from employers.

While codes of ethics cannot provide specific guidance for particular situations, they serve different purposes with multiple audiences, constituting the field as a profession and shaping the expectations of all those who interact with engineers.