Engineering: A Gradual Departure from Ethics(?)

Where are we going? As a civilization? As a person? As a profession?

As a third year graduate student in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) most nights I can honestly say I do not know where I am heading for food after work, so if you are looking for a life altering answer from someone who has figured it out I will likely disappoint.

The reality is these questions, though extremely difficult to actually answer, are often spinning around my head, and if you are reading this I am assuming yours as well. If you haven’t, take a moment and consider… Where are we going?

The first question you must answer is who (or what) is we?

For myself, this we is often fluid and frequently changes based on context or my perspective. Sometimes it encapsulates my own life or the lives of my closet relationships, other times it is our Country as a whole, but for the purpose of this initial blog it is the Engineering profession as I have humbly experienced it.

The second question to answer is what direction is this we headed? Positive? Negative? Backward? Forward? Aimlessly?  

To begin to answer this, I feel that it is best to start from where I came from. My broad connection to engineering and the sciences is the culmination of personal hardship, both physically and emotionally, but is not entirely relevant to this topic. The main take away is that I pursued CEE to make a positive and lasting impact on the communities around me. From talking with most of my colleagues, their stories were often different, but their motivations for joining the field were the same. I obviously do not know everyone and their motivations, but I doubt anyone ever became an engineer with the intention to unethically do their job. Nonetheless, history is tarnish with unethical engineering practice and the devastation these practices left behind, whether it be: The Challenger Disaster, Bhopal, Flint Michigan, or a yet to be discovered incident that is happening right now.

 The sad reality is that not all engineers are motivated strictly by their ethical conduct.  Engineers are human and can make mistakes when internal and external forces act on them. Most have personal and family considerations and some have industrial pressures that don’t perfectly align with ethical best practices. Altogether, engineers can find themselves in situations where good ethical conduct is not always rewarding, and sometimes comes with personal sacrifice. It is in these instances where I potentially see a departure from ethical behaviors in our profession’s future.

As a part time High School substitute teacher, and a full time believer in giving back through teaching, I have found myself talking on numerous Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) panels with the goal of introducing High School students to the world of engineering. What I have found, with disheartening regularity, is feigned interest in (what I view are) the fundamental merits of engineering and some co-panelists who resort to talking salaries to generate interest.

Whether it can be contributed to the nativity of youth or not, having prospective engineers primarily motivated by financial compensation (in my opinion) is not conducive to fostering good ethical practice and the longevity of our profession. In the toughest of situations, where one must choose between their livelihood or their ethical center, individuals motivated principally by wealth will likely contribute to the ethical departure of engineering.

In the modern world where much of society is devoted to consumerism, how does a well-paying profession attract an ethically upstanding work force? Feel free to add it to the growing list of questions that I only have ideas, not answers.

I believe it starts with the general view of what the profession is. If people view CEE as a paycheck it will attract people for far difference reasons than if they see it as a fulfillment of their civic duty; much the same as if a prospective police officer enrolls at a police academy driven to serve his or her community or gather unrestrained power. In this instance it is up to the current profession to market the career as one of civil service and not just financial security.

Furthermore, attracting ethically aware individuals is only a start, and the greater engineering curriculum should place a larger emphasis on ethic conduct that goes beyond the adherence to various honor codes designed to limit academic fraud. Engineering ethics should be engrained in the decision making process similarly to the mathematical rigors associated with physics, calculus,  chemistry and others.

Admittedly, I do not think good ethical practice can be taught, as the fundamental application is still user dependent. However, I feel that through the exposure to ethically challenging situations and introspective thought people will be more likely to enact a positive ethical response when faced with a similar scenario in the real world while potentially promoting self-initiated ethical development.

In the end, having more ethically cognizant engineers with a willingness to act in the face of adversity may begin to counteract a gradual ethical departure and continually root engineering in the “highest principals of ethical conduct” [1].

Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!



Attached are links to the

NSPE Code of Ethics: [1]

ASCE Code of Ethics:

Imagine references in order of appearance


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