As I have mentioned in class, I have been around a while, working as a professional engineer for many years between my B.S. and M.S./PhD studies. During that time in the “real world”, I have had the opportunity to serve as an expert witness on several cases. One in particular stands out as appropriate to our discussion of ethics.
For those not really familiar with the civil suit in the construction industry, the basic summary is that two sides disagree on what a particular construction problem is, where it came from, who is to blame, and/or who should fix it. Each side typically hires experts who sometimes can agree on basic technical points but invariably disagree on the major aspects of responsibility. On one such case, I was acting on behalf of one of the defendants, essentially saying that though the product turned out badly, and ultimately failed (resulting eventually in a death), my client built in accordance with industry standards and per the structural design which was flawed. I reached my conclusions based on my personal experience, research, and calculations and was pretty comfortable with what I put in my report.
On the other side of the case was an engineer who blamed my client quite extensively and he backed up his opinion with what I considered inappropriate leaps of engineering logic. In my opinion, he wasn’t qualified to discuss the specific technical issues. Without going into the specifics, he had a lot of expertise with things the size of tractor trailers and was trying to use that knowledge on things the size of matchbox cars. It just doesn’t translate (in this instance). So, I turned to my profession’s code of ethics for guidance.
In civil engineering, there isn’t necessarily a single pledge you take when you get your degree or your registration, but generally, you can rely on the American Society for Civil Engineers and their code to assist. In a “rebuttal” report, I pointed to the Fundamental Canon item 2, that an engineer should practice only in areas of competence and suggested that my adversary may not be in line with the code of ethics. It wasn’t a flat out accusation but was intended to raise the question and cast his work in doubt.
So, fast forward to my deposition. The attorney for the other side latched onto my statement and started quizzing me. “Do you have a degree in ethics?” No. “Have you taken course in ethics?” No. “Do you have any special training in ethics?” No. “Then, by pointing out someone else’s failure to practice within their competence, aren’t you guilty of the same thing?” This is where I stumbled a little. Luckily, he stumbled through the question and I had him repeat it a couple times to make sure I understood. It gave me time to think. I was proud of my answer at the time, but it certainly has made me think a lot since and in the current discussion, maybe it will make you think. It was something along the lines of:
“No. By expecting me to adhere to the Code of Ethics, the State of [pick one] has judged me capable and competent in deciding ethical behavior. Applying that competence should be the same for my own behavior as it is for the behavior of any other practicing engineer.”
A little cocky? Probably. But, the bigger issue is that we as professionals (or professors) are going to be put in the position to decide what is and what is not ethical behavior, not only for ourselves, but as we see in case studies, the behavior of our colleagues, mentors, students, and others in our field. Our reading, contemplation, consideration, and other studying may not seem all that important or even applicable today, but there will come a time when we will need to make the judgment call and we need to be prepared to do so.