What Are Engineering Ethics?

Jan Fletcher

Engineering ethics is the application of moral decisions to the development and use of engineered products and engineering activities. Ethical standards are defined within the context of social mores, which vary from culture to culture. Some moral decisions are more universal. Typically, causing harm to other people or property is considered an ethical lapse, except under the most extreme circumstances.

Engineering ethics might help prevent future oil spills.
Engineering ethics might help prevent future oil spills.

As a relatively new field, interest in ethical engineering has grown due to high-profile engineering disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This oil spill severely impacted the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S. in 2010. Engineers apply technology to solving problems and creating new opportunities.

The field of engineering historically has been more focused on devising solutions. There has been less of a focus on the potential impact those solutions may have on society and the environment. Engineering ethics is seen as a way to improve the field of engineering so less harm may occur. In engineering ethics, engineers are held to standards of moral behavior in their design and production of devices and processes.

Additional factors are considered beyond achieving sufficient productivity to achieve profit in ethical engineering. Some laws are already in place in many countries to protect people and property from engineered processes and products. Proponents of engineering ethics argue that laws alone are insufficient, as ethical character presents an additional restraint against evil than laws alone. Engineers well versed in the field of ethics are often more likely to consider the ramifications of their engineering activities upon others and the environment.

Applying engineering ethics in a real-world setting occurs in several ways. Reaching engineers while they are still in college, or early in their careers through provision of ethical training, would help them avoid ethical blunders later. At times there is disagreement between managers who insist on discounting ethics to focus solely on productivity and engineers who refuse to commit unethical acts, creating conflict in the workplace.

Ethics are closely tied in with jurisprudence, which is the theory and practice of law. Ethical lapses in the engineering of products can result in lawsuits. This may give companies a strong incentive to improve ethical practices in the engineering field. Ethical engineering has counterparts in the field of medicine, and business practice.

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