Living Up to the Code: Engineering as Political Judgment

Patrick Little
Department of Engineering, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, California, 91711-5990, USA
E-mail: little@hmc.edu

Darin Barney and Richard Hink
Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada E-mail: Richard.Hink@McGill.CA

Abstract:
Nearly every code of professional ethics used in engineering begins with an affirmation of the engineer’s obligation to hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of professional duties. Most of the seal so either explicitly or implicitly acknowledge that the achievement of these high standards depends on the judgments made by practitioners in designing structures, devices, systems and technologies. To date, almost all of the interpretation and analysis of this first canon has focused on situations in which an ethical failure will result in an immediate catastrophe such as a building’s collapse or loss of lives, that is, on the safety and health terms. Indeed, very little attention has been given to the `welfare of the public’ aspect of the code. While the meaning of this key phrase is often presented as self-evident, the current approach to the principle often relieves engineers of the responsibility to engage actively in articulating their design choices with the full substance of the ethical commitment it entails. Engineering ethics demands that, as part of their professional practice, they ask themselves (and others): what is the public welfare and how might my design choices either serve or undermine it? This paper asks what it would mean for engineers to live up to a demanding interpretation of this fundamental ethical commitment, and explores the contribution engineering education might make to enabling them to do so.

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