Professional codes of conduct are not just a few rules
Engineers, just like other professional organizations, have codes of conduct. But operating in an ethical way involves more than simply adhering to the rules.
“If one considers the disaster caused by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, one can only conclude that all the parties involved did abide by the rules, from the engineers who designed and maintained the collapsing dikes to the disaster prevention organization”, says Dr. David Koepsell. “Yet the disaster occurred and was dealt with in a bad way. That was because the rules prevented people from properly reading the signs.”
In fact many ethical problem do come to light because of people sticking rigidly to the rules when in reality the relevant circumstances have changed so much that the rules are no longer applicable. Sometimes rules can even form a barrier to dealing in an ethical way when they prevent people from adjusting their behaviour or when they conflict with other rules.
A famous instance in this connection is the accident that occurred with the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 when the whole crew was lost soon after take off because the spaceship completely disintegrated. The cause turned out to be the shutoff ring that closed off the fuel tank and was not able to withstand the low temperatures to which it was exposed just before take off. Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who worked for the fuel tank manufacturer, had drawn people’s attention to the potential problem beforehand. An internal meeting had been convened to discuss the matter but eventually the engineer’s concerns had been brushed aside, partly due to commercial pressure. He was not allowed to broadcast the issue. When, after the accident, he did finally do that his colleagues gave him the cold shoulder. In the end he handed in his resignation.
The case of Boisjoly is often cited in discussions on whistle-blowers. If Boisjoly had flouted the rules sooner and had gone directly to the American space agency organization, NASA then the launch would probably have been delayed. It sometimes demands a great deal of courage to take ethical action.
As Koepsell says: “There is a tendency for courses on ethics designed for engineers to remain somewhat superficial, the emphasis often being on the legal aspects. The main question then is: how do you keep your hands clean? Behaving in a truly ethical way invariably demands considerable reflection. It is not so much the case that engineers have to become conversant with the laws as with the philosophy underlying the various laws. In that way they are able to think the problem through further if the rules prove inadequate.”
It is from that angle that Koepsell determines how ethical codes of conduct can be drawn up in such a way that they permanently stimulate people to reflect on matters. On the whole, it tends to be simple rules-of-thumb or religious knee-jerk reactions that dictate to people what is correct. In essence there is nothing wrong with that but being philosophically aware gives engineers a more solid basis on which to found their arguments and base their decisions.