Ethics in Engineering Profession

Ethics Theory
September 6, 2017
quiz-September 23, 2017
September 24, 2017
  1. Engineering Ethics
  2. Microethics
    1. Personal Ethics
    2. Professional Ethics
  3. Code of Ethics
    1. Fundamental values
      1. Safety
      2. Health
      3. Welfare of the public
    2. Personal Values
  4. Ethical Issues
    1. Conflicts of Values
  5. Macro Ethics
  6. Role of professional societies
  7. Case Studies

1. Engineering Ethics

Engineering is an important and learned profession. Engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behaviour that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.

Thus ethics is not peripheral to, or an add-on to, engineering. It is integral to the practice of engineering, part of engineering problem solving. Safety and guarding against avoidable harm are built into engineering; they are the principles that underlie engineering codes and standards. 

Engineering ethics can be considered in three frames of reference—individual, professional, and social. 

Engineering ethics can be further divided into “microethics” , concerned with individuals and the internal relations of the engineering profession and “macroethics”, concerned with the collective, social responsibility of the engineering profession and societal decisions about technology.

2. Micro Ethics

Micro ethics can be at two levels – Individual and Professional. The individual ethics include honesty, integrity, fairness etc; where as professional ethics at micro level include adherence to safety, quality etc.

2.1 Personal Ethics

Includes personal qualities like decent, honest and truthful life, technical qualities and responsibility. Other than these personal qualities, professional specific individual values are, 

Technical ethics

  • covers the technical decisions and judgments made by engineers
  • microlevel analysis of individual technologies or practitioners
  • examples are – respect of intellectual property rights, computer ethics (not helping the hackers)

Ethical responsibility

  • making wise choices when such choices suddenly, unexpectedly present themselves
  • a willingness to engage others in the crucial choices
  • making choices on issues that confront technological society and how intelligently to confront them

2.2 Professional Ethics

The moral responsibility of engineers arise from special knowledge possessed by an individual in the profession

The Professional ethics

  • covers professional relationships between engineers and other individuals who are their managers, clients, colleagues and employers
  • the role of engineers in industry and other organizations, professional engineering societies, and responsibilities of the profession
  • example
    • Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice as recommended by the ACM/IEEE-CS says not to knowingly use software that is obtained or retained either illegally or unethically.

Usually the professional and personal responsibility is represented in a code of ethics which are covered under professional competencies in that organization.

3. Codes of Ethics

Codes of ethics vary from one professional society to another, but they typically share common features in prescribing the responsibilities of engineers to the public, their employers and clients, and their fellow engineers. All modern codes state that the most significant responsibility of engineers is to protect the public health, safety and welfare. Codes often also emphasise such characteristics as competence, trustworthiness, honesty and fairness.

What does the code of ethics say?

  • The code Express the rights, duties and obligations of members of the profession
  • They restate existing standards of responsible engineering practice „
  • Create an environment within the profession where ethical behaviour is the norm „
  • They are not legally binding – an engineer cannot be arrested for violating an ethical code, but may be expelled from or censured by the engineering society

For example,

  1. The IEEE Code of Ethics, implemented in 1990, pledges its members “to accept responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment.” It also commit its members “to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics
  2. NSPE Code of Ethics (The National Society of Professional Engineers is an American professional association representing licensed professional engineers) says
  • Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
  • Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  • Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  • Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  • Avoid deceptive acts.
  • Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

3.1 The Fundamental Values

As most of the codes of ethics say, the values of safety, health and welfare of the public are paramount to an engineer. These values are discussed below.

3.1.1 Safety

One of the main duties of an engineer is to ensure the safety of the people who will be affected by the products that he or she designs. The code of ethics of the professional engineering societies make it clear that safety is of paramount importance to the engineer.

The Bhopal disaster, the gas leak incident in India, is considered as the world’s worst industrial disaster ever known to mankind. It is proven that the responsibility for safety, risk assessment and ethical codes was an absent criterion in the UCIL plant.  Important lessons learnt from Bhopal incident would be that in professional ethics, responsibility for safety and risk assessment are the most important aspects that should be practiced in every establishment.

What is safety?

Safety means freedom from damage, injury, or risk . Risk is the possibility of suffering harm or loss.

Responsibility of Engineers

  • Safety should be an integral part of any engineering design
  • No duty of the engineer is more important than her duty to protect the safety and well-being of the public 
  • Risk is a key element in any engineering design which has to be minimised to the maximum possible extent
How to ensure safety?
  • The engineering design must comply with the applicable laws
  • Design must meet the standards of accepted engineering practice
  • Any design alternatives that are potentially safer must be explored
  • Risk-Benefit analysis should be done to analyze risk and to determine weather a project should proceed
  • The engineer must be aware of potential product misuses by the users and the design should be to avoid these misuses
  • Once the product is designed, both prototypes and devices should be tested
Different types of accidents or risks are
  1. Procedural Accidents „
    • Most common „
    • Often caused by bad choice, or failure to follow regulations or established procedures „
  2. Engineered Accidents „
    • Caused by flaws in the design of a product or system „
  3. Systemic Accidents „
    • Harder to understand and control „
    • Characteristic of complex technologies and systems „
  4. Voluntary risk
    • Involvement of people in risky actions knowing that these actions are unsafe 

3.1.2 Health

Public health is affected by many factors such as pollution, toxic elements, flawed design etc. So the engineers should

  • Follow the quality standards, for example, the level of radiation from a cell phone device
  • Minimise the emissions from industrial process
  • Minimise the use of toxic materials for end products
  • Adhere to the pollution standards for air, water, noise etc of the country
  • Shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimonies
  • Report to authority any potential risks

3.1.3 Public Welfare

If the standards for safety and health are met, it will add to the public welfare. Apart from those public welfare includes

  • Identify, define and address ethical, economic, cultural, legal and environmental issues related to work projects
  • Be objective in issues permits for engineering projects
  • Avoid illegal activities like hacking and cyber attacks etc
  • Ensure Quality of services and products
    • Quality control is a system of maintaining standards in manufactured products by testing a sample of the output against the specification.
    • The quality in public services like Indian Engineering Services is expressed through the citizen’s charter

What is a citizen’s charter?

  • Citizen’s Charter is a document which represents the commitment of the Organisation towards its Citizens in respects of Standard of Services, Information, Grievance Redress etc.
  • It is a tool for facilitating the delivery of services to citizens with specified standards, quality and time frame etc.
  • A good Citizen’s Charter should have the following components :-
    • Vision and Mission Statement of the Organisation
    • Details of Business transacted by the Organisation
    • Details of ‘Citizens’ or ‘Clients’
    • Statement of services including standards, quality, time frame etc. provided to each Citizen/ Client group separately and how/ where to get the services
    • Details of Grievance Redress Mechanism and how to access it
    • Expectations from the ‘Citizens’ or ‘Clients’
    • Additional commitments such as compensation in the event of failure of service delivery.

3.2 Personal Values

The codes of ethics also mention the personal values that an engineer should have. They are

  • Integrity and honesty (refer previous article for more clarity)
  • Impartiality, fairness, and equity
    • Impartiality is a principle of justice holding that decisions should be based on objective criteria, rather than on the basis of bias, prejudice, or preferring the benefit to one person over another for improper reasons.
    • Fairness is defined as the quality of having an unbiased disposition
    • Equity is the quality of being fair and impartial
  • Trustworthiness
  • Confidentiality – of certain information belonging to their employer or client
  • Privacy – important in cyberspace because of the number of personal records are stored on and transferred among computers, where the engineers have access and control
  • Ethics in Research and Experimentation „ 
  • Conduct oneself honourably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully

The professional qualities that the code of ethics mandates are

  • Competence – the ability to do something successfully or efficiently
  • Provide service in their areas of competence only, being honest and forthright about any limitations of their experience and education
  • Strive for high quality, acceptable cost and a reasonable schedule
  • Accept full responsibility for their own work
  • Disclose to appropriate persons or authorities any actual or potential danger
  • Cooperate in efforts to address matters of grave public concern etc
  • Shall strive for professional development 

What is competence?

Is the essential knowledge, skills, and abilities without which an individual is not a qualified practitioner. It is an ability to do something, especially measured against a standard.

The four professional development core competency areas are:

1. Communication Literacy

2. Personal and Professional Management

3. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

4. Technical Literacy

The personal competence includes: Self-Awareness, Emotional competence, Accurate self-assessment, Self-confidence and Self Management.

4. Ethical Issues

The common ethical issues or dilemmas faced by engineers „ are, 

  • Public Safety „
    • The engineer has an obligation to the employer but also to protect the society. Some times he or she may be forced to neglect the safety checks to meet with the production targets.
    • Ex- Galaxy Note 7 launched to be in direct competition with the iPhone 7 and Pixel. However, batteries started exploding and devices caught fire while charging.
  • Corruption, Bribery and Fraud – Corruption is dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power

    • An engineer may be bribed to give permit to a potentially harmful project

    • Ex – giving permissions for real estate in environmentally sensitive areas and for constructions not following the design standards

  • Environmental Protection 
    • Generally the engineering goals and environmental goals are conflicting
    • Engineers today are grappling with the ethical dilemmas posed by the conflicts between the economic and environmental requirements of their work
    • Ex – Power generation using fossil fuels
  • Fairness „
    • An engineer’s decisions will have an impact on a variety of different groups of people.
    • As a professional an engineers has a duty to treat all of these people fairly.
    • It is sometimes difficult to identify exactly who will be affected by a particular decision, and what their interests are
  • Honesty in Research and Testing „
    • Ex- Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal – the company rigged the air pollution tests
  • Conflict of Values and Conflict of Interest
    • There exists conflicts between the professional values of engineering and business values (discussed in the next section)
    • Conflict of Interest(CoI) is often a common issues faced by many people in their profession where one’s professional interests comes in conflict with personal interests.
    • Conflict of Interest will undermine the concept of fairness (refer previous article for more clarity)
  • Whistle blowing
    • Whistleblowing has drawn so much attention in engineering
    • The technical knowledge and organisational positions of engineers enable them to detect serious moral problems that affect the public welfare
    • Sometimes they cannot bring appropriate attention to serious problems they detect unless they can convince others to react
    • Whistleblowing so naturally comes up as an option for engineers
    • But it is recommend as a last resort
    • So the skills of persuading, negotiating, and allying with colleagues that support other options is important

4.1 Conflict of Values

As a result of the concurrent development of engineering as a profession and technology-driven corporations, there exists conflicts between the professional values of engineering and business values of corporations.

  • The professionals value autonomy, collegial control, and social responsibility, while businesses emphasize loyalty, conformity, and the overarching goal of improving the bottom line.
  • This tension is exacerbated when the career paths of engineers lead to management positions.
  • In the past conflict between self-interest and public interest was seldom a problem for engineers, since engineering works were almost synonymous with human progress.
  • Today environmental issues have created a divergence between self-interest, employer interest, professional interest and public interest.
  • Thus engineers today are grappling with the ethical dilemmas posed by everyday conflicts between the economic and environmental requirements of their work.

5. Macro Ethics

Macroethics looks at bigger picture issues such as sustainability, poverty, social justice, and bioethics which need to be addressed by the engineering profession (and society) as a whole. Macroethics is also generally not captured by professional codes of conduct. Macro ethics covers certain professional and social ethics as follows:

Professional Ethics

  • Is concerned with the collective, social responsibility of the engineering profession
  • Collective action can even transcend international boundaries.
  • Macroethical issues affect all members of the profession
  • Ex- Ethical implications such as risk and product liability

Social ethics

  • Concerns with technology policy decisions at the societal level
  • Involves macro level analysis of technology as a whole
  • Examples
    • Ethical implications of public policy issues, sustainable development, healthcare, and information and communication technology
    • Ethical issues generated by new developments such as nano science and nanotechnology 
    • Ethical issues associated with robotics and autonomous systems
    • Cyber weapons

6. Role of Professional Bodies

The role of professional engineering societies has been limited largely to developing codes of ethics. Professional societies, however, could potentially serve as a conduit to bring together the entire continuum of ethical frameworks by linking individual and professional ethics and linking professional and social ethics. In the domain of macroethics, professional societies can provide a link between the social responsibilities of the profession and societal decisions about technology by issuing position statements on public policy issues, such as sustainable development

For example, the engineering community reacted to Agenda 21 by establishing the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development (WEPSD) in 1992. Recently, some engineering societies have included the social objective in the role of engineering in the realization of sustainable development.

The leaders of professional societies can be agents of change in the engineering culture.

6. Case Studies

Try to find solutions for the following case studies.

Case Study 1 – Conflict of Values

A Quality Assurance Engineer at a large electronics company responsible for the final testing of her company’s servers. Because there is such a short amount of time between the release of each next new product, the Quality and Assurance department cannot perform every possible test on the servers to ensure they are defect free. The engineer decided that she will ship a product that has a likelihood of failure resulting in data loss for the customer, because she knows that if she doesn’t, her company’s competitor will.

  • Is this an ethical way to conduct business?

Case Study 2 – Privacy and Confidentiality

A commercial network operator collects personal information and sells it to companies for telemarketers without informed consent.

  • Are such practices permitted?
  • If users have granted permission for redistribution, can he do so ?
  • How is this situation similar to and/or different from supermarkets that track customer purchases and preferences through various means?

Case Study 3 – Miscommunication

The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

While reentering Earth’s atmosphere the shuttle unexpectedly disintegrated, resulting in the death of all seven astronauts on board. The cause was later discovered to be damage to thermal shielding tiles from impact with a falling piece of foam insulation of an external tank during launch. It was the seventh known instance of this particular piece breaking free during launch. NASA’s investigation team found melted aluminium on the thermal tiles and inside edges of the left wing of the spacecraft, supporting the notion that the Columbia’s destruction was due to hot gases that penetrated the damaged spot on the wing. Mission control deemed that foam shedding was a not a safety factor prior to launch, believed damage of the shuttle panels were not a significant issue . It was not until January 24, 2003, that mission control had classified the damage as a problematic issue. These missteps in communication between mission control and the debris assessment team inhibited a proper examination of the damages to the spacecraft.

  • Is good communication a part of professional ethics?

Case Study 4 – Responsibility

The Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express derailed with 14 coaches of the train jumped off the track. Derailment could have been caused by the ongoing repair work on the rail line; station master insists he was not informed about any maintenance.

  • Is officer’s responsibility to ensure safety, is a part of work ethics?

Case Study 5 – Macro ethics

The making of atom bomb

During II world war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a crash program to develop an atomic bomb. In May 1942 J. Robert Oppenheimer Oppenheimer was invited to take over work on fast neutron calculations, a task that Oppenheimer threw himself into with full vigor. This resulted in the first ever atom bomb explosion. After the war, Oppenheimer lobbied for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

  • Will you justify the work of J. Robert Oppenheimer ?

Case Study 6 – Design failure

1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

At the time the world’s third-longest suspension bridge, crossed a strait of Puget Sound near Tacoma, Wash. A few months after its opening, high winds caused the bridge to fail in a roar of twisted metal and shattered concrete.

  • The accident here is an example of?

Case Study 7 – Risk Assesment

Following a major earthquake, a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident on 11 March 2011. All three cores largely melted in the first three days.

  • Is this accident a failure of engineering ethics?

Case Study 8 (UPSC 2013) – Conflict of Values

You are working as an Executive Engineer in the construction cell of a Municipal Corporation and are presently in-charge of the construction of a flyover. There are two Junior Engineers under you who have the responsibility of day-to-day inspection of the site and are reporting to you, while you are finally reporting to the Chief Engineer who heads the cell. While the construction is heading towards completion, the Junior Engineers have been regularly reporting that all construction is taking place as per design specifications. However, in one of your surprise inspections, you have noticed some serious deviations and lacunae which, in your opinion, are likely to affect the safety of the flyover. Rectification of these lacunae at this stage would require a substantial amount of demolition and rework which will cause a tangible loss to the contractor and will also delay completion. There is a lot of public pressure on the Corporation to get this construction completed because of heavy traffic congestion in the area. When you brought this matter to the notice of the Chief Engineer, he advised you that in his opinion it is not a very serious lapse and may be ignored. He advised for further expediting the project for completion in time. However, you are convinced that this was a serious matter which might affect public safety and should not be left unaddressed.
What will you do in such a situation? Some of the options are given below. Evaluate the merits and demerits of each of these options and finally suggest what course of action you would like to take, giving reasons. 

  1. Follow the advice of the Chief Engineer and go ahead.
  2. Make an exhaustive report of the situation bringing out all facts and analysis along with your own viewpoints stated clearly and seek for written orders from the chief Engineer.
  3. Call for explanation from the Junior Engineers and issue orders to the contractor for necessary correction within targeted time.
  4. Highlight the issue so that it reaches superiors above the Chief Engineer.
  5. Considering the rigid attitude of the Chief Engineer, seek transfer from the project or report sick.

Case Study 9 (UPSC 2013) – Conflict of Interest

You are heading a leading technical institute of the country. The institute is planning to convene an interview panel shortly under your chairmanship for selection of the post of professors. A few days before the interview, you get a call from the Personal Secretary (PS) of a senior government functionary seeking your intervention in favour of the selection of a close relative of the functionary for this post. The PS also informs you that he is aware of the long pending and urgent proposals of your institute for grant of funds for modernisation, which are awaiting the functionary’s approval. He assures you that he would get these proposals cleared.

  1. What are the options available to you?
  2. Evaluate each of these options and choose the option which you would adopt, giving reasons

Case Study 10 (UPSC 2016) – Whistle Blowing

A fresh engineering graduate gets a job in a prestigious chemical industry. She likes the work. The salary is also good. However, after a few months accidentally discovers that a highly toxic waste is being secretly discharged into a river nearby. This is causing health problems to the villagers downstream who depend on the river for their water needs. She is perturbed and mentions her concern to her colleagues who have been with the company for longer periods. They advise her to keep quite as anyone who mentions the topic is summarily dismissed. She cannot risk losing her job as she is the sole bread-winner for her family and has to support her ailing parents and siblings.
At first, she thinks that if her seniors are keeping quiet, why should she stick out her neck. But her conscience pricks her to do something to save the river and the people who depend upon it. At heart she feels that the advice of silence given by her friends is not correct though she cannot give reasons for it. She thinks you are a wise person and seeks your advice.

  1. What arguments can you advance to show her that keeping quiet is not morally right?
  2. What course of action would you advise her to adopt and why?

Case Study 11 – Macro ethics

Elon Musk recently commented on Twitter that artificial intelligence (AI) is more dangerous than North Korea. It’s not the first time that the entrepreneur has warned about the dangers of AI.

  • Should we all be afraid as he is?
  • Will AI lead to a huge disaster or robot takeover that destroys humanity?


  1. SHANKAR KUMAR says:

    sir please tell this is the whole ethics syllabus or any extra thing to read

  2. NAGA says:

    When will you upload topics related to quality and safety?

  3. shankar says:

    Hi Sir,

    I am following your course, Thank you so much. Could you please include the quiz section for this ethics and values subject.
    Because I try to solve the problems in some other test series by having this content, I could not able to do those questions.

    I am not sure, whether they follow the exact requirement of UPSC ESE questions. They had given lot of syllabus to cover this ethics.
    I feel that, you had given the exact content required for UPSC ESE.

    If possible, it is better to include the previous ESE questions in each topic and some more quiz for practice.

    Thank you so much.

  4. dineshbabu says:

    hello sir,

    could you please explain the (Case Study 8 (UPSC 2013) – Conflict of Values), from your point of view at the position of executive engineer/incharge?


    • IES GS says:

      1. Follow the advice of the Chief Engineer and go ahead – Not recommended. Executive engineer has duty to take care of public safety.
      2. Make an exhaustive report of the situation bringing out all facts and analysis along with your own viewpoints stated clearly and seek for written orders from the chief Engineer. – Can be the second action. Better to try to solve the issue at your level at first.
      3. Call for explanation from the Junior Engineers and issue orders to the contractor for necessary correction within targeted time. – This is an action that executive engineer can do in his/her position. Recommended.
      4. Highlight the issue so that it reaches superiors above the Chief Engineer. – Recommended only if the issue is not solved at executive engineer and chief engineer levels. Not recommended as first action.
      5. Considering the rigid attitude of the Chief Engineer, seek transfer from the project or report sick. – Not recommended.

  5. mehak ar says:

    case study 9 please
    to find the second disposal and explain the causes and about the second disposal in file and send it confidentially to higher authorities.
    what could be according to you sir.

  6. Sujay guchhait says:

    Is this enough for Ese???

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