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Understanding Engineering Professionalism:

A Reection on the Rights of Engineers
James A. Stieb
Received: 9 August 2009 / Accepted: 1 September 2009 / Published online: 10 October 2009
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
Abstract Engineering societies such as the National Society of Professional Engineers
(NSPE) and associated entities have dened engineering and professionalismin such a
way as to require the benet of humanity (NSPE 2009a, Engineering Education
Resource Document. NSPE Position Statements. Governmental Relations). This
requirement has been an unnecessary and unfortunate add-on. The trend of the
profession to favor the idea of requiring the benet of humanity for professionalism
violates an engineers rights. It applies political pressure that dissuades from inquiry,
approaches to newknowledge and technologies, and the presentation, publication, and
use of designs and research ndings. Moreover, a more politically neutral denition of
engineering and/or professionalism devoid of required service or benet to mankind
does not violate adherence to strong ethical standards.
Keywords Altruism Codes of ethics NSPE Professionalism Rights
By most accounts, William LeMessurier is a professional. LeMessurier built the
Citicorp tower at 53rd and Lexington that stands over a church, braces on its sides to
keep the building from falling over. An apocryphal story is told how a student in one
of LeMessuriers classes asked whether the buildings unique construction could
withstand quartering winds (winds coming at an angle in addition to those coming
J. A. Stieb (&)
Department of English and Philosophy, Drexel University, MacAlister Hall, Room 5055,
Philadelphia, PA, USA
e-mail: stiebja@drexel.edu
J. A. Stieb
College of Arts and Sciences, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
1 3
Sci Eng Ethics (2011) 17:149169
DOI 10.1007/s11948-009-9166-x
directly) (Schinzinger and Martin 1996, p. 388). Sources at MIT have the story from
LeMessurier himself. Apparently, unknown to LeMessurier, the Citicorp contractors
in New York decided, based on the cost of welding, to put the braces together
using less expensive bolted joints (Whitbeck 2006). The change from welds to
bolts saved money and met all of the requirements of a building code that only
considered perpendicular winds. A potential contractor for a job in Pittsburgh
pointed the substitution of bolts for welds out to LeMessurier, who, after verifying a
potential danger to the public safety health and welfare, spent his own time and
money to weld the bolts. Working at night while the buildings tenants were away,
LeMessuriers team pulled up the walls and oor, exposing each bolt so that it could
be deep welded. They placed a wooden housing over each exposed bolt during the
day to prevent the tenants from suspecting anything was awry (Whitbeck 2006).
LeMessuriers story is surely one of professionalism. But, it is far from the perfect
hypothetical or textbook case. LeMessuriers inability to make sure the New York
contractors built the tower as designed and his subterfuge in hiding repair work mar an
unequivocal label of professional behavior. Critics can plausibly nd fault with any
engineer and LeMessuriers faults are as glaring as is his professionalism.
No doubt LeMessurier followed the rst fundamental canon of the National
Society of Professional Engineers (NSPEs) Code of Ethics (NSPE 2009b). He held
paramount the public health safety and welfare by making sure his designs were
implemented correctly even when he had to exceed specied building code.
LeMessuriers case even shows a specic moral obligation to go beyond specied
building code when following those codes (a) compromises public health, safety,
and welfare and/or when following them (b) compromises the personal quality and
integrity of ones work. What it does not show is a general moral requirement to
benet humanity. It does not show that beneting humanity is a requirement for
being a professional and doing professional work. No case does.
Arguably, the Citicorp tower and LeMessuriers actions can be construed to benet
humanity. Most any action or thing can. It can be argued that nuclear weapons,
television sets, pornography and fried chicken all benet humanity and that their
creators are all professionals. Simultaneously, it can be argued that these do not benet
humanity and that whether they do is irrelevant to the professionalismof their creators.
What benets humanity is really a subject of philosophical and political debate. The
results of these ongoing debates carry a high degree of subjectivity, personality, and
circumstance. They cannot be put into public documents such as those dening
engineering or codifying professionalism or ethics without in effect becoming an
exercise in arbitrary power (Ladd 1991, p. 132).
Still, the link between a profession and the perceived need to have something
written down remains strong. Most authorities think that a profession must have at
least a code of ethics (Firmage 1991; Greenwood 1991) if only to allow for self-
policing and the autonomy of the profession. Pride in professional knowledge was
fundamental to such thinking. An ASCE president based his hope for an increase in
the status of the engineer on the fact that the secrets of power were in his keeping
(Layton 1971, p. 61). More positively, codes and like documents are thought to
improve morality and the standing of the profession, look good to the public,
inspire, and improve transparency. A morally neutral core fails to address the
150 J. A. Stieb
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ethical obligations and responsibilities that make engineering a profession.
Theseare typically incorporated in codes of ethics (Moriarty 2008, p. 27). For
example, Charles Harris distinguishes between preventative ethics and aspirational
ethics (Harris 2008, pp. 154155). He notes that 80% of the NSPE code is negative
and prohibitive in character (Harris 2008, p. 154). Surely, there is a need for an
ethics that is aspirational in character, writes Harris: Professional ethics includes
more than the prevention of disasters and professional misconduct. It also includes
what can be called aspirational ethics, namely the use of professional knowledge
to promote the human good (Harris 2008, p. 154).
There is no attempt here to besmirch the character of engineers. These documents
no doubt result fromthe efforts of well-meaning and conscientious persons. But, as far
as transparency, one must admit that they are hardly as precise or as transparent as even
most countries legal systems. Stenographers record legal decisions such as those
issued by the United States Supreme Court for all to see. Much of the deliberations are
recorded even televised. In contrast, it seldom seems possible for the layman or
average engineer to discover who wrote or amends the engineering codes of ethics
or most other society documents. The NSPE web site mentions a board of directors
and lists a history of code changes (NSPE 2009c). However, it is just that: a history
with no argument. It is not intended to express current NSPEpositions or positions on
matters of professional ethics (NSPE 2009c). The NSPE site also lists members of a
Board of Ethical Reviewwho apparently interpret and apply the code of ethics (NSPE
2009d). However, it is not clear that any of these seven engineering ethics experts
(NSPE 2009d) have anything to do with writing or amending them. Would the actual
authors not want their effort and arguments to be recognized? Curiously, since their
inception it has been considered bad form to publicize the inner workings of
engineering societies (Layton 1971). We do not want to draw upon ourselves the
charge of washing the societys soiled linen in public (Cooke 1921).
Secondly, when it comes to improving the ethics of engineers, jurisdictional
questions arise. Who exactly do the codes and other documents cover? Which
engineers? The engineer title is not legally protected most anywhere,
nor does it
require a license. U.S. citizens may take the Engineer in Training(EIT) or Fundamentals
of Engineering (FE) exam as early as their senior year in college to become a PE or
professional engineer. This is, in some ways, a coveted title. The professional
engineer title separates engineers from the rank and le and gives them among other
things the rights andresponsibilities of sealingdrawingsthat is, literallythe right toput
their rubber stamp on designs they deemacceptable. However, persons who are not U.S.
citizens may also take the exam (NSPE 2009e) through any U.S. state. States such as
California require neither U.S. citizenship nor California residency (California Board
for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors 2009). Despite the word national in
the National Society of Professional Engineers, the NSPE code and related standards,
press releases, and other documents apply to engineers from Seattle to Calcutta, to
persons of all sorts of races, political views, and creeds.
The title engineer is protected in Quebec. I am grateful to a reviewer for Science and Engineering
Ethics for pointing this out. See Professional Code. Govt. of Quebec. http://www2.publicationsduquebec.
gouv.qc.ca/dynamicSearch/telecharge.php?type=2&le=%2F%2FC_26%2FC26_A.htm. Accessed 17
August 2009.
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 151
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Many countries do on occasion develop their own engineering societies or
collectives. Yet U.S. engineering societies and their documents still set the standard
in most Western nations (Lozano 2006).
So then, with potentially many different types of people explicitly or implicitly
covered by these documents, questions of justication become more prominent:
What were the authors thinking? Why did the NSPE code of ethics prohibit
engineers from striking in 1965 only to reverse the decision in 2001? Did it have to
do with a Boeing strike? (Werhane et al. 2002) No one seems to know.
The NSPE code used to read Engineers shall not actively participate in strikes,
picket lines, or other collective coercive actions (NSPE1987, p. 101). Now, apparently,
striking is ethical or at least not unethical. Other acts remain dubious. The code does not
prohibit the creation of genetically engineered foods, or human cloning. It might be nice
to avoid debating such thorny issues in public. Yet, absent public debate, such
documents become written by unnamed persons and declared authoritative everywhere,
the names and deliberative processes lost to all but a specialized few.
Hence, there is ample reason to believe that codifying professionalism is
dangerous. Codifying (that is hiding and mandating) the arguments behind ethical
evaluations such as professional or unprofessional makes it easier to call
Robert Oppenheimer professional when politically expedient to creating the atom
bomb, and communist or unprofessional when conscientious objector to the
hydrogen bomb (Anonymous 1998). It throws suspicion on whistleblowers such as
Robert Boisjoly (of the Challenger space-shuttle case) who one might argue did not
3Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner or 4act
for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees (NSPE 2009b).
No doubt a certain lack of transparency, clarity, and accountability may be
inevitable in any document regulating human behavior. Ethical quandaries cannot
be easily resolved. Nor are engineers always the best writers and debaters. However,
the hush prevalent among the professions authorities seems unnecessary. Also,
something clear and denite can be done to improve the general understanding of
the profession: the requirement to benet humanity in its documents can be
removed. The NSPE code itself does not require the benet of humanity but the
Association of Computing for Computing Machinery (ACM) code (ACM 1992)
does. As will become apparent, at least some important NSPE documents and most
of the literature on professionalism does require the benet of humanity and this is
what should be removed or amended.
As if the troubles with writing specic, morally binding codes were not bad
enough, most everyone who writes or speaks on professionalism insists on adding
on the rather loose and contentious, benet of humanity as a requirement for
professionalism in their documents. Some make it a criterion for professionalism
(Layton 1971, pp. 6162; Moriarty 2008, p. 39; Davis 1998, pp. 15, 205; Selvan
2004), The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) even makes the
benet of humanity part of its very denition of engineering: knowledge of the
mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience, and practice to
develop ways to economically utilize the materials and forces of nature for the
benet of humankind (NSPE 2009a, emphasis mine).
152 J. A. Stieb
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This sentiment has a long history. This specic denition has been used verbatim
by the American Board of Education and Training (ABET) (Davis 1998, p. 205),
and the idea in some form may go as far back as the development of civil
engineering in the nineteenth century.
No matter. The requirement to benet
humanity has to end. It is argued here that the NSPEs denition and much of the
general trend of the profession to favor the idea of requiring the benet of humanity
for engineering or for professionalism violates common notions of an engineers
rights. The requirement to benet humanity applies political pressure that dissuades
from scientic inquiry, approaches to new knowledge and technologies, and the
presentation, publication, and use of results or research ndings. Meanwhile, a
denition of engineering and professionalism that does not include service or benet
to mankind does not violate adherence to strong ethical standards. Giving up
benetting humanity does not require giving up ethics or the rational engineering
ideal (Davis 1997, pp. 411413) central to dening a profession.
In essence, Charles Harris is correct that professional ethics includes more than
the prevention of disasters and professional misconduct (2008, p. 154). It does
include aspirational ethics. The mistake lies in thinking that promotion of human
good is the only thing to which it is worth aspiring. Serving others is not the only thing
worthy of aspiration (or at least there is no argument that it is). As a virtue ethicist,
Harris is aware that one should aspire to competence, integrity, honesty, diligence,
prudence, economy, and many other virtues. The engineer can and should aspire to
much more than the positive promotion of human good (Harris 2008, p. 154).
Dening Engineering as a Kind of Altruism
Numerous articles describing, extolling and attempting to explain professionalism
span the journals and textbooks of sociology, management theory, science,
engineering, and philosophy to name a few elds. A search of the Philosophers
Index database alone receives 371 hits. Indeed, professionalism remains a central
topic in many professional ethics courses including science and engineering ethics,
computer ethics, business ethics, and many others. No doubt professionalism is
important. It may even be, pedagogically speaking, the way that ethics enters into
the professions, in an age when words like good and hero seem so passe.
Yet few are able to say why professionalism is so important. Some argue about
whether brick-layers or basketball players should be called professionals. Others
The 1828 denition of engineering, given by Thomas Tredgold a member of the British Institution of
Civil Engineers (Davis 1998, p. 15), speaks of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use
and convenience of man. A 1961 denition changes this to Civil engineering is the profession in which
a knowledge of the mathematical and physical sciences gained by study, experience, and practice is
applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the
progressive well-being of humanity. See History and heritage of civil engineering. American Society
of Civil Engineers. http://live.asce.org/hh/index.mxml?versionChecked=true. Accessed 19 August 2009.
The earliest reference I have been able to nd for the current denition (1979) changes well-being of
humanity to for the benet of mankind. No doubt this was later changed to for the benet of
humankind to avoid sexist language. See Famous engineering quotes. Ofce of Recruitment and
Retention. University of South Florida. http://rnr.eng.usf.edu/. Accessed 19 August 2009.
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 153
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put a positive spin on professionalism arguing that the dubious accolade returns
more compensation and social status for more responsibility (Layton 1971, p. 6;
Greenwood 1991, pp. 7071). Really approval does not matter as much as the
negative spin of disapproval. Quite simply, professionalism is important due to the
social costs of being labeled unprofessional. These can include ring, blackball-
ing, or other social and legal sanctions (Bok 2008, p. 129). Professionalism allows
society to keep tabs on its members who wield signicant power (Ladd 1991,
p. 132). Those with power in society are forced to be accountablethat is, to
give an account, or a lot of words, describing their actions and procedures.
Once again, engineering societies are charged with writing and applying
documents such as codes of ethics to supplement their more usual networking,
social and pedagogical functions. The generalized wording of these documents and
the corresponding lack of knowledge or interest in reading them among most every
engineer seem to show that they where written mainly to satisfy the public clamor
for accountability (Ladd 1991, p. 133). They do not effectively impress, entertain, or
make engineers more accountable or ethical. At best, they only rudely express
ethics: To try to solve [cases of genuine moral perplexity]through a code is like
trying to do surgery with a carving knife (Ladd 1991, p. 134).
More interesting at present is the position on ethics, however, bad or generalized,
that emerges from the response of engineering societies to public clamor. It appears
to be an ethics of altruismthat is, the theory that an action is morally right if the
consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except
the agent (Fieser 2006, emphasis Fiesers). The society could also intend to follow
utilitarianismthat is pursue for good conduct the greatest good of the greatest
number. They could believe in absolute moral rules to benet humanity (Kantian
deontology). However, all of these options are still generally altruistic in that they
place the good of two or more others ahead of the individuals. For example, no less
than the ECPD (later to become ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering
and Technology 2009) says that in order to be a professional an engineer must
satisfy an indispensable and benecial social need and render gratuitous public
service (Firmage 1991, pp. 6364).
To repeat, it may be wondered whether to do service or to benet humanity is the
same as ethical altruism. It may indeed be a form of utilitiarianism, a form of
Kantianism if benet humanity is taken to be an absolute rule, or even a form of
virtue ethics if beneting humanity is thought to be a virtue. Chesher and Machan
take the requirement that business (and by implication engineering)
is asked
repeatedly to redeem itself, to prove itself worthy by means of philanthropy or other
noncommercial good deeds as evidence of the widespread disdain of business in
our culture (Chesher and Machan 1999, p. viii). However, not much turns on
exactly what ethical theory benetting humanity falls under, since traditional
arguments asserting the weakness of altruism, utilitiarianism, Kantianism and virtue
ethics are not employed here. Instead, this paper argues that the requirement that
Chesher and Machan write that business is the only profession that is asked to repeatedly redeem
itself (viii). However, this is clearly not the case. Doctors, lawyers and engineers are frequently judged
on their ability to benet humanity.
154 J. A. Stieb
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one must benet humanity in order to be a professional violates an engineers
rightshence, violates rights theory as espoused by John Locke and others. Hence,
rights theory, it is argued, can also be an alternative school or system of ethics that
can guide professionals.
There are many examples of the ethical theory under question. However, it seems
useful to look rst at the work of Gene Moriarty, a professor of Electrical
Engineering at San Jose State University and a professor of Engineering Ethics.
Moriarty has recently compiled a novel and impressively broad set of thoughts on
what he calls focal engineering into a book titled The Engineering Project; Its
Nature, Ethics and Promise (2008) (Moriarty 2008). Moriarty seeks among other
things to dene what it means for an engineer to be a professional or for engineering
to be a profession. He divides his text into three parts. The rst, the modern
engineering enterprise includes process, process ethics, and the colonization
of the lifeworld by systems (Moriarty 2008, p. 9). The second section, premodern
engineering (Moriarty does not proceed chronologically) emphasizes the person
of the engineer and virtue ethics, and explores the idea [opposed to colonization]
of contextualization (Moriarty 2008, p. 10). The third section looks forward to
the focal engineering venture, with emphasis on product and material ethics, which
apparently strikes some sort of balance between the forces of colonization and those
of contextualization. In essence, Moriarty recognizes how economic values of
efciency and productivity tend to prey on engineers and he seeks to bring to the
profession the more humane and currently popular values of social justice,
environmental sustainability, and the public health, safety and welfare (Moriarty
2008, pp. 10, 5473). The result is focal engineering.
However, if the question is how to instill the proper proportion of values into
engineering, then Moriarty and the profession in general beg this question at the
outset with an unequivocal list of proper values. A true and complete list of values is
easy to nd, some say, since Ethics is ethics. If you desire to be ethical, you live by
one [obvious] standard across the board (Veach 2006, p. 97). Moriartys list
includes public safety, social justice and environmental sustainability (Moriarty
2008, pp. 5471). But, are these the right values? Are they even values? Why? They
look good on paper, but actually they are rather complicated. How much safety is
public safety? What privileges should be given up by whom in order to foster social
justice? Who should be allowed to pollute (since no perfectly sustainable process
has yet been discovered)?
Moriarty high-mindedly instills these on the rst page of his book with the very
denition of engineering. Engineering, says Moriarty: is the practice of making
good on the promise of technology (Moriarty 2008, p. 1, emphasis mine).
Why should technology be promising? What technology? What does it promise?
Technology, strictly speaking, does not promise anything: only human beings make
promises. Engineers simply design and buildor, so says Merriam Websters
dictionary which denes engineering as the application of science and mathemat-
ics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made
useful to people. Moriarty 2008, Firmage 1991, Manion 2001, and others disagree.
They argue that an engineer needs to do more than just design and build. In fact,
they should hold themselves to standards that exceed what the law, the market, and
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 155
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ordinary morality might demand (Moriarty 2008, p. 39; Davis 1997, p. 417). The
public must be assured that the professional will always act with a strong sense of
responsibility toward the public good and a strong commitment to advance the
public interest (Manion 2001, p. 169). They must satisfy an indispensable and
benecial social need and have a service motive, sharing their advances in
knowledge, guarding their professional integrity and ideals, and rendering
gratuitous public service in addition to that engaged by clients (Firmage 1991,
pp. 6364).
Apparently, authors miss the false dilemma implied or explicit in arguments for
such service motives. They only specify two options (my way or the highway)
when there are other alternatives. It is thought that either an engineer simply designs
and builds as Merriam Websters dictionary states in its denition of engineering or
one behaves ethically and professionally. Not both. Contrapositively, they conclude
that one cannot behave ethically and professionally by simply designing and
building. But, why not? Moriarty and fellow scholars argue that engineers have to at
least try to serve others, otherwise they are not professional and engineering is not a
profession. They take service to be a criteria of professionalism: A return to and
re-emphasis on the traditional professions primary goal of service to society would
go a considerable distance in redeeming professionalism as a virtue (Parkan 2008,
p. 81). The professional organizations ethic of public service, is grounded,
moreover, in an implicit social contract that exists between society and the
professions (Manion 2001, p. 169). Make a good product, put it into the world,
try to make a buck, help to keep the company solvent. But this hyperpragmatic
attitude belies the professionalism that is supposed to permeate the engineering
enterprise (Moriarty 2008, p. 61). All of this is really unnecessary, perhaps even
simply wrong.
To see why, it is necessary to reect a bit on the subject matter of ethics. Ethics is
the study of the theories of what is good or bad, right or wrong, in human conduct.
This denition derives from philosophy of which ethics has always been a branch.
Increasingly, authors argue, especially in professional ethics, for an account of
ethics that has little or nothing to do with philosophical theory. For example, O. C.
Ferrell writes in his Framework for Understanding Organizational Ethics (Ferrell
2009) about providing employees from diverse backgrounds . . . [with] a common
understanding of what is dened as ethical behavior [by society] through formal
training, thus creating an ethical organizational climate. One reviewer of this paper
writes of a functional account of professionalism:
Every profession seems to serve some social function. Medicine, for example,
serves the function (hopefully) of enhancing human health and physical well-
being. The function of the engineering profession must surely have something
to do with the creation of technology that benets humankind. If there is not
some benet to society, why would it reward and honor the engineering
This redening of ethics cannot be allowed, for it begs the very question at
stakenamely, is it ethical to have to serve or benet society/humanity? One
cannot dene the ethical as what serves humanity and then sensibly question
156 J. A. Stieb
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whether it is ethical or professional to have to serve humanity. This is to confuse
ethics with a particular theory, namely some form of ethical altruismor putting the
good of others ahead of ones own. The reviewer also begs the question of how and
whether the engineering profession should seek honor and reward from society. He
or she implies that society would not honor or reward engineers who did not
avowedly and publicly seek its good. One right of engineers is the right not to be
beholden to society for anything more than not harming it while following law and
scientic/mathematical standards. If society chooses to honor and reward engineers,
than it should do so based on the competence (i.e., professionality) of the engineer,
not on her purported service.
There is no special ethics [or standards] belonging to professionals (Ladd
1991, p. 131) or engineers. Every kind of human conduct is subject to evaluations
based on criteria that could be called Kantian (as in absolute rules given by the
categorical imperative and the respect for persons principle), Lockean as in
respecting inalienable rights such as those enshrined in the United States
Constitution (roughly the position taken by this paper), utilitarian as in pursuing
actions that create the greatest good for the greatest number, and so on. Moriarty
The philosophy of Immanuel Kant can provide a foundation for the realm of
universal ethical judgments, within which the idea of duty stemming from
pure reason is paramount. Consequentialism is another ethical theory that is at
home in the realm of universal ethical judgments. Utilitarianism is the most
familiar form of consequentialism (Moriarty 2008, p. 44).
One could and probably should add Daoist (roughly act with detachment from the
fruits of action), Confucian (uphold traditions and lial piety) and numerous
additional ethical views including the plethora of religious views so as not to be too
western in ones thinking. However, the point is clear that actions are only seen
as ethical after ethical evaluation according to some theory or other or combination
of them. Moreover, there are many theories of ethics. Sometimes they reach the
same conclusions sometimes they do not. The 1984 poison gas spill at a Union
Carbide plant in Bhopal India is universally condemned by every ethical theory
(attaching blame of course is another matter). Meanwhile, abortion seems to be
morally permissible on some theories (or arguments) and impermissible on others.
The list of issues and how they should be disposed are hotly debated.
Such ethical theories, then, are available to evaluate any and all human action.
Engineering is a kind of human actioneven engineering of the rote plug and
chug variety. Whatever kind it is, it cannot help but be subject to ethical
evaluation. Separating ethics from engineering is like separating mathematics from
algebra. Algebra can be done well or badly but neither way of doing it removes it
from mathematical evaluation.
Hence, as long as an engineer is not lying, cheating,
stealing, and so on, then the evaluation of her ethics is good. For example the
actions of an engineer who seals drawings can at least theoretically be evaluated as
good or bad or competent or incompetent and they are almost always
I have used this analogy in a published essay but cannot nd the source.
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 157
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competent on criteria that have nothing to do with service to others. The Kentucky
State Legislature has some such Design Criteria for Dams and Associated
Structures available on its web site (KAR 2009). None of these documents mention
beneting humanity.
In fact, there is no reason to believe then that an engineer who simply designs
and builds without regard for the public welfare in the sense of rendering
gratuitous public service (Firmage 1991) is being unethical at all. No service to
society beyond good conduct is needed. The idea of simple good conduct or what
has been called competent creation (Stieb 2008) redeems professionalism as a
virtue (Parkan 2008, p. 81), establishes a contract (Manion 2001) to do no harm with
society, and refrains from putting a product into the world in order to make a
buck (Moriarty 2008, p. 61).
One can behave ethically simply by designing and building. Provided the
standards of competence are high enough, the ethics are then hidden in the standards
of practice.
A more politically neutral denition of engineering and/or profession-
alism that does not include service or benet to mankind does not violate adherence
to strong ethical standards.
Dening Engineering so as to Violate an Engineers Rights
Academic authors have many altruistic views. Surely, engineering societies are
more pragmatic. Yet, even the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) a
supposedly neutral, objective body comprised of the highest level of engineers has
jumped on the benet humanity bandwagon in their denition of engineering.
They dene engineering as knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences
gained by study, experience, and practice to develop ways to economically utilize
the materials and forces of nature for the benet of humankind (NSPE 2009a,
emphasis mine).
Curiously, the NSPE does not dene science altruistically: The scientist
discovers and systematically investigates the fundamental laws of nature and denes
the principles which govern them (NSPE 2009a). One wonders why engineers
must benet mankind while scientists need not. Is there something about the nature
of engineeringthat it creates useable goods perhapsthat should make engineers
more beholden to serving others than scientists? The NSPE allows scientists to be
neutral, unpartisan, and objective as bets the dispassionate pursuit of truth.
Engineers apparently cannot be neutral, unpartisan, and objective as they do not
pursue truth; apparently they pursue promises.
How and when did engineering get so political? Something is political if it
relates to power, authority, and where necessary force. Websters denes political
as organizing people within a governmental system (or ancient Greek polis or
city). There are many systems of government and many political parties. The
United States is has at least two: the Republican and Democratic parties. One need
not delve far into the politics of this or any other nation to nd power, authority, and
I thank a reviewer from Science and Engineering Ethics for this near direct quote.
158 J. A. Stieb
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force rearing their heads in a plethora of views as to what will benet humanity. One
party favors increased government intervention for the good of the governed, the
other favors decreased government intervention for the good of the governed. One
favors a national health care system, the other disagrees. There are numerous other
That the charge that engineers must serve others is politicala method of
exerting and enforcing powerand not merely neutral and obvious, becomes clear
when one turns to case law involving individual rights. In the maelstrom that is
public opinion, the United States was supposed from the start to be one of the few
places where a person could be left alone in the choice and execution of her
profession. As Justice Blackmun observed in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986): this case
is about the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized
men, namely the right to be left alone.
Justice Blackmun was referring to an earlier opinion given by Louis Brandeis
(Egar 2000) in Olmstead v. U.S. (1928):
the protection guaranteed by the amendments (of the Constitution) is much
broader in scope. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure
conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the
signicance of mans spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect
They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their
emotions, and their sensations. They conferred as against the government the
right to be left alonethe most comprehensive of rights and the right most
valued by civilized men.
Bowers v. Hardwick concerns the privacy of ones home and Olmstead v. the
United States concerns wiretapping, but the issues about privacy of conscience and
aims still apply to engineering. Indeed, these judicial opinions descend from the Bill
of Rights of the United States Constitution proposed by James Madison and
instituted to protect United States citizens from the excesses of government no
matter how well meaningno matter how the violation of such rights might
benet humanity. Among these rights are freedom of association, which may
well be taken to imply freedom in the choice and execution of ones occupation
(or later) profession. Apparently engineers need to be protected from the excesses of
their societies as well.
Unfortunately, it must be admitted, and even regretted, that engineers do not have
a universally agreed upon and instituted bill of rights even within the United States.
Most professions do not. Perhaps they should. Perhaps the NSPE, arguably the most
authoritative engineering society in the United States, should reverse its historical
tendency to favor the political position of intervention for benet of public interest,
and simply state its own limitations. Perhaps it should just simply do what it does
best: publishing and applying engineering regulations and standards, providing a
forum for disseminating research and information, providing networking opportu-
nities, and protecting the public safety, health and welfare as opposed to promoting
them. It protects public safety through the notion of negative rights which say
what not to do: for example, do no harm. It promotes through the notion of
positive rights or entitlements, as when it says benet humanity. Perhaps it
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 159
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should openly say that it will limit itself to negative rights and corresponding
activities and keep from dragging its members into politics at the risk of labeling
those members unprofessional. NSPE members (professional engineers) can join
a mail list to discuss a prospective engineering bill of rights at www5.palmnet.
net/*welden/maillist/rights/righ_msg.html. Other engineers, and the general public,
Counterfactually, it is interesting to imagine what the NSPE Bill of Engineering
Rights would look like were one developed and instantiated. Other extant
Engineering Bills of Rights such as The American Institute for Medical and
Biological Engineering Bill of Rights (Hendee 2009) indicate what an NSPE
Engineering Bill of Rights might say. Here are some of the more important specied
3. A S/E [scientist/engineer] shall not be dissuaded from pursuing scientic
inquiry because of political or religious concerns, or because the inquiry
deviates from a conventional perspective.
4. A S/E shall be able to use any approach to new knowledge and technologies,
limited only by the restrictions that the approach follows sound scientic
principles and does not violate societal ethical precepts.
6. A S/E shall not be subject to restraints in the presentation and publication of
results that are imposed by political or religious entities or because the ndings
conict with traditional knowledge. Scientic and engineering results should
always be evaluated on their merits and not because of preconceived notions of
9. A S/E should object to misuse of research ndings for political, ideological or
nancial purposes.
10. At all times a S/E shall adhere to universal ethical and moral standards (Egar
Consider once again the NSPEs denition of Engineering: knowledge of the
mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience, and practice to
develop ways to economically utilize the materials and forces of nature for the
benet of humankind (NSPE 2009a, emphasis mine). It is argued here that the
NSPEs denition and much of the general trend of the profession to favor the idea
of requiring the benet of humanity for professionalism violates 3, 4, 6, and 9.
Moreover, a more politically neutral denition of engineering that does not include
service or benet to mankind does not violate 10. Giving up benetting humanity
does not require giving up ethics.
It can be seen that most of these violations of engineers rights are conceptual.
The rights of engineers are violated in principle if not in practice. The trouble lies in
proving that Robert Oppenheimer was denied employment and declared a
Communist because he did not properly seek to benet humanity. Certainly, it
is compelling that Communism was thought not to benet humanity, and this was
the epithet used against Oppenheimer. Edward Teller was similarly tarred when he
testied against Oppenheimer: To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital
interests of this country in hands which I understand better, said Teller (Unknown
160 J. A. Stieb
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1954, p. 7). Some scientists and engineers felt that Teller was disloyal to
Did Teller benet humanity by helping to get Oppenheimers security clearance
with the Atomic Energy Commission revoked? The truth is that almost any act,
good or bad, can be seen rightly or wrongly through the lens of benetting
humanity. Hence, there is abundant proof that engineers rights are violated because
they fail to benet humanity or no proof, depending on how one looks at it. That is
why benetting humanity as a requirement (or even a consideration) should be
removed from society documents in favor of a list of rights. Politics should be
removed from engineering and ethics as much as possible.
The NSPEs denition and the current tenor of the profession violate 3 because
these would dissuade engineers from pursuing that inquiry lest their pursuit not be
judged to be sufciently in the public interest (a political concern). They violate 4,
because they dissuade engineers from using scientically grounded approaches to
new technologies that do not sufciently appeal to an indispensable and benecial
social need (Firmage 1991, p. 63). They violate 6, partly because 6 is written so
broadly. Who would not evaluate engineering results on the basis of some
preconceived notion of truth? More importantly, the NSPEs requirement of
service for professional status would violate 6 because the NSPE or other
associations that act politically or have political preconceptions would subject
scientists and engineers to restraints in the presentation and publication of results
[or designs] that are imposed by political or religious entities when those results do
not t with what is taken to be bettering humanity. Finally, the NSPEs denition
of engineering and the current tenor of the profession violate 9 which says that
A S/E should object to misuse of research ndings for political, ideological or
nancial purposes because, as has been said, some ndings or designs will t the
political agenda and some will not. It is difcult to ascertain whether television and
nuclear weapons provide a benet to mankind. Professional societies that avoid such
political wrangling over what is good for mankind also avoid infringing upon the
rights of engineers and scientists.
It should be stressed, however, that a list of rights should not be taken as an
exhaustive list of ethical guides or responsibilities any more than a code of ethics
should be taken to exhaust ethics. Legally mandated regulations or law is not the
same as ethics. First, ethics must, by its very nature be self-directed rather than
other-directed (Ladd 1991, p. 131). Ethics cannot be put into a code or a list of
rights because it is essentially argumentative (Ladd 1991, p. 130). Professionals
should agree to behave professionally through agreement and understanding rather
than force. In attaching disciplinary procedures, methods or adjudication and
sanctions formal and informal to the principles that one calls ethical one
automatically converts them into legal rules or some other kind of authoritative
rules of conduct (Ladd 1991, p. 131). Rights theory is meant to liberate individuals
not to ensnare them or to proceduralize their decisions (Halliday 1997). Rights are
used here to specify a way of thinking about how ethics relates to professionalism
that differs substantially from the call to benet humanity. However, rights
should not be used procedurally or by rote to make decisions for the engineer. The
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 161
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engineer has to make her own decisions in a technological and business world that
increasingly seeks to co-opt or limit her options for its own ends.
These damages are real. Gene Moriarty like many professionals who work with
science, engineering and technology, is very aware of the dangers of technology run
amok. He writes in his chapter on colonization that technoscience colonizes
science, the military, the body, and in general the nonsystemic lifeworld
(Moriarty 2008, pp. 7980). The military turns technoscience into a war machine,
medicine nds a drug for everything real or imagined, seasonal crops are replaced
with technology-dependent agribusiness supplying world markets with highly
processed and genetically engineered foodstuffs (Moriarty 2008, p. 80).
The solution has to be some sort of restraint. But what form should this restraint
take? Suppose, that Moriartys focal engineering which balances disburdenment
and engagement against burdens and disengagement is the right answer. The
question becomes who will keep engineering focal? Moriarty agrees not
The structure of modern government has been engineered by modern
enterprises. If not countered the structure of hypermodern electronic
government will be engineered by hypermodern enterprise. The attempt to
make the attainment of the common good hyperefcient and hyperproductive
will entail making that effort hyperbureaucratic (Moriarty 2008, p. 84).
Well, who then will to check the forces of disengaged, burdensome technology
hypercommodied, hyperbureacratized and run amok if not government? This
authors opinion is that Democratic governments should not be discounted yet, lest
countries fall into anarchy. Citizens need to work within government. Yet citizens
also need protection from the faceless, hand-waiving, bureaucratic aspect of
engineering societies that demand the benet of humanity. Engineers need
protection from entities that demand self-sacrice while pretending that such
sacrices are obvious and the only way to be ethical:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for youask
what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but
what together we can do for the freedom of man (Kennedy 1961).
An individual engineer needs protection against the bureaucratic forces that
would force her sacrice. An Engineering Bill of Rights that would prevent
engineering societies from dening professional on the basis of contribution to or
service to some unspecied others would go far to providing just the sort of checks
and balances that the United States forefathers foresaw when they envisioned that
countrys Bill of Rights.
Otherwise, Moriarty and others fail to check the technological colonization
and the resulting deadening of spirit they so decry. The loneliness and ethical
isolation of the individual engineer is rarely helped by asking her to give more. And
yet demands seem all that authors have to offer. For example, Moriarty demands
that engineering realize promises, he argues that the aims of the engineering
enterprise must exceed striving to meet a clients specications, to receive fair
162 J. A. Stieb
1 3
compensation, and to extend the state of the art in his or her eld of expertise
(Moriarty 2008, p. 54). What could be more deadening and colonizing than an
unspecied ideal that simply says exceed extending the state of the art? Either the
engineer becomes as vain as to think he has exceeded the general state of the art, or
he is pressured into obligations that he cannot meet.
Critics argue that minimal aims are not enough. Minimal aims only serve the
engineers personal good or the corporate good. They are self-interested. The
engineering enterprise must serve the common good, they argue, otherwise it
does not properly hold paramount the public safety, health and welfare (Moriarty
2008, p. 54). Moriarty argues for a cause and effect relationship: Without social
justice for all there can be no welfare of the general public. Without protecting the
environment, the other aims of the engineering enterprise are diminished. Thus,
Moriarty takes social justice and environmental sustainability as crucial.
Others take social justice (whatever social justice actually spells out to be) and
environmental sustainability as important requirements for professionalism. Mark
Manion reports that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the
American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) have taken an active role
in setting the pace for sustainable engineering (Manion 2001, p. 170). The World
Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development (WEPSD), and the AAES
together issue and endorse statements that claim that Engineers will translate the
dreams of humanityinto action through the creative application of technology to
attain sustainable development (Manion 2001, p. 170).
Manion concludes that the ASCE, AAES, and WEPSD philosophies not only
stress the importance of sustainable development for sound engineering practice, but
[also] they make it unethical for engineers not to strive for these goals (Manion
2001, p. 170).
This paper does not object to the idea that environmental sustainability is a
worthy and sound ethical goal. Far from it. Management of resources so as not to
produce an inordinate amount of waste given cost considerations has and always
will be part of an engineers personal, ethical, and professional responsibilities. No
one likes a wasteful slob; such a person does not exhibit good character. Instead this
paper objects to the political power assumed by associations that think they can
pronounce upon their members ethics above and beyond what is commonly called
law and ethical custom specically in the call for sacrices for the benet of
humanity. Surely an association, as well as anyone, can decry outright stealing.
However, in order to place lack of environmental sustainability on the list of
moral outrages,
an association and its associated engineers and authors would have
to specify exactly what is environmentally sustainable enough in a world of
engineering that will always fall short of the ideal of perfect sustainability in some
respect or other. They would have to specify neutrally and unequivocally what will
benet humanity, so as not to violate an individuals right to seek benet or
The NSPE has amended its code of ethics to read III.2.d: Engineers are encouraged to adhere to the
principles of sustainable development in order to protect the environment for future generations. See
http://www.nspe.org/Ethics/CodeofEthics/CodeHistory/historyofcode.html. It is not known in what sense
this encouragement is a requirement, what exactly meets the principles of sustainable development, nor
what is to be done with engineers who do not meet the principles.
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 163
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happiness on her own and unimpeded. They would have to specify what social
justice is in a way that does not risk continued social injustice by discounting the
autonomies and abilities of individuals to make up and pursue the dictate of their
own minds against those of the powerful status quo. These, the associations, authors
and engineers cannot do.
Is the Goal of Professionalism Competent Creation?
Hurlburt et al. (2009) describe an attitude that they feel is at least partially
responsible for the nancial crises of 2008 including those precipitated by
irrational lending practices (Hurlburt et al. 2009, p. 14) and adjustable rate
mortgages (ARMs). This attitude among people discussing automation [is] that
their work is technical, and therefore ethics isnt relevant (Hurlburt et al. 2009,
p. 18). Hurlburt et al. then cite an article by the present author as evidence of this
Such an attitude isnt unheard of among computing professionalsfor
example, a recent article claims that competent creation, not any
responsibility for the public good, should be at the core of any professional
ethics for computing professionals (Hurlburt et al. 2009, p. 18).
Stieb (2008) actually claimed that
One need not support all that [Ayn] Rand stood for, nor battle her considerable
opposition to point out that the primary goal of professionalism is competent
creation. Negative responsibilities not to harm others follow from this primary
goal/criterion. Positive responsibilities do not. The government, whose job is
to secure the rights of the governed, use law and ethical custom to judge and
establish these negative responsibilities. No government, or professional
society for that matter, can rightly compel individuals to serve others unless as
part of the common security from which each benets (Stieb 2008, p. 227,
emphasis mine)
Stieb (2008) believes in negative responsibilities not to harm others. This
directly contradicts the belief that professional work is technical, and therefore
ethics isnt relevant (Hurlburt et al. 2009, p. 18). Ethics is very relevant, just not
the ethics of altruism or benetting humanity. The present paper argues for the
relevance of rights based ethics, an ethical tradition going back at least to John
Locke, espoused in the United States Constitution, the legal frameworks of The
United States, Britain and much of Europe as well as the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Many
authors use rights theory as their governing ethical paradigm. For example, the
contemporary bioethicist, George Annas, attempts to use rights theory to cross the
boundaries of human rights and health law (Annas 2004).
Hurlburt et al. (2009) apparently succumb to the false dichotomy described earlier
that either the public good is at the heart of any professional ethic (Hurlburt et al.
2009, pp. 1819) or ethics isnt relevant (Hurlburt et al. 2009, p. 18) with no third
164 J. A. Stieb
1 3
possibility. However, there is no evidence for the ethical necessity of favoring the
public good or beneting humanity. There is no evidence that serving the public good
or beneting humanity is the only way to have a strong professional ethics. The
documents cited by Miller and Voas (2008) such as the Institute of Electrical and
Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Code of Ethics, the Association of Computing
Machinery (ACM) Code of Ethics, the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and
Professional Practice, the work of Cicero and others even if they could be construed
as requiring the benet of humanity are not evidence of the ethical necessity or
requirement to benet humanity. They are only evidence in the widespread belief in
this necessity.
Some codes denitely do say contribute to society and human well-being
(ACM 1992). The ACM code of ethics tends to use words like protect, respect,
minimize, but they do include that Professionals must attempt to ensure that the
products of their efforts will be used in socially responsible ways, will meet social
needs, and will avoid harmful effects to health and welfare (ACM 1992). The code
does not specify how one is to ensure that a product is socially responsible and
meets social needs. There are abundant problems with ascertaining either:
Implicit in the very existence of SRI [socially responsible investing] is the
claim that it is possible to identify which rms are more or less responsible.
Not only is this claim questionable, but the selection criteria employed by SRI
fund managers and researchers can be criticized on several grounds.
First, questions have been raised about both the information that fund
managers rely on to make investment decisions and the consistency of the
criteria they employ.
A second criticism focuses on criteria employed by SRI funds to determine
corporate irresponsibility. Tobacco and alcohol are the two negative screens
American funds use most often (Vogel 2006, p. 39).
The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE 2009) code says,
Accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and
welfare of the public. This is not objectionable. A responsibility to do no harm
can be accepted without accepting a purported responsibility to benet others
The statement that the primary goal of professionalism is competent creation
(Stieb, p. 227) is a misleading choice of words. It is misleading because, strictly
speaking, professionalism does not have goals. Only people choose goals. Stieb
(2008) meant that competent creation should be the primary criterion by which one
is judged a professional. There may be other, secondary criteria. So for example, it
can be agreed that a true professional must always consider the public good
(Miller and Voas 2008, p. 16). It is important to consider what the myriad voices of
the public think to be good. One should consult and be aware of current law, ethical
theory, codes, standards etc. One should even follow most of these. One should
follow the law, but perhaps not every ethical theory. However, there is no ethical
requirement to benet humanity or the public in order to be a professional. Such a
requirement would create serious troubles for those attempting to decide whether
Understanding Engineering Professionalism 165
1 3
the creators of television sets, weapons, and genetically modied foods are
professionals since these do not obviously benet humanity. It would create trouble
for their creators. Whether these technologies are good is really a political and
philosophical issue. Some or all of them might be reasonably prohibited on the basis
of the dangers they may pose and not on their failure to benet humanity. Until the
verdict of safety (or un-safety as the case may be), it should be possible to engineer
professionally without actually beneting humanity or serving anyone.
Unfortunately, engineers are prosecuted for unprofessional conduct with
alarming frequency. However, no engineer has ever been prosecuted or thrown
out of a society for failing to benet humanity. Hence, the requirement seems
hollow and it does seem possible to engineer professionally without benetting
humanity or serving anyone. However, the words and the sanctimonious ideals
remain to damage accurate portrayal and ethical evaluation of the profession and
Finally, what is the relationship between a dedicated professionalsomeone
who is fully committed to apply the most up-to-date knowledge and skills to a given
line of workand an ethical professional? Is there a difference? Should there be?
Indeed, there is a difference as Davis (1997) has noted: one would not want to
call the engineers who built the Nazi concentration camps professional. Perhaps this
is why engineers feel they must appeal to the benet of humanity. The camps
certainly did not benet humanity. Ergo, those who built them where unprofes-
sional. The benet of humanity works, in this argument, to separate Nazi engineers
from professionals. Still, all that is required here is a moral ideal, not necessarily
that of beneting humanity. Davis himself writes that to be a member of a
profession is to be subject to a set of special morally-binding standards beyond what
law, market, and morality (otherwise) demand (Davis 1997, p. 421, emphasis
Davis). Even this ideal seems excessive. Following law, market and morality seem
sufcient. Clearly the Nazi engineers where immoral no matter how well they
followed the law and the market. Davis feels that he must argue against Airaksinen
(1994) that engineering has a moral ideal comparable to other professions (health
for medicine; justice for law). It appears sufcient to say that engineering seeks
good control over the environment (Davis 1997, p. 412). However, it is not the
concern of this paper to show that engineering is a profession. It assumes as much.
This paper concerns establishing rights theory as the minimum basis for a moral
ideal in contrast to the ideal of benetting humanity. Put positively instead of
negatively, the proper moral ideal for engineering professionalism is actually what it
is for most walks of lifesomething like act according to ones true self-interest,
or seek happiness. Happiness or true self-interest are ideals associated not only with
rights theorists such as Locke (as well as the U.S. Declaration of Independence) but
with virtue ethicists such as Aristotle. Hence it is no surprise that current work on
professionalism that also seeks alternatives to benetting humanity as a requirement
derive from virtue ethics and ethical egoism. Other than the current author, only
Chesher and Machan (1999) consistently reject the benet of humanity for
Again, I thank a reviewer from Science and Engineering Ethics for these questions including some of
the wording.
166 J. A. Stieb
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