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Engineering Ethics

The major approaches to both intuitive and rational ethics in Western Culture and their application to engineering practice.

Philosophical choices
While there are other ethical philosophies from other cultures, the major ones in our Western Culture that have supported the rise of engineering as a profession are: Intuitionist ethics Culture & Conscience Outcome-based ethics - John Stuart Mill Duty-based ethics Immanuel Kant Character-based ethics Aristotle

The Sears Morality

Most people living in Western Culture are protected from making choices between good and evil by education, lifestyle, circumstances, ethical intuition, and the rule of law. Rather than being confronted with daily choices between good and evil, we usually need only choose between the good, the better, and the best. Lets call this the Sears-Roebuck Ethic. It is often invoked in engineering practice since engineers have to make trade-offs in design.

Just always do the right thing.

Ethics is simple in theory: Just always do the right thing! But practice is usually much more difficult. The Apostle Paul said: That which I would do, that I do not and that which I would not do, that I do. (Rom. 7:15) Todays leading New Testament scholar, Bishop N. T. Wright says: I have high moral standards. I have thought about them. I have preached about them. I have even written books about them. And I still break them. (Simply Christian, p. 5) If people of such highly developed moral character have ethical problems, to whom shall we turn for help?

A grim ethical choice

In WWII Churchill did not tell the people of Coventry that an unexpected Nazi bombing raid was on the way because had he done so, the Nazis would have known their Enigma code had been broken. Three thousand five hundred persons died in the unexpected raid, yet many thousands more would have died if Nazis had known the need to change their code. He said it was the most terrible decision he ever had to make in his life. Did he do the right thing?

Another difficult choice

The United States OSS fed reports to Radio Luxembourg during World War II to set up a believable context in which they could deceive the Nazis about the impending D-Day invasion. They sent true reports of actual Allied troop movements, sacrificing those troops to the Nazis in return for later misinformation credibility. Did they do the right thing? What would a US soldier in a sacrificed unit say about the ethics of this choice? What would Kant say? Is there a difference in premeditation here?

Henry and Frank

In 1935, before WWII began Henry Ford at a Whitehouse reception made a very private offer to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He said: Frank, I think this Hitler fellow is going to be a lot of trouble, do you want me to have my boys take care of him for you? The president rejected his offer based on US policy against assassinating foreign heads of state. Did he do the right thing? Would an assassination have saved 20M lives?

Ten years later.

Our WWII Japanese code breakers learned that Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was going to visit his troops at Bougainville, well out of our fighter range. A group of hotshot P-38 pilots found a way to mount fuel tanks on their two bomb racks, by substituting 70 gals. of fuel for 500 lbs. of explosives. Admiral Nimitz sent a coded message to President Roosevelt: Shall we shoot down Admiral Yamamoto?

What was his decision?

We have no record, but apparently the President agreed for the first time in U.S. history, to allow the assassination of a foreign leader. (But this was a military leader, not an head of state.) 16 P-38s took off at 4 AM and shot down Yamamotos Betty bomber over Bougainville in revenge for his commanding the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which cost 3500 American lives. Did Roosevelt do the right thing this time? What would Aristotle have said?

Consider a Ternary Ethic

Scenario 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Motive Kant? Good Good Good Good Bad Bad Bad Bad Means Aristotle? Good Good Bad Bad Bad Bad Good Good Consequence Mills? Good Bad Good Bad Good Bad Good Bad

Application to the examples

Churchills decision was Good Bad Good The OSS deception was Bad Bad Good FDRs Hitler decision was Good Good Bad Yamamoto decision was Bad Bad Good A ternary ethic begins to show nuances that are not obvious in a binary ethic. In Scripture we see this kind of ethic operating as the conditional will of God.

Intuitionist Ethics
Based on our common cultural background or perhaps inborn conscience. Plato said the to know the Good (as an Ideal) was to do it (in practice). His student Aristotle said that was not enough, it also took an act of will and life long practice to always do the good. The difference here is between connaissance (to know about the good) and savior faire (to know how to do the good).

Intuition is based on an insight which seems to be true or correct. While not rational, most choices in life are informed by unconscious aspects of cognition. Beware intuition when emotionally involved. Intuition is best trusted in simple rather than complex situations, When intuitive (right-brained) judgments conflict it is best to defer to reason (the left brain).

An Intuitive Ethical Universal

Is there one intuitive principle that could well govern all ethical human behavior? Love the lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. Hebrew Bible Do into others as you would have others do into you. Jesus Do not do anything to anyone you would not want them to do to you. Mohammed If this principle were always observed we would not need other laws. - Gov. Mike Huckabee

Outcome-Based Ethics
From Jeremy Benthams and John Stuart Mills Ethical Principles. In Eighteenth Century England a number of philosophers developed approaches to epistemology, empiricism, and ethics. Their thinking has guided the consequent development of western Science, western Engineering, and western Ethics.

J. S. Mill: Utilitarianism
Pleasure and the greatest happiness principle hold that actions are right in proportion as they promote happiness, wrong when they promote the reverse. Mill notes that Epicureanism assigned much higher values to the pleasures of the mind and soul compared to those of the body. So did he. The pleasure principle was defended by Mill as the goal of Utilitarianism.

Species of Utilitarianism
Hedonistic Utilitaranism pleasure is the only intrinsic good and pain is the only intrinsic bad. But pleasure here is not just physical pleasure. Rule Utilitarianism Mill noted that we cannot sum the good for all and subtract the bad for all everytime we make a decision, thus we must work within a set of experiential rules. Act Utilitarianism Need not consider each act as universal, hence it can apply to only one decision depending on its own unique context.

Kant: Respect for Persons Ethics

Based on Immanuel Kants ethical principles. Kant was a Pietistic Lutheran who taught mathematics and physics in Prussia. He became concerned with the relationship between the observed world of forces and matter and the ideal world of mathematics and logic. He wrote The Critique of Pure Reason. He also made a major contribution to ethical thought.

Kants Categorical Imperative

The chief good is a good will. Character alone is not good, nor are the gifts of fortune, like talent & temperament. Even Aristotles moderation can become bad if not tempered with a good will. A good will is good in spite of the outcome. Utility in the outcome or lack thereof cannot add or take away from the value of an ethical decision. The opposite of Mills outcome-based ethics.

Kants Propositions
To have any moral worth an action must be done from duty alone, not from any emotional or rational predisposition. A action can have moral worth only because it is based on principle (i.e., is rational). Duty is the necessity of acting from respect of the moral law. The preeminent good which we call moral consists in the rational conception of the law and not the quality of the outcome.

Examples and Imperatives

An act is moral only if done from duty not emotions or personal inclination. One should be truthful from duty not from any fear of the consequences of lying. Any act should be done as if it were the consequence of a universal moral law. An action good as a means is hypothetical, hence the hypothetical imperative. An action good in itself is categorical, hence the categorical imperative.

Kants Practical Rules

Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature. So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only. Humanity because humans are rational and autonomous, i.e., not plants or animals. Is there a dark side of Kants Ethic? Can we be led astray by duty alone?

The dark side of duty

Consider Adolf Eichmanns pseudoKantian defense I was only doing my duty, I was just following orders. He really must have really thought he was doing the right thing. His boss Heinrich Himmlers defense was: I never actually killed anyone, I just gave orders. So who was guilty? Both, or neither?

Is this a cultural blind-spot?

This situation occurs so often in Germany that they have a saying for the personal dilemma it causes.

Ich falle zwischen zwei Stuhle.

Ich falle zwischen zwei Stuhle. I fall between two stools. That is: I cannot find a morally correct position to take between these two ethical principles.

Lets be fair to Kant

Wouldnt he say that there must be a higher abstract standard or ideal standard of good and evil like Aristotle would have claimed. On this standard, hurting or killing another human or rational autonomous creature would be bad no matter who told you to do it. This is the primary ethic of Star Trek. Why? So how did the Nazis motivate their holocaust anyway?

Killing humans is bad

So Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebels set up a PR campaign to first deny humanity to the Jews, the Gypsies, the insane, the mentally handicapped, the gender challenged, etc. Then they could kill them with a clear conscience because they were now not deemed to be human. Is this redefinition and denial of humanity happening to any human group today?

What about abortion?

If we deny that a foetus is human, then we can kill it without taking a human life. However this requires redefining the Latin word foetus to mean something in English that it didnt mean in Latin. The first generation that manages to escapes abortion will vote in euthanasia for their aged parents. This may even be happening here right now; it already has is The Netherlands.

Aristotle: Virtue-Based Ethics

Aristotle taught that virtuous behavior proceeded from a virtuous character and that a virtuous character was a result of a disciplined practice of ethical behavior. He invented the word sin hamartia or missing the mark and the term sinner hamartoulon or mark-misser in his Nichomachean Ethics. The same term in the Hebrew Bible is Chata. He said the worst sin you can commit is to betray a friend.

Aristotle: Morality and Virtue

Happiness is both the highest good and the cause of all precious and divine good things. Happiness is an activity of the soul and virtue is the means to its provision. The purpose of the state is to make its citizens virtuous and obedient to law. Thomas Jefferson took him quite literally when he said that the purpose of the state is to guarantee the (well-being) or life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its citizens. See: The Declaration of Independence.

Aspects of the soul

The soul has two parts, the rational and the irrational. The irrational (autonomic) aspect is shared with all other living things. There is also an irrational aspect to the incontinent (uncontrolled) person. The continent or (self-controlled) person illustrates the rational aspect of the soul. Unlike Plato, he accepted emotion and reason as normative aspects of human behavior.

Virtues are acquired

Virtue is twofold: intellectual and moral. The first is both natural and fostered by teaching. The second is the result of habit. Moral virtue not implanted in us by nature, but nature gives us the capacity, which can be perfected by training (discipline) and habit. Like any other habit (e.g., playing the lyre) it can be improved by practice or lost by disuse. Use it or lose it, sayeth Aristotle.

The study of virtue

Is not to learn about virtue i.e., knowledge. It is to learn virtue itself, i.e., savoir faire. Reasoning about practical matters cannot be scientifically exact. Thus we should never employ more rigor than the subject matter can bear. In the case of personal disciplines, both too much and too little are deleterious.

Virtues are character traits

The soul is three things: emotions, (mental and spiritual) faculties, and character traits. He then proved that virtues are neither emotions or faculties. Would Mill and Kant agree? Virtue or excellence in a person is a moral state that makes them good and able to perform their functions as a human being and a citizen of the state well, or to excel.

Compare Anthropologies
Aristotles God given Spirit Personality
Faculties Emotions Character

The Apostle Pauls God given Spirit Soul

Mind Heart Will

Physical Body

Physical Body

The doctrine of the mean.

Pythagoras said evil is by nature infinite but good is by nature finite. So what is the mean between them? There can be none. Aristotle replied to the Pythagoreans that virtue is a state of deliberate moral purpose consisting of a mean that is relative to ourselves, (i.e., not infinity) the mean being determined by reason, or as any prudent person would determine it.

But not for every emotion or action

There are emotions that have no mean state, these include malice, shamelessness, envy, etc. There are actions that have no mean state, these include adultery, theft, murder, etc. All of these imply wickedness. Aristotle actually said: Adultery committed at the right time, in the right place, with the right person, in the ideal manner is still totally wrong. One can see why the Christian church fell in love with this philosopher.

Examples of virtues and vices

Between fear and confidence, courage is the mean state. Between insensibility and licentiousness the mean state is temperance. Between prodigality and illiberality the mean is liberality. Between vanity and little-mindedness the mean is high-mindedness.

Aristotles catalogue of virtues

Between passionate and impassive is gentleness. Between unfriendly and obsequious is friendly. Between envy and malice lies the mean of righteousness indignation. Aristotle always seeks the mean between behavioral extremes, thereby limiting the extremes of reckless Greek passion. In fact, before Aristotle invented the word hamartia for sin the Greek phrase for this idea was reckless behavior. See: The Iliad.

Now, can we draw a picture of Engineering Ethics?

There is an old engineering saying: You dont understand it unless you can draw a picture of it. Can we draw a picture or at least a tableau of Articles 2, 3, and 4 in the textbook? We leave aside Ethical Intuition as a sort of backdrop for reason in ethical thinking. It is not in the pictures, perhaps its the canvas on which they are painted.

The Basic Tableau

Philosopher Question 1 What is supreme principle? Question 2 How do we solve moral problems? Question 3 Kind of persons are we ? Conclusion

J. S. Mill Principle of Utilitarianism Utility: greatest good for the greatest number I. Kant Respect for Persons Aristotle Virtue Ethics Principle of Humanity (or Rational Beings) Maximize happiness or well-being

Act in accord with rules to gain best outcome

Cultivate those virtues that promote The good

Consequences of an action determine its goodness

Principle of Universality

We should always act out of duty Develop and practice personal virtue

Always do the right thing no matter who it hurts The virtuous person will always do the right thing

Choose the mean between extremes

Q1 What is the supreme principle of morality?

Mill Principle of Utility. An action is right if it promotes the most overall good and wrong if it fails to do so. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral theory, an action is good or bad depending on whether the outcome is good or bad.


Principle of Universality. Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature. The goodness of an action is not measured by the outcome of an act, but rather whether it is done out of duty


Good can arise only out of the practice of personal virtue which is developed by lifelong discipline and practice. Virtuous deeds are done by virtuous persons.

Q2 How should we solve moral problems?

Mill Summation fo the greatest good tor the greatest number less any bad consequences. In practice, this mathematical principle is resolved as the application of experiential rules. The goodness of an act is determined by measuring the outcome. So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only.



Always seek the mean between extremes of behavior as the first approximation to virtuous behavior.

Q3 What kind of persons should we be?

Mill We should seek the greatest good for the greatest number without giving ourselves preference in ethical decisions.


We should be rational and dutiful, always seeking to fulfill ethical laws as if they were universals of both hypothetical and categorical behavior. If we seek duty within reason and always respect persons we will always do the right thing. We should develop and practice virtue, and having achieved a virtuous character we will always do the right thing.


Mill Very useful in the practice of engineering since engineering activities are goal directed and result in products and processes which are intended to improve the lives for as many people as possible. Always do the right thing no matter how many people it hurts including yourself. (Subject to the Principle of Humanity.) Make every moral act as if you would want it to be universal law of behavior. Good for engineering since we are concerned with the safety and well-being of our end-users as persons. Engineers must cultivate discipline specific virtues as technical competence, discernment, professional autonomy, innovation. The three most important virtues for engineering innovation are creativity, tenacity, and serendipity.



Reducing the Theory to Code

As engineers we reduce theory to codes, best practices, and even standards. As we go through selected items in the Software Engineering Code of Ethics lets try to identify from where each code item or guideline came from. Write on your notes the result of class discussion whether the source for each is Ethical Intuition, Mill, Kant, or Aristotle.

Software Engineering Ethics Code

The IEEE Computer Society and the ACM Joint Software Engineering Code of Ethics Principle 1: Public Software engineers shall act consistently with the public interest. In particular, software engineers shall, as appropriate: 1.01 Accept full responsibility for their own work. 1.02 Moderate the interests of the software engineer, the employer, the client, and the users with the public good.

Principle 1 (selections)
1.03 Approve software only if they have a wellfounded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests and does not diminish quality of life, diminish privacy, or harm the environment. The ultimate effect of the work should be the public good. 1.04 Disclose to appropriate persons or authorities any actual or potential danger to the user, the public, or the environment, that they reasonably believe to be associated with software.

Principle 2
Principle 2: Client and employer Software engineers shall act in a manner that is in the best interests of their client and employer, consistent with the public interest. In particular, software engineers shall, as appropriate: 2.01 Provide service in their areas of competence, being honest and forthright about any limits in their experience and education. 2.02 Not knowingly use software that is obtained illegally or unethically.

Principle 2 (selections)
2.05 Keep private any confidential information gained in their professional work, where such confidentiality is consistent with the public interest and consistent with the law. 2.08 Accept no outside work detrimental to the work they perform for their primary employer. (Be careful about moonlighting.)

Principle 3: Product
Principle 3: Product Software engineers shall ensure that their products and related modifications meet the highest professional standards possible. In particular, software engineers shall, as appropriate: 3.01 Strive for high quality, acceptable cost, and a reasonable schedule, ensuring significant tradeoffs are clear to and accepted by the employer and the client and are available for

Principle 3 (selections)
consideration by the user and the public. 3.02 Ensure proper and achievable goals and objectives for any project on which they work or propose. 3.03 Identify, define, and address ethical, economic, cultural, legal, and environmental issues related to work projects. 3.07 Strive to fully understand the specifications for software on which they work.

Principle 3 (selections)
3.10 Ensure adequate testing, debugging, and review of software and related documents on which they work. 3.14 Maintain the integrity of data, being sensitive to outdated or flawed occurrences. 3.15 Treat all forms of software maintenance with the same professionalism as new development.

Principle 4: Judgment
Principle 4: Judgment Software engineers shall maintain integrity and independence in their professional judgment. In particular, software engineers shall, as appropriate: 4.01 Temper all technical judgments by the need to support and maintain human values. 4.04 Not engage in deceptive financial practices such as bribery, double billing, or other improper financial practices.

Principle 5: Management
Principle 5: Management Software engineering managers and leaders shall subscribe to and promote an ethical approach to the management of software development and maintenance. In particular, those managing or leading software engineers shall, as appropriate: 5.01 Ensure good management for any project on which they work, including effective procedures for promotion of quality and reduction of risk.

Principle 5 (selections)
5.02 Ensure that software engineers are informed of standards before they are being held to them. 5.06 Attract potential software engineers only by full an accurate descriptions of the conditions of employment. (No death marches.) 5.07 Offer fair and just remuneration. 5.12 Not punish anyone for expressing ethical concerns about a project.

Principle 6: Profession
Principle 6: Profession Software engineers shall advance the integrity and reputation of the profession consistent with the public interest. In particular software engineers shall, as appropriate: 6.01 Help develop an organizational environment favorable to acting ethically. 6.05 Not promote their own interests at the expense of the profession, client, or employer.

Principle 7: Colleagues
Principle 7: Colleagues Software engineers shall be fair to and supportive of their colleagues. In particular, software engineers shall, as appropriate: 7.01 Encourage colleagues to adhere to this code. 7.02 Assist colleagues in professional development. 7.02 Credit fully the work of others and retain from taking undue credit.

Principle 8: Self
Principle 8: Self Software engineers shall participate in lifelong learning regarding the practice of their profession and shall promote an ethical approach to the practice of the profession. In particular, software engineers shall continually endeavor to: 8.02 Improve their ability to create safe, reliable, and useful quality software at reasonable cost and with a reasonable time.

Principle 8 (selections)
8.03 Improve their ability to produce accurate, informative, and well-written documentation. 8.05 Improve their knowledge of relevant standards and the law governing the software and related documents on which they work.

Real-World Examples
The legal but not quite ethical dilemma. Deliver an untested program dilemma. What is the safety factor? Designing for failure. What is the cost of corruption? Can national laws permit unethical behavior? Lockheed and Stanford cases.

Its legal but is it ethical?

Thirty years ago I got a call from Bill Lawson asking what he should do as his client asked him to design a computer-based accounting system he considered unethical. He was just starting Lawson Software with his brother Richard and feared that denying this critical first client would spell doom for the startup. The worst sin for a software developer is to walk away from a project. What should I tell him to do and why?

Deliver an untested program?

Is it ethical to deliver an untested program? As general manager of AiC I assigned my best programmer to write a new revenue accounting program for Dart Transports in Minneapolis. Then there were 296 the Federal Tariff rules for accounting revenue for motor truck freight. He could only check out 16 of them in practice. But, Dart Transports was very happy with the program and asked for their final invoice. What should I tell the programmer to do?

What is the safety factor?

For years I taught a senior elective course in aircraft structural engineering at UMinn. The class was familiar with safety factors of say, 10 for an elevator or 5 for a bridge and wanted to know what they were for an aircraft structure. I said that for a high-performance military plane the SF was 1.01 and for an airliner it was 1.02. They were horrified and accused me of teaching them to engage in criminal behavior. What was my defense as a structural engineer?

Designing for failure.

Is it ethical to design a structure for failure? An aircraft structure is designed to separate upon impact just behind the wing spar. Why? A 1400-foot guyed TV tower is designed to collapse in its own shadow at high noon. Why? We cannot design perfect structures but we are doing better with earthquake resistant designs. For example: Where is the center of gravity of the Seattle Space Needle, which is sitting right atop a Pacific Rim fault?

What is the cost of corruption?

I used to teach a technology-based course in international business development in the MBA program at St. Marys Univ. in Minneapolis and also at Global Christian University. I had a 50-something MBA student who chose to write his term paper of the cost of corruption including bribery, theft, and wastage in the hightech international business domain. What percentage of invoiced value was the result of this very experienced sales engineer?

Laws can permit unethical behavior

Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands took a $2M bribe from two Lockheed vice-presidents in order to buy their NATO tactical fighter. The Lockheed vice-presidents were indicted under U.S. law and served time in prison. Prince Bernhard was publically absolved of wrongdoing by his wife Queen Beatrice since bribery is not illegal in The Netherlands. In fact, a business in Holland can even claim business tax deductions for bribes to others.

Dutch law on Internet crime.

When I was CIO at UPenn I got a desperate call from the Stanford CIO about my open back door. A Dutch computer science professor had placed five software bombs in Stanford administrative software and wanted $5000 to remove them. I called in the FBI Internet crime team who called in Interpol, the International Police agency. Interpol reported back that the Dutch police would not intervene because extortion was not a crime under Dutch law. So, what did we do?

What did we do?

Dutch law considers taking something that is not protected against theft or illegal entry no crime. We immediately closed the heretofore open back door on the UPenn URL so criminals could not use it to compromise other .edu URLs. I then sent a team out to Stanford to work with their very capable computer experts to find and remove the five bombs. As a software engineer you need to know about variations in international computer law & GAAP.

A GAAP example.
GAAP: Generally Accepted Accounting Practice In Italy/France/Spain the most commonly used accounting transaction is un-post a journal entry. In German (hence Polish/Czech/Hungarian/etc.) accounting practice it is a felony violation of Federal law to un-post a journal entry? Why? Solution: German accountants always wear vests with their many pockets to carry about slips of paper with provisional journal entries. They only post them when they are certain.