Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 149–169

Understanding Engineering Professionalism: A Reflection on the Rights of Engineers


    • Department of English and PhilosophyDrexel University
    • College of Arts and SciencesDrexel University
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11948-009-9166-x

Cite this article as:
Stieb, J.A. Sci Eng Ethics (2011) 17: 149. doi:10.1007/s11948-009-9166-x


Engineering societies such as the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and associated entities have defined engineering and professionalism in such a way as to require the benefit 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 benefit of humanity for professionalism violates an engineer’s rights. It applies political pressure that dissuades from inquiry, approaches to new knowledge and technologies, and the presentation, publication, and use of designs and research findings. Moreover, a more politically neutral definition of engineering and/or professionalism devoid of required service or benefit to mankind does not violate adherence to strong ethical standards.


AltruismCodes of ethicsNSPEProfessionalismRights


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 LeMessurier’s classes asked whether the building’s unique construction could withstand quartering winds (winds coming at an angle in addition to those coming 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 building’s tenants were away, LeMessurier’s team pulled up the walls and floor, 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).

LeMessurier’s story is surely one of professionalism. But, it is far from the perfect hypothetical or textbook case. LeMessurier’s 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 find fault with any engineer and LeMessurier’s faults are as glaring as is his professionalism.

No doubt LeMessurier followed the first fundamental canon of the National Society of Professional Engineer’s (NSPE’s) 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 specified building code. LeMessurier’s case even shows a specific moral obligation to go beyond specified 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 one’s work. What it does not show is a general moral requirement to “benefit humanity.” It does not show that benefiting humanity is a requirement for being a professional and doing professional work. No case does.

Arguably, the Citicorp tower and LeMessurier’s actions can be construed to benefit humanity. Most any action or thing can. It can be argued that nuclear weapons, television sets, pornography and fried chicken all benefit humanity and that their creators are all professionals. Simultaneously, it can be argued that these do not benefit humanity and that whether they do is irrelevant to the professionalism of their creators. What benefits 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 defining ‘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 ethical obligations and responsibilities that make engineering a profession. These…are typically incorporated in codes of ethics” (Moriarty 2008, p. 27). For example, Charles Harris distinguishes between preventative ethics and aspirational ethics (Harris 2008, pp. 154–155). 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 from the 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 NSPE positions or positions on matters of professional ethics” (NSPE 2009c). The NSPE site also lists members of a Board of Ethical Review who 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 society’s 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,1 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 file and gives them among other things the rights and responsibilities of sealing drawings—that is, literally the right to put their rubber stamp on designs they deem acceptable. 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.

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 justification 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” (NSPE 1987, 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 “3…Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner” or “4…act 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 profession’s authorities seems unnecessary. Also, something clear and definite can be done to improve the general understanding of the profession: the requirement to benefit humanity in its documents can be removed. The NSPE code itself does not require the benefit 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 benefit of humanity and this is what should be removed or amended.

As if the troubles with writing specific, morally binding codes were not bad enough, most everyone who writes or speaks on professionalism insists on adding on the rather loose and contentious, “benefit of humanity” as a requirement for professionalism in their documents. Some make it a criterion for professionalism (Layton 1971, pp. 61–62; Moriarty 2008, p. 39; Davis 1998, pp. 15, 205; Selvan 2004), The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) even makes the benefit of humanity part of its very definition 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 benefit of humankind” (NSPE 2009a, emphasis mine).

This sentiment has a long history. This specific definition 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.2 No matter. The requirement to benefit humanity has to end. It is argued here that the NSPE’s definition and much of the general trend of the profession to favor the idea of requiring the benefit of humanity for engineering or for professionalism violates common notions of an engineer’s rights. The requirement to benefit humanity applies political pressure that dissuades from scientific inquiry, approaches to new knowledge and technologies, and the presentation, publication, and use of results or research findings. Meanwhile, a definition of engineering and professionalism that does not include service or benefit to mankind does not violate adherence to strong ethical standards. Giving up benefitting humanity does not require giving up ethics or the rational engineering ideal (Davis 1997, pp. 411–413) central to defining 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).

Defining ‘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 fields. A search of the Philosopher’s 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 passé.

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 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. 70–71). 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 firing, blackballing, or other social and legal sanctions (Bok 2008, p. 129). Professionalism allows society to keep tabs on its members who wield significant power (Ladd 1991, p. 132). Those with power in society are forced to be “accountable”—that 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 altruism—that 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 Fieser’s). The society could also intend to follow utilitarianism—that is pursue for good conduct the greatest good of the greatest number. They could believe in absolute moral rules to benefit 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 individual’s. 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 beneficial social need” and “render gratuitous public service” (Firmage 1991, pp. 63–64).

To repeat, it may be wondered whether to do service or to benefit humanity is the same as ethical altruism. It may indeed be a form of utilitiarianism, a form of Kantianism if “benefit humanity” is taken to be an absolute rule, or even a form of virtue ethics if benefiting humanity is thought to be a virtue. Chesher and Machan take the requirement that business (and by implication engineering)3 “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 benefitting 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 one must benefit humanity in order to be a professional violates an engineer’s rights—hence, 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 first 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 define 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 first, 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 efficiency 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, 54–73). 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 find, 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). Moriarty’s list includes public safety, social justice and environmental sustainability (Moriarty 2008, pp. 54–71). 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 first page of his book with the very definition 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 build—or, so says Merriam Webster’s dictionary which defines engineering as “the application of science and mathematics 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 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 beneficial 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. 63–64).

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 Webster’s dictionary states in its definition 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 profession’s primary goal of service to society would go a considerable distance in redeeming professionalism as a virtue” (Parkan 2008, p. 81). “The professional organization’s 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 reflect 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 definition 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 defined 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 benefits humankind. If there is not some benefit to society, why would it reward and honor the engineering profession?

This redefining of ethics cannot be allowed, for it begs the very question at stake—namely, is it ethical to have to serve or benefit society/humanity? One cannot define the ethical as what serves humanity and then sensibly question 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 altruism—or putting the good of others ahead of one’s 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 scientific/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 agrees:

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 filial piety) and numerous additional ethical views including the plethora of religious views so as not to be too “western” in one’s 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 action—even 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.4 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 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 benefiting 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.5 A more politically neutral definition of engineering and/or professionalism that does not include service or benefit to mankind does not violate adherence to strong ethical standards.

Defining ‘Engineering’ so as to Violate an Engineer’s 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 “benefit humanity” bandwagon in their definition of engineering. They define 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 benefit of humankind” (NSPE 2009a, emphasis mine).

Curiously, the NSPE does not define science altruistically: “The scientist discovers and systematically investigates the fundamental laws of nature and defines the principles which govern them” (NSPE 2009a). One wonders why engineers must benefit mankind while scientists need not. Is there something about the nature of engineering—that it creates useable goods perhaps–that should make engineers more beholden to serving others than scientists? The NSPE allows scientists to be neutral, unpartisan, and objective as befits 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. Webster’s defines “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 find power, authority, and force rearing their heads in a plethora of views as to what will benefit 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 disagreements.

That the charge that engineers must serve others is political—a method of exerting and enforcing power—and 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 significance of man’s 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 alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

Bowers v. Hardwick concerns the privacy of one’s 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 meaning—no matter how the violation of such rights might “benefit humanity.” Among these rights are freedom of association, which may well be taken to imply freedom in the choice and execution of one’s 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 benefit 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 opportunities, 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 “benefit humanity.” Perhaps it 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 Other engineers, and the general public, cannot.

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 specified rights:
  1. 3.

    A S/E [scientist/engineer] shall not be dissuaded from pursuing scientific inquiry because of political or religious concerns, or because the inquiry deviates from a conventional perspective.

  2. 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 scientific principles and does not violate societal ethical precepts.

  3. 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 findings conflict with traditional knowledge. Scientific and engineering results should always be evaluated on their merits and not because of preconceived notions of “truth.”

  4. 9.

    A S/E should object to misuse of research findings for political, ideological or financial purposes.

  5. 10.

    At all times a S/E shall adhere to universal ethical and moral standards (Egar 2000).


Consider once again the NSPE’s definition 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 benefit of humankind” (NSPE 2009a, emphasis mine). It is argued here that the NSPE’s definition and much of the general trend of the profession to favor the idea of requiring the benefit of humanity for professionalism violates 3, 4, 6, and 9. Moreover, a more politically neutral definition of engineering that does not include service or benefit to mankind does not violate 10. Giving up benefitting humanity does not require giving up ethics.

It can be seen that most of these violations of engineer’s 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 “benefit humanity.” Certainly, it is compelling that Communism was thought not to benefit humanity, and this was the epithet used against Oppenheimer. Edward Teller was similarly tarred when he testified 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 1954, p. 7). Some scientists and engineers felt that Teller was disloyal to Oppenheimer.

Did Teller benefit humanity by helping to get Oppenheimer’s 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 benefitting humanity. Hence, there is abundant proof that engineers’ rights are violated because they fail to benefit humanity or no proof, depending on how one looks at it. That is why benefitting 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 NSPE’s definition 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 sufficiently in the public interest (a political concern). They violate 4, because they dissuade engineers from using scientifically grounded approaches to new technologies that do not sufficiently appeal to an “indispensable and beneficial 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 NSPE’s 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 fit with what is taken to be “bettering humanity.” Finally, the NSPE’s definition of engineering and the current tenor of the profession violate 9 which says that “A S/E should object to misuse of research findings for political, ideological or financial purposes” because, as has been said, some findings or designs will fit the political agenda and some will not. It is difficult to ascertain whether television and nuclear weapons provide a benefit 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 “benefit humanity.” However, rights should not be used procedurally or by rote to make decisions for the engineer. The 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. 79–80). The military turns “technoscience” into a war machine, medicine finds 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 Moriarty’s “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 government:

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 hyperefficient and hyperproductive will entail making that effort hyperbureaucratic (Moriarty 2008, p. 84).

Well, who then will to check the forces of disengaged, burdensome technology hypercommodified, hyperbureacratized and run amok if not government? This author’s 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 “benefit of humanity.” Engineers need protection from entities that demand self-sacrifice while pretending that such sacrifices are obvious and the only way to be ethical:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask 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 sacrifice. An Engineering Bill of Rights that would prevent engineering societies from defining “professional” on the basis of contribution to or service to some unspecified others would go far to providing just the sort of checks and balances that the United States forefather’s foresaw when they envisioned that country’s 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 client’s specifications, to receive fair compensation, and to extend the state of the art in his or her field of expertise” (Moriarty 2008, p. 54). What could be more deadening and “colonizing” than an unspecified 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 engineer’s 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 humanity…into 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 engineer’s 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” specifically in the call for sacrifices for the “benefit 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,6 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 “benefit humanity,” so as not to violate an individual’s right to seek benefit or “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 financial 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 isn’t relevant” (Hurlburt et al. 2009, p. 18). Hurlburt et al. then cite an article by the present author as evidence of this attitude:

Such an attitude isn’t unheard of among computing professionals—for 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 benefits (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 isn’t relevant” (Hurlburt et al. 2009, p. 18). Ethics is very relevant, just not the ethics of altruism or benefitting 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. 18–19) or “ethics isn’t relevant” (Hurlburt et al. 2009, p. 18) with no third possibility. However, there is no evidence for the ethical necessity of favoring the public good or benefiting humanity. There is no evidence that serving the public good or benefiting 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 benefit of humanity are not evidence of the ethical necessity or requirement to benefit humanity. They are only evidence in the widespread belief in this necessity.

Some codes definitely 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 firms 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 benefit others positively.

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 benefit humanity or the public in order to be a professional. Such a requirement would create serious troubles for those attempting to decide whether the creators of television sets, weapons, and genetically modified foods are professionals since these do not obviously benefit 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 benefit humanity. Until the verdict of safety (or un-safety as the case may be), it should be possible to engineer professionally without actually benefiting 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 benefit humanity. Hence, the requirement seems hollow and it does seem possible to engineer professionally without benefitting humanity or serving anyone. However, the words and the sanctimonious ideals remain to damage accurate portrayal and ethical evaluation of the profession and professionalism.

Finally, what is the relationship between a dedicated “professional”—someone who is fully committed to apply the most up-to-date knowledge and skills to a given line of work—and an ethical professional? Is there a difference? Should there be?7

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 benefit of humanity. The camps certainly did not benefit humanity. Ergo, those who built them where unprofessional. The benefit 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 benefiting 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 sufficient. 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 sufficient 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 “benefitting humanity.” Put positively instead of negatively, the proper moral ideal for engineering professionalism is actually what it is for most walks of life–something like “act according to one’s 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 benefitting humanity as a requirement derive from virtue ethics and ethical egoism. Other than the current author, only Chesher and Machan (1999) consistently reject the benefit of humanity for professionalism. Most authors still require some greater social benefit or ideal. The work of engineering ethicist Harris (2008), business ethicist Solomon (2003), and bioethicists Oakley and Cocking (2001), can be cited as encouraging.


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. Accessed 17 August 2009.


The 1828 definition 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 definition 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. Accessed 19 August 2009. The earliest reference I have been able to find for the current definition (1979) changes ‘well-being of humanity’ to “for the benefit of mankind.” No doubt this was later changed to “for the benefit of humankind” to avoid sexist language. See Famous engineering quotes. Office of Recruitment and Retention. University of South Florida. Accessed 19 August 2009.


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 benefit humanity.


I have used this analogy in a published essay but cannot find the source.


I thank a reviewer from Science and Engineering Ethics for this near direct quote.


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 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.


Again, I thank a reviewer from Science and Engineering Ethics for these questions including some of the wording.


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009