Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp 407–428 | Cite as

Is there a profession of engineering?

  • Michael Davis


This article examines three common arguments for the claim that engineering is not a profession: 1) that engineering lacks an ideal internal to its practice; 2) that engineering’s ideal, whether internal or not, is merely technical; and 3) that engineering lacks the social arrangements characteristic of a true profession. All three arguments are shown to rely on one or another definition of profession, each of which is inadequate. An alternative to these definition is offered. It has at least two advantages. On the one hand, it emphasizes the importance of professional community, the role of occupation in defining profession, the centrality of a moral ideal, and the necessity for morally binding standards (beyond ordinary morality). On the other hand, the alternative definition is in part independent both of moral theory and sociology. This article concludes by considering what light the alternative definition can throw on the professional status of engineers serving the Nazis.


profession engineer ethics method theory Nazi 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and references

  1. 1.
    See Davis, Michael (1996) Professional Autonomy: A Framework for Empirical Research. Business Ethics Quarterly 6: 441–460.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Airaksinen, Timo (1994) Service and science in professional life: in Chadwick, Ruth F. (ed) Ethics and the Professions, Avebury: Aldershot, England, p. 9.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Airaksinen (1994) 9.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Harris, Nigel G. E. (1994) Professional codes and Kantian duties: in Chadwick, 107.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Airaksinen (1994) 10.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Bayles, Michael D. (1981) Professional Ethics. Wadsworth Publishing: Belmont, California, p. ix (but then admits to “emphasizing law and medicine”).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Kochn, Daryl (1994) The Ground of Professional Ethics. Routledge: London, p. 12.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Airaksinen (1994) 1.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Airaksinen (1994) 10.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Airaksinen (1994) 10.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Airaksinen (1994) 3. The “textbook” approach is exactly what is suggested by the arrangement of those textbooks in professional (and business) ethics, perhaps still the majority, that begin with a chapter or two on moral theory.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Airaksinen (1994) 2.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Airaksinen (1994) 3.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    For an example of what a conceptualist treatment of this question might look like, see Kochn, 123–125.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    Airaksinen (1994) 1.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    Zussman, Robert (1995) Mechanics of the Middle Class: Work and Politics Among American Engineers. University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 222. I do not want my criticism of Zussman’s treatment of engineering’s status as a profession to give the impression that I dislike his study as a whole. On the contrary, I consider it among the two or three best studies of engineers at work I have seen. I don’t think any sociologist who has discussed engineering’s status as a profession has done better.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    Zussman (1995) 222.Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    Zussman (1995) 222.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    One of this journal’s referees suggested that I should consider a different sociological explanation of why engineering is not a profession: “while physicians [and] lawyers tend to remain as such throughout their careers, many engineers go into management—a new carcer?” Hence, engineers are not professionals in the sense that physicians and lawyers are, because they lack “life-long commitment” to their line of work. This explanation rests, in part, on an important mistake about engineering. Engineers who “enter management” do not generally leave engineering. The line most employers draw between “bench engineers” and “managers” does not correspond to any distinction between those employees concerned only with things and those employees who order people’s work. All engineering is technical management; even the lowest “bench engineer” helps to prepare instructions for how people will work with things; engineers “in management” do much the same, though they have assistants whose work they must oversee. The difference between “bench engineers” and “engineers in management” is like the military’s distinction between lieutenants and captains, majors, and so on, not like that between privates and officers. The suggested explanation also rests on a mistake about professions. Life-long commitment is a tendency in professions, but not a prerequisite of profession. What is prerequisite, as we shall see, is a commitment to carry on the profession according to its special standard while one engages in the underlying occupation. For empirical evidence that engineers in management generally see themselves as engineers, see Davis, Michael (1997) Better Communications Between Engineers and Managers: Some Ways to Prevent Ethically Hard Choices. Science and Engineering Ethics 3: 171–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 26.
    For defense of this analysis of profession against some criticisms ignored here, see my other attempts to explain and defend it, especially, Davis, Michael: (1987) The Moral Authority of a Professional Code. NOMOS 29: 302–337; (1987) The Use of Professions. Business Economics 22: 5–10; (1988) Vocational Teachers, Confidentiality, and Professional Ethics. International Journal of Applied Philosophy 4: 11–20; (1988) Professionalism Means Putting Your Profession First. Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics: 352–366; (1991) Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession. Philosophy and Public Affairs 20: 150–167; (1991) Do Cops Need a Code of Ethics? Criminal Justice Ethics 10: 14–28; (1993) Treating Patients with Infectious Diseases: An Essay in the Ethics of Dentistry. Professional Ethics 2: 51–65; (1995) The State’s Dr. Death: What’s Unethical about Physicians Helping at Executions? Social Theory and Practice 21: 31–60; and (1995) Science: After Such Knowledge, What Responsibility? Professional Ethics 4: 49–74.Google Scholar
  21. 27.
    Even Koehn (1994) 111–112, a conceptualist unusually careful about practice, seems to admit at least the possibility of a one-member profession.Google Scholar
  22. 34.
    Gorlin, Rena A. (ed) (1986). Codes of Professional Responsibility, Bureau of National Affairs: Washington, D.C., p. 101. The American Dental Association’s early advocacy of fluoridation of the public water supply is another example of the public service a profession feels compelled to provide, even when its primary activity is serving individual patients.Google Scholar
  23. 36.
    This is a point about the division of labor among concepts, one to be defended by considering which usage provides the most information, avoids the most odd results, helps identify important considerations other ways of using the word do not, and so on. For someone who rejects “moral permissibility” as a part of the definition of “profession” (reducing profession to mere “competence”), see, Sanders, John T. (1993) Honor Among Thieves: Some Reflections on Professional Codes of Ethics. Professional Ethics 2: 83–103. If the article’s title is not itself a decisive argument against equating mere competence with profession, the article’s suggestion that we consider the mafia to be a proto-typical profession should be. Sanders has, I think, provided another example of what is wrong with conceptualism (though one relying on a different conception).Google Scholar
  24. 38.
    There are, of course, at least two other common (and proper) ways to understand “ethics”: a) as a synonym for morality; and b) as the name of a field of philosophy (moral theory). Nonetheless, the way I propose to understand “ethics” here seems to me the most useful when trying to understand professional ethics. For defense of this usage, see Davis, Michael (1990) The Ethics Boom: What and Why. Centennial Review 34: 163–186.Google Scholar
  25. 39.
    I believe this voluntary version of the principle of fairness is now relatively uncontroversial. But, for those who think otherwise, I recommend two papers defending the involuntary version against the standard criticisms: Davis, Michael (1987) Nozick’s Argument FOR the Legitimacy of the Welfare State. Ethics 97: 576–594; and Arneson, Richard (1982) The Principle of Fairness and Free-Rider Problems. Ethics 92: 616–633.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Opragen Publications 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Davis
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for the Study of Ethics in the ProfessionsIllinois Institute of TechnologyChicagoUSA

Personalised recommendations