Engineering Ethics: Public health, safety, and welfare

Ethics is at the heart of the engineering practice. In ASCE’s new video series, Engineering Ethics, engineers representing a wide range of backgrounds and technical disciplines talk about the critical role that ethical principles play in guiding the practice of engineering. Engineering Ethics is brought to you by funding from the United Engineering Foundation.

Civil engineering is all around us, and civil engineers are world builders. Roads, electricity, and clean water are all possible thanks to the people who design and build these systems.

Part of civil engineers’ role involves a lasting commitment to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. At the same time, they aim to advance society through innovative solutions to present and future problems.

But because their work is so prevalent in our daily lives, engineers can’t afford to make mistakes. Everything engineers do, every decision that they make, is rooted in ethics: Is it better to do something one way, or another? How much does this element cost? What are the risks being taken? There are countless questions to consider through each phase of a project.

So, how can engineers balance their mission to improve infrastructure with their ethical obligations to society? In the first of this three-part series, interviewees discuss how civil engineers’ actions impact the public’s safety and welfare every day.

View the full Engineering Ethics series.

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  1. How deeply should and do “ethics” really go? Ought we be looking at where the money comes from to pay us for our services and build whatever we’ve designed, or is it enough to ensure that the project itself is safe?

    • Ethics must go deep – It is not enough to simply ensure that the project itself is safe. It also involves more than “where the money comes from to pay us for our services”. Does the project benefit humankind and the environment, or does it do harm? As an example, let’s consider a manufacturing plant that produces chemical warfare munitions. Obviously such a plant must be engineered to prevent collapse or leaks of its contents, but would it be ethical to perform the engineering required to construct such a project? Chemical weapons are banned by international conventions.
      In reality, most projects do not present such clear ethical choices. How about a power line or highway that destroys or segments a neighborhood or a critical natural habit? If the power line or highway provides some benefit, would the harm done to humankind and the environment make it unethical to perform the engineering for such projects?
      Two examples in the video, designing an exoskeleton for the military that can increase the lethality of soldiers and chemical engineering to produce a vaccine, illustrate the range of projects and ethical decision making that an engineer might confront in practice, from questionable to beneficial.


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