Professional Ethics and Economic Decisions

Many of the fundamentals of engineering ethics are intertwined with the roles of money and  economics-based decisions in the making of professionally ethical judgments. Some of these  integral connections are discussed here, plus sections in later chapters discuss additional aspects  of ethics and economics. For example, Chapter 9, Benefi t/Cost Analysis and Public Sector Eco- nomics, includes material on the ethics of public project contracts and public policy. Although it  is very limited in scope and space, it is anticipated that this coverage of the important role of economics in engineering ethics will prompt further interest on the part of students and instructors of engineering economy.

The terms   morals  and   ethics  are commonly used interchangeably, yet they have slightly  different interpretations. Morals usually relate to the underlying tenets that form the character  and conduct of a person in judging right and wrong. Ethical practices can be evaluated by  using a code of morals or   code of ethics  that forms the standards to guide decisions and actions of individuals and organizations in a profession, for example, electrical, chemical,  mechanical, industrial, or civil engineering. There are several different levels and types of  morals and ethics.

Universal  or  common  morals    These are fundamental moral beliefs held by virtually all people. Most people agree that to steal, murder, lie, or physically harm someone is wrong.

It is possible for   actions  and   intentions  to come into confl ict concerning a common moral.  Consider the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. After their collapse on September 11,  2001, it was apparent that the design was not suffi  cient to withstand the heat generated by the  fi  restorm caused by the impact of an aircraft. The structural engineers who worked on the design  surely did not have the intent to harm or kill occupants in the buildings. However, their design  actions did not foresee this outcome as a measurable possibility. Did they violate the common  moral belief of not doing harm to others or murdering?

Individual  or  personal  morals   These are the moral beliefs that a person has and maintains  over time. These usually parallel the common morals in that stealing, lying, murdering, etc. are immoral acts.

It is quite possible that an individual strongly supports the common morals and has excellent  personal morals, but these may confl ict from time to time when decisions must be made. Con- sider the engineering student who genuinely believes that cheating is wrong. If he or she does not  know how to work some test problems, but must make a certain minimum grade on the fi  nal  exam to graduate, the decision to cheat or not on the fi nal exam is an exercise in following or violating a personal moral.

Professional  or  engineering  ethics   Professionals in a specifi c discipline are guided in their  decision making and performance of work activities by a formal standard or code. The code  states the commonly accepted standards of honesty and integrity that each individual is expected  to demonstrate in her or his practice. There are codes of ethics for medical doctors, attorneys,  and, of course, engineers.

Although each engineering profession has its own code of ethics, the   Code of Ethics for Engineers  published by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) is very com- monly used and quoted. This code, reprinted in its entirety in Appendix C, includes numerous sections that have direct or indirect economic and fi nancial impact upon the designs, actions, and decisions that engineers make in their professional dealings. Here are three examples from  the Code:

 “Engineers, in the fulfi llment of their duties, shall hold paramount the   safety, health, and welfare of the public .” (section I.1) 
“Engineers  shall    not accept fi nancial or other considerations , including free engineering designs, from material or equipment suppliers for specifying their product.” (section III.5.a)
“Engineers using designs supplied by a client recognize that the   designs remain the property of the client  and may not be duplicated by the engineer for others without express permission.” (section  III.9.b)

As with common and personal morals, confl  icts can easily rise in the mind of an engineer  between his or her own ethics and that of the employing corporation. Consider a manufacturing  engineer who has recently come to fi  rmly disagree morally with war and its negative effects on  human beings. Suppose the engineer has worked for years in a military defense contractor’s  facility and does the detailed cost estimations and economic evaluations of producing fi  ghter jets for the Air Force. The Code of Ethics for Engineers is silent on the ethics of producing and  using war materiel. Although the employer and the engineer are not violating any ethics code,  the engineer, as an individual, is stressed in this position. Like many people during a declining  national economy, retention of this job is of paramount importance to the family and the engineer. Confl  icts such as this can place individuals in real dilemmas with no or mostly  unsatisfactory  alternatives.
At first thought, it may not be apparent how activities related to engineering economics may  present an ethical challenge to an individual, a company, or a public servant in government ser- vice. Many money-related situations, such as those that follow, can have ethical dimensions.

In the design stage:

   •     Safety factors are compromised to ensure that a price bid comes in as low as possible. 
   •     Family or personal connections with individuals in a company offer unfair or insider information that allows costs to be cut in strategic areas of a project. 
   •     A  potential  vendor  offers  specifi  cations for company-specifi c equipment, and the design engineer does not have suffi cient time to determine if this equipment will meet the needs of the  project being designed and costed.   
While the system is operating:

   •     Delayed or below-standard maintenance can be performed to save money when cost overruns  exist in other segments of a project. 
   •     Opportunities to purchase cheaper repair parts can save money for a subcontractor working on  a fi  xed-price contract. 
   •     Safety margins are compromised because of cost, personal inconvenience to workers, tight  time  schedules,  etc.   

A good example of the last item—safety is compromised while operating the system—is the  situation that arose in 1984 in Bhopal, India (Martin and Schinzinger 2005, pp. 245–8). A Union  Carbide plant manufacturing the highly toxic pesticide chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) experienced a large gas leak from high-pressure tanks. Some 500,000 persons were exposed to inhalation of this deadly gas that burns moist parts of the body. There were 2500 to 3000 deaths within days, and over the following 10-year period, some 12,000 death claims and 870,000 personal  injury claims were recorded. Although Union Carbide owned the facility, the Indian government  had only Indian workers in the plant. Safety practices clearly eroded due to cost-cutting measures, insuffi cient repair parts, and reduction in personnel to save salary money. However, one of  the surprising practices that caused unnecessary harm to workers was the fact that masks, gloves, and other protective gear were not worn by workers in close proximity to the tanks containing MIC. Why? Unlike in plants in the United States and other countries, there was no air conditioning in the Indian plant, resulting in high ambient temperatures in the facility.

Many ethical questions arise when corporations operate in international settings where the  corporate rules, worker incentives, cultural practices, and costs in the home country differ from  those in the host country. Often these ethical dilemmas are fundamentally based in the economics  that provide cheaper labor, reduced raw material costs, less government oversight, and a host of other cost-reducing factors. When an engineering economy study is performed, it is important for  the engineer performing the study to consider all ethically related matters to ensure that the cost and revenue estimates refl ect what is likely to happen once the project or system is operating.

It is important to understand that the translation from universal morals to personal morals and  professional ethics does vary from one culture and country to another. As an example, consider the  common belief (universal moral) that the awarding of contracts and fi nancial arrangements for services to be performed (for government or business) should be accomplished in a fair and transparent  fashion. In some societies and cultures, corruption in the process of contract making is common and  often “overlooked” by the local authorities, who may also be involved in the affairs. Are these im- moral or unethical practices? Most would say, “Yes, this should not be allowed. Find and punish the  individuals involved.” Yet, such practices do continue, thus indicating the differences in interpretation of common morals as they are translated into the ethics of individuals and professionals.


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