industrial engineering ethics case studies

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Board of Ethical Review Cases

BER Cases

The following constitute all published opinions of the NSPE Board of Ethical Review. Opinions issued by the NSPE Board of Ethical review prior to 1980 are provided solely for historic purposes and may no longer be valid because of changes to the NSPE Code of Ethics as well as legal and regulatory requirements.

NSPE Code of Ethics:

Engineering is an important and learned profession. As members of this profession, engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

Perform services only in areas of their competence.

Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.

Avoid deceptive acts.

Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

If engineers' judgment is overruled under circumstances that endanger life or property, they shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate.

Engineers shall approve only those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards.

Engineers shall not reveal facts, data, or information without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized or required by law or this Code.

Engineers shall not permit the use of their name or associate in business ventures with any person or firm that they believe is engaged in fraudulent or dishonest enterprise.

Engineers shall not aid or abet the unlawful practice of engineering by a person or firm.

Engineers having knowledge of any alleged violation of this Code shall report thereon to appropriate professional bodies and, when relevant, also to public authorities, and cooperate with the proper authorities in furnishing such information or assistance as may be required.

Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.

Engineers shall undertake assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical fields involved.

Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documents dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence, nor to any plan or document not prepared under their direction and control.

Engineers may accept assignments and assume responsibility for coordination of an entire project and sign and seal the engineering documents for the entire project, provided that each technical segment is signed and sealed only by the qualified engineers who prepared the segment.

Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony, which should bear the date indicating when it was current.

Engineers may express publicly technical opinions that are founded upon knowledge of the facts and competence in the subject matter.

Engineers shall issue no statements, criticisms, or arguments on technical matters that are inspired or paid for by interested parties, unless they have prefaced their comments by explicitly identifying the interested parties on whose behalf they are speaking, and by revealing the existence of any interest the engineers may have in the matters.

Engineers shall act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.

Engineers shall disclose all known or potential conflicts of interest that could influence or appear to influence their judgment or the quality of their services.

Engineers shall not accept compensation, financial or otherwise, from more than one party for services on the same project, or for services pertaining to the same project, unless the circumstances are fully disclosed and agreed to by all interested parties.

Engineers shall not solicit or accept financial or other valuable consideration, directly or indirectly, from outside agents in connection with the work for which they are responsible.

Engineers in public service as members, advisors, or employees of a governmental or quasi-governmental body or department shall not participate in decisions with respect to services solicited or provided by them or their organizations in private or public engineering practice.

Engineers shall not solicit or accept a contract from a governmental body on which a principal or officer of their organization serves as a member.

Engineers shall avoid deceptive acts.

Engineers shall not falsify their qualifications or permit misrepresentation of their or their associates' qualifications. They shall not misrepresent or exaggerate their responsibility in or for the subject matter of prior assignments. Brochures or other presentations incident to the solicitation of employment shall not misrepresent pertinent facts concerning employers, employees, associates, joint venturers, or past accomplishments.

Engineers shall not offer, give, solicit, or receive, either directly or indirectly, any contribution to influence the award of a contract by public authority, or which may be reasonably construed by the public as having the effect or intent of influencing the awarding of a contract. They shall not offer any gift or other valuable consideration in order to secure work. They shall not pay a commission, percentage, or brokerage fee in order to secure work, except to a bona fide employee or bona fide established commercial or marketing agencies retained by them.

Engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity.

Engineers shall acknowledge their errors and shall not distort or alter the facts.

Engineers shall advise their clients or employers when they believe a project will not be successful.

Engineers shall not accept outside employment to the detriment of their regular work or interest. Before accepting any outside engineering employment, they will notify their employers.

Engineers shall not attempt to attract an engineer from another employer by false or misleading pretenses.

Engineers shall not promote their own interest at the expense of the dignity and integrity of the profession.

Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness and without discrimination.

Engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest.

Engineers are encouraged to participate in civic affairs; career guidance for youths; and work for the advancement of the safety, health, and well-being of their community.

Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project.

Engineers are encouraged to extend public knowledge and appreciation of engineering and its achievements.

Engineers are encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development 1 in order to protect the environment for future generations. Footnote 1 "Sustainable development" is the challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and protecting environmental quality and the natural resource base essential for future development.

Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and should keep current in their specialty fields by engaging in professional practice, participating in continuing education courses, reading in the technical literature, and attending professional meetings and seminars.

Engineers shall avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public.

Engineers shall avoid the use of statements containing a material misrepresentation of fact or omitting a material fact.

Consistent with the foregoing, engineers may advertise for recruitment of personnel.

Consistent with the foregoing, engineers may prepare articles for the lay or technical press, but such articles shall not imply credit to the author for work performed by others.

Engineers shall not disclose, without consent, confidential information concerning the business affairs or technical processes of any present or former client or employer, or public body on which they serve.

Engineers shall not, without the consent of all interested parties, promote or arrange for new employment or practice in connection with a specific project for which the engineer has gained particular and specialized knowledge.

Engineers shall not, without the consent of all interested parties, participate in or represent an adversary interest in connection with a specific project or proceeding in which the engineer has gained particular specialized knowledge on behalf of a former client or employer.

Engineers shall not be influenced in their professional duties by conflicting interests.

Engineers shall not accept financial or other considerations, including free engineering designs, from material or equipment suppliers for specifying their product.

Engineers shall not accept commissions or allowances, directly or indirectly, from contractors or other parties dealing with clients or employers of the engineer in connection with work for which the engineer is responsible.

Engineers shall not attempt to obtain employment or advancement or professional engagements by untruthfully criticizing other engineers, or by other improper or questionable methods.

Engineers shall not request, propose, or accept a commission on a contingent basis under circumstances in which their judgment may be compromised.

Engineers in salaried positions shall accept part-time engineering work only to the extent consistent with policies of the employer and in accordance with ethical considerations.

Engineers shall not, without consent, use equipment, supplies, laboratory, or office facilities of an employer to carry on outside private practice.

Engineers shall not attempt to injure, maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of other engineers. Engineers who believe others are guilty of unethical or illegal practice shall present such information to the proper authority for action.

Engineers in private practice shall not review the work of another engineer for the same client, except with the knowledge of such engineer, or unless the connection of such engineer with the work has been terminated.

Engineers in governmental, industrial, or educational employ are entitled to review and evaluate the work of other engineers when so required by their employment duties.

Engineers in sales or industrial employ are entitled to make engineering comparisons of represented products with products of other suppliers.

Engineers shall accept personal responsibility for their professional activities, provided, however, that engineers may seek indemnification for services arising out of their practice for other than gross negligence, where the engineer's interests cannot otherwise be protected.

Engineers shall conform with state registration laws in the practice of engineering.

Engineers shall not use association with a nonengineer, a corporation, or partnership as a "cloak" for unethical acts.

Engineers shall give credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due, and will recognize the proprietary interests of others.

Engineers shall, whenever possible, name the person or persons who may be individually responsible for designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments.

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.

Engineers, before undertaking work for others in connection with which the engineer may make improvements, plans, designs, inventions, or other records that may justify copyrights or patents, should enter into a positive agreement regarding ownership.

Engineers' designs, data, records, and notes referring exclusively to an employer's work are the employer's property. The employer should indemnify the engineer for use of the information for any purpose other than the original purpose.

5 Disastrous Engineering Failures Due to Ethics

boat going down a flooded street

Engineering failures due to ethics are not new. From the Johnstown Flood in 1889 to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, engineering failures have been caused by problems in design, construction and safety protocol.

The blame can often be laid at ignorance, miscommunications and, in some extreme cases, indifference or negligence. After many of these engineering disasters however, professionals and leaders have learned from the wrong decisions that were made. Here, we discuss some of the worst engineering disasters and what caused them.

Not all engineering mistakes are associated with large-scale feats or impressive architectural marvels. From 1971 through 1976, the Ford Motor Company produced and sold more than 2.2 million Ford Pintos. The automaker set out to make a competitive, affordable car, but late into the development of its design, engineers discovered an issue with the fuel tank. Located between the rear axle and the bumper, the tank punctured and ruptured easily due to the car’s design. Ford’s engineers recommended an easy fix to the problem, one that would cost an additional $11 for each vehicle. In spite of this, the company decided to continue with the design as is, both to keep the cost low and to not delay production.

After just a few years on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating accidents involving the small car catching fire, but it took an article from the magazine Mother Jones to bring to light the Pinto’s danger to the public as well as Ford’s previous knowledge of it. After losing a lawsuit, Ford recalled the Pinto in 1978 and fixed vehicles with the original suggested solution. Some estimate that between 27 and 180 people died from the fuel tank issue. 1

The saga of the Love Canal is one of the first major environmental disasters in the U.S. The project originally began in 1894 when an entrepreneur attempted to build a canal in Niagara Falls, New York, to bring water and hydroelectric power to the city. The project was never completed, but in 1947, the canal was sold to Hooker Chemicals and Plastic Corporation. The company lined the unfinished canal with clay and began dumping chemicals and waste into the then isolated site. In 1953, the site was sold again, but this time to build an elementary school and houses.

Controversy remains over whether Hooker or the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which chose the site in spite of strict restrictions detailed in the land deed, is responsible for the consequences from building on the site. During the construction of the school, homes and a sewer line were built on and through the canal. The clay lining broke and chemicals began seeping into the ground. Eventually a state of emergency was declared by New York. Residents reported miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other disorders and continued to fight to keep the site vacant years after they were evacuated. Today, the ramifications of this environmental and engineering failure still impacts building and policy today. 2

The Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway

One year after the Hyatt Regency Hotel was completed in Kansas City, Missouri, two walkways suspended over the atrium lobby collapsed in July 1981. It happened in the middle of a dance, with attendees packed on the walkways and the floor below. More than 200 were injured, and 114 people were killed.

A series of decisions and miscommunications were found to be at fault. The original designs for the walkways violated the city’s weight-bearing codes: The second and fourth story walkways were suspended by slim sets of rods anchored to the ceiling. However, following a discussion with the fabricator during construction, the decision was made to attach the set of rods supporting the second-floor walkway to the bottom of the fourth—instead of the ceiling. That meant the rods attached to the fourth-floor walkway were supporting twice the weight than the original design intended. A lack of proper communication was blamed for the design change not being analyzed and approved properly, but the engineers involved with the site and the fabricators refused to accept responsibility. 3

New Orleans’ Levee System

The American Society of Civil Engineers notes that the destruction of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina is unique among engineering failures. No one single decision led to the disaster, but rather systemic failures were the cause.

During construction, the Army Corps of Engineers failed to follow their own guidelines when estimating the strength of the soil—and designed the system to withstand low hurricane wind speeds. The height of the levees was another of many engineering mistakes: In addition to using flawed data about land elevation, the Corps also did not take into account the land’s natural, gradual sinking. In addition, local, state and federal politics and mismanagement played a role in both the quality and speediness of the construction and in failing to fund and maintain the system.

Across the Gulf Coast, more than 1,800 died and more than $100 billion in damage was caused. New Orleans was one of the hardest hit regions from Hurricane Katrina. Roughly 80 percent of the city and its surrounding area were flooded. 4

The Titanic

More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912. Over the years, many have researched and investigated the details of its sinking, and it has been determined that a number of design issues and poor decisions led to its sinking in just over two and-a-half hours.

As one of the biggest ocean liners of its day, the Titanic featured 16 watertight compartments. If four of those flooded, the ship would still be able to stay afloat. Six compartments flooded though because the bulkheads were not tall enough to hold the water. 5 Some potential causes behind the ship’s sinking include designs that failed to take into account its size and mobility, the speed the ship was traveling, ignored warnings about the likelihood of icebergs and other factors. 6

One flaw that is undisputed though: There were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The 20 lifeboats would only have had space for roughly 1,200 people, while more than 2,200 passengers and crew were on board the ship. Additional lifeboats had been removed from the design because the ship owners were worried that it made the ship look unsafe and seemed packed on the deck.

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Decisions that impact the integrity of a design or its construction usually come from the top down. Lapses in leadership can lead to these kinds of engineering failures due to ethics. That’s why it’s essential to have leaders trained in both ethical decision-making and technical decision-making.

At the Case School of Engineering, our online graduate programs focus on developing the skills in leadership and ethics that highly skilled engineers need to be successful. Joining our program means joining a network of experienced engineering leaders from a number of different industries. Learn more about who our students are .

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industrial engineering ethics case studies

A quality assurance engineer must decide whether or not to ship products that might be defective.

An intern at a power electronics startup faces unkind comments from a fellow engineer. She suspects that her colleague is prejudice toward female engineers.

A bioengineering researcher discovers an error in protocol and feels pressured not to report it to her supervisor.

A computer startup company risks violating copyright laws if it reuses a code that is the intellectual property of another company.

A recently promoted manager at an industrial engineering company discovers that factory workers are asked to work more than eight hours a day without getting paid overtime.

Full transparency might prevent a project leader from closing a deal with a valuable client. Should he still clarify the situation to his client?

A manager at a consumer electronics company struggles over whether or not he should disclose confidential information to a valued customer.

A medical researcher is asked to trim data before presenting it to the scientific advisory board.

A technical sales engineer feels pressure to falsify a sales report in order to prevent the delay of her company's IPO.

When a computer filled with personal data gets stolen, a data company must decide how to manage the breach in security.

Cases exclusively on the CD-ROM

NSF Workshop Cases - Numerical Problems with Ethical Issues

� 2000 Wadsworth Publishing Company

Industrial engineering students explore ethical issues through experiential learning case study

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to equipping software into 11 million of its vehicles worldwide, allowing the cars to emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than their emissions test indicated and well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limits. This case was used as a backdrop for third-year industrial engineering students in the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (FEAS) to explore ethical dilemmas and apply professionalism in their field by investigating engineers’ responsibilities and duties. 

To enhance students’ knowledge of best engineering practices, Jamy Li , a researcher and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Fenella Amarasinghe, Senior Manager, Education Planning and Development at FEAS, collaborated to create an assignment that allowed students to consider the ethical issues of the Volkswagen case and were tasked with presenting their findings.

“The teaching team of Fenella, the graduate assistants and I wanted to incorporate different case studies to improve the curriculum to achieve its objective of enhancing the real-world knowledge of students,” described Li.

By considering the relevance of learning from past failures and understanding what it means for future work, “it’s a way for students to think about the complexities inherent in engineering practices,” said Amarasinghe. “It is tempting to seek a clear-cut right and wrong answer, but there are indeed shades of gray and competing priorities that can impact how decisions are made.” 

The assignment provided students with the experience to navigate ethical issues within their industry and prepare them to approach these dilemmas in their professional lives. Touching on key All-in Approach (AIA) hubs such as experiential learning and leadership, students had the opportunity to examine the case study critically and investigate solutions that would effectively serve the people their work impacts.

Third-year industrial engineering student, Pat Vellalaghan, explained that the unique assignment helped to highlight engineers’ role in society. “When you’re studying engineering, you’re expecting just to study math or science,” said Vellalaghan. “But to do an ethics assignment such as this one provides a very different perspective.”

Reflecting on the assignment, Vellalaghan said his biggest takeaway was considering his duties as an engineer. “I believe that after doing this assignment, we have a responsibility not just to the company we work for, but rather, the people that our work affects,” said Vellalaghan. 

“In terms of this scandal, Volkswagen was trying to cut the bottom line and cheat,” said Vellalaghan. “However, their engineers should have realized that the environmental impacts the car has is a universal problem that will affect everyone, not just the people that buy their cars.”

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to realize that as engineers, whatever we do has an impact on society, and it’s our responsibility to uphold and honour that,” said Vellalaghan.

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Engineering Ethics: Case Studies and Lessons Learned

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Texas A&M University

Civil Engineering Ethics Site

1992 nsf case report, teaching engineering ethics, a case study approach.

Michael S. Pritchard Editor CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF ETHICS IN SOCIETY WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY Copyright 1992: Center for the Study of Ethics in Society National Science Foundation Grant No. DIR-8820837


A project such as this cannot be the work of just one person. Although, as principal investigator, I accept full responsibility for the flaws in the project, credit for whatever merits it has must be shared with many others. First and foremost, I thank the more than 50 practicing engineers for their time and thoughtfulness in providing us with illustrations that gave us ideas for our case studies. The interviews ranged from one hour to more than five hours with an engineer who met with us on two occasions. One company provided us with access to its employees for an entire working day. Not only did these engineers provide us with a wealth of ideas, their enthusiasm for our project was a continual source of support.

Special thanks go to my co-principal investigator, James Jaksa (Communication), who shared interviewing responsibilities for the project (even sacrificing a week-long Spring Break to talk with engineers). He also wrote preliminary drafts of many of the cases.

In Western Michigan University’s College of Arts & Sciences, Dean Douglas Ferraro and Associate Dean David Lyon, along with Richard Dieker (Chair, Communication) and Arthur Falk (Chair, Philosophy), cooperated with the project by approving released time from teaching for James Jaksa (Communication) and me. Pat Nelson, Philosophy Secretary, provided needed assistance with various aspects of the project.

Western Michigan University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, under the leadership of Dean Leonard Lamberson and Associate Dean Molly Williams, proved most hospitable to our efforts. Robert Boughner (Industrial Engineering) and Ralph Tanner (Engineering Technology) served as consultants on the project. In addition to providing invaluable advice, they regularly made their classrooms available for experimenting with the cases. They, along with Brian Akers (Director of WMU’s Grand Rapids Regional Center), Pnina Ari-Gur (Engineering Technology), Richard Munsterman (Industrial Engineering), and Frank Wolf (Industrial Engineering) were very helpful in making contact with local engineers and engineering societies. Raja Aravamuthan (Paper & Printing Science & Engineering), Robert Boughner, David Peterson (Paper & Printing Science & Engineering), and Ralph Tanner participated in the Ethics Center’s “Teaching Ethics Across the Curriculum” project, which included engineering as an area of interest. At the suggestion of Raja Aravamuthan, I was invited to make a presentation in one of Richard Flores’ (Director, WMU Paper Technology Foundation) classes. Thanks go as well to the many other engineering faculty at WMU who have made suggestions about the project during the past three years.

My Philosophy colleagues John Dilworth and Joseph Ellin served as consultants on the project. John Dilworth designed the software shell for the case studies and provided commentary on twenty cases. He also tried out many of the cases in his business ethics classes. Joseph Ellin wrote commentaries on more than twenty-five of the cases. In addition, I had two graduate assistants during the three years of the project. David Zacker assisted during the first two years of the project. He helped John Dilworth with the software design, created program files for cases, interviewed engineers, and wrote earlier versions of cases. Charles Marsh assisted in the third year, refining the software versions of cases and helping prepare the final set of materials available for classroom use.

Under the leadership of Donald Thompson, Vice President for Research, the professional staff of WMU’s Research and Sponsored Programs provided vital assistance in both the preparation of the project proposal to the National Science Foundation and in its subsequent implementation. Special thanks go to Wil Emmert (Senior Research and Program Officer), Michael Walters (Research and Program Officer), and Shelly Carpenter (Grants & Contracts).

Extensive support came from outside Western Michigan University. Rachelle Hollander (Director of NSF’s EVS Program) frequently suggested that others working on related projects contact us. As a result, regular contact was established with Michael Rabins (Mechanical Engineering) and C.E. Harris (Philosophy) at Texas A&M. I was invited to visit their class on ethics in engineering, we made joint presentations at the 1st International Conference on Environmentally Conscious Engineering (Santa Fe, Sept. 1991), and we have now begun writing a text for Wadsworth that will integrate aspects of our two NSF projects. I also was placed in contact with Michael Davis (Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology), who tried out some of our cases in his NSF project. In addition, Vivian Weil (Director of IIT’s Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions) invited me to Chicago to present an account of our project to a combined group of engineering deans and others who have had NSF projects on engineering ethics. All of these contacts proved extremely valuable in carrying out our project. David Krueger (Business Administration, Baldwin-Wallace College) tried out several cases in his training program on technical communications between managers and engineers; and he offered several helpful suggestions for improvements. David Smith (Director of Indiana University’s Poynter Center) organized a week-long Lilly Endowment workshop on “Ethics and the Educated Person” during the summer of 1991. Seven colleges and universities sent teams of three to the workshop. James Jaksa and I formed part of Western’s team. Another team consisted of two engineers and an architect from Notre Dame. The upshot is that Steven Silliman (Civil Engineering) tried out many of our cases in one of his classes and provided useful feedback.

A special feature of the case studies we have developed is that each case is accompanied by a set of commentaries. In addition to my colleagues John Dilworth and Joseph Ellin, many others served as commentators: Kenneth L. Carper, W. Gale Cutler, Donald Chiven, Michael Davis, C.E. Harris, Carl O. Hilgarth, Neil R. Luebke, Ted Lockhart, Michael Rabins, Wade L. Robison, Lea P. Stewart, and Henry West. Their contributions provide an invaluable supplement to the cases themselves.

Something should be said about my many colleagues at Western Michigan University who have been instrumental in supporting interdisciplinary work such as this in ethics. The Center for the Study of Ethics in Society was formed by a group of interested faculty in the fall of 1986. This project exemplifies the sort of work we envisaged being able to do together.

Western Michigan University’s Academic Services has consistently supported the activities of the Ethics Center. Thanks go to Director Howard Poole for his helpful advice at various junctures during this project.

A very special thanks must go to Laurel Grotzinger, Dean of the Graduate College during our first six years, for providing our center with a home and for providing both moral and financial support for our endeavors.

Finally, of course, this project would not have been possible without the generous support of the National Science Foundation. We thank NSF for Grant No. DIR-8820837, in its Ethics and Values in Science program in the Studies in Science, Technology and Society Division.

Michael S. Pritchard, Director

Center for the Study of Ethics in Society

The more than 30 cases address a wide range of ethical issues that can arise in engineering practice. There is no easy way to categorize the cases. So they are presented in alphabetical order by case name. There are some broad categories in terms of which many of the cases can be arranged. However, it should be noted that many cases fall into several of these categories; and many cases raise issues for which no special category is listed below. It is best for readers to view the listings below simply as suggestive.

Acknowledging Mistakes

Conflicts of interest.

Dissent and/or Whistleblowing

Environmental & Safety Concerns

Honesty and Truthfulness

Organizational Communication

Quality Control and Product Liability

Responsibility arising from what others do.

Public Service

Women in engineering, commentators.

Kenneth L. Carper – School of Architecture – Washington State University W. Gale Cutler – Management Consultant – Retired Staff Vice-President for University Relations – Whirlpool Corporation Donald Chivens – Mechanical Engineering Department – California Polytechnic State University Michael Davis – Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions – Illinois Institute of Technology John Dilworth – Department of Philosophy – Western Michigan University Joseph Ellin – Department of Philosophy – Western Michigan University C. E. Harris – Department of Philosophy – Texas A&M University Carl O. Hilgarth – College of Engineering Technologies – Shawnee State University Neil R. Luebke – Department of Philosophy – Oklahoma State University Ted Lockhart – Department of Humanities – Michigan Technological University Michael Rabins – Department of Mechanical Engineering – Texas A&M University Wade L. Robison – Departments of Philosophy – Rochester Institute of Technology and Kalamazoo College Lea P. Stewart – Department of Communication – Rutgers University Henry West – Department of Philosophy – Macalaster College


Michael S. Pritchard

The Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (EAC/ABET) now requires accredited engineering programs in the United States to make serious efforts to foster in their students “an understanding of the ethical characteristics of the engineering profession and practice.”2 In cooperation with the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Western Michigan University’s Center for the Study of Ethics in Society undertook a three year project to develop case studies that can be used in meeting this EAC/ABET requirement. This project is one of several funded by the National Science Foundation’s Ethics and Values in Science program in order to improve ethics education in engineering. What follows is an introduction to the project–its background and rationale, and guidelines for its use.

As many professional engineers can testify, ethical lessons are often learned only after something has been overlooked or has gone wrong. There is no wholly adequate substitute for actual engineering experience. However, having students reflect on realistic case studies can provide some helpful preparation for dealing with ethical issues they are likely to face once they do enter engineering practice.

By requiring engineering programs to introduce students to ethical concerns, EAC/ABET is taking the position that students need to begin to think about ethical issues before things may go wrong. In essence, EAC/ABET is advocating a kind of preventive ethics, which is much like preventive medicine in that one doesn’t wait until something is obviously amiss before taking appropriate action. Preventive medicine advocates good health habits as a means for minimizing the need for more serious medical intervention later. Similarly, preventive ethics tries to anticipate possible consequences of actions in such a way that more serious problems are avoided later.

A Calvin and Hobbes comic strip nicely illustrates the importance of thinking ahead.3 As they are cascading down a treacherous hill in Calvin’s wagon they discuss their circumstance:

Calvin: Ever notice how decisions make chain reactions?

Hobbes: How so?

Calvin: Well, each decision we make determines the range of choices we’ll face next. Take this fork in the road for instance. Which way should we go? Arbitrarily I choose left. Now, as a direct result of that decision, we’re faced with another choice: Should we jump this ledge or ride along the side of it? If we hadn’t turned left at the fork, this new choice would never have come up.

Hobbes: I note with some dismay, you’ve chosen to jump the ledge.

Calvin: Right. And that decision will give us new choices.

Hobbes: Like, should we bail out or die in the landing?

Calvin: Exactly. Our first decision created a chain reaction of decisions. Let’s jump.

After crashlanding in a shallow pond, Calvin philosophizes: “See? If you don’t make each decision carefully, you never know where you’ll end up. That’s an important lesson we should learn sometime.” Hobbes replies, “I wish we could talk about these things without the visual aids.” Hobbes might prefer that they talk through a case study or two before venturing with Calvin into engineering practice.

The classroom can provide engineering students with opportunities to absorb Calvin’s lesson “without the visual aids.” What should a classroom concerned with preventive ethics aim to accomplish? After a two year study of ethics programs in higher education sponsored by the Hastings Center, an interdisciplinary group of educators agreed on five main goals:

There is not just one way in which these goals might be met. For example, basic engineering ethics textbooks might be used. Several good textbooks have been published in the last few years,5 and good articles regularly appear in professional journals.6 Another avenue is the use of case studies. This is the concern of our project. We have developed case studies that can be used either as a supplement to, or as an alternative to the more standard textbook approach. Without assuming the superiority of a case study approach over a standard textbook approach, the merits of a case study approach will now be discussed.

The use of case studies has a distinguished history in law and business schools, and it has been very successful in the more recent emergence of medical ethics as an area of study. One of the major reasons the use of case studies is so successful is that ethical inquiry begins with problems that professionals can expect to have to face. This is in contrast to beginning at a highly theoretical level and only later considering how rather general principles and rules might apply to actual situations. By beginning with realistic cases, students can immediately appreciate the relevance and importance of giving serious thought to ethics. Careful reflection on the cases will itself suggest the need for moving to a more theoretical level (for example, from what is fair in this situation to what fairness is). At the same time, by keeping a steady eye on the practical context within which professionals work, theoretical reflection is undertaken with practical purpose in mind.

Before proceeding further into the topic of ethics in engineering, it is wise to pause for a moment to talk about ethics generally. Ethics, as a subject of study, has traditionally been conceived as a part of Philosophy, which also studies Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Aesthetics, and the like. Ethics is also studied in Religion. Philosophy and Religion are daunting subjects for many people. Thus, there is a temptation for Engineering faculty and students to think that, if they have not studied Philosophy or Religion before, they are not ready to think and talk about ethics in engineering. In fact, a young engineer interviewed in our project commented: “I don’t know much about ethics. I didn’t have any in college. All I know is that I do what I’m told.”

This comment suggests two basic confusions. First, it expresses the idea that simply doing what one is told is a workable maxim. It is not–either ethically or practically. For example, if an engineer is told by a supervisor to submit fraudulent data, this is not only ethically questionable, it might well work to the disadvantage of all parties involved if the fraud is discovered by others. Furthermore, even if one does not act contrary to what one is told, what one is told to do seldom has enough specificity to eliminate the need for individual discernment and discretion.

Second, the young engineer’s statement suggests that, without some explicit focus on Ethics in the college classroom, one does not know much about ethics. This is like saying that, without explicitly studying Logic, one does not know much about logic. But students who take classes in Logic do not enter the classroom with “blank tablets.” They have been developing and exercising their logical abilities all of their lives. A course in Logic helps students refine and further develop these abilities by encouraging them to self-consciously articulate what they already know and subject it to critical analysis and application. Thus, they develop a more systematic, critical understanding of what is already quite familiar to them; and they build on this. The same is true of students who take classes in Ethics.

The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid wisely insisted that morality is everyone’s business, “and therefore the knowledge of it ought to be within the reach of all.”7 He also denies that “in order to understand his duty a man must needs be a philosopher and a metaphysician.”8 Some philosophical reflection may be necessary, but this is not the exclusive preserve of philosophers. Philosophical reflection, too, is everyone’s business. Reid acknowledges that moral systems “swell to great magnitude.” But this is not because there is a large number of general moral principles. Actually, he says, they are “few and simple.” Moral systems are complex because applications of moral principles “extend to every part of human conduct, in every condition, every relation, and every transaction of life.”9

A glance at the National Society for Professional Engineers’ (NSPE) Code of Ethics lends some support to Reid’s analysis. Although the code applies to a broad range of professional conduct, the number of underlying, organizing principles is relatively few. It emphasizes protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public; competence; objectivity; truthfulness; and serving as faithful agents of their employers and clients.10 There is nothing surprising in this list (although the emphasis on protection of the public is a fairly recent addition). However, as the full body of the code reveals, the special functions of engineers in their professional life require elaborations of these basic principles in the context of engineering practice. Furthermore, it is clear that even these further elaborations are no substitute for individual judgment or decision. The NSPE code is not like a recipe in a cookbook. At best, it provides a basic framework, with general guidelines, for engineers to bear in mind when engaged in their work; and it is not self-interpreting.

This is why NSPE’s Board of Ethical Review (BER) periodically presents cases with commentary on how the code might be used to deal with them. This is an invaluable service to the engineering profession, providing paradigm examples of acceptable and unacceptable conduct according to the code. The code, in turn, expresses and confirms the shared ethical beliefs and commitments of members of NSPE. Thus, the BER serves the important function of further articulating for engineers, their employers and clients, and the public the basic ethical standards engineers should be expected to observe.

In striking contrast to the kinds of cases discussed by the BER are those typically presented in the media. What examples come to mind? There is a familiar list: Bhophal, Chernobyl, the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt-Regency walkway, Three Mile Island, DC-10 crashes, fiery Ford Pinto gas tanks, Exxon’s Valdez oil tanker spill, the space-shuttle Challenger disaster, the Tampa Bay Bridge collapse, and so on. While important and instructive, these cases focus on extraordinary rather than ordinary situations facing engineers. Exclusive concentration on such cases may give students a distorted picture of ethical concerns in engineering practice. Since only a small fraction of engineers are actually involved in such newsworthy events, students may simply conclude that all they have to do is make sure they avoid such situations. However, responsible engineering surely involves more than avoiding newsworthy disasters.

Engineering societies, of course, are fully aware of this. The codes of ethics do address more everyday concerns. And a noteworthy feature of the BER case studies is that, although they are based on actual situations, few are newsworthy enough to attract the attention of the media. Their importance for most engineers and engineering students lies precisely in their ordinariness. These are problems that any engineer might have to deal with. Thus, they would seem to come closer to meeting EAC/ABET concerns than the less frequent, more spectacular incidents portrayed by the media. The BER discussions are very useful in helping engineers and students see how NSPE’s Code of Ethics should be interpreted in a variety of situations. But an exclusive focus on BER cases has several shortcomings.

First, since the case studies are designed to aid understanding of the NSPE Code of Ethics, they are essentially code driven. Analyses by the BER are quasi-legalistic in tone, mirroring the specific provisions of the code. There is little analytical discussion of the underlying ethical principles or concepts. But codes themselves need to be evaluated.11 They may include some provisions that themselves are ethically problematic. A history of engineering codes reveals important changes over the years–ranging from striking provisions on certain forms of advertising services to adding provisions about fundamental obligations to protect public health and safety. Also, there may be other areas of ethical concern that are either not addressed by the code at all, or only vaguely.12

Second, BER commentaries almost always are consensus reports. There are very few minority dissenting opinions. Of course, it is important that students be aware of the extent to which consensus (and shared commitment) on ethical issues in engineering exists. However, more complex ethical issues do not necessarily command consensus, and students need to see examples of reasoned disagreement as well as agreement.13

Third, it is frequently complained that engineering codes of ethics, including NSPE’s, tend to view the engineer as an independent consultant, rather than as a corporate employee who is expected to fit within a complex organizational setting. Engineers in a large corporate context typically lack the degree of autonomy that independent, consulting engineers have. They lack this both because they may not be primary decision makers themselves and because they may work in relatively isolated units that provide them with little access to the wider implications of their work. Furthermore, the expectations of engineering codes of ethics and those of managers of the units within which engineers work may not always match. These differences can result in serious ethical concerns that are not clearly addressed in engineering codes. For example, a fundamental canon of the NSPE code is that engineers shall “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.” Another fundamental canon is that engineers shall “act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.” The code is not specific about how to handle the conflicts that may arise between these two canons. Whistleblowing is a major area of ethical concern among engineers. Yet, the code offers no real guidance on this matter. It may be that codification of such matters is either unattainable or undesirable. Still, it is important for students to reflect on circumstances in which whistleblowing may be at issue.

Fourth, BER cases are somewhat limited in scope. Most of the published opinions deal with issues such as advertising professional services, engineering fees, conflicts of interest, and governmental employment. Relatively few deal with such concerns as negligence or incompetence.14

Finally, BER cases seldom require a consideration of the likely implications of initial decisions for subsequent decision making. However, as the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip mentioned above suggests, decisions that seem to resolve matters for the moment do have consequences that often set the stage for even greater ethical problems later. One of the managers interviewed in Barbara Toffler’s Tough Choices wisely explains how he approaches difficult situations:15

I first play out the scenario of what would happen if I did it one way and what would happen if I did it the other way. What would be the followup? What would be the next move? What would be the response back and what would be the consequences? That’s the only way you can tell if you’re going to make the right move or not because I think something that instinctively may feel right or wrong, if you analyze it, may not pan out that way.

This procedure can be built into case studies by presenting them in several phases. For example, the first phase of the case could describe a situation in which an engineer is tempted (or even urged by a superior) to cut corners in a design. The next phase could describe what choices the engineer is facing once he or she has decided (to cut corners, on the one hand, or not cut corners, on the other hand). Choices at that level, too, will have consequences. So a third phase, built from decisions made in the earlier two, can be introduced, and so on. Having to pass through several phases is a useful reminder that what we decide now may come back to help (or haunt) us later.

There are other useful ways of presenting cases in phases. For example, instead of having each subsequent phase represent a later moment in time, each phase could represent a different, but contemporaneous, perspective on the situation. It is a common feature of human experience that we tend to interpret situations from very limited perspectives and that it takes some effort to take a more objective look. This is what psychologists call egocentricity. Especially prevalent in young children, egocentricity never completely leaves us.

Here is an example of a case designed to help us overcome our egocentric tendencies:16

You have been assigned the position of Environmental Engineer for one of several local plants whose water discharges flow into a lake in a flourishing tourist area. Although all the plants are marginally profitable, they compete for the same customers. Included in your responsibilities is the monitoring of water and air discharges at your plant and the periodic preparation of reports to be submitted to the Department of Natural Resources. You have just prepared a report that indicates that the level of pollution in the plant’s water discharges slightly exceeds the legal limitations. Your boss, the Plant Manager, says you should regard the excess as a mere “technicality,” and he asks you to “adjust” the data so that the plant appears to be in compliance. He says that the slight excess is not going to endanger human or fish life any more than if the plant were in compliance. On the other hand, he says, solving the problem would require a very heavy investment in new equipment. He explains, “We can’t afford new equipment. It might even cost a few jobs. It will set us behind our competitors. Besides the bad publicity we’d get, it might scare off some of the tourist industry, making it worse for everybody.”

How do you think you should respond to your boss’s request? Explain.

This same situation can also be viewed from several other perspectives: that of the plant manager; environmental engineers from the competing companies; plant managers from the competing companies; the Department of Natural Resources; local merchants; parents of children who may swim in the lake; tourists, and so on. When we are required to consider these other perspectives, we may see the problem take on strikingly different dimensions. Students can be asked to go through several of these perspectives sequentially and then be asked to make an “all things considered” assessment of what should be done. Or they can be divided into groups, with each group being given a different perspective to consider–after which the groups compare reflections and try to come up with an “all things considered” assessment.

Another way to present a case in phases is to follow an initial scenario with background information that is easy to overlook, but which might alter one’s first response to the situation. For example:

Jack Strong is seated between Tom Evans and Judy Hanson at a dinner meeting of a local industrial engineering society. Jack and Judy have an extended discussion of a variety of concerns, some of which are related to their common engineering interests. At the conclusion of the dinner, Jack turns to Tom, smiles and says, “I’m sorry not to have talked with you more tonight, but she’s better looking than you.”

How might this scenario lead to a discussion of ethics? Some male students might comment, “I don’t see anything wrong with a little flirting. It’s happens all the time, and it makes life more interesting. Besides, this was a dinner–a social event, not a business meeting.” Women students might react quite differently. They need not be opposed to flirtation in general in order to object to Jack’s comment on this occasion. What, they might ask, is Judy’s perspective?

If Judy is a typical female industrial engineer, she works mainly with male engineers.17 Let us now imagine that, as a younger engineer, she is anxious to be recognized first and foremost as a good engineer. She is well aware of the stereotypical view that women are not as well suited for engineering as men. She did not often encounter open manifestations of this attitude while in college. More than twenty percent of her engineering classmates were women, the faculty were supportive, the male students did not make her feel she had chosen the wrong profession, and she graduated near the top of her class.

However, matters quickly changed on her first job. She found that she was the only woman engineer in her division. Now, even after a year on the job, it seems she has to struggle to get others to take her ideas seriously. So, she enjoyed “talking shop” with Jack at the dinner. But she was stunned by his remark to Tom, however innocently it may have been intended. Suddenly she saw the conversation in a very different light. Once again she sensed that she was not being taken seriously as an engineer.

What ethical questions does this scenario pose? We could focus on the appropriateness of Jack’s remark, as well as its possible underlying attitude. However, equally important, we might ask what response to his remark might be appropriate. Judy is faced with a difficult situation. If she ignores the remark, she does nothing to improve her situation–or that of other women engineers; and she may suffer diminished self-esteem. Still, she may worry that nothing constructive will come from her making an issue of his remark.

However, Jack and Judy are not the only ones involved in the situation. How should Tom respond to Jack’s remark? Does he have any special responsibility to try to discourage behavior like Jack’s? Responding with the expected chuckle would simply reinforce Jack’s behavior. Would a critical response be appropriate? Would it be more constructive to take Jack aside later to discuss the matter privately? Should Tom simply ignore the remark?

It might be objected that this little scenario is being taken too seriously. However, this fictional situation is based on an actual situation experienced by a female engineer. In fact, this is the first example she offered when asked about ethical problems female engineers typically face in their profession. She and other female engineers interviewed observe that, especially early in their careers, they sense that their ideas are not taken as seriously as those of male colleagues–that they somehow have to “prove” themselves worthy of being listened to.18

It should be noted that the main difficulties in thinking through cases like the two just presented have more to do with seeing that basic ethical considerations are relevant to the particular circumstances than with one’s general understanding of those considerations. Although the second case raises basic questions about equal opportunity and respect for others (here, women engineers), at first glance it may not be obvious (especially to men) that this is so. Only further discussion and reflection is likely to bring this out. Similarly, considerations of public health (unpolluted water) and fairness (among local industries in shouldering responsibility for protecting public health) are relevant in the environmental engineering case; but this may be obscured from view until different perspectives are imaginatively brought into play.

Thus, even if Thomas Reid is right in saying that basic principles in moral systems are “few and simple,” it does not follow that it is an easy task to make use of them in practical circumstances. Reid himself was quite aware of this. As he points out, there are many distractions:

There is…no branch of Science wherein Men would be more harmonious in their opinions than in Morals were they free from all biass and Prejudice. But this is hardly the case with any Man. Mens private Interests, their Passions, and vicious inclinations & habits, do often blind their understandings, and biass their judgments. And as Men are much disposed to take the Rules of Conduct from Fashion rather than from the Dictates of reason, so with Regard to Vices which are authorized by Fashion, the Judgments of Men are apt to be blinded by the Authority of the Multitude especially when interest or Appetite leads the same Way. It is therefore of great consequence to those who would judge right in matters relating to their own conduct or that of others to have the Rules of Morals fixed & settled in their Minds, before they have occasion to apply them to cases wherein they may be interested. It must also be observed that although the Rules of Morals are in most cases very plain, yet there are intricate and perplexed cases even in Morals wherein it is no easy matter to form a determinate Judgment.19

So, while a well crafted code of ethics can articulate the basic “Rules of Conduct” for engineers, this is at best a beginning. Our tendency to be influenced by our passions, pressures of the moment, popular sentiments, and vested interests distorts our judgment. Adding to this that fuller understanding of the context within which judgment is needed and that some cases are genuinely “intricate and perplexed,” it is clear that engineering students face no easy challenge.

With this in mind, let us now return to the Hastings Center’s five goals and objectives for teaching ethics in higher education. How might these be understood in the context of engineering; and, more specifically, how might the use of case studies help meet these goals and objectives?

The first teaching objective identified by the Hastings Center study is that of stimulating the moral imagination of students. Cases like the Hyatt Regency disaster, films like The China Syndrome and Silkwood, and novels like Nevil Shute’s No Highway and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano very effectively stimulate the moral imagination. But, as already noted, exclusive focus on exceptional circumstances is misleading. Students also need to recognize that virtually any situation can be seen from a moral point of view. The Hastings Center study concludes that, without some prior assistance in thinking through moral challenges, young professionals may find the consequences of their actions taking them by surprise.

Consider, for example, the fictional case of “The Suppressed Data.”20

A recent graduate of Engineering Tech, you have been employed in the R & D Chemical Engineering Division of Larom, Inc. for the past several months. You were hired because of the promising research you did with catalysts as a student at Engineering Tech.

A meeting of your division is called by your supervisor, Alex Smith. He announces that your unit must make a recommendation within the next two days on what catalyst should be used by Larom in processing a major product. The overwhelming consensus of the engineers in your unit, based on many years of experience, is that catalyst A is best for the job. But the research you have been conducting at Larom provides preliminary evidence that catalyst B might be more reliable, more efficient, and considerably less costly. So, you ask if the recommendation can be delayed another month to see if firmer evidence can be found.

Alex replies, “We don’t have a month. We have two days.” He then asks you to write up the report, leaving out the preliminary data you have gathered about catalyst B. He says, “It might be nice to do some more research on B, but we’ve already taken too much time on this project. This is one of those times we have to be decisive–and we have to look decisive and quit beating around the bush. Management is really getting impatient with us on this one. Besides, we’ve had a lot of experience in this area.”

You like working for Larom, and you feel fortunate to have landed such a good job right out of Engineering Tech. You have no desire to challenge your colleagues. Besides you don’t necessarily disagree with them about which catalyst is best. Still, you wish you had been given more time to work on catalyst B, and you feel uncomfortable about leaving the preliminary data out of the report. What should you do?

Engineering students may respond to cases like this in a variety of ways. A rather large percentage select the first option, indicating that they really have no choice if they are to keep their jobs. Some insist that, since they would only be following orders, they would not really be responsible if something goes wrong. A few immediately select the third option, adding that they might make sure they have another job offer first. What is surprising is how few select “Other.” Yet, a sensible alternative seems to be to suggest that catalyst A be recommended, but that the data about B be included. After all, it might be argued, if the data about B has not engendered serious doubts among the experienced engineers in the unit, why should they fear that management would counter their recommendation of A?

For those students who favor suppressing the data, there is a second scenario, “The Suppressed Data Strike Back.”

You write the report as instructed, and Larom proceeds with catalyst A. Two months later Charles Trent, Vice-President for Research at Larom, learns that a major competitor has just begun using catalyst B in a similar process. Its engineers discovered that B is ideal for this process. It is more reliable, more efficient, and much less expensive. Vice-President Trent is very upset that Alex Smith’s unit “missed the boat,” and he personally meets with the entire unit to make his irritation known. He complains, “Larom has invested a lot of money in this process–only to find out that it’s now falling behind a major competitor. It’s going to cost us time and money to convert the process–and it’s probably going to cost us a few customers as well.”

At this point many students say, “Let’s go back to the first situation.” The point is not that giving further thought to the initial situation will yield an obvious and unproblemmatic solution. (Any option here might have some undesirable consequences.) It is that, through the use of moral imagination, more satisfactory alternatives may be discovered.21

It is not difficult to recognize that suppressing data raises ethical questions, even if deciding what to do about it is difficult. However, the ethical dimensions of situations are not always so apparent. Consider this illustration.22 At a meeting of engineering educators and professional philosophers an engineer briefly described a housing project. The property adjacent to the housing development was a large, heavily treed, hilly area. The engineer then asked his audience what size drainage pipe should be recommended for the sewer system. Crude estimates were made by engineers and philosophers alike, with little consensus and much amusement. Finally someone asked the question that no doubt was on the minds of many: What did this problem have to do with ethics?

The engineer replied by asking the audience to consider what the surrounding environment might be like shortly after the completion of the housing project. Perhaps a shopping mall would replace the heavily treed, higher adjacent area — resulting in a much greater rain water run-off problem. Should an engineer recommend a pipe size that takes into consideration such future contingencies? What if the housing developer wants to get by with minimal costs and shows no concern for who might have to bear the expense of replacing the inadequate draining system in the near future? Who should bear the expense, and to what extent, if at all, should an engineer be concerned about such questions when making recommendations? However these background questions are answered, they make clear that the question of what should be recommended is not just a technical one. In addition, although an engineering code of ethics might address issues like this in a very general way, it will not guide engineers to a consensus. Only extended discussion, if anything, might result in reflective agreement.

In one sense engineering students obviously have well developed analytical skills. However, the technical, analytical skills essential to good engineering practice must be used with some caution in analyzing moral issues. Sometimes they may even impede moral analysis, which requires clear thinking about concepts such as utility, justice, rights, duties, respect for persons. These concepts are not necessarily amenable to quantitative analysis.

For example, suppose David Weber, a highway safety engineer, has to prioritize projects in a county with diverse traffic patterns.23 He considers two intersections that need safety improvements. One is an urban intersection that handles about 2400 cars per day. The other is a rural intersection that handles about 600 cars per day. The annual number of fatal accidents at each intersection is virtually identical (approximately 2), but the number of property damage and minor injury accidents at the urban intersection is substantially greater. There is just enough money left in this year’s budget to improve one of the intersections. The result of the improvement at either intersection will be to cut the number of annual fatalities roughly in half. There will be a greater reduction in property damage and minor injury accidents if the improvement is made at the urban intersection. Which improvement should be given greater priority by David Weber?

Versions of this case been have presented, complete with numbers, to engineering students for more than ten years. The overwhelming initial response is always that the urban intersection should take priority. Why? As the numbers clearly reveal, more people will be served at the urban intersection. Invariably someone will say, “It’s the greatest good for the greatest number.”

If students are asked if anyone favors the rural intersection, one or two may volunteer that, in fact, the rural intersection is more dangerous. Individual drivers are at higher risk of having a serious or fatal accident. This, too, can readily be demonstrated mathematically.

So, what do the numbers settle in this case? By themselves, nothing. From a utilitarian point of view, the numbers seem to favor the urban intersection. But the utilitarian premise itself (promote the greatest good for the greatest number) is not based on numerical analysis. It requires philosophical support. Considerations of fairness or respect for individual rights, on the other hand, strengthen the case for the rural intersection. Again, while numerical analysis can be joined with considerations of fairness or individual rights, those considerations require philosophical support. However the numbers in this case are used, we need to ask what ethical assumptions we are making about their relevance. The temptation to take comfort in numbers may be there, but thoroughgoing ethical analysis reveals the assumptions that underlie giving in to this temptation.

The study of ethics should be viewed as a serious undertaking rather than a digression from the main business at hand — namely, career preparation. Some teachers may think it is their job to indoctrinate their students with some moral beliefs (such as those in the NSPE Code of Ethics). This is a mistake. Even if such indoctrination were possible, engineering students do not need the uncritically held beliefs that would result. What they need is the opportunity to exercise and refine their critical, moral abilities. If they are given this opportunity, they will sense that they are being respected as moral agents and thinkers in their own right. Indoctrination has the opposite effect.

Most students will recognize indoctrination for what it is and simply go through the motions in order to satisfy their teachers. Those few who do not will not be served well either, for they will be ill equipped to deal imaginatively and sensitively with ethical issues when they are on their own.

If students are invited to reflect on realistic, engaging case studies in ways that respect their moral capabilities, the problem of eliciting a sense of responsibility should take care of itself. To get students to take the study of ethics seriously, they must be convinced that they are being taken seriously. Doonesbury’s portrayal of an ethics and law course is instructive:24

Law Professor: Let me put it to you all, then — what should a knowledge of the law tempered with a sense of morality produce?

[Class silence.] Why JUSTICE, of course!

Student: Will that be on the exam?

Clearly the professor has some work to do to convince this student that the course is intended to encourage genuine moral reflection rather than mere recitation.

Discussions of problems like David Weber’s are often frustrating to engineering students. Sorting out the nuances of ethical concepts reveals a certain amount of vagueness, ambiguity, and, above all, disagreement. Lack of consensus on such cases may prove frustrating for those accustomed to technical solutions to problems. Some may be tempted to turn to a code of ethics for bringing matters to an authoritative resolution.

However, as already noted, this is to expect too much from codes of ethics. They cannot be treated as if they were recipes for action. They are not self-interpreting. and they are not entirely free from potential, internal conflict. So, at best, an engineering code of ethics provides a framework for judgment — certainly not a substitute for it. In the case studies that follow, it will be evident from the variety of accompanying commentaries that reasonable, thoughtful people often disagree to some extent–and sometimes rather sharply.

We might wish for a geometric sort of ethics, one grounded in moral absolutes orderly arranged in such a manner that judgments about this and that can be confidently deduced from premises consisting of fundamental axioms combined with the indisputable “facts of the case.” However, ethics is not amenable to this (nor is engineering, for that matter). It is better to heed Aristotle’s advice not to seek greater (or less) precision that a given subject permits.


In what follows more than thirty case studies are presented. Each has both a software and hardcopy version. Since many of the cases have multiple stages and present different alternatives depending on the choices made at each juncture, the software versions are often easier to follow. It is preferable that readers look at stages one at a time, reflecting on the questions each stage poses before moving to the next stage. [This is easier to do with the software versions, since a comment box must be filled before the next stage is presented.] This can be done alone or with others in a small group. In commenting on various aspects of the cases, readers should try to support their conclusions with reasons; and they should try to indicate what basic ethical considerations seem most relevant to the situation described. For example, a basic ethical consideration in the case of “The Suppressed Data” is that, essentially, you are asked to lie–an act which, in the absence of some special justification, is generally regarded as wrong. There is also a question of authority and whether an obligation to obey orders applies here. Under what circumstances is one justified in dissenting or refusing to obey? Another basic ethical consideration is loyalty–but to whom? One’s supervisor and fellow engineers? One’s company? Although the case is, strictly speaking, about one specific set of (fictional) events, reflection on it should bring up ethical principles, rules, and criteria that are relevant to other cases as well. So, readers should also be thinking about the extent to which one might generalize from the specific case in question to other sets of circumstances engineers may have to confront.

Once the reader has completed a case, he or she might wish to see how the case has been analyzed by a group of educators involved in teaching ethics. Each case is accompanied by the written refletions of several commentators (from communication, engineering, and philosophy). This should stimulate further reflection and suggest other resources that can be consulted.

The cases are intended to reflect ethical problems that arise frequently in engineering under rather ordinary circumstances. So, “big news/bad news” stories that one finds in the media are avoided here, although commentators often point out similarities to the more well known instances. Most of the cases are inspired by extensive interviews with more than 50 professional engineers. All cases are fictional, but an effort has been made to make them realistic. A few cases are adaptations of shorter, fictional scenarios that have appeared in textbooks and journals.

Although all the cases are fictional, some might wonder if this is really so. Gale Cutler, one of the commentators and someone who has himself written fictional case studies, has remarked that someone at a particular company was certain that one of his cases was based on something that had actually happened there. By substituting known names for the fictional names in Cutler’s case, this person said he was able to quite accurately reconstruct an actual event. “How,” he asked Cutler, “did you gain access to what went on within our company walls?” Cutler replied that he had no knowledge of anything that had happened in that company. How is such a coincidence to be explained? Cutler’s answer: “The sort of thing I described in my case is quite common–it’s happened in lots of places.” This is the mark of a good case–it is generic, a good representation of common occurrences. Thus, cases should be examined with an eye on what can be learned, not just about the specific situation it describes, but about cases of this kind. This is the power of a good case–that it empowers us to go on to other situations, perhaps better prepared to handle the challenges they pose.

So, if the cases that follow are well chosen, they may seem like coincidences to many. In this sense they will be realistic and representative. However, in at least two respects they are not. First, readers may note that a rather disproportionate number of women engineers are involved in the cases. Although the numbers of women in engineering have been increasing rapidly in recent years, it is still the case that engineering is a male dominated profession. The point of including a disproportionate number of women is not to suggest that somehow they are more likely than men to face ethical problems in engineering (or anywhere else). Rather, it is to suggest that, with the exception of those few cases designed to raise special issues facing women engineers, the question of whether the engineer is male or female (or a member of any particular racial group) should not be a crucial factor. Perhaps there will be a day when the proportion of men and women will more closely represent that in the cases–at which point no one will pay any particular attention to whether the protagonists are men or women.

A second respect in which these cases may seem unrepresentative is that, as two commentators have suggested, managers rather than engineers seem more often to turn out to be the “heavies.” Given that it was mostly engineers rather than managers who were interviewed, this should not be surprising. It might well be true that engineers most often see themselves having ethical problems with their managers rather than with other engineers. It would have been interesting to see how managers view the engineers they supervise!

However, there is a further factor that should go some way toward defusing the criticism. When asked about situations in engineering that have an ethical dimension, most engineers we interviewed brought up examples of ethical conflict. This is in line with the media’s focus on wrong-doing. Understandably, then, many examples involved conflicts between engineers and management. However, it does not follow from this that these engineers think that, in general, managers invite or permit unethical behavior. The engineers seemed to concentrate on those occasions when they were troubled ethically. Actually, many engineers initially had difficulty thinking of such examples. This suggests that they feel that, in general, responsible behavior is the norm.

Unfortunately, even at the everyday level of ethics, we tend to dwell on “bad news” stories. What is still needed is a variety of detailed depictions of the more ordinary, ethically responsible engineering practices, along with accounts of how responsible management contributes to this. After all, if we can understand what irresponsibility involves, this is only because we have some notion of responsibility as well. It is hoped that reflection on the case studies that follow will encourage readers to think of responsible alternatives rather than simply to dwell on the negative.

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