Few things need to be said again and again; lest they are forgotten. Our old sacred texts have followed this practice. Ethics is one such thing. We know all about it, but keep forgetting it. Ethics is about moral principles. A simple and easy definition of ethics is to know the difference between what you have a right to do and what is the right thing to do. It is about what engineers are supposed to do and what they are doing. As Cicero said eons ago “public safety must be pre-eminent in everything engineers do.” There are many issues that engineers confront in their professional life. They face many questions, such as — are engineers’ creators, innovators, or problem solvers? Should they remain ‘behind the scene’, as they have traditionally been, or should they be involved more in matters of public policy?
There are many professional obligations that engineers are expected to fulfil. They are expected to make the world a fairer and happier place. This means rejecting what is harmful for the welfare of the common man, and this includes creating a hazardous or threatening environment. The rulebook of engineering ethics includes many things. It includes honesty and integrity in acknowledging un-success and errors. Distorting or altering or omitting the facts that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards is unethical in all senses. Engineers are expected to encourage extending public knowledge and appreciation of engineering and its achievements. They are expected not to accept financial or other considerations from material or equipment suppliers for specifying their product. They are expected not to use equipment, supplies, laboratory, or office facilities of an employer to carry on outside private practice without the consent of the employer. One of their obligations is to bring the guilty to the proper authority and to give credit where it is due. It is the responsibility of the engineers to take care of the proprietary interests of others. And one of their biggest responsibilities is to keep themselves updated about professional developments and practices.
The biggest challenge the engineering profession faces today is its integration with human needs and expectations. The industry needs real-world engineers equipped to forge and deal with the complex interactions, across many disciplines. Future engineers are expected to appreciate, more than before, the human dimensions of emerging technology. They need to understand global issues, and the nuances of working in a culturally diverse space. There is a need to build faith in the public that engineers are sensitive to their concerns and their needs. Societal dimension is crucial for the successful implementation of engineering solutions. We need a more humane approach to engineering practices. “Engineers who make bad decisions often don’t realise they are confronting ethical issues,” writes Norman Augustine. Many engineers have trouble on ethical matters, not because they are unethical, but because they fail to recognise that they are confronting an ethical issue. Increasingly, engineers are realising that simply because they can do something, does not necessarily imply that they should do it.
Do engineers take pride in designing a thing and manufacturing it, as they take pride in packaging it? Also, can ethics be taught? If so, should the engineering students be exposed to a formal course on ethics? Is it possible to introduce ethics courses in the already burdened engineering curriculum? In this context Augustine writes: “The teachings of Plato, Mill, Kant, Spinoza, Descartes, Nietzsche, Epicurus, Confucius, and others will indeed provide a very solid foundation for the understanding of ethics. But it is important that ethics courses also deal with the pragmatic issues that confront engineers in the rough-and-tumble, everyday world in which they live and work.”