The Increasing Role of Engineering Ethics

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There's a great line in the film Surrogates about the ethics of human cloning: "Look at yourselves. Unplug from your chairs, get up and look in the mirror. What you see is how God made you. We're not meant to experience the world through a machine."

While politicians face scrutiny over ethics violations, engineers can be equally liable for their ethical misconduct. The auto industry, tobacco, even the toy industry—all have had their share of ethical violations.

In the auto industry, trade offs in accident rates vs. seat belt or air bag designs have cost lives. In consumer products, similar trade offs occur as products are made cheaper to break down sooner and, in some cases, inadvertently cause injury to consumers. Cigarette companies are constantly trying to invent new types of "vehicles" for the consumption of highly addictive tobacco products. Human cloning presents the med-tech industry with a whole new set of ethical challenges.

Increasingly, the 21st century will present us with widespread ethical problems as technology begins to outpace out ability to control it. This has given rise to a new discipline--engineering ethics.

This new field basically lays out certain moral principles, rules and behaviors that ensure technology does not "run away from us." These ethical rules mirror the standards that govern many of today's social and professional interactions.

Like law or medicine, engineering draws on specialized knowledge, the privilege of self-regulation, and a social responsibility to the public at large. Engineers use their training and skills to benefit society. In return, society obliges engineers to oversee and regulate their activities. To ensure that the practice of ethics rises above mere personal preference by any one engineer, most companies and professional societies have instituted codes of ethical behavior.

One example would be ASME codes Policy 15-7, which provides guidance to professional engineers in commonly encountered situations.

For an additional perspective, check out this video:

Alex A. Kecskes has written hundreds of published articles on health/fitness, "green" issues, TV/film entertainment, restaurant reviews and many other topics. As a former Andy/Belding/One Show ad agency copywriter, he also writes web content, ads, brochures, sales letters, mailers and scripts for national B2B and B2C clients.

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