Engineering Ethics

Some years ago, I listened to a representative from an engineering company speak to a group of students at a major university. His topic was engineering ethics, and one of the first things he expressed was his firm belief in the code of ethics for engineers. He stressed that engineers are expected to uphold the ethics laws, and if they don't, they can have their licenses revoked by the state ethics board.

Many of the ethics laws are obvious and very logical. For example, a competent engineer would never intentionally design or approve of a project that would endanger lives, health, or property. Nor should one engage in fraudulent or dishonest practices or disregard the confidence of his clients and take advantage of them for his own gain.

But a substantial percentage of the ethics laws deals with the subject of licensure. Like doctors and lawyers, engineers are very strictly licensed. A person cannot practice engineering or even legally call himself an engineer if he has not beforehand completed the long and arduous procedure of education, testing, training, and work experience. The reason for such regulation, he explained as best he could, was to protect the public from incompetent and dishonest engineers.

Besides requiring strict licensing guidelines, the ethics canons also stress the "obligation" for engineers to snitch on other engineers whom they observe violating them. He said that although engineering companies are competitors against each other, they are duly obligated to cooperate with each other in regard to ethics. He said this cooperation was increasing as years go by.

He also mentioned government regulations and the importance of upholding them. He admitted that engineers are becoming more and more regulated by federal, state and local governments all of the time. He said one of the biggest issues in recent years was the protection of wetlands, and he mentioned the subject several times. He described a contractor who had built a shopping center in a designated wetland and was fined and also required to buy adjoining property and reconstruct the wetland that he had destroyed at a cost of several million dollars.

I asked him what right the government has to arbitrarily declare somebody's private property a wetland and tell him what he can, can't, or must do with his own property. He said the government was protecting the wetlands for the public. Then I asked, "If the government declares your land to be a wetland and deprives you of its use, does it give you any compensation?" He paused for a moment and said, "No." Then I reminded him that would be an unconscionable ethical violation, not to mention that the United States Constitution forbids the taking of private property for public use without just compensation. Unimpressed, he casually said, "Oh, the government can do anything it wants." He said it without the least concern as to its ethical morality.

Before he concluded, he again stressed the importance of ethics and his unfaltering belief in them. He said it was one of the most important things an engineer should always keep in mind--the violation of the ethics canons could cost one his reputation, his license, and his means of earning a living.

How can a person who claims to strictly uphold ethical principles so casually disregard the natural rights of others simply because the government has passed laws giving its approval? How could he stress that individuals must uphold their standards to the absolute and at the same time allow government to routinely commit mega violations with impunity, and even insist that they snitch on anybody they see standing up to protect his property rights? Has he ever stopped to consider the ethics of the actions and regulations passed down from Congress, and from state and local governments? Why would he insist on blind obedience of mandates that so flagrantly violate the most fundamental human rights, the right to private property, the right to earn a living, and even the law of the Lord himself (thou shalt not steal)? Obviously, he had no understanding of basic freedoms, private property, and that government has no rightful place in the private market of engineering or any other profession. He sounded, not like a professional advising students in a free country, but like a Nazi general giving a stern lecture to a group of Gestapo trainees.

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John Martin is a libertarian writer from Alabama.