2 Thinking like an Engineer: Professionalism & Ethics

On the night of 27 January 1986, Robert Lund was worried.[1] The Space Center was counting down for a shuttle launch the next morning. Lund, vice-president for engineering at Morton Thiokol, had earlier presided over a meeting of engineers that unanimously recommended against the launch. He had concurred and informed his boss, Jerald Mason. Mason informed the Space Center. Lund had expected the flight to be postponed. The Center’s safety record was good. It was good because the Center would not allow a launch unless the technical people approved.

Lund had not approved. He had not approved because the temperature at the launch site would be close to freezing at lift-off. The Space Center was worried about the ice already forming in places on the boosters, but Lund’s worry was the “O-rings” sealing the boosters’ segments. They had been a great idea, permitting Thiokol to build the huge rocket in Utah and ship it in pieces to the Space Center two thousand miles away. Building in Utah was so much more efficient than building on-site that Thiokol had been able to underbid the competition. The shuttle contract had earned Thiokol $150 million in profits.

Challenger Spaceship
The Challenger on lift-off

But, as everyone now knows, the O-rings were not perfect. Data from previous flights indicated that the rings tended to erode in flight, with the worst erosion occurring on the coldest preceding lift-off. Experimental evidence was sketchy but ominous. Erosion seemed to increase as the rings lost their resiliency, and resiliency decreased with temperature. At a certain temperature, the rings could lose so much resiliency that one could fail to seal properly. If a ring failed in flight, the shuttle could explode.

Unfortunately, almost no testing had been done below 40°F. The engineers’ scarce time had had to be devoted to other problems, forcing them to extrapolate from the little data they had. But, with the lives of seven astronauts at stake, the decision seemed clear enough: Safety first.

Or so it had seemed earlier that day. Now Lund was not so sure. The Space Center had been “surprised,” even “appalled,” by the evidence on which the no-launch recommendation had been based. They wanted to launch. They did not say why, but they did not have to. The shuttle program was increasingly falling behind its ambitious launch schedule. Congress had been grumbling for some time. And, if the launch went as scheduled, the president would be able to announce the first teacher in space as part of his State of the Union message the following evening, very good publicity just when the shuttle program needed some.

The Space Center wanted to launch. But they would not launch without Thiokol’s approval. They urged Mason to reconsider. He reexamined the evidence and decided the rings should hold at the expected temperature. Joseph Kilminster, Thiokol’s vice-president for shuttle programs, was ready to sign a launch approval, but only if Lund approved. Lund was now all that stood in the way of launching. Lund’s first response was to repeat his objections. But then Mason said something that made him think again. Mason asked him to think like a manager rather than an engineer. (The exact words seem to have been, “Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”) Lund did and changed his mind. The next morning the shuttle exploded during lift-off, killing all aboard. An O-ring had failed.

Should Lund have reversed his decision and approved the launch? In retrospect, of course, the answer is obvious: No. But most problems concerning what we should do would hardly be problems at all if we could foresee all the consequences of what we do. Fairness to Lund requires us to ask whether he should have approved the launch given only the information available to him at the time. And since Lund seems to have reversed his decision and approved the launch because he began to think like a manager rather than an engineer, we need to consider whether Lund, an engineer, should have been thinking like a manager rather than an engineer. But, before we can consider that, we need to know what the difference is between thinking like a manager and thinking like an engineer.

 

1. Learning from the Challenger

What changed when Robert Lund “took off his engineering hat and put on his management hat”? Most obviously, his conclusion changed: With his engineering hat on he refused to approve the launch, but with his management hat on he gave it the green light. But the more interesting question is why did his conclusion change? What changed about his thinking and the focus of his concerns that led him to change his conclusion? One widely accepted answer to that question emphasizes the different goals of engineers and managers. Although their different goals can often both be achieved, sometimes they will come into conflict, as they did for Mason and Lund. In requesting Lund think like a manager rather than an engineer, then, Mason was requesting Lund change his central goal.

But what did his central goal then become? And what was it when he was thinking like an engineer? In order to answer those questions, we are encouraged to investigate what it means for engineers – or computer scientists – to be professionals. For, as we will see, technology professionals, like all professionals, are distinguished from non-professionals at least partly on the basis of their central goal.

2. The Central Goal of Managers & Engineers

Standard managerial thinking places the emphasis on the organization’s “bottom line”. It is the role of the manager, in traditional business ethics, to be laser focused on ensuring the continued success of the company and/or the continued profits for the shareholders. Questions about whether to pay employees more, give them time off, etc. are all considered through the lens of the financial interests of the organization. Whether the organization should adhere to certain laws or engage in socially beneficial activities is similarly decided by whether doing so would support the organization’s financial interests.

So, one widely accepted interpretation of Mason’s request is that he was telling Lund to focus on the financial well-being of Morton Thiokol. From that lens, delaying launch may cost the company future government contracts, which could be devastating in the long run. Of course, so could approving the launch of a shuttle that eventually explodes, but often management style thinking downplays the probability of catastrophe.

If Lund was being asked to make the financial well-being of the company his central focus when he took his engineering hat off, what was his central focus when he had his engineering hat on? To answer that, we can refer to the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics for Engineers (discussed in more detail later), which tells us that all engineers are obligated to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public”.[2] We can shorten this idea to say that the central goal of engineers and other technology professionals is the public welfare. Here welfare is functioning as a catch all for things like psychological well-being, physical health, positive relationships, and in general those things that makes a person’s life go well. The fundamental idea in engineering ethics is that technology professionals should always prioritize the well-being of the public, even at the expense of the well-being of their client or employer (hence the title of the book!).

This special concern for the public’s welfare, which is not wholly required by law or expected of standard employees, is part of what defines engineering and computer science as professions rather than merely occupations. All professions have some sort of special moral concern that goes beyond anything required by law or common morality, although the specific moral concern varies with the different professions. Medical professionals, for instance, have a special moral concern for the health of their patient – their central moral concern is patient health, even if that comes at the expense of the hospital or broader social concerns. Legal professionals, similarly, have a special moral concern for their client, a special concern that is captured with protections like “attorney-client privilege”. The central focus for engineers, as codified in every engineering and computing professional Code of Ethics, is the public’s welfare. While managers may be willing to sacrifice the public’s welfare for the organization’s, an engineer should always be willing to sacrifice the company’s welfare for that of the public. Another way this distinction between engineers and managers has been described is by suggesting that engineers “have a special concern for safety”, meaning that while managers care about the safety of their products and projects insofar as they may affect the bottom line, engineers care about it for its own sake and should advocate for greater safety even when additional safety mechanisms are unprofitable.

But the special moral concern is not all that distinguishes a profession from an occupation. To see what more is at play, it is helpful to think about the process of professionalization, the process of an occupation becoming more than an occupation.

3. Professionalization of Engineering and Technology Occupations

All professions have some special moral aim that goes beyond what the law or common morality requires. But why do professions have such an aim? Answering that question can help us identify other characteristics commonly shared by the professions as well as understand why it is so important that members of the profession keep the moral goal in mind.

Let us start by noting a different characteristic common to all professions: they involve specialized skills and knowledge which can be used for good or evil. Change the dose of a medication and it becomes a poison; make a backroom deal with a prosecutor and a defendant may be unjustly prosecuted; miscalculate or intentionally neglect certain aspects of a building or design and the whole thing may come crashing down. Put another way, professions involve a great deal of power: you know important stuff that most people don’t know and, as the saying goes, knowledge is power.

Thus, if we imagine a fictional version of the early days of engineering, we can identify one clear problem with this situation: anyone may claim to be an engineer, thereby asserting they have special knowledge and skills, and yet there is no clear way to verify that that is true. The people looking to hire an engineer wouldn’t know, since they don’t have engineering knowledge themselves. And yet, since a bad or unskilled engineer could cause great harm, it is vitally important that we have a way of making sure the engineers we are hiring do in fact have the appropriate skills and knowledge and will in fact use them to benefit us.

In comes formal education. Although anyone could, hypothetically, learn everything necessary to be an engineer while sitting around in their basement, in much of the world engineering training has been formalized and standardized. It is simply not good enough to learn it on your own. You must have learned it from other trained engineers who then “sign off” on your knowledge and skills (by allowing you to earn the degree). For some engineers, this formal training or verification of skills and knowledge goes even further, as it does for all legal and medical professionals. This comes in the form of licensing – all lawyers must pass the bar exam and all physicians must pass the medical board exam (other medical professionals have other licensure exams). In the United States people are legally permitted to practice some forms of engineering without a license but some types of engineers (or engineers hoping to do certain types of jobs) must earn their Professional Engineers (PE) license.[3] Licensure procedures are another way that professions develop to self-regulate: hold themselves to high standards and provide some means of communicating who has met those standards to the general public. Indeed, one quick way of describing professions is to say that they are self-regulating insofar as they hold members of the profession to special standards not mandated by the law or society.

So, at this point in our imagined process, we have people who have specialized engineering knowledge and who have been confirmed to have that knowledge by others who have been confirmed to have that knowledge. This helps the general public trust the profession – since we know we are putting our livelihoods in the hands of these people, the existence of formal training to confirm expertise can help put our mind at ease. But that is still not enough. For we do not yet have any reason to believe that the engineer we hire will use her special knowledge and skills for our benefit – perhaps she is an evil engineer!

And so, this is where the moral commitment comes in. In a standard economic interaction, for instance with a person selling goods, the long accepted principle is caveat emptor – “let the buyer beware”. Basically, the principle suggests that it is the buyer’s job to properly research and understand what they are getting themselves into and the seller has no obligation to assist with gaining that knowledge. Instead, it is assumed that the seller is simply looking out for his own economic interests, and so while he should not be intentionally deceptive, he need not offer up information. The seller has no special obligation to the buyer.

But notice how terrible that situation would be when applied to a doctor. I would be discouraged from trusting that the doctor is telling me the truth about my health or about the tests I need. Perhaps she is recommending those tests because they make her a lot of money and not because I need them. But how am I supposed to know? I’m not a doctor! And so, similarly, how is a person or organization supposed to know that when an engineer recommends reinforcement at some part of the design that she is doing so because it is required for the design to be acceptably safe rather than just because it will make her more money?

Lack of appropriate commitment can be just as threatening to the general public as lack of technical ability. Thus, as engineering became a profession it not only adopted means of verifying technical expertise, but also verifying appropriate commitment. This came in the form of a general moral aim – to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the public – as well as more specific ethical requirements that are codified in professional Codes of Ethics. While there are a variety of professional engineering and computing societies, usually associated with various sub-disciplines (for instance, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers covers electrical engineering and related sub-disciplines), all of them share very similar codes of ethics. And this is true of the computing professions as well, although the professionalization of computing occupations is a more recent phenomenon and one that is still on-going.

The role of any of the engineering societies’ codes of ethics is the same: to reassure the public that technology professionals will not betray the public trust and that members of the public need not “beware” that the engineers they hire may take advantage of them. Just like medical codes of ethics indicate that the doctor will treat my interests, as her patient, as primary and legal codes of ethics indicate that the lawyer will treat my interests, as her client, as primary, technology codes of ethics indicate that the engineer or computer scientist will treat our interests, as members of the public, as primary.

At this point, we have effectively reached the point where an occupation transforms into a profession. Special skills and knowledge are formally taught and verified by relevant experts (through both the granting of degrees and the licensing process) while professional societies make explicit the moral commitments of practitioners and provide means for enforcement by the profession itself. But, one more step remains. For although a code of ethics tells us what a profession is committed to, we still want further verification that any particular technologist is committed to those same moral duties.

In some cases, this individual commitment is just taken for granted. If someone receives an engineering degree from an accredited university, then it is assumed that they have been taught the relevant moral commitments and have committed themselves to them. But, in other cases, there is a specific procedure to verify each individual is properly committed. This idea of personal commitment is well known for doctors in the form of the “Hippocratic Oath”. And although doctors no longer take that oath, they do take a modern equivalent that includes pledging themselves to their patients above all. In engineering, this happens in different ways in different countries. In 1922 Canada adopted the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer”, an oath taken by all graduating engineers in a private ceremony. Mirroring Canada’s “Ritual”, in 1970 the “Order of the Engineer” association and pledge began in the United States at Cleveland State University’s Fenn College of Engineering. And now the Order of the Engineer is widely represented in US colleges and universities. As part of the ceremony, inductees take the following oath:[4]

I am an Engineer. In my profession, I take deep pride. To it, I owe solemn obligations.

As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and dignity of my profession. I will always be conscious that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth.

As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises. When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given, without reservation, for the public good. In the performance of duty, and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give my utmost.

Compare that oath with the following preamble to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) code of ethics:[5]

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.

The similarities between the oath and preamble should be obvious, as well as their relation to our earlier idea that the central goal of engineers is the good of the public, rather than the good of the company or the good of the engineer her or himself. But it is also worth emphasizing that the NSPE preamble not only indicates what the moral standards for engineers are, but also justifies why engineers must hold themselves to those standards. It is because “[e]ngineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people” that engineers must adhere “to the highest principles of ethical conduct”.

Thus, we have arrived at a full profession, which includes the following features:

  1. Possession of knowledge and skills vital to the well-being of society
  2. Formalized training for the development of the knowledge and skills
  3. Formalized verification of knowledge (i.e., degree and/or license conferment)
  4. A special moral commitment beyond anything required by the law or common morality
  5. A code of ethics codifying the moral commitment and additional moral duties
  6. A voluntary individual commitment to the moral goal and/or code of ethics

Medicine and law, the two oldest professions, have all of these features. Engineering, a much younger profession, also has them all, although feature (3) is not as developed as it is in medicine and law due to the lack of required licensure. Computing, an even younger profession than engineering, is still largely in the process of adopting all 6 of these conditions. Nonetheless, it currently has each of them in some form and to some degree.

4. The Code of Ethics & Professional Responsibility

For fully mature professions, such as law and medicine, professional ethical codes play a central role in the self-regulation of the profession. Attorneys who violate legal ethics may be disbarred or otherwise censured by the Bar Association, quite independent from any potential legal repercussions. Physicians who violate medical ethics may similarly be censured or even have their board license revoked by the state Medical Board. We have not quite reached this point with the technology professions, although licensed Professional Engineers (“P.E.’s”) can have their license revoked for ethical violations. This would prevent them from participating in those activities that require a P.E. license, but would not prevent them from being a practicing engineer in general. Thus, while codes of ethics do not play as great of a role in the technology professions just yet, they nevertheless do serve as an important foundation of ethical conduct and professional responsibility. To that end, in this section we want to examine some of the key elements of some of the major existing codes of ethics. For our purposes, we will focus on two: The National Society of Professional Engineer’s “Code of Ethics for Engineers”, which is taken to be applicable to all engineers regardless of sub-field, and the “Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice” jointly authored by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Computer Science branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).[6] One thing we will see is that the major guidelines are effectively identical across the codes of ethics, although the specific application varies.

Both codes of ethics identify several broad responsibilities, captured in the six canons of the NSPE’s code of ethics and the eight principles of the ACM/IEEE’s code of ethics. For both, the first and most central responsibility is to the public welfare. According to the NSPE, engineers are obligated to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” while the ACM/IEEE code tells us that software engineers must “act consistently with the public interest”. Both codes of ethics also specify more specific rules or obligations that follow from this broad commitment. Both codes, for instance, obligate engineers to “blow the whistle” on dangerous, illegal, or unethical behavior by fellow professionals as well as to place the public interest above that of employers or clients.

Beyond this central commitment to the public good, the codes of ethics also all promote transparency, honesty, and truthful engagement. Canons 3 and 5 of the NSPE Code of Ethics both speak to this, with the former requiring engineers to be truthful in public statements and the latter requiring engineers to “avoid deceptive acts”. Similarly, many of the specific obligations found under the eight principles of the ACM/IEEE code of ethics focus on avoiding deception (1.06), and being honest and transparent about the quality and characteristics of the software created (6.07).

A final characteristic of these technology codes of ethics is their emphasis on doing good, rather than merely not doing bad. While many of the elements of both codes (and all others) are negative in form, telling engineers what to avoid doing, some are positive, encouraging engineers to use their skills and knowledge for good. The NSPE, for instance, encourages engineers to “adhere to principles of sustainable development” (III.2.d) while the ACM/IEEE variously commands or encourages software engineers to “cooperate in efforts to address matters of grave public concern caused by software” (1.05) and “volunteer professional skills to good causes” (1.08), among other things.

It is also worth mentioning, simply to state that we will return to the issue, that the ACM/IEEE code of ethics includes one important type of consideration not found in the NSPE or other engineering codes: respect for privacy. Obviously software and computing technology raise the greatest concern for matters of informational and personal privacy, but as more and more technology professions of all sorts become reliant on data, matters of privacy reach into all facets of engineering. Not to mention the relevance to all of us in our capacity as members of the public. For now, we will set aside this discussion, but will return to matters of privacy and how to think about them later in the book.


  1. This narrative was originally written by Michael Davis in “Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 20:2 (Spring 1991), 150-167. He notes that his narrative is derived from testimony contained in The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986).
  2. You can find the full Code of Ethics here: https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics
  3. Some other countries have much stricter requirements for practicing engineers, either requiring licensing for all practicing engineers (Canada) or for almost all practicing engineers (a variety of European countries).
  4. This oath can be found in the Order of the Engineer’s “Manual for Conducting Order of the Engineer Induction Ceremonies”, https://order-of-the-engineer.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Ceremony.pdf
  5. National Society of Professional Engineers, “Code of Ethics for Engineers,” revised July 2019. Accessed https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics
  6. The ACM also has its own more general code of ethics, applicable to all computing professionals. It is quite similar to the joint code of ethics, but you may view it in its entirely here: http://ethics.acm.org/code-of-ethics/

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The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.