Why we need engineers who study ethics as much as maths

26 July, 2021

Engineers will face ethical dilemmas in their careers. While they have ethical obligations (such as Engineers Australia’s code of ethics) that they must follow, the complexity of emerging social concerns creates a need for engineers’ education to equip them with much deeper ethical skill sets. The authors of this article in The Conversation suggest a holistic approach to engineering students’ ethical development, rather than treating ethics as an “add-on” subject.

“Engineers work in a vast range of fields that pose ethical concerns. These include artificial intelligence, data privacy, building construction, public health, and activity on shared environments (including Indigenous communities). The decisions engineers make, if not fully thought through, can have unintended consequences – including building failures and climate change.” The disastrous building collapse in Miami is one recent example forcing engineers to reflect on their practice.

Some of the ethical dilemmas the authors flag as facing engineers include:

  • “Should I accept a narrow or inadequately framed design commission within a design and build delivery model when there is no certainty my design will be appropriately integrated with other parts of the project?”
  • “How can I accept a commission when my client provides no budget for my oversight of the construction to ensure the technical integrity of my design is maintained when built?” 
  • “How do I play in a commercially competitive landscape with pressures to produce “leaner” designs to save cost without compromising safety and long-term performance of my design?”
  • “Do I hide behind the contractual clauses (or minimum requirements of codes of practice) when I know the overall process is flawed and does not deliver quality and/or value for money for the end user?” 
  • “Do I resort to phoenixing to avoid any accountability?

Complex societal problems make much greater demands on engineering thinking than in the past. Whole and complex systems need to be considered, not just individual issues as stand-alone challenges. Engineers need to leave university equipped with ethical frameworks which allow them to think through the issues in the broader context, and make good decisions in the absence of clear responsibilities or accountability.

The Conversation, S Travis Waller, Kourosh Kayvani, Lucy Marshall and Robert F Care AM, July 16, 2021. Read the full article here.

Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s programs include the 2 day Executive Ethics, 6 day Executive Colloquium and year-long Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. We also deliver online and tailored corporate programs. Find the right program for you. They are all held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage genuine and open debate, and allow participants to candidly discuss sometimes sensitive issues in private while allowing the topic and nature of the debate to be made public, and contribute to a broader conversation. The alumni program offers ongoing leadership development support and a lifelong connection with Cranlana.

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