Microethics, Macroethics, and Professional Engineering Societies

JOSEPH R. HERKERT

North Carolina State University

Engineering ethics can be considered in three frames of reference—individual, professional, and social—which can be further divided into “microethics” (concerned with individuals and the internal relations of the engineering profession) and “macroethics” (concerned with the collective, social responsibility of the engineering profession and societal decisions about technology). Research and instruction in engineering ethics have traditionally focused on microethical issues and problems, and little attention has been paid to macroethics or the integration of microethical and macroethical approaches. In this paper I define and explain the importance of considering both microethics and macroethics and discuss (1) how professional engineering societies can link individual and professional ethics and (2) how they can link professional and social ethics.

MICROETHICS AND MACROETHICS IN ENGINEERING

The political philosopher Langdon Winner (1990) has criticized the over-emphasis in engineering ethics on case studies of individual dilemmas and the neglect of more global issues related to the development of technology:

Ethical responsibility … involves more than leading a decent, honest, truthful life, as important as such lives certainly remain. And it involves something much more than making wise choices when such choices suddenly, unexpectedly present themselves. Our moral obligations must … include a willingness to engage others in the difficult work of defining what the crucial choices are that confront technological society and how intelligently to confront them.



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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 Microethics, Macroethics, and Professional Engineering Societies JOSEPH R. HERKERT North Carolina State University Engineering ethics can be considered in three frames of reference—individual, professional, and social—which can be further divided into “microethics” (concerned with individuals and the internal relations of the engineering profession) and “macroethics” (concerned with the collective, social responsibility of the engineering profession and societal decisions about technology). Research and instruction in engineering ethics have traditionally focused on microethical issues and problems, and little attention has been paid to macroethics or the integration of microethical and macroethical approaches. In this paper I define and explain the importance of considering both microethics and macroethics and discuss (1) how professional engineering societies can link individual and professional ethics and (2) how they can link professional and social ethics. MICROETHICS AND MACROETHICS IN ENGINEERING The political philosopher Langdon Winner (1990) has criticized the over-emphasis in engineering ethics on case studies of individual dilemmas and the neglect of more global issues related to the development of technology: Ethical responsibility … involves more than leading a decent, honest, truthful life, as important as such lives certainly remain. And it involves something much more than making wise choices when such choices suddenly, unexpectedly present themselves. Our moral obligations must … include a willingness to engage others in the difficult work of defining what the crucial choices are that confront technological society and how intelligently to confront them.

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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 TABLE 1 Some Microethical and Macroethical Issues in Science and Engineering   Engineering Practice Scientific Research Microethics Health and safety Integrity   Bribes and gifts Fair credit Macroethics Sustainable development Human cloning   Product liability Nanoscience Indeed, in the past 30 years as engineering ethics has emerged as an academic subfield, several authors, including ethicist John Ladd (1980), have issued similar critiques, noting that engineering ethics must encompass multiple domains (Herkert, 2001). This is also true of ethics in many other fields, such as ethics in research (Table 1). One way of expanding engineering ethics to address macroethical issues is to consider the ethical implications of public policy issues, such as risk and product liability, sustainable development, health care, and information and communication technology (Herkert, 2000). Although, the melding of ethics and professionalism has significantly contributed to the development of concepts in engineering ethics, the emphasis to date has been on issues internal to the profession, giving short shrift to macroethical issues (O’Connell and Herkert, 2004). There are some indications, however, that a more balanced view is gradually taking hold. ROLE OF PROFESSIONAL SOCIETIES The distinction between microethics and macroethics is useful for mapping the role of professional societies in engineering ethics (Herkert, 2001). So far, the role of professional engineering societies has been limited largely to developing codes of ethics. Professional societies, however, could potentially serve as a conduit to bring together the entire continuum of ethical frameworks by linking individual and professional ethics and linking professional and social ethics. In the domain of macroethics, professional societies can provide a link between the social responsibilities of the profession and societal decisions about technology by issuing position statements on public policy issues, such as sustainable development (Herkert, 1998) and product liability reform (Herkert, 2003a). In the microethical domain, professional societies can provide support for individuals who engage in ethical behavior. Engineers and other professionals who blow the whistle on unethical behavior or otherwise take action consistent with their code of ethics often pay a heavy price, which may include demotion, firing, blacklisting, or even a threat to life. Under these circumstances, many have argued that it is unreasonable to expect individual engineers to be “moral heroes.”

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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 Scholars have focused a great deal of attention on how professional societies can provide support for engineers who act ethically, on the grounds that members of a society have a collective responsibility to promote and protect ethical behavior (Ladd, 1982). When efforts to provide ethics support through corporate ethics offices and government regulation meet with mixed results (Herkert, 2000), professional engineering societies can provide a counterweight to the pressures of the workplace (Unger, 1994). PROFESSIONAL SOCIETIES AND ETHICS SUPPORT Codes of engineering ethics give primacy to public safety, health, and welfare, thus implying that they support individual engineers whose actions are consistent with these goals and other provisions of the codes (Herkert, 2001). Unfortunately, evidence suggests that professional societies have an uneven history of providing ethics support (Herkert, 2001, 2003b). In fact, they often seem unwilling or unable to provide sustained support for the ethical behavior of their members. Take, for example, the recent record of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) wherein gains in ethics support that had been long sought after were crushed by a backlash by staff and volunteers. This example is all the more striking because IEEE is often regarded as one of the most progressive professional societies in the ethics arena (Unger, 1994). Like other codes of engineering ethics, the IEEE Code of Ethics, implemented in 1990, pledges its members “to accept responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment.” Unlike some other codes, however, the IEEE code also includes specific language regarding ethics support, committing its members “to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics” [emphasis added] (IEEE, 1990). Prior to 1995, the only committee at the level of the IEEE Board of Directors charged with dealing with ethics was the Member Conduct Committee (MCC), established in 1978, whose purpose was two-fold: (1) to recommend disciplinary action for members found to be acting in violation of the code of ethics; and (2) to recommend support for members who, in following the code of ethics, have been retaliated against (Unger, 1999). A board-level Ethics Committee, formed in 1995 as a result of efforts by members (including members of the IEEE subunit that represents U.S. members) to elevate the status of ethics in IEEE, was intended to keep members informed and advise the Board of Directors on ethics-related policies and concerns. In 1996, one of the first actions taken by the Ethics Committee was to establish an “ethics hotline” to provide information and advice on ethical matters to professionals in IEEE’s field of interest. Cases brought to the attention of the hotline included falsification of quality tests, violations of intellectual property

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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 rights, and design and testing flaws that could compromise public safety. Some of these cases were referred to and acted upon by the MCC (Unger, 1999). The Executive Committee of the Board of Directors suspended the IEEE ethics hotline in 1997 after less than a year of operation (Unger, 1999). In 1998, the Executive Committee rejected and suppressed its own task force report that recommended reactivation of the hotline. In the same year, IEEE implemented changes in its by-laws that shortened the terms in office of members of the MCC and Ethics Committee and, in apparent disregard of IEEE’s own code of ethics, prohibited the Ethics Committee from offering advice to individuals, including IEEE members. The cycle was completed in 2001 when the Ethics Committee and MCC were merged. Like the old MCC, the combined committee has a dual charge of ensuring member discipline and providing ethics support, but its activities are limited by IEEE by-law I-306.6, which provides, “Neither the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee nor any of its members shall solicit or otherwise invite complaints, nor shall they provide advice to individuals” (IEEE, 2001). Nevertheless, the provision of the IEEE Code of Ethics calling for ethics support has not been changed. Opponents of ethics support often cite liability concerns as a rationale, an argument that Unger has refuted persuasively (Unger, 1994, 1999). In addition, some are concerned that an ethics hotline would put IEEE in the undesirable position of mediating disputes between members and their employers. In other words, corporate influence is a factor in the reluctance of professional societies to provide ethics support. Layton (1986), for example, describes engineers as part scientists and part businesspersons, but not really either; he says they are marginal in both contexts. This situation, the result of the concurrent development of engineering as a profession and technology-driven corporations, inevitably leads to conflicts between the professional values of engineering and business values. Layton notes that professionals value autonomy, collegial control, and social responsibility, while businesses emphasize loyalty, conformity, and the overarching goal of improving the bottom line. This tension is exacerbated when the career paths of engineers lead to management positions. Engineers who hope to advance in the corporate hierarchy are expected to embrace business values. Davis (1998) disputes the argument that there is an inherent conflict between an engineer’s status as an employee and his or her professional autonomy. As Layton points out, however, many of the leaders of professional societies are senior members who have moved from technical engineering into business management positions. In addition, many companies encourage and fund the participation of their employees in professional societies. Another possible explanation for the reluctance of professional societies to provide ethics support is that the engineering/business culture places a high premium on economic efficiency and downplays the societal context of engineering. “The engineering view” is often characterized as focusing mainly on technical

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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 solutions to problems, which may account for the unwillingness or inability of some to recognize the social and ethical dimensions of engineering (Herkert, 2000). Other factors that may contribute to the reluctance to provide ethics support include an unwillingness to air the profession’s dirty laundry in public and perceived complications related to the increasing globalization of professional societies. PROFESSIONAL SOCIETIES AND PUBLIC POLICY Although professional engineering societies also have a mixed record in advancing ethical principles in the macro-arena (Herkert, 2003a), there have been some hopeful signs recently, notably in the case of sustainable development, which has become a major public policy issue worldwide, including in the engineering and business communities (Herkert, 1998). Following the publication of the Brundtland Commission report in 1987, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the concept attracted considerable attention in the international community and on national agendas (WCED, 1987). In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro issued Agenda 21, a blueprint for global sustainable development that led to the establishment of dozens of national commissions, including the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in the United States (Agenda 21, 1992). The engineering community reacted to Agenda 21 by establishing the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development (WEPSD) in 1992 (Carroll, 1993); and committees formed by the traditional engineering organizations, including the American Association of Engineering Societies and discipline-based societies, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), issued position papers. The theory of sustainable development, which emerged from the field of ecological economics, involves achieving objectives in the ecological, economic, and social realms. The ecological objective is to maintain a sustainable scale of energy and material flows through the environment that does not erode the carrying capacity of the biosphere. The economic objective is to allocate resources efficiently in conformance with consumer preferences and the ability to pay. The social objective is to distribute resources justly among people, including future generations. The overall objective is sustainability in economic, ecological, and social systems (Farrell, 1996). An alternative way of characterizing development is to think of three distinct systems—biological, economic, and social—each of which has its own goals. Sustainable development is achieved when, after the inevitable trade-offs and setting of priorities for a given time or place, these goals are maximized in all

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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 three systems. The International Institute for Environment and Development lists typical goals for each system (Holmberg and Sandbrook, 1992): Biological (ecological) system genetic diversity resilience biological productivity Economic system increased production of goods and services satisfaction of basic needs or reducing poverty improvements in equity Social system cultural diversity social justice gender equality participation Although it is still a controversial concept, sustainable development maintains considerable currency in a number of circles, including engineering. Some engineering societies have even proclaimed sustainable development to be an ethical responsibility (Grant, 1995). The success of public policy promoting sustainable development depends upon achieving all of the objectives of a sustainable society. However, despite proclamations that engineers have an ethical responsibility to promote sustainable development, questions about just distribution and other aspects of equity (such as risk distribution) were often excluded when engineers first began to consider policies and issues (Herkert, 1998). Indeed, engineering organizations focused almost exclusively on striking a balance between economic development and environmental protection. Although their efforts were commendable, they were limited by their failure to come to grips with the third essential element of sustainable development—the social objective. In early statements, it appeared that engineers either were not interested in or were not able to articulate social concerns. Despite this shortcoming, some engineers argued that engineering should be accorded a preeminent position, thus endorsing a technocratic vision of sustainable development (Herkert, 1998). A founder of WEPSD went so far as to portray engineers as the best arbiters of all knowledge that must be brought to bear on the problem (Carroll, 1993). Recently, however, some engineering societies have included the social objective in the role of engineering in the realization of sustainable development.

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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 This can be seen clearly in a document prepared by several U.S.-based engineering societies for the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002 (ASME, 2002): Creating a sustainable world that provides a safe, secure, healthy life for all peoples is a priority for the US engineering community. It is evident that US engineering must increase its focus on sharing and disseminating information, knowledge and technology that provides access to minerals, materials, energy, water, food and public health while addressing basic human needs. Engineers must deliver solutions that are technically viable, commercially feasible, and environmentally and socially sustainable [emphasis added]. The willingness to acknowledge social sustainability reflects a maturity of thought and sensitivity to societal and ethical issues rarely found in the deliberations of professional societies on microethical issues (or on many macroethical issues). We may ask why professional societies are (sometimes) willing to advocate ethically sensitive public policies, whereas they have typically been timid about addressing ethical controversies involving individuals. I propose three preliminary explanations (Herkert, 2003b): Macroethical issues are well suited to cooperative action among many professional engineering societies. Collective action can often offset corporate influences, and even transcend international boundaries. The leaders of professional societies can be agents of change in the engineering culture (if they choose). Because macroethical issues affect all members of the profession, they are ideal vehicles for promoting change. Responding ethically to macroethical challenges provides an opportunity for professional societies to improve the public image of engineering as a by-product of ethical action rather than as the goal of ethical posturing. REFERENCES Agenda 21. 1992. New York: United Nations Publications. Available online at http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/documents/agenda21/english/agenda21toc.htm. American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). 2002. A Declaration by the U.S. Engineering Community to the World Summit on Sustainable Development. ASME position statement. Available online at: http://www.asme.org/gric/ps/2002/02-30.html. Carroll, W.J. 1993. World engineering partnership for sustainable development. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice 119: 238–240. Davis, M. 1998. Thinking Like an Engineer. New York: Oxford University Press. Farrell, A. 1996. Sustainability and the design of knowledge tools. IEEE Technology and Society 15(4): 11–20. Grant, A.A. 1995. The ethics of sustainability: an engineering perspective. Renewable Resources Journal 13(1): 23–25. Herkert, J.R. 1998. Sustainable development, engineering and multinational corporations: ethical and public policy implications. Science and Engineering Ethics 4(3): 333–346. ——. 2000. Social, Ethical and Policy Implications of Engineering. New York: IEEE Press.

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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 ——. 2001. Future directions in engineering ethics research: microethics, macroethics and the role of professional societies. Science and Engineering Ethics 7(3): 403–414. ——. 2003a. Professional societies, microethics, and macroethics: product liability as an ethical issue in engineering design. International Journal of Engineering Education 19(1): 163–167. ——. 2003b. Biting the apple (but not inhaling): lessons from engineering ethics for alternative dispute resolution ethics. Penn State Law Review 108: 119–136. Holmberg, J., and R. Sandbrook. 1992. Sustainable Development: What Is to Be Done? Pp. 19–38 in Making Development Sustainable, edited by J. Holmberg. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). 1990. IEEE Code of Ethics. Available online at http://www.ieee.org/about/whatis/code.html. IEEE. 2001. By-law I-306. Available online at http://www.ieee.org/about/whatis/bylaws/i-306.html. Ladd, J. 1980. The Quest for a Code of Professional Ethics: An Intellectual and Moral Confusion. Pp. 154–159 in AAAS Professional Ethics Project: Professional Ethics Activities in the Scientific and Engineering Societies, edited by R. Chalk, M.S. Frankel, and S.B. Chafer. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ladd, J. 1982. Collective and individual moral responsibility in engineering: some questions. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 1(2): 3–10. Layton, E.T. 1986. The Revolt of the Engineers. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. O’Connell, B., and J.R. Herkert. 2004. Engineering ethics and computer ethics: twins separated at birth? Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 8. Unger, S. 1994. Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons. Unger, S. 1999. The assault on IEEE ethics support. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 18(1): 36–40. WCED (World Commission on Environment and Development) (The Brundtland Report). 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. Winner, L. 1990. Engineering Ethics and Political Imagination. Pp. 53–64 in Broad and Narrow Interpretations of Philosophy of Technology, edited by P. Durbin. Philosophy and Technology 7. Boston: Kluwer.