Engineering Ethics is the set of rules and guidelines that engineers adhere to as a moral obligation to their profession and to the world. Engineering is a professional career that impact lives. When ethics is not followed, disaster often occurs; these disasters not only include huge monetary costs and environmental impacts, but also often result in the loss of human life. Engineering Ethics applies to every engineer and is very important.


The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) decides the overall standards and codes of ethics for all the engineering professions. The Preamble of the NSPE Code of Conduct for Engineers (2007) states:

Engineers shall at all times recognize that their primary obligation is to protect the safety, health, property, and welfare of the public. If their professional judgment is overruled under circumstances where the safety, health, property, or welfare of the public are endangered, they shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate.

This means that engineers should always be aware that their safety and the safety of those around them comes before anything, including any engineering projects they take on, no matter how wonderful the end product might be. That being said, engineering standards change from one professional engineering society to the next because of the work that different type of engineers do. For example, the work that a civil engineer does (e.g. construct a bridge) will be different from the work that a biomedical engineer does (e.g. making an artificial heart). However, no matter what type of engineer you are, Engineering Ethics is important because if you do not follow it you can be putting yours and someone else’s life in danger.

Electrical Engineering Ethics

Electrical Engineering is a type of engineering profession that deals with the creation of better electronics. Since our society is heading towards an era of technology, where all members of society will be affected, it is especially important for electrical engineers to follow a code of engineering ethics. For electrical engineers, an important set of guidelines is the Electrical Engineering Code of Ethics, published by IEEE (n.d.), the major professional association for engineers working in the fields of electrical, electronics, computer engineering, and communications.  The Code emphasizes above all else honesty and avoidance of endangerment to the public or the environment.

Problem Solving in Engineering Ethics

Every engineer will find himself in a conflicting position. For example, consider the case of a biomedical engineer engineering a potentially working artificial kidney. When he was on the clinical trial phase, he needs to decide whether to proceed with testing on humans. If he proceeds, and the device fails, a human test subject could die. If he succeeds, he will be saving the lives of the thousands of people who need kidneys in the future. Although he is in a touch predicament, he can make his decision better by using the steps of problem solving in engineering ethics to help him make the best decision. The steps of Problem Solving in Engineering Ethics are (Johanssen, 2009):

  • State the Problem: Clearly define what the ethical engineering problem is.
  • Get the Facts: Obtain all relevant facts to the matter (i.e. the different moral viewpoints) and then analyze them all.
  • Identify and Defend Competing Moral Viewpoints: Analyze the pro and cons of different moral viewpoints and pick the best course of action.
  • Come up with a Course of Action: Pick the best course of actions, and answer all un-answered questions.
  • Qualify the course of Action: Back up the course of action with facts or statistics.

In the scenario above, the biomedical engineer can first state the problem, which is whether or not to proceed with testing knowing that he could save the lives of thousands, or else kill the test subjects. He can then gather all the facts about the test subjects, the device he made, and the different moral viewpoints from others. He can then make a pro and con list of all the moral viewpoints. From this he must pick the best action to take and be prepared to defend it.

Reasons why Engineers Stray from the Code of Ethics

There are two main reasons why Engineers often stray from their code of ethics. The first reason is because they are overconfident in their work, which in turn causes them to neglect things that might be wrong with it. They may overlook small mistakes or remain stubborn about their beliefs because they think highly of their education level. However, in engineering, these small mistakes might be the very thing that causes a disaster (e.g. the Challenger and O-rings). Another reason why Engineers stray is that they are impatient. They are excited about their work and want to see it in action in the world, so they send it out before it’s ready. Sometimes it is not even their fault, but the fault of their authority figures (i.e. boss or managers). Their authority figures can be impatient and give them a short deadline to work on the project. Impatience does not allow room for iterations of the processes involved in design, testing, and implementing a product or project. Iterations are often needed to increase confidence that the product will work and that, more importantly, it will work safely.

Thus, it is recommended that engineers check their work at least twice and even have others check their work no matter how little time they have left or no matter how excited they are about submitting the project. If they know they have a short deadline, they can either manage their time better to have room for several revisions or ask their boss for an extension. Engineers should also try to be open to other ideas and admit that they could be wrong.

Applications of Engineering Ethics

Engineering Ethics in College/Education

The main engineering ethics problem that college students are face with is academic integrity. Academic integrity can show itself in the form of cheating by copying someone’s work, intentional cheating, plagiarism, and/or self-plagiarism.

However, professional ethics is something that can be learned even when it conflicts with personal ethics, as for example, a situation where you are personally okay with building a product that can harm the environment, yet save lives. You can learn professional ethics and realize that something that is harmful to the environment is not okay. Ethics codes can even help you see the bigger picture. For example, in the previous scenario, these codes can help you re-evaluate your ethics and realize that something that is harmful to the environment will eventually be harmful to the people around you and yourself.

Thus, there are many ethics classes in universities across the world. Some universities even require engineers to take classes on ethics. For example, Cohen et al. (2005) developed a model called the Air Model (AIR)SM to help students reflect and develop their personal code of ethics. AIR stands for Awareness (of ethical issues), Investigation (of those issues), and Responding (to those issues).

Engineering Ethics in the Professional World

In the professional world, ethical engineering problems come up in many cases. One of these includes the case of a professional using someone else’s work that is published in the widespread market of publication. Another is the case of a professional using someone else’s work that is not published yet and stealing their idea. Engineers who have good engineering ethics often have a good sense of the value of life. They don’t hesitate to admit that they made a mistake because they know that the cost of not owning up to your mistakes can have disastrous consequences. It might even cost a human life.

Engineering Ethics in Companies

Not only do individual engineers have to be conscious of engineering ethics, but also companies. Companies have to be aware of their Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Responsibility. Corporate Social Responsibility is a company’s responsibility to give back to the community that they profit from and to behave ethically so that both they and their community can benefit. Environmental Responsibility is a business’s initiative to leave the environment (where it is taking its resources from) the same, if not better, that it is found it.

Engineering Ethics applied to Senior Design Project

Thus, as seniors in college, we are making the transition from an academic environment to a professional environment. The further we are in our career path, the more important ethics is, especially engineering ethics. Thus, the soon we start defining our ethics the better, beginning with our final project in college and the first design project of our lives: our Senior Design Project.

Cited References

Additional Resources

  • Barakat, N. (2011). Engineering ethics: A critical dimension of the profession. In 2011 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON) (pp. 159–164). Presented at the 2011 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON). DOI: 10.1109/EDUCON.2011.5773130
  • Davis, M. (1991). Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 20(2), 150-167. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265293.
  • Floyd, R. E. (2012). Ethics for Engineers? IEEE Potentials, 31(2), 4–5. DOI: 10.1109/MPOT.2011.2177759
  • Maxey, M. N. (1993). Engineering in search of ethics. IEEE Circuits and Devices Magazine, 9(1), 30–34. DOI: 10.1109/101.180741
  • Rogers, D. A., & Ribeiro, P. F. (2004). Work in progress – ethics integrated into engineering courses. In Frontiers in Education, 2004. FIE 2004. 34th Annual (pp. S1E/22–S1E/23 Vol. 3). Presented at the Frontiers in Education, 2004. FIE 2004. 34th Annual. DOI: 10.1109/FIE.2004.1408696
  • Stephan, K. D. (2001). Is engineering ethics optional? IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 20(4), 6–12. DOI: 10.1109/44.974502