No Need To Get Stuck On Ethics

A new ICE toolkit should help engineers as they make increasingly complex ethical decisions. But do they need to? Peter Baber finds out

What tools do engineers use? A theodolite, a spirit level, and possibly a calculator are all possibilities. But a bound volume of the works of Plato or Hume? Very unlikely, to say the least.

Yet a group of young engineers who have just finished a project for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) think and hope that it may soon be changing. Barry Clarke, the ICE president for the past year, selected the six honorary “apprentices” for his year in office on the theme of “Ethics and engineering.”

They have prepared an ethics toolbox for engineers which was launched with considerable fanfare at an event at the ICE in London at the end of last month. The six hope that the ethical decision-making toolbox in the toolkit will help any engineer who is unsure about what the right thing to do is.

When the group realised they had no understanding what ethics were, one of the six members, Sanaya Kerawala, came up with the idea for the toolkit. To find out if they were alone in such uncertainty, they ran an online survey of all fee-paying ICE members, which garnered 230 replies.

Kerawala believes this offered up some even more interesting difficulties, not least considering the ICE’s very own professional code of conduct. 80 percent of the people we polled were aware of it, but only 10 percent had actually put it to use in their work. And 60 percent thought they were not involved in ethical challenges at work.”

Yet the six were all certain that ethical behaviour is something that is likely to become increasingly crucial to engineers both in the future.

For example, sustainability and the expansion of BRIC countries would be major concerns for engineering in the future, according to Kerawala. He is currently employed by Mott MacDonald’s trains division in its Kuala Lumpur office as a newly graduated engineer. People can better understand how to carry out their day-to-day tasks with the help of this analysis and flowchart.

She adds the most favourable feedback they have heard about the flowchart concerns the very final stage “where we ask people how they would feel if their decisions were put on the front page of the news”.

That, she argues, has prompted individuals into thinking about doing the right thing. Narnia author C. S. Lewis, who also penned numerous theological works, would have agreed, saying that integrity is “doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching.”

During and following the survey, the six apprentices performed a series of discussions to assist them put the toolkit together. They were aided in this endeavour by Rob Lawlor, a lecturer in applied ethics at the University of Leeds.

“We wanted someone who would have less of an engineering background, who would see things in a different light,” explains Kerawala. His approach was to get us thinking about what we would do if certain truths were proven to be true. The fact that there were no definitive facts or solutions was interesting because that happens a lot in engineering.

Among the topics discussed were the upcoming World Cup in Qatar and the ethical challenges that such an event may raise regarding sustainability and health and safety.

She recognises that in these and other areas it is hard for engineers to establish a consensus. And while while she thinks there is no right or wrong response, her adviser Rob Lawlor has a somewhat different view. He makes the point that a debate over the existence of God cannot carry on indefinitely. Ultimately, one must be shown to be incorrect.

To what extent should engineers, rather than politicians, be concerned in issues of ethics? Lawlor says it surely is. “One view of what engineers should do is that they should give people what they want, in the sense that others say: ‘We want you to build this,’ and the engineer goes ahead and designs the building that people have asked for,” he explains.

“In contrast, I believe engineers should be involved in the debate about what we need in order to promote public well being, and to create the sort of societies that we want.”

That might involve, for example, how we go about designing mass transport systems. In light of the premise that transportation is a public good, should they be subsidised, or should they be obliged to make a profit at all costs, even if it means denying service to those in need?

“I believe it is really important that institutions like ICE, and the profession more generally, are active in these public discussions and engage in political debate,” adds Lawlor.

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As far as Kerawala’s perspective on ethics is concerned, she acknowledges that people’s interests shift over time. Few individuals a few decades ago were concerned about sustainability, for example.

But she maintains the core underpinnings of such decision making will not. “Ethics is doing the right thing, and being ethical is being professional,” she explains. When it comes to ethics, “the way you define that may change, but the core principle remains the same.”

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Last Updated on December 29, 2021

Indra-Gupta

Author: Indra Gupta

Indra is an in-house writer with a love of Newcastle United and all things sustainable.

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