The Ethics of Using Codes of Ethics to Improve Professional Standing

In his 1971 book, The Revolt of the Engineers, Ed Layton discusses the crass calculus employed by some engineers in the founder societies to develop codes of ethics. Specifically, he describes the machinations of engineering luminaries’ public writings exhorting their respective professional societies to adopt codes of ethics in order to improve the public standing of the engineering profession and respect due individual engineers. One such example was the American Institute of Electrical Engineers’ 1912 code of ethics, which envisioned engineers as consultants rather than employees in larger organizations and aimed “to enhance the status of engineers, not to improve their morals” (Layton, 1971, p. 85). Such blatant use of the codes as a means toward an ulterior goal was common across the engineering profession, regardless of the specialization. Although these conversations transpired over 100 years ago, and much has happened since then, Layton’s descriptions help to raise the question about the provenance and purpose of codes of ethics. It illuminates the idea that simply because something may have originated from an instrumental calculation with unseemly motives, the procession of time may have helped to guide it toward a more altruistic purpose. Furthermore, assuming this to be an accurate representation of historical developments, does it change our current perception? To what degree is it acceptable to forego historical appreciation in favor of a focus on the future, if at all.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. According to some, this was the results of President Richard Nixon attempting to undercut a potential opponent for the 1972 presidential election, Maine Senator Ed Muskie. This motivation lead to the spectacle of Nixon using part of his 1970 State of the Union address to describe how costly his environmental program was going to be: “The program I shall propose to Congress will be the most comprehensive and costly program in this field in America’s history” (Nixon, 1970). Does it matter that there were dubious origins for the program if it engendered an important government agency and series of environmentally protective legislation? Do the ends justify the means?

Returning to engineering codes of ethics, does a historical contextualization of their creation and evolution affect their contemporary interpretation, or are engineers simply beholden to the consensus view of their own particular generation? Assuming the arc of the moral universe is indeed long and bending toward justice, one might countenance suspect origins for codes of ethics as long as their treatment proceeds on the path toward engineers acting more ethically. On the other hand, not only is that a tenuous assumption, but there is also a latent principle embedded in that idea which may prove incompatible with the ideals established by a code of ethics. Specifically, does this “ends/means” calculation permit (or even promote) post hoc rationalization of one’s more base instincts?

If I can tilt the calculation toward a subjective net positive, is it alright if I set off on the entire exercise for entirely unrelated reasons? To wit, is it justifiable to advocate for a code of ethics that will ideally improve the ethical behavior of engineers in society when one’s motives for such advocacy are actually located in improving the profession’s public perception? Are these two motives mutually exclusive, rendering the entire series of rhetorical questions moot and much ado about nothing? To what degree should ‘intent’ factor into the discussion, if at all?

Admittedly, this blog was largely predicated on looking at contemporary trends in order to posit paths toward a more ethical future, but this is a helpful reminder about the contiguity of time, the inextricable connection between the past, present, and future, and the importance of a historical understanding. Such an understanding can offer a spate of lessons for those who look. If nothing else, it may offer an unexpected answer to the question, “why did professional codes of ethics form?” From there, it may be possible to trace how their origins informed subsequent iterations and glean lessons to improve their continued development.


Additional resources:

Layton, Ed. (1971). The revolt of the engineers. Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University Press.

Richard Nixon: “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union.,” January 22, 1970. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

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