Codes as signpost, shelter, or something else?

This post is about the potential pitfalls of outsourcing one’s professional decision-making to technical codes or antiquated codes of ethics, some of which may be sufficiently ambiguous as to provide little more than a Rorschach test to justify one’s preconceived intuitions. As engineers, it is not uncommon to reference technical guides for the answers to basic questions – what is the legislated limit for ppm emissions of pollutant X? What is the tensile strength of material Y under condition Z? What is the latent heat of reactant V? These answers subsequently form the information upon which decisions are made. This modus operandi of reducing decisions to whatever the technical guides dictate provides a nice heuristic for simple problems of a technical nature, but is it possible that the habit of guide-referencing diffuses into other areas of an engineer’s decision-making process? Namely, is it possible that engineers follow a similar pattern of referencing the relevant codes of ethics when making their own decisions?


Initially, one might hope this to be the case. After all, these codes presumably exist to offer guidance, to be read, and ultimately to be followed. This raises the predictable questions underlying previous posts here – who made these codes? What were their objectives in writing the codes? Do they cater to a least common denominator due to their generating process? Is it possible that the codes require updating? This last question provides one of the guiding premises of this entire blog – what would updated codes look like? Auxiliary posts have pursued some of these tangential issues by inquiring into the code-writing process and questioning the consequences (intended or otherwise) of the codes themselves, which returns us to the present matter.


Is it possible that a codes of ethics provides the justification for a professional engineer’s decision to design their product a certain way? In the same way that one could say, “Well, I designed the scrubbers to remove T tons of SOx because the state regulatory standards mandated level X”, could one also envision that same engineer claiming, “I put the outlet in this position because it best adheres with the idea of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public”? If those codes were not written (or updated) in a manner consistent with the standards of the times then it could offer the aegis behind which that engineer’s decision stands, even if consensus would find it unethical. This could quickly become problematic by providing false comfort to those unfamiliar with the nuances of the situation. It appears as though the standards were thoughtfully crafted and optimized, but optimized for what and crafted by (or for?) whom? On the other hand, admittedly, that preceding scenario for justification still appears better than the scenario in which the technical standards provide the singular design guidance. In this scenario, there is the additional concern of conflating technical standards for ethical standards. While those standards might coincide, it does not logically follow that they are synonymous.


So, what is to be done? First, the recognition of ethical elements in these problems could help highlight the importance of a holistic problem-solving approach. Second, a more frequent updating of the codes of ethics could provide more specific guidance for engineers encountering ethical dilemmas. Third, an earnest discussion about the implications of conflating technical standards as the sole standards (and therefore a presumed de facto ethical standard) could clarify the distinction between the two, to the extent that there exists one. Fourth, a possible unification of the technical elements and the ethical elements in the same conversation in order to preclude the frequent social/technical dualism. Although these may be redundant, unnecessary, or ineffectual, they surely provide a place to start to help practicing engineers fulfill the optimistic promise envisioned in the challenge for engineering to advance of civilization.

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