The Cultivation of Professional Ethics

The Cultivation of Professional Ethics


Headline news from Washington recently reported the personal use of government aircraft by certain high-ranking military officers. In Arkansas, a well known counselor to the White House was sentenced to prison for overbilling former clients of his law firm. In South Carolina, several prominent legislators were convicted in a "state-house sting" designed to snare politicians who were willing to sell their votes to special interest lobbyists.

In 1991, Rhode Island newspapers implicated a nationally recognized engineering firm in a $10,000 bribe of the Pawtucket mayor. In Pennsylvania, one of the largest builders of shopping centers in the United Stated planned a 70,000 square foot project in Lower Makefield. At the same time, the company built two larger centers - a 90,000 s.f. center in Logan Township and a 250,000 s.f. center in Patton Township. Municipal fees paid in Logan and Patton were $250 and $2,500 respectively. In Lower Makefield, the engineer submitted a bill approaching $70,000.

Unethical conduct occurs not with just a few unscrupulous individuals, but with a host of apparently good, successful professionals who lead what appear to be exemplary private lives.

My observations suggest that professional ethics are molded and shaped by three identifiable attributes. First is development of the professional as a moral person. Next is influence on the professional by his work environment, most significantly those principles displayed by his managers and role models. Third are those standards developed by the various professional societies and regulatory authorities that chart a path for ethical conduct.

Moral character is shaped by family, church, and education long before an individual enters professional practice. It may be argued that a person of good moral fiber, properly shaped, simply would not cheat. In a perfect world, we would need go no further. In reality, however, moral development is an unsolved problem at home, at school, even at church - and at work. Two-career families, television, and the virtual demise of family gatherings as a forum for discussing moral issues have clearly diminished family influence over basic moral principles. And we certainly cannot expect our battered school systems to be a substitute for the family unit.

Even organized religion appears to be weaker than it once was. Society's increasing secularization, the growth of cults, the conservative church's denouncement of new lifestyles, the liberal church's endorsement of unconventional relationships - all these imply that we can not expect uniform religious instruction to strengthen people against temptation.

Instruction in engineering ethics at colleges and universities is even more remote, with relatively few engineering professors seeking licensure in their chosen profession - and still fewer choosing to teach applied ethics through course content. Spurred in part by recent notorious examples of professional and corporate moral decay, many engineering programs are now making determined efforts to reintroduce and emphasize ethics as part of the undergraduate curriculum. While such instruction in ethics is important, it is my strong opinion that no matter how much colleges and universities expand their commitment to instruction of ethical behavior, the greatest education in professional ethics will occur in the offices where engineering graduates work.

Making an ethical decision is easier when facts are clear and choices are well defined; it is more difficult when the situation is clouded by ambiguity, incomplete knowledge, multiple points of view and conflicting objectives. In such situations, ethical judgements depend upon both the decision-making process itself and the experience, intelligence and INTEGRITY of the decision-maker.

Therefore, making ethical decisions calls for certain qualities that can be identified and developed within individuals. First is the ability to recognize ethical issues and think through the various consequences of alternative solutions. Second is the self-confidence to seek out different points of view and decide what is right at a given time and place under a specific set of circumstances. Last is the strength to make decisions when all that needs to be known cannot be known and pressing questions have no answers. The corporate culture which surrounds the young and growing professional may well be the dominant environment that shapes and hones these qualities.

Written standards also exist to help the engineer chart a path of ethical conduct. Those of us who practice engineering need look no further than our technical and professional societies to find the canons considered by our profession to be the points of light for ethical conduct. Similar rules of ethical conduct are embodied within the professional registration laws by which we engineers are licensed. These rules apply to the individual practitioner and may also apply to the corporate structure - especially in those states where corporate registration is required by the licensing authorities.

These various rules of professional conduct, and the disciplined enforcement of these rules, are important. They do not, however, contain the final emotional power of commitment. Perhaps the individual's (and the corporation's) push for the maximization of wealth is the major obstacle to achieving higher standards of ethical practice, for that is the one identifiable issue embodied within those headline stories described earlier.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner, in her dissenting opinion on the case of Shapero v. Kentucky Bar Association records her philosophy on professional ethics. Her point is worth noting:

"One distinguishing feature of any profession is that membership in that profession entails an ethical obligation to temper one's selfish pursuit of economic success by adhering to standards of conduct that could not be enforced either by legal fiat or through the discipline of the market. Both the special privileges incident to membership in the profession, and the advantages those privileges give in the necessary task of earning a living, are the means to a goal that transcends the accumulation of wealth. That goal is public service."

The case in which Justice O'Conner penned this dissenting opinion removed the ethical constraints on commercial advertising by lawyers.

Ethical standards of practice have never been more besieged than they are today. Those with strong moral fiber, a dedication to professional integrity, and the ability to reason soundly must find the power to resist the attack. The leadership to nurture such power within the office environment is a responsibility not to be taken lightly by corporate management.

L. G. Lewis, Jr., P.E. is a founding principal of H2L Consulting Engineers.  He is a member and past chairman of the South Carolina Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, an officer and director of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, and a member of the NSPE-PEPP Professional Liability Committee.