Ethical Rights & Responsibilities of Practicing Engineers

Ethical Rights & Responsibilities of Practicing Engineers

BY WALTER L. ELDEN, P.E., NIEE BOARD OF GOVERNORS, IEEE LIFE SENIOR MEMBER, MEMBER CONDUCT COMMITTEE

What rights do or should engineer employees have?
Within the context of an engineer employee (unlicensed as a Professional Engineer) working for an employer, what rights do engineer employees have, or should have, for each responsibility in Codes of Ethics? If this same engineer employee were a licensed/registered/chartered Professional Engineer in good standing, what additional or different rights would or should the engineer have?

Readers are invited to submit their views FOR or AGAINST the proposition that: A person, by virtue of practicing as an engineer and exercising the duties and responsibilities which go with such a professional position in employment, has certain rights, which should correspond with ethical responsibilities, when engaged in an engineer employee capacity.

Background on Individual Rights in the United States
On Dec. 20, 1787, Thomas Jefferson said the following when it became apparent that the new Declaration of Independence was flawed in that it lacked protections of individual rights:

A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.

Out of this climate came the Declaration of Independence, a blueprint for self-government by the new United States, with a strong executive branch, a representative legislature and a federal judiciary. But its flaw was that it lacked a specific declaration about individual rights, including the prohibition against slavery, which the country corrected much later at great human costs. The new Constitution specified what the government could do, but did not say what it could not do. Four years later, the United States adopted the American Bill of Rights which Jefferson inspired and James Monroe drafted. In 1791, the Bill of Rights, containing the first 10 amendments, became the law of the land.

The Bill of Rights was necessary to protect individuals from the perceived abuses that could result from the new government. This view was based upon the experience the British Americans had experienced under the rule of the British. As such, the founders of the nation=s AEs believed that containing the new government AEs power and protecting liberty was their most important task.

They declared a new purpose for government: the protection of individual rights.

Rights Today
At the time they formed the new government of the United States, the founding fathers viewed the new system as being the only threat to individual rights. They had no idea back then the amount of power corporations today would have, some of which exceeds government power. The America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has written that:

Today, most Americans are more vulnerable to having their rights violated by their employers than the early Americans were to having their rights violated by the government. Yet, because the Constitution does not limit their authority, private employers are freed to violate the civil liberties of their employees. Nationwide, the ACLU receives more complaints about abuses by employers than about abuses by the government.

What are Rights, Anyway?
One definition of a right is Aa justified constraint upon how others may act.@ AMoral philosophers have recognized that there is a close relationship between the duties we have toward others, and the rights others have relative to us.@ There is the concept of AMoral rights.@ i.e., Arights that are held to exist prior to, or independently of, any legal or institutional rules@. AMoral rights are entitlements to certain treatment that all people in a group have equally by virtue of the fact that each group member has a certain status.@. In the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, there is the phrase Ainalienable rights. What this means, according to Webster AEs Dictionary, are rights which cannot be transferred or surrendered. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which all people are entitled. We understand this declaration less as a description of actual rights but more as a list of ideals to which we aspire.

Ethical Rights and Responsibilities of an Engineer
With this brief overview, what can we determine about rights corresponding with ethical responsibilities, which engineers have or should have, when engaged as employees? This is the topic that an Aethics rights@ discussion mail list addresses. The WEB address for this is: www5.palmnet.net/~welden/maillist/rights/eth-righ.html

Members can provide their views, pro or con, on this subject. We created this mail list to foster discussion and contributions aimed at creating a document titled AA Declaration of an Engineer's Rights and Responsibilities@ with the IEEE Code of Ethics as a basis, among other considerations, such as protecting the public, consulting, employment and other factors. Supporting the mail list is a companion Ethics Rights and Responsibilities page. To view the messages posted already, view the archives at: www5.palmnet.net/~welden/maillist/rights/righ_msg.html

Comments may be submitted to the author at w.elden@ieee.org.