Moral Vision & the Landscape of Engineering Professionalism - Part I

Moral Vision & the Landscape of Engineering Professionalism - Part I

BY ELIZABETH D. GEE, ED.D

Too often engineering, or any profession, is true to the adage: "It is not one thing after another; it is the same thing over and over." This adage can be applied to many professional circumstances, but particularly to the ethical domain of engineering.

Engineering is a profession in transition. I need not dwell on the many changes that have occurred in recent years-they are self-evident. But those changes have transformed the public image of engineering, its scope of practice, the way it is taught, and often the very nature of the profession's activities. I wish to discuss this with you today, and to focus especially on the individual engineers in our society, for I am convinced that the future and well-being of the profession rests upon private views of responsibility; and in turn, a collective willingness to make a difference.

There is truth in the adage I cited a moment ago. Repetition-"the same thing over and over"- plagues the practice of our professions. Too commonly, that practice is limited to recurrent naggings of routine and convention, habits of seeing, habits of feeling, and habits of doing that understandably drain professionals of their spontaneity. As a result, we may become indiscriminate, immune to the unique circumstances and conditions of the situation at hand. Patterns of behavior may begin to predominate as responses emerge from a type of "ethical auto-pilot."

Preoccupation with daily routine and work patterns causes professionals to lose touch with their profession, its ideas, and its ideals. This circumstance gives rise to doubt about the model-doubt about its legitimacy, validity, teachability, and most dangerously, its importance.

We must begin to ask why certain things occur. Why do so many engineers begin their careers on a bright note, only to find themselves bored and unchallenged in a matter of a few years? Why do some engineering students think there is no more to ethics than obeying the law? Why, in so many cases, is profit put before the best interests of the client? Has the profession fundamentally changed? Has the way we think about ethics and teach ethics changed? It could be that the complexity of our professional lives has forced us into daily conventions that become ruts, ruts so deep that we no longer are aware of the ethical dilemmas and opportunities for choice that present themselves every day.

Obviously though, not everyone for whom engineering is a source of livelihood is bored, stoic, and passive. Robert Bellah points out in his landmark book Habits of the Heart that work can be a source of self-esteem. It may provide new challenges and pathways to social standing and power. Yet many professionals miss a sense of calling that, in Bellah's words, "not only links a person to his or her fellow workers," but "links a person to the larger community as a whole in which the calling of each is a contribution to the good of all."

Yet, indifference and even cynicism can be found in the professions. Cynicism arises when options are limited, when possibilities for choosing are lost. Lines become blurred and difficult to draw, and standards seem out of reach. Deception begins to dominate, leading many to place self-interest above societal interest.

We cannot be both cynical and honest to ourselves. We cannot be both cynical and consciously moral because to be moral, we act by what we truthfully see as right and wrong.

Genuine ethical autonomy is the product of reflective and honest choice. It is the freedom to gauge meaning, to browse among one's meditations, to turn a thought around here, then there, changing one's perspective. To be morally alert is to be conscious of the complexities that ethical dilemmas impose. It is to see differences in the landscapes of one moral problem contrasted with another. It is to weigh self-interest against the interest of others.

Morally autonomous engineers are truly free to see and to act upon their ideas and intentions. The way in which one exercises this autonomy lies at the core of a person's conception of him or herself. Naturally this liberty implies the availability of resources and freedom of movement. And this is not all: there must be a prodding of will, a tightening of control, a building of resolve, because many times the choices will be difficult, and perhaps painful.

The professional capacity for full moral discourse is presently hampered by several factors. One is that engineers cannot avoid the fact that they deal in a marketplace economy, where competition, cost, and profit motives seem to be the bottom line. And as you well know, many times what it takes to please the boss, the stockholders, the client, and your conscience are not the same. Clearly, the demands and conflicts of capitalism inherent in your profession present the difficult dilemma of balancing many interests.

It is no wonder that many of you face a discussion of these dilemmas with apprehension. But we can no longer allow profit motives and self-interest, however "legal" these strategies might be, to substitute for common sense, courtesy, and morality. The fact is this: engineers must address their ethical problems before they become legal issues, scandals, and rip-offs. All too often, the media and the legal profession become the watchdogs of public interest. In fact, the law and the media should be the last-and only the last-groups that address the issues confronting your profession.

Elizabeth D. Gee, Ed.D, is Senior Research Associate in the Center for Women's Studies and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Ohio State University. Dr. Gee has advanced degrees in history and education, plus experience in teaching ethics to aspiring professionals.