Moral Vision & the Landscape of Engineering Professionalism - Part II

Moral Vision & the Landscape of Engineering Professionalism - Part II


The development of professional codes of ethics is often discussed in response to issues of professional integrity. Clearly there are ways in which these standards contribute to the professional's ethical integrity. They bring focus and force to ethical predicaments that otherwise might go unattended. Codes of ethics provide a means of participating in the moral life of the professional community and sharing in the professional consensus concerning courtesy, responsibility, and competency. They relieve some of the extraordinary psychological burden and moral aggravation that professionals otherwise would face. And, to an important degree, these standards distinguish the professional's obligations that are role specific from those of ordinary persons.

However, in his book "The Moral Foundation of Professional Ethics" (1980), Arthur H. Goldman chides doctors, lawyers, business leaders, and engineers who contrive their own codes of ethics-codes that, can serve to excuse us from personal morality. Even more troubling is law professor Tom Shaffer's concern that ethical codes and rules can be used as a tool for avoiding morality. And in some cases, codes of ethics are designed merely to avoid outside regulation of a profession.

True ethical discourse involves freedom to question and autonomy to act on the complexities of the moral choice at hand. Codes can stifle true ethical discourse by providing ready-made solutions to complex moral choices. In their ideal sense, codes of ethics should help define the relationship and responsibility of the professional to society. But blind devotion to ethical codes will not address the ethical concerns of the engineering profession. The final burden is upon the individual's conscience and values. In the end, codes of ethics can never be an engineer's voice, except as he or she chooses to recite the rules or struggles with the ideas that shaped them.

Of course, there are engineers who do not fall victim to indifference. There are engineers who surmount it, who do not sink into static conditions and cynicism. What makes them different? What do they do that their colleagues do not?

I believe that those who fully realize their ethical and truth-seeking potential engage in a twofold activity. First, they talk honestly with themselves. They compose mental essays and then edit, critique, and revise them with bright red ink. They feed the life of the mind outside of conventional discourse, not as a means of elitist amusement, but as a source of self-enablement. They read, they think, and they ponder ideas.

Engineers who do not talk to themselves are setting themselves up for self-deception, for false self justification. To avoid this fate, they must engage in a second activity, which I call "moral vision." They must move beyond rules, procedures, or even logical analysis, to the broadest configuration of life. They must make a "larger sense" out of their existence that goes beyond their own experience.

While moral vision entails rule following and formal reasoning, it also encompasses imagination, emotion, and insight. It is that secret room that traps and releases our many and various moral thoughts and deeds. Moral vision takes into account our recollections of being treated fairly or shabbily; it considers examples set by moral mentors, and remembers details of a particular person's inner strength that touched us. It recalls past habits of moral choice and our disposition to think and behave rightly or wrongly.

Vision is also the circumstance of our culture and ethical history. It embodies more than commonly held moral principles, political frameworks, and procedural habits. Engineers must recognize and cultivate the social and cultural architecture that has formed them. They must begin to understand T.S. Elliot's dictum: "We are nothing without a knowledge of the traditions that made us." Engineers who are willing to examine those traditions in the context of what it means to be human will better understand the struggles, and moral dilemmas that have plagued us from the beginning of time.

There are three avenues to follow in cultivating moral vision. First, the process must be ongoing and dynamic. Vision must sweep back and forth between historical and contemporary perspectives. It must encompass problems of the past when addressing engineers' current conflicts in their relations among themselves, between themselves and their clients, and between themselves and the public.

The technological advances of our rapidly changing society present new dilemmas on a daily basis for all of you, whether you are biomedical, environmental, industrial, civil, or software engineers. Vision will require a historical as well as a future perspective to address these issues. By shifting between the past and the present, we must seek order and constancy in the chaotic appearances of our human differences.

The second avenue toward moral vision entails movement between abstract and concrete knowledge. Vision favors abstraction, but also must accommodate specificity. A new vision necessarily implies new ways of knowing, and then integrating new forms of knowledge with the values and procedures of our society. Moral vision is an important act of ordering that tests the relevance of particular elements to the overall concept. In this sense, advances in many areas, such as genetic or environmental engineering, will need to be examined in terms of the effects new technologies will have on our social and moral fabric.

As a third avenue toward moral vision, we must constantly shift between public and private spheres. This requires integrating one's personal history with a cultural literature. We must not only ponder ideas in our own minds, we must also talk with each other, sharing ideas and perspectives. Moral vision does not operate in a vacuum. We must be aware of the values of other cultures and societies in order to be effective world citizens. Here we acquire the richness of overview that must inform basic human values. We thus a,cquire what theologian Paul recognized as "the courage to be oneself and the courage to be as a part."

As a teacher of ethics, I must confront the obvious question: to what extent are educational institutions and professional schools to blame for lack of moral vision, for disillusionment, for shoddiness? Insofar as they fail to encourage students to reflect critically upon their own thoughts and upon their participation in life, our schools and other education enterprises are responsible.

Yet the burden must be shared by the individual, too. As IBM Chairman John Ackers noted: "If an MBA candidate doesn't know the difference between honesty and crime, between lying and telling the truth, then business school, in all probability, will not produce a convert." Likewise, Mortimer Adler once told me during an interview on teaching ethics that there are two kinds of ethical skills: the skill of the will and the skill of the intellect. If the student has no will, then all the ethical analysis in the world isn't going to go very far.

But as a step toward greater ethical discourse, the education of engineering students can and should be a part of the solution. Indeed it must be part of the solution. Our educational institutions and schools of engineering should give greater attention to the arts and humanities as a way to enable individual and collective vision across all professions. Through the arts and humanities, through a novel, a story, or a play, our existence is expanded, our vision extended. That is the value of the arts and humanities. They enrich our professions as classroom teaching cannot. They transcend professional education.

The arts are relevant for another reason. Often they depict and celebrate moral vision. They prompt us to answer humanly and honestly to life. Students, whether in colleges of engineering or other educational settings must be given opportunities to enhance their self-understanding. The moral life and the satisfying life begin with reflection, a sense of self-identity. This is particularly important in today's educational climate, which gives significantly greater weight to mastering quantities of facts and information. We must return to the ideals of our professions, of our calling.

Engineering education and the engineering profession must increase recognition and awareness among their constituencies of the dimensions of competency and ethics that are not covered by formal standards. The engineer's sense of identity and ethical responsibility demands critical reflection upon the multiple avenues of professional conduct, rather than blind adherence to codes.

My call for developing moral vision stands, I believe, on its own merits. Moral vision is, as we have seen, an extension of the best within us. It is intrinsically introspective. In a practical sense, it causes us to assume responsibility for our own profession. And that is my message to you today-we must assume responsibility for our professions. The burden must not be passed on to others.

Where do we start? I suggest, for example, that we support and stimulate each other within our professional communities. There should be more opportunities for reflection, more opportunities for mentoring, more opportunities for the experienced to share their moral vision with engineering newcomers. Engineering professors, and employers or supervisors of other engineers, must assume professional responsibility of exploring ethical conflicts with their employees. Increased attention must also be given to the character and ethical consequences of our own behavior, not only as it relates to clients, but also colleagues. To reduce internal competition, companies will need to begin to evaluate the manner in which employees are recognized and rewarded for a team effort.

As a further measure, management must expand its values beyond the profit motive and encourage more flexible employee/employer relationships. There is no denying that when the company loses money, everyone loses. But clearly the profit motive can be more balanced with sound business practices.

The engineering profession and schools of engineering should also consider developing opportunities in which they can collectively discuss difficult dilemmas, mutual ethical commitments, and agendas for action. More workshops or conferences with ethical concerns might provide greater opportunities for engineers to receive instruction on important issues of processional conduct.

We also need companion materials to the growing body of literature that addresses the ethical professional concerns of your profession. We need a new literature that discusses current problems, their complexity, and their impact on the engineer's responsibility. Such literature would take into account moral vision and its proper role in our everyday life.

I have suggested several basic premises: the stultifying effect of recurrent professional activity, the need for frank reappraisal of ethical responsibility, a sense of calling within our professional communities, and an obligation to the civic good. Addressing these issues would contribute to a collective moral vision in our professions, and could possibly begin to restore the trust that has been harmed over the years.

The call for vision is usually associated with ideals- with long-range aspirations and integrity. And moral vision requires moral resolve. At times we will be called upon to make painful decisions in response to ethical dilemmas. These decisions will affect not only ourselves, but our families, our work, and our society.

Through the exercise of moral vision, we will define what we are and what we are not; what being an engineer promises, and what it does not; what it means to have the "courage to be oneself and the courage to be as a part." Once we accept this challenge, professionalism will then become clear-a joining of the best within us, and among us.

Elizabeth D. Gee, Ed.D is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership of the College of Education at Ohio State University.