The Ethical Responsibility of Engineers – and the Rest of Us Too

What Larry Jacobson, Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, says about his profession could be said about almost any profession.
The problem, he suggests, is a design flaw in corporate structure: Employees are loyal to their employers, who are in turn loyal to owners or shareholders, who demand rising share prices and corresponding short-term profits, quarter after quarter. Long-term ethical responsibilities to the community and the environment can too easily be left out of this cycle of loyalty.

Now consider the engineer’s position. Almost all industrial processes and construction begin with the engineer who does the design. The engineer is under enormous pressure to help create profit for management, and those severe pressures influence choices—choices between the safest and most prudent design and the design that sacrifices safety in the name of cost. Lower cost usually means higher short-term profit for the company.

It’s easy to see how this constricted cycle of loyalty lies behind recent engineering failures like BP in Louisiana and Massey in West Virginia. In view of the BP disaster, Jacobson says,

[I]t’s critical to reflect on how to avoid a repeat, not only in the oil industry, but in any industry that can cause serious harm to people, their livelihoods, and the environment.

Jacobson argues for requiring the signature of a licensed professional engineer to approve engineering plans “whenever a project involves safeguarding life, health, or property.” Such an engineer would have “taken an oath to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public” and to “place their professional practice ahead of profit.” Only about ten percent of professional engineers currently have taken such an oath, he says.
Constricted cycles of loyalty can be seen in any number of current or recent crises – from Wall Street’s meltdown to destructively partisan politics to our ongoing addiction to dirty energy. Apart from government regulatory oversight of the kind that obviously failed in the Gulf, and in the absence of the kind of professional ethical commitments Jacobson and others argue for, what social movements or structures in our culture push against constricting loyalty cycles to expand our concern for the common good – not only of current generations, but of generations yet unborn?
I think we all know who should be urging our circles of concern to expand rather than contract: our faith communities. But too often, they simply fall into their own constricting circles, seeking institutional survival above all else and evidencing the same design flaws that exist in Massey and BP. Shouldn’t every gathering of a community of faith either explicitly or implicitly strengthen our expanding ethical commitment to the common good? Shouldn’t our faith communities strengthen non-conformity to the design flaws that undermine our corporate culture? Shouldn’t good faith work against the bad-faith constriction of loyalty?
What’s true of engineers is true of us all: we need to expand, not shrink, our circle of loyalty and ethical concern. That we are all connected in one creation is one of the prime lessons of the Massey and BP disasters, and it is a shared conviction of the fields of ecology and theology. Whatever our faith tradition, whatever our profession, we need that message now more than ever.