New challenges to Ethical and Social Education of Engineers

Summary: The keynotes of engineering studies at all levels should be a balanced relationship between man and nature, and sustainable development of technology. The teaching of ethics should be based on an understanding of the interests and motives of the institutions and people responsible for new technologies and of the role of engineers in the decisions involved.


The purpose of technology is to help people in their daily lives. Therefore, all decisions and actions concerning technology inherently involve ethics. Technical tools and systems have become more and more powerful and sophisticated, and this has led to many serious economic, social and environmental problems. Controlling the accumulating risks and consequences of technology has turned out to be almost impossible. For example, difficult global ethical issues include the threat of climate change, dangers of gene technologies, growing risks of irrational use of weapons of mass destruction, and the injustice of producing technology and using natural resources only for the needs of a small minority of mankind. Obviously, the impact of technology in society is based less on the technical qualities of new products than on the unsustainability caused by accumulating changes in human life, society, and the natural environment. “The essence of technology is nothing technical.” (Heidegger) Sustainable development of technology is both an ethical and a long-term economic imperative.
Despite of the dominant role of ethics in engineering, the ethical and social aspects of technology have a surprisingly weak position in engineering education . Engineers have earned their social status by creative skills and knowledge of technology rather than by ethical legitimacy. As a result of their narrow professional perspective, engineers themselves are seldom involved in ethical conflicts during their career [Pessi, 1984]. By ignoring their responsibility for the consequences of technology, engineers have actually reduced their own role to that of mere servants of technology business without strong ethical principles. Good engineering practice has been measured by technical qualities such as efficiency, reliability, and safety of the products. The lofty moral codes of conduct alone give little advice for daily work.

The present ethics courses usually begin with a discussion of philosophical principles of ethics or the concept of ‘good life’. A different basis for study of ethics could be an analysis of the role of engineers in technological change, and the values and forces in society controlling new technologies. The starting point could be to try to identify the intentions and interests of organizations and people leading the development of new technologies, when they talk about ethics in engineering, and sustainability. , They should be asked why they consider ethics in engineering important [Porra, 2004], and why their decisions seldom support sustainability. This approach could open view to the multi-layer institutional system of modern society and reveal the forces, which prevent ethical behaviour of engineers in organizations.

The method proposed here could be called hermeneutical, because the moral norms are interpreted on the basis of their authors’ intentions. Revealing the underlying values, interests, and mechanisms in society deconstruct the present well-established concept of engineering ethics. An analysis of the values and interests of the actors explains the purpose of the rules and clarifies their implementation in daily work. Case studies as a teaching method are most suitable to illustrate and identify the actors and the responsibilities of engineers in conflict situations.

The fundamental problem of technology is not economy as often claimed. An economic aspect is inherent in all human interactions. The conflict between needs. New technology is always developed for the short-term needs of its users. Before the technology, low wages of servants guaranteed to their superiors low cost services. The value of a human being was equivalent to her skills in providing her superiors with low cost services.

‘Nothing is possible without men; nothing endures without institutions.’

The words of Jean Monnet describe the important role of organizations in modern society saturated by technology. Organizations are mechanisms established for maintaining and further developing various specific activities in society. Replacing manpower with machines is efficient and easy for organizations with narrow and well-defined tasks. Therefore, the needs of organizations control the development of most new technologies, and, in some areas such as banking services or industry, some organizations have changed into ‘techno-organisms’ needing a minimal amount of human interaction.

Moral goals and principles of organizations are included in their ‘mission’ and rules of operation. Discipline in obeying the rules guarantees successful and credible operation measured by business profits or budget efficiency. Therefore, free ethical decisions have been replaced by causal actions of staff or program steps in automatic services.
The organizations have deeply changed human life and society. Most people make their living as employees and clients of organizations, and their nearest ‘colleague’ is the user interface of some machine. Obedience rewarded by salary gives the organizations much political power [Galbraith, 1983]. The economic power of multinational enterprises has become a threat to democratic institutions in both rich and developing countries.

Most engineers are employed by enterprises or public organizations serving the technical needs of society. Besides that, they are usually members of some Engineering Association, an organization acting as a labour union, or at least as a collegial society. Consequently, the interests of employer organizations and engineering associations have a strong influence in the ethical codes of engineers.

Evolution of technology – ethical viewpoints

The abilities of man to understand phenomena in nature, to apply them in technical tools, and to transfer this ‘know-how’ to later generations are a result of evolution. As a consequence of these abilities, human evolution continues as evolution of technology. The book of nature is open for reading, but we have to learn the language – the technology – to be able to read the next pages.

The evolution of technology is mainly based on microeconomic market forces. These are the selection based on user needs or ‘market pull’ and innovative variation often called ‘technology push’. Human needs trigger the progress, but technology also generates new needs, and its constraints distort and transform them Technology can also be considered as a continuous cultural process. Qualitatively, it is comparable to mathematics and arts. Technical artefacts are logical constructions of the human mind, different from anything in the nature, while aesthetic design is an essential aspect of the products involved. Technology also has scientific qualities, because all principles of operation must be based on reliable analysis and knowledge of the relevant phenomena in nature. Practically everything in our life is shaped by the evolution of technology and integrated in our brain and nervous system as almost natural extensions of organs and senses. As an example, the spoken language can be considered as a symbolic code needed as a technical support in logical thinking and communication. Furthermore, our understanding of time, matter, universe, earth, nature, and ourselves is fully based on knowledge created by technology developed for scientific experiments, interpretation of information, documentation, and communication. Historical turning points often coincide with important technical and economic innovations.

The progress of technology is fast, and new technologies enter the market before the social and environmental consequences of earlier steps of development have become visible. Therefore, the evolution of technology is inherently unstable, and has no built-in mechanism for any macroeconomic control, for example sustainabity. The direction of evolution can only be controlled by implementing political regulations such as environmental and safety standards, which generate new market forces according to the needs of macroeconomic control.

Technology evolves from the question “Can we do it better”. The ethical question “Should we do it” is more difficult. The harmful effects are complicated and become visible much later, the development can no longer be reversed.

The costs of new products do not include the costs of social problems resulting from the decay of old technologies and harms caused to outsiders. Because the producers and users of new technologies also collect the accumulated profits from increased efficiency and intellectual property ownership, the gap between rich and poor people and nations grows generating much human suffering and injustice. For example, the ignored poor majority, who may have to carry the burden of the most catastrophic consequences of the resulting climate change, cannot tolerate using non-renewable energy resources for the needs of two generations of the rich minority of world population.

These well-known problems have been visible for two centuries, but only little has been done to solve them. Obviously, the problem is not lack of ethical principles but lack of interest of us all to change behaviour to avoid harmful consequences caused by all people and countries together (prisoner dilemma). At the national and regional level (EU) political support has been found for many environmental and safety norms and regulations. As a result new international markets have been generated for environmental technologies. At the global level, political will to such regulations has been insufficient, as indicated by the failure of the Kyoto treaty against the use of non-renewable energy sources. There is no international law to compensate the sufferings of poor nations in globalisation, and no rich nation has shown interest in the social globalisation proposed recently by Labour Organization ILO and the ‘Helsinki-Process’ .

The engineering associations have supported the efforts of sustainable development at the national level, but their interest in social aspects of globalisation has been small, reflecting the weak position of engineers as far as international issues are concerned. Nevertheless, taking a more active role in politics to accelerate sustainable development by both national and international macroeconomic control actions would increase the credibility and improve the legitimacy of engineers as a profession.

Unfortunately, the evolution of technology may not reach any stable or sustainable state of equilibrium. Human imagination appears to be an endless source of new real and artificial needs, and we do not have the wisdom to decently use our good and bad knowledge found from the Pandora’s jar of nature. Only a small fraction of its content has been unveiled, but many evil ideas have already been found and used for mass destruction of human life and nature. Because knowledge cannot be cancelled, our only choice is to live with the growing fear of accidental or intended misuse of present and future dangerous technologies.

Interests and intentions of engineering associations and industry

Engineering associations are collegial institutions promoting advancement of technology and of the professional interests of members. Their motivation in writing ‘codes of honour’ originates from the need for public credibility. The code of conduct is a message to both the general public and to their members on the high ideals and ethical legitimacy of the institutions concerned. It also serves as a defence and therapeutic aid against public criticism concerning technology and engineers. The political power of the institution – and social status of the profession – depends as much on the ethical legitimacy as on its special education being regarded as respectable by society [Airaksinen, 1998] [Galbraith, 1983]. Furthermore, the moral code is a basis of the collegial brotherhood of members. It is obvious that the moral norms of engineering associations reflect both genuine human needs as related to the high ideals of the profession and to the utilitarian interests of the organization.

The industrial enterprises are market mechanisms serving the interests of their owners and clients. The main goal and survival condition is profit to the owners. Consequently, the strategic vision and plan express the owners’ views on how that can be obtained. In the evolution of technology based on market forces there is little room for ethics. The moral requirements must be included in legal regulations or technical norms and standards. Ethical actions are replaced by ‘causal’ obedience of the rules of law. As has already been pointed out by Adam Smith, competition in the market does not allow voluntary ethical actions beyond the needs of the customer.

Despite the ‘amoral’ basic interests, ethical legitimacy and high ideals of business are as important for industrial enterprises as for engineering associations. For business success, they need credibility among investors, highly motivated and faithful staff, and credibility among clients. (Shameful ‘bad’ businesses exist and flourish in the stock market, but they represent a minority of activities.) Critical attitudes towards environmental hazards or human rights violations widely published in the media also require transparent information on corporate values. Some corporations have improved the transparency in annual reports by additional ‘bottom lines’ on the social and environmental balance of operations. In some cases, the negative publicity has led to serious business losses. The corporate ethics serves as a human ‘user interface’ to own personnel, investors and clients hiding the otherwise hard business interests.

The purpose of this ‘instrumental’ use of ethics is better business. Therapeutic or liturgical talking on ethics is usually sufficient, and actions against business interests are not possible. Nevertheless, the corporate ethics serve human society by making public discussion of values and intentions of enterprises possible and by creating pressures in organizations to improve their environmental and social policies. In the global economy, corporate ethics is needed to harmonize the operations in countries not having appropriate labour and environmental legislation

Map of professional ethics

The codes of conduct of engineering associations and the corporate ethics of the employers consist of external moral norms reflecting the interests and intentions of these institutions. As an employee and member of the collegial association, an engineer is expected to follow these norms in addition to his/her personal internal moral principles. All other social groups and institutions – family, colleagues, religious communities etc. – have their own, often unwritten, moral codes. Law and labour contracts act as general limits to moral freedom. One’s own internal moral principles, together with all these external norms make a map of individual moral principles.

In this map, conflicts between norms cannot be avoided. As a rule, breaking the law or work contract leads to sanctions. Ethical conflicts concerning labour contracts may lead to dismissal and often difficulties in finding a new job. The danger of loosing the income limits the moral freedom of engineers and is a threat to their family.

Collegial sanctions may result from breaking the code of conduct. However, such incidents are normally not expected, and the rules of ethics are considered rather as a declaration of the inherently high morals of the profession. The credibility of engineering associations would improve if they could take a more active role in the public debate on the role of technology in human, social, and environmental issues, and in supporting members in ethical conflicts at work.
The archaic rules of loyalty may be stronger than professional codes of ethics and prevent personnel informing their employer of mistakes on the part of colleagues. Professional pride may lead to ignorance of dangerous risks. Whistle blowing is always considered shameful, and in some cases illegal.

Sustainable development of technology is a challenging educational goal. At all levels of education, increasing the awareness of the dangers of unsustainable development will require special efforts. The progress will be slow, because there is no reliable knowledge nor political consensus on the need of such awareness or on the content of regulations needed to increase the sustainability. Opposing such developments by manipulation of the insufficient knowledge is easy for the media getting financing from the profits of the presently dominating unsustainable business . Understanding the impact of technology in all human activities will require a new kind of ‘literacy’ to be learned by all citizens already at the public school level and further improved in later vocational and scientific studies.

Making ethics and sustainability the keynotes of all engineering studies will require a change of the paradigm of engineering education in the direction of human and social sciences. This broadening of scope will be needed to educate a new generation of engineers being ethically aware and better understanding the role of technology in society, and capable of developing together with other professionals adequate control mechanisms and norms for technology.

The responsible role of engineers in society requires strengthening of the ethical legitimacy and moral freedom of the profession. The ‘toolbox of ethics’ of every engineer should contain the concepts for identifying ethical conflicts, and practical skills for solving them. Teaching ethics is a difficult task, because the traditional narrow role of engineers as specialists of technology only is not sufficient for responsible work for sustainability. An introductory course to all engineering studies could be a workshop illustrating the nature of technology decisions and the strong political and business interests involved in technology projects. The courses in engineering ethics should concentrate on the interpretation of ethics codes of engineers on the basis of the interests of those who make the decisions on technology. Topics of more advanced courses should include exercises on long-term technology and risk assessment.
In many present European courses on engineering ethics, the institutional and systemic nature of risks of technology and moral problems and of engineers is already recognized [ZANDVOORT et al., 2000]. In the ethics courses at Helsinki University of Technology (TKK), the proposed method has been implemented by inviting senior engineers from industry as lecturers to discuss the interests of the employers in engineering ethics. The co-operation of European engineering schools should be widened to speed up the progress by sharing the experiences obtained in different countries on teaching ethics in engineering and other nontechnical aspects of sustainability.
To emphasize the importance of ethics in engineering, the first ethics courses should be made obligatory in both undergraduate and postgraduate curricula of all engineering studies.

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