No Need To Get Stuck On Ethics

A new ICE toolkit should help engineers as they make increasingly complex ethical decisions. But do they need to? Peter Baber finds out

What tools do engineers use? A calculator probably, a spirit level possibly, perhaps even a theodolite. But a bound volume of the works of Plato or Hume? Almost certainly not.

Yet a group of young engineers who have just completed a project for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) think and hope that that may soon be changing. The group of six are all honorary “apprentices” of Barry Clarke, this past year’s ICE president whose chosen them for his year in office was “Ethics and engineering”.

They have produced an ethics toolkit for engineers which was launched with much praise at an event at the ICE in London at the end of last month. The toolkit includes an ethical decision making toolkit that the six hope will guide any confused engineer through the process of deciding what the ethical thing to do would be.

According to Sanaya Kerawala, one of the six, the idea for the toolkit first took hold after they all realised they were not really sure what ethics were all about. To find out if they were alone in such uncertainty, they conducted an online survey of all fee-paying ICE members, which received 230 responses.

Kerawala says this threw up some even more interesting challenges, not least about the ICE’s very own professional code of conduct. “80% of our respondents were aware of this, but only one tenth had used it in their professional work. And 60% felt they were not engaged in ethical challenges at work.”
Yet the six were all convinced that ethical behaviour is something that is going to become increasingly important to engineers both in the future.

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“Engineering faces many issues in the future such as sustainability and the rise of BRIC countries and how we deal with them,” says Kerawala, who is currently a graduate engineers working for Mott MacDonald’s railways division in its Kuala Lumpur office. “This analysis and the flowchart we have done helps people work out how they can do their day-to-day jobs.”

She says the most positive feedback they have received about the flowchart concerns the very final stage “where we ask people how they would feel if their decisions were put on the front page of the news”.

That, she says, has provoked people into thinking about doing the right thing. C S Lewis, the creator of Narnia who also wrote many theological tomes and claimed that integrity is “doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching,” would certainly have approved.

During and following the survey, the six apprentices ran a series of discussions to help them put the toolkit together. They were helped in this endeavour by Rob Lawlor, a lecturer in applied ethics at the University of Leeds.

“We wanted someone who would have less of an engineering background, who would see things in a different light,” says Kerawala. “He got us to look at questions along the lines of: ‘If these facts were definitely true, what would you do?’ That was interesting because quite often in engineering there are no definite facts or answers.”

The discussions included a debate about topical issues, including the forthcoming Qatar World Cup, and the ethics such an event looks like it might bring up surrounding sustainability and health and safety.

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She admits that in this and other issues it is hard for engineers to reach a consensus. And yet while she claims there is no right or wrong answer, her adviser Rob Lawlor takes a slightly different view. Two people arguing about whether God exists, he points out, cannot go on arguing forever. One must be proved wrong in the end.

But is ethics necessarily something that engineers, as opposed to politicians, should get involved in? Lawlor says it definitely is. “One view of what engineers should do is that they should give people what they want, in the sense that others say: ‘We want you to build this,’ and the engineer goes ahead and designs the building that people have asked for,” he says.

“In contrast, I believe engineers should be involved in the debate about what we need in order to promote public well being, and to create the sort of societies that we want.”

That might include, for example, how we go about designing mass transport systems. Should they be subsidised, with the idea that mobility is a public good, or should they be required always to make a profit, even if that means poorer people lose out?

“I believe it is really important that institutions like ICE, and the profession more generally, are active in these public discussions and engage in political debate,” says Lawlor.

Kerawala, for her part, concedes that some positions on ethics change over time – few people a couple of decades ago would have been interested in sustainability, for example.

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But she insists the underlying foundations under such decision making will not. “Ethics is doing the right thing, and being ethical is being professional,” she says. “The definitions of what that means and how you apply your ethics may change, but the core principle will not.”

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