1 Introduction to Ethics and Engineering

The work of engineers affects the lives of millions of people and society as a whole. As such, this presents an ethical and moral dimension to the decisions engineers are required to make. Ethics in engineering practise requires an awareness of all the behaviours, obligations, rights and duties of the engineer towards the integrity of the profession, towards professional bodies and other engineers, towards clients and employers, towards the environment and its effects even into the future, and towards the interests of multiple, often competing stakeholders in society.

Ethical concerns often present themselves in highly complex contexts. Engineers are continuously confronted with problems demanding solutions. Yet problematic dilemmas spread into the grey areas between simple right and wrong choices. Moreover, competing, often irreconcilable views as to what constitutes a right or wrong action confront the decision-maker, demanding a satisfactory outcome. How does one balance these concerns? How does one even start to structure a process of addressing them? This is the realm of ethics.

2 Definitions

2.1 What is Ethics?

Ethics, as defined by the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary is “the study of what is morally right and wrong or a set of beliefs about what is morally right and wrong.” Ethics (noun) is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or how an activity is conducted”, or “the branch of knowledge concerned with moral principles”. Ethical (adjective) is defined as “relating to moral principles, morally correct, avoiding activities or organizations that harm people or the environment.”

Knowing what is right and what is wrong is sometimes straightforward and self-evident, but it can also become a never-ending moral debate. Far from being an abstruse philosophical activity, ethics in application or ‘applied ethics’ presents numerous real-world opportunities to exercise principles of guiding behaviour in practical solutions.

Within the professional context, this applied ethics is an exercise that “assesses the moral dimensions of human activity in the classic occupations of law, medicine, ministry and by extension higher education, engineering, journalism, management and other occupations that aspire to professional status” (encyclopedia.com). The field of professional ethics is therefore a concern about the conduct and standards that govern a profession and its members.

2.2 What is Engineering?

For practising engineers there are many dimensions to ethics. Engineers are confronted with numerous and ongoing ethical considerations in all aspects of the profession. The Code of Conduct for Registered Persons of the Engineering Profession Act, 2000 (Act 46 of 2000) defines engineering work as follows: “the process of applying engineering and scientific principles, concepts, contextual and engineering knowledge to the research, planning, design, implementation and management of work in both the natural and built environment.”

2.3 Engineering Ethics

While ‘engineering ethics’ might be a fairly new applied field of knowledge (Doherty, 2014), ethical engineers have always sought to apply the highest standards of technical skill in the service of society and the environment, while balancing multiple interests from various stakeholders in a project or business generally. Whether it is engineering design, project management, the materials being used, the siting of a project, project motivation and final assessment – engineering ethics encompasses all of these.

In its use and application of an acknowledged set of core ethical guiding principles, engineering ethics sometimes has the force of legislation behind it, while sometimes it does not. But whether or not ethical principles and considerations are legalized in a country, there are multiple dilemmas, each with manifold shades of grey areas. These ethical dilemmas continuously present themselves for more than mere deliberation, they often require urgent action.

3 The Need for Ethics in Engineering

3.1 The Ethical Deficit

Behaving ethically comes down to the considered choices we make. People must constantly make choices that affect the quality of their lives, and those around them, as an online ‘ethics sage’ points out. Each choice has a consequence, not only for us but for others, and we are cognizant that our actions, therefore, imply responsibility (Mintz, 2017).

In the South African context, a casual appraisal proves revealing; well before the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen economic stagnation and decline, erosion of investor confidence; corporate and government corruption, nepotism, state sector ‘cadre-deployment’ and cronyism, tender fraud, collusion amongst competitors to secure tenders, gross mismanagement, criminal negligence and incompetence, lack of capacity to deliver, wholesale pilfering of resources, state-capture – the list goes on. There is undeniably an ethics deficit in our social, political and economic milieu.

But gross misconduct aside, it is often far from obviously evident to know what the correct or ‘right’ thing to do is in a given situation, much less to gather the will and harness your ability to carry it out.

3.2 Moral Complexity & Multi-Culturalism

In an age of moral complexity and multi-culturalism professionals do not necessarily have a single cultural consensus that guides the process of moral decision-making. A discussion on professional ethics contemplates the crisis of both ethics and what it means to be a professional.

Ethics writer J. Wilcox explained this concern about professional ethics as, “this loss of a cultural consensus has its roots in the profound changes wrought by technological innovation and scientific discovery in the middle of the 20th century: splitting the atom, developing the computer and telecommunications, and unlocking the genetic code.” He adds to this that the emphasis on individualism, human freedom, and privacy together with unprecedented economic growth in modern western societies has contributed to this loss of consensus (Wilcox, 2020).

3.3 A Scenario

Consider the following scenario: Van der Merwe & Dube Consulting Engineers have been retained to produce an environmental impact assessment for a new bridge on behalf of the construction company proposing the structure. It has been made clear to the consulting engineers that the client expects that the assessment will not find significant environmental problems with the project. But engineers van der Merwe and Dube are concerned that if they produce an assessment that meets these expectations, it will not fully represent the adverse effects of the construction project, and could lead to the project being given the go-ahead despite the benefits not necessarily outweighing the environmental damage it will cause. How should they go about completing their assessment? Should they aim to meet client expectations? Should they adapt their methodology to get the desired results, should they warn them that the impact assessment may highlight problems, or should they simply produce the most honest, accurate assessment they can? (Adapted from raeng.org.uk)

But dilemmas can be far more complex and ethical issues abound within this and the other professions.

4 Ethical Approaches

To build a framework for an understanding of what it means to be ethical, and how you should act ethically in the world, some foundational concepts can help us. These concepts serve as the building blocks to an ethical approach to life’s decisions.

4.1 Justice

Justice and fairness are both key concepts when contemplating the meaning of morality and ethics. The concepts are often used synonymously, although there are shades of difference in meaning. From the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle where fairness was defined as giving each person their due, fairness and justice can be seen as standards of rightness where individuals are treated as they deserve to be treated.

It is not necessarily self-evident what fairness or justice means in a society. Conflicts of interest are everywhere, resources are never infinite. Who is entitled to what? To further explore this we must consider the principles of justice.

Equality is the most prominent principle. Individuals should be treated equally – they should be treated the same unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation. But what are the criteria for treating people differently? Some reasons are justifiable, such as this: people consider it fair that the first person in a queue should be assisted first, e.g. the person at the front of a line at a theatre gets the first choice of tickets (Velasquez, 2018). Similarly, people feel it is fair if a guilty offender is punished, but that this punishment is not meted out to others who have nothing to do with the crime.

On the other hand, it is unfair – unjust – when people in society are treated differently based on the criteria of race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, age or other arbitrary reasons.

Three types of justice can be distinguished, namely distributive justice, retributive justice, and compensatory justice. Briefly, distributive justice refers to how the ‘benefits and burdens’ of society are distributed; retributive justice is the question of whether a punishment is fair and just – a corrective punishment – and whether there were mitigating circumstances to consider. Compensatory justice refers to whether people are fairly compensated for their injuries by those who have injured them. When there is the presence of justice, it brings about social stability.

American political philosopher John Rawls emphasised this kind of justice as fairness in society. His two principles of justice envisage firstly, equality of basic liberties for all members of that society, and secondly, equality of opportunity in the social and economic spheres while providing for a ‘greater benefit’ for the least advantaged members in society (Rawls, 2008). The inequality of the latter must first be addressed before there can be equal opportunity.

4.2 Rights

Another concept at the heart of ethical decision-making is a person’s rights, e.g. the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as expressed in the US Declaration of Independence. A right is a justifiable claim of an individual on others. A right then is an acknowledged standard accepted not only by the claimant of the right but also by society as a whole.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 codified a list of basic expected rights that apply to all people, including the right to life, to dignity & equality, to a name, to work and the just remuneration for that work, to free speech, privacy, education as well as the rights to freedom from discrimination, freedom from slavery, and freedom from torture among others. These rights are neither universally upheld, nor necessarily codified as laws in every country. Nevertheless, they serve as the basis for a standard applicable to every human.

The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that moral principles should uphold the dignity of each person. Each individual is to be respected as a person of worth and dignity, and not a ‘means to an end’. Accordingly, each person has a right to freely make their own choices.

Kant distinguished between negative rights and positive rights. For example, the right to life and the right to privacy impose a so-called ‘negative’ duty on others to not do the things that would impinge on these, i.e. not to kill, or not to intrude on others which would violate the expressed rights.

On the other hand so-called ‘positive’ rights such as the right to food, education or medical care, are rights requiring a positive duty on others – on society – to actively help people. As opposed to the negative rights that require people to not harm by not acting, the positive rights require more than merely ‘not acting’ but impose active duties on other individuals and by extension society to help sustain the basic welfare of those who need it.

Sometimes people’s rights conflict with other rights. To work out what the correct course of action is required the rights to be balanced against each other. If an action is wrong because it violates the rights of an individual, what if the opposing course of action violates another individual’s rights? To illustrate, equality is a right and so is freedom of association. Somebody would have the right to join a men’s social club because it is their right to free association. But if a woman applying to join this club were to be denied based solely on her gender, would this not be a violation of her right to equality? (Velasquez, 2014).

When competing rights are balanced against each other like this, the most appropriate course of action is often reached by considering the larger social cost or the question of justice. But rights to need to be balanced against the other ethical concepts – an over-emphasis on individual rights, for example, could undermine the rights and functioning of communities.

4.3 Virtue

Virtue ethics is the idea that humans who strive towards commendable ideals like excellence or dedication to a just cause, develop their character through the practice of these ideals and so can fulfil their potential. The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that it was through practising self-discipline that a person improved her character, while it was through self-indulgence that one’s character was corrupted.

According to this way of thinking, ethics should therefore be more than merely ‘doing’ the supposedly ‘right thing’, it should go to the very heart of the person, focusing on what kind of person they should be. The implications of moral principles applied to a person’s life should be more than unthinkingly complying to a list of rules – even ethical ones – but rather that the person becomes a virtuous individual. In this way, a virtuous person is also an ethical one.

An associated idea is that individual virtue essentially comes from the wider community, it is not developed in isolation. As the individual absorbs the values of their community, they too hold those values dear and internalise them as individuals.

4.4 Common Good

The members of a community, being inextricably interconnected, relate to each other in ways that create mutual obligations towards each other, manifesting in shared interests, facilities and social institutions. These shared interests include principles such as the rule of law, as well as community ‘benefits’ like public roads, public parks and general social well-being.

The common good comes about because of these social relationships of mutual care and concern. A key concept within an understanding of the common good is that of solidarity which in this context is defined as giving one’s fellow citizens a status in one’s reasoning that is “equal to their interests” (Hussein, 2018).

The philosopher Aristotle addressed this in his treatise Politics, where he explains the common good as a relationship – more, a friendship. “This friendship consists in citizens wishing one another well, there being aware of the fact that their fellow citizens wish them well, and they are taking part in a shared life that answers to this mutual concern” (Aristotle).

In the tradition of Catholic social teaching, the common good is understood as respect for the person, for the social well-being of the group, and peace – as in the “stability and security of a joint order.” The common good, while always oriented towards the progress of the person, orders things subordinate to persons, not the other way around. “This order is founded on truth, built up injustice and animated by love” (Catechism III, 1.2.2.)

4.5 Utilitarianism

The utilitarian ethical theory holds that one can decide the right course of action for any given situation by evaluating which decision is likely to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people (Thompson, 1994).

On the face of it, the utilitarian way is a ‘common sense’ approach to ethical dilemmas that judges actions according to the results they achieve. Several variations to the principles of utilitarian thought have emerged, among them the evaluation of benefits in terms of pleasure vs. pain (Jeremy Bentham), doing what is right for the greatest number of people not merely one’s own (John Stuart Mill), or in economic terms of monetary benefits over costs.

5 The Engineering Council of South Africa

In South Africa, the Engineering Profession Act (Act 46 of 2000) created the conditions for the establishment of the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). The ECSA opened up scrutiny of the ethical and professional conduct of its registered members, thereby affirming the utmost significance of transparency, accountability, professionalism and professional standards. Through its code of professional conduct, it ensures that “registered persons apply their knowledge and skill in the interest of humanity and the environment; to execute their work with integrity and sincerity and following generally accepted norms of professional conduct and to respect the interest of their fellow being and honour the standing of the profession” (ecsa.co.za). Together with this, other objectives are to encourage excellence and acquisition of professional skills and to not prejudice the public’s health and safety.

6 ECSA Code of Ethics

The ECSA’s Code of Conduct (Ethics) was formally approved and published in the Government Gazette of 17 March 2017. It addresses expectations within five specific criteria or standards of conduct for registered persons of the engineering profession, namely competence, integrity, the public interest, the environment, and the dignity of the profession. Registered persons are expected to comply with these rules. Here follows a summary of each of these criteria:

6.1 Competence

Registered engineers are expected to discharge their professional duty with care, skill and diligence. Also, they are only permitted to undertake work for which their education and skills have equipped them while adhering to the norms of the engineering profession.

6.2 Integrity

The key concepts along with integrity are fidelity and honesty towards employers, associates and clients as well as towards the public. It expressly prohibits dishonesty, bribery and corruption. Registered persons are required to fully disclose any possible conflicts of interest concerning their financial (or other) interests and even to avoid situations that could give rise to the potential for such conflict. They are expressly prohibited from receiving commissions or gratuities unless these are disclosed in writing. They may not misrepresent or exaggerate their qualifications or the degree of responsibility for work done. Moreover, professional engineers are required to give objective and factual opinions in the discharge of their duties. The integrity of the engineer requires disclosure to the council in the event of being found to have been negligent, incompetent, or removed from an office of trust owing to misconduct.

6.3 Public Interest

In the course of discharging their professional duties, engineers are required to not only consider the general health, safety and interest of the public but in fact to prioritise this over other considerations. When advising clients or employers, professional engineers are expected to point out the detrimental effects on public health and safety should this advice not be heeded.

6.4 Environment

As with the rules of conduct surrounding public interest, the rules with regards to the environment are general. But there is a clear expectation to avoid or minimise the adverse effects of their work on the environment, and to ensure that future generations are not negatively impacted either.

6.5 Dignity of The Profession

This refers to upholding the good standing and reputation of the engineering profession. The dignity of the profession requires that registered persons may not maliciously or falsely injure the reputation of other professional engineers or the council, nor may they make misleading or exaggerated claims about their professional services.

7 International Comparisons

It is useful to make a brief comparison between the code of ethics in South Africa and that of three other countries, namely the UK, Kenya and India.

7.1 United Kingdom

The Engineering Council, the UK’s regulatory body for the engineering profession, together with the Royal Academy of Engineering jointly created a Statement of Ethical Principles applicable to all engineering professionals in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The statement serves as a code of ethics but is not intended to be prescriptive as such, and the document points out that its intention is not a ‘standard’ per se or a regulation. It must instead be understood together with the various professional bodies’ code of conduct.

The Statement of Ethical Principles sets out four fundamental principles to guide professional engineers in their ethical behaviour and decision-making. Here is a summary of the four principles:

7.1.1 Honesty and integrity

This principle includes acting reliably and in a trustworthy manner, respecting the privacy and rights of other parties, respecting confidentiality, declaring conflicts of interest, avoiding deception and rejecting bribery or improper influence.

7.1.2 Respect for life, law, the environment and public good

This principle speaks to the need to uphold the reputation and standing of the engineering profession. It refers to the duty to obey the country’s laws and regulations, giving due weight to facts and published standards. It establishes the importance of health and safety, lawful work, and the need for data protection and digital security. Moreover, this principle requires that personal information and intellectual property is respected; that the quality of both the built and natural environments is protected – indeed improved where possible; that the public good is maximized; while taking into account the limited nature of natural resources.

7.1.3 Accuracy and rigour

Referring to the duty of engineering professionals to acquire and wisely use their knowledge and skills, this principle refers to acting with care, identifying risks and mitigating them, and not knowingly misleading other parties. It also speaks to the requirement to perform services only within areas of current competence, to keep knowledge and skills up to date and to assist in the development of engineering knowledge and skills in others.

7.1.4 Leadership and communication

Engineering professionals, as essential to their duty, must work to understand the issues raised by engineering in society. They must promote equality and diversity, they must promote understanding within the general public of the benefits and positive impact of engineering achievements, while always being truthful, striving for objectivity, and challenging policies that cause professional concern.

7.2 Kenya

The Engineers Board of Kenya is the statutory body responsible for producing and enforcing the Code of Ethics and Conduct for Engineers. The code is prescriptive, regulating the conduct and ethics of registered engineers and firms in the East African country. The code is underpinned by three fundamental principles and seven fundamental canons. Following this, several obligations and eleven further items are stipulated.

7.2.1 The fundamental principles

Engineers are to uphold the integrity, dignity and honour of the profession by adhering to three fundamental principles, namely; using their knowledge and skill to advance human welfare; being honest, trustworthy, and serving with fidelity; and striving to further the competence and prestige of the profession.

7.2.2 The fundamental canons

The canons list several criteria, including the paramountcy of safety and welfare of the public; performing only in the area of engineering competence; issuing truthful and objective public statements; avoiding conflicts of interest; avoiding unfair competition; upholding the integrity of the profession; and continuing their professional development.

7.2.3 Obligations

Engineers have obligations towards society, their employers and clients. Social obligations include upholding the safety, health and welfare of the public, upholding of standards, not engaging in ventures with fraudulent or dishonest persons or firms, and avoiding waste of natural resources. The latter obligations include the respecting of confidentiality, avoiding conflicts of interest, avoiding improper solicitation or payments of financial contributions intended to influence the awarding of contracts; and informing clients of societal and environmental consequences of actions.

7.2.4 Conflicts of interest, improper compensation, confidentiality, and unfair means

Listed again in the code of conduct and discussed as separate items in a fair amount of detail, as are rules of engineering practice. Engineers are expected to give recognition of proprietary interests and co-operate with fellow engineers while seeking to advance and develop the profession. The code further stipulates that “no engineer shall in self-laudatory language or any manner derogatory to the dignity of the engineering profession, advertise or write articles for publication.” It concludes with the specifics constituting breaches of the code, and notice that penalties will ensue.

7.3 India

The Institution of Engineers (India) is a statutory body overseeing and advancing engineering in India. It administers its engineering examinations and has been at the forefront of establishing the national standards bodies in India. Its academic programme culminates in examinations that are equivalent to an engineering degree in India. Its Code of Ethics for Corporate Members was updated in 2004, containing an introduction, a preamble, the listing of eleven tenets, general guidance that recognizes two key facts, followed by the application of these recognitions and tenets.

7.3.1 Preamble

The preamble states that the members of the Institution of Engineers (India) practice the profession of engineering for the common good, and therefore show concern for ethical standards; social justice, order and human rights; concern for the protection of the environment and sustainable development; and public safety and ‘tranquillity’.

7.3.2 The tenets

Members must utilise their knowledge and expertise for the welfare and benefit of the community without “any discrimination for sectional or private interest. Engineers must maintain the honour and dignity of the profession, acting only in the domains of their competence and acting with care, diligence and honesty, applying their knowledge and expertise in the interest of their employer or clients, not misrepresenting their qualification or experience. Members are required to inform their employers or clients of the environmental, economic, social or other consequences which may arise out of their actions. Further tenets include the rejection of unfair practices, ‘unavoidable damage to the ecosystem’, or damage to the professional reputation of fellow members of the Institution.

7.3.3 General Guidance

The tenets are based firstly on the recognition that the common tie that exists among humanity is such that the engineering profession derives its value from the people and must therefore have the highest regard for fairness, social justice and equality of opportunity. The second recognition is that the members hold a position of privilege in the community and are, as such, obliged to not misuse this position.

Therefore, these tenets and recognitions advocate for maintaining the confidentiality of information, disclosing of conflicts of interest, avoiding or rejecting ‘financial or other considerations’ and ‘inducements’ to secure work, that they should compete based on merit alone, and refrain from inducing a client to breach a contract entered into with another duly appointed engineer.

Members are required to arrive at a ‘balanced opinion’ when reviewing the work of another person, make statements (or give evidence) objectively and accurately without bias, and disclose further conflicts of interest when giving evidence or making a statement.

8. Making Ethical Decisions

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has published a brief guide to ethical decision-making (scu.edu/ethics). It lists five steps and briefly discusses them – the steps in the process are: recognise the ethical issue, gather facts, evaluate alternative actions, make a decision and test it, and thereafter act on the decision and reflect on the outcome.

8.1 Recognising the ethical issue

Recognising the issue means asking yourself if the decision or situation could be damaging to another person or group. It means asking if the decision involves a choice between a good and bad alternative, or possibly between two good, or two bad alternatives.

8.2 Gathering of facts

This means asking what the relevant facts are, and asking yourself if enough facts are known – if not, learn more about the situation. At this point, ask yourself if you know enough to make this decision.

Ask yourself if some individuals or groups have an important stake in the outcome of the decision, and whether some concerns are more important than others while considering why. Ask yourself what the options are for acting, and whether all relevant persons and groups have been consulted. Consider identifying some creative options for acting.

8.3 Evaluate alternative actions

Evaluate your options by asking five questions:

  • Which option will do the most good and cause the least harm? (Utilitarian approach)
  • Which option best respects the rights of the concerned parties? (Rights approach)
  • Which option treats people fairly and equally? (Justice approach)
  • Which option best serves the community as a whole? (Common good approach)
  • Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (Virtue approach)

8.4 Make the decision and test it

This step starts with considering all the approaches, then deciding which option best addresses the situation. If you were to tell a trusted confidante what decision you made, what would their response be, what would they say?

8.5 Act on the decision and reflect on the outcome

Acting on the decision means implementing it with care while paying attention to the concerns of all stakeholders. Reflecting on the decision means considering how the decision turned out and whether there was anything that could have been done differently.

9 Conclusion

In conclusion, engineers in South Africa are expected to uphold the standards of the engineering profession as stipulated in the Engineering Council of South Africa’s Code of Conduct, specifically the Rules of Conduct: Ethics. According to Doherty, this is a quantified expectation of moral virtue from registered members. “This situation must remain if the profession is to continue to make a meaningful and valuable contribution in both social and technological terms and is to maintain the trust of those with whom it interfaces.”

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10 References

Aristotle. Politics, (translated by Carnes), quoted in Hussain, 2018.

Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, www.dictionary.cambridge.org

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part III, section 1, chapter 2, article 2. Vatican.va/archive

Doherty, L. 2014. Do Engineers Need Ethics? in Engineering News. Creamer Media, www.engineeringnews.co.za

ECSA, Engineering Council of South Africa: Code of Conduct for Registered Persons, www.ecsa.co.za


Hussain, W. The Common Good, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition),

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, scu.edu/ethics

Mintz, S. 2017. Why do we need ethics? www.ethicssage.com

Oxford English Dictionary, www.oed.com

Rawls, J. 2008. Quoted in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu, 2017

Thompson, M. 1994. Ethics, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

Velasquez, M. et. al., 2009. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, SCU/Edu/ethics

Wilcox, J. 2020. Professional Ethics. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com