The subject matter of engineering ethics primarily concerns questions about professional obligations engineers have in virtue of being engineers. In the United States, the practice of engineering is regulated at the state level. Each state has its own licensure board, and the licensure requirements vary somewhat from state to state. Licensed engineers have the right to use the title “professional engineer” (PE). Only licensed engineers are authorized to offer engineering services to the public and to sign and seal construction plans and other key documents.
Questions about what engineers “may,” “must,” or “ought” to do have legal as well as ethical dimensions, but legal and ethical norms do not always overlap each other. Some actions are ethically wrong but legally permitted. According to natural law theory, morality determines what is, or should be, legally permissible and impermissible. Legal positivists believe that law and morality are entirely distinct domains, meaning that we cannot infer anything about what is, or should be, legally permitted from claims about what is morally right or wrong.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of engineering disasters triggered fundamental concerns about the value of engineering and technological development. Technological pessimists question the value of technological progress; technological optimists point out that while it is true that some technological processes are hard to control and predict and sometimes lead to unwanted consequences, the world would have been much worse without many of the technological innovations of the past century. The legal term “negligence” can be defined as “a failure to exercise the care and skill that is ordinarily exercised by other members of the engineering profession in performing professional engineering services under similar circumstances.” (Dal Pino, J. “Do you know the standard of care?”, Council of American Structural Engineers, 2014, p. 4.) Engineers who fail to meet this standard of care violate the law and typically act unethically.