Professional Codes of Ethics

Nearly every professional association for engineers has its own code of ethics. This chapter discusses three of the most influential codes embraced by some of the largest engineering organizations in the United States: the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and Association for Computer Machinery (ACM).

A code of professional ethics is a convention agreed upon by a group of professionals, but the mere fact that the members of an organization have agreed on a morally wrong code does not make the content of such a code right. No code of ethics can cover all the unforeseeable moral problems that may confront an engineer, and nearly every code has multiple interpretations. A code of ethics is not a full-fledged ethical theory.

The moral principles expressed in a code typically fall within one of three categories: prohibitive, preventive, or aspirational principles. Prohibitive principles describe actions that are morally prohibited; preventive principles seek to prevent certain types of problems from arising; and aspirational principles state goals that engineers should strive to achieve.

The chapter includes a discussion of how engineers should reason when two or more principles of a professional code give conflicting advice, or at least appear to do so. One option is to reinterpret or reformulate the principles of the code; a second option is to introduce a mechanism for resolving the conflict (e.g., a hierarchical ranking of the principles); a third option is to interpret the principles as contributory instead of conclusive moral reasons; and a fourth option is to accept the fact that it is sometimes impossible to comply with the code.

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