Conflicts of interest: When is it permissible to influence the actions of others?

According to a widely accepted definition, a conflict of interest is “a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgment or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.” Conflicts of interests can be further divided into actual, potential, and apparent conflicts of interest. According to the NSPE Code of Ethics, “Engineers shall disclose all known or potential conflicts of interest to their employers or clients by promptly informing them of any business association, interest, or other circumstances which could influence or appear to influence their judgement or the quality of their services.”

From a utilitarian point of view, conflicts of interests should be avoided because they tend to lead to bad consequences. Kantians believe that the engineer’s obligation to avoid conflicts of interests is an imperfect duty. A world in which engineers do not disclose or avoid all conflicts of interests is conceivable but we cannot rationally will that all of us were to live in such a world. For virtue ethicists, they key issue concerns how responses to conflicts of interest manifest virtues such as justice, courage and prudence.

According to US law, a bribe is “the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties.” A prosecutor seeking to get a suspect convicted for bribery must therefore demonstrate that there is a direct connection between the giving of the bribe and some specific past or future action performed in return for the bribe. However, attitudes to bribery vary around the world. In some countries bribery is a natural and ever-present element of everyday life. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) makes it unlawful for US citizens and corporations to make payments to foreign officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business, even if such payments are legal in the country in which they are made.

Back to top