Code of Ethics and Sustainability

The ASCE Code of Ethics, Canon 1 states :

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.

Point f under this Canon states:

Engineers should be committed to improving the environment by adherence to the principles of sustainable development so as to enhance the quality of life of the general public.  

A classical definition of “sustainable development” is the Brundtland commission of 1987:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It is an interesting to ask what is the obligation of a civil engineering professional who seeks to uphold Canon 1 and clause f given the definition.  I ask a number of rhetorical questions:

  • Is it unethical to accept a job in which there is an inordinate consumption of non-renewable resources when alternatives (perhaps in the short term more costly) are available?
  • Is there an affirmative ethical obligation to do a life cycle assessment of a project to determine what alternative(s) most closely meets the Brundtland definitions as operationalized? This may require excluding others (even requiring going beyond narrow requirements under particular RFQ’s or RFP’s of clients — making the problem bigger).
  • Do engineers have an affirmative obligation under Canon 1d (“Engineers who have knowledge or reason to believe that another person or firm may be in violation of any of the provisions of Canon 1 shall present such information to the proper authority in writing and shall cooperate with the proper authority in furnishing such further information or assistance as may be required.“) to report others who may not be considering the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their duties?
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2 thoughts on “Code of Ethics and Sustainability

  1. Interesting that you would bring forth a “code of ethics”. This is probably as good as writing “I will not be bad” on a chalkboard or nowadays whiteboard. There is a huge difference between believing and living a life of conduct. There are two interesting individuals that you may want to look up in “Google”: they include Jiro Horikoshi and Robert J. Oppenheimer. Both of these individuals worked on feats that one way or another affected human lives. Jiro, best known for the creation of the “Zero” Japanese fighter was adamant against war and knew beforehand that “…..When we awoke on the morning of December 8, 1941, we found ourselves — without any foreknowledge — to be embroiled in war… Since then, the majority of us who had truly understood the awesome industrial strength of the United States never really believed that Japan would win this war. We were convinced that surely our government had in mind some diplomatic measures which would bring the conflict to a halt before the situation became catastrophic for Japan. But now, bereft of any strong government move to seek a diplomatic way out, we are being driven to doom. Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do [anything] other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.”

    Oppenheimer had to live with the notion that his “creation” was the annihilation of people and that “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. That is a huge burden on one individual.

    A “Code of Conduct or Ethics” is as good as the piece of paper it is written on. It is not enough. You need to build a system to provide a “checks and balances”. In much the same manner that the US government is built. Laws are passed by Congress the Judicial System checks these laws to ensure that they muster the Constitutionality of these laws. Whereas, the President must ensure that he executes these laws within the Constitutionality of his powers. As James Madison put it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

    In practical terms. an engineering “Code of Ethics” is insufficient. You must go beyond the individual to seek balance.

  2. Based on my limited experience in civil engineering consulting, I found that our profession’s core values are often at odds with sustainability as a design consideration. Engineers and the practice of engineering is conservative by nature, and for good reason. But our strong preference for tried and true methods as a means of avoiding unforeseen consequences is often in conflict with the new strategies and designs that come with attempts at more sustainable development. Until we develop a quantitative way of measuring sustainability, most engineers will probably find it difficult enough to make decisions between sustainability and standard design practices that they can justify neglecting sustainability all together.

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