“I’m Only Paid to Build Things” – is there more to the role of an Engineer?

How much can be asked of engineers when it comes to the use of our work? Does our job consist of nothing more than the development of technologies that satisfy the request of our employers, or do we also have some responsibility towards their intended use? In other words, should our knowledge consist only of that required to shape materials to suit our intentions, of building design codes and computer modelling codes, or should our actions be guided also by a moral code, which attends to the impact of our work upon society?

As it happens, the Royal Academy of Engineering believes that ethics is integral to the role of a professional engineer, which, after all, is to enhance the well-being of society through technological development. In particular, the Academy’s ‘Statement of Ethical Principles’ give a concise summary of the moral considerations that should be made by engineers when undertaking projects, which include simple guidelines such as:

“Avoid deceptive acts, take steps to prevent corrupt practices or professional misconduct, and declare conflicts of interest.”

“Minimise and justify any adverse effect on society or on the natural environment for their own and succeeding generations”

“Hold paramount the health and safety of others.”

To help understand how these guidelines may be integrated into the work place, the Academy discusses various real-life case studies. One example involves the dilemma of an engineer working for a company developing surveillance technologies for anti-terrorism purposes, when unexpectedly the company makes steps to take the technology to market for any individuals to use: this makes the engineer apprehensive about potential misuse of the systems. But should they voice their concern, or simply bury it and continue in their designated role?

Engineers finding themselves in similar situations are encouraged by the Academy’s guidelines to address such situations not avoid them, and take steps that are within their power to ensure their work is used appropriately, without causing unintended harm.

So how relevant could these guidelines be to an engineering post at BAE? Would it be possible to “avoid deceptive acts” and “take steps to prevent corrupt practices or professional misconduct” while working for company that has in fact been convicted of corruption by the UK and USA governments? And would it perhaps be too monumental a task for any engineer to “minimise and justify any adverse effect on society” and “hold paramount the health and safety of others”, while at the service of a company indiscriminately selling arms around the world to brutal regimes, some of which have used these arms aggressively against their own people?

Although it is made explicit by the Academy that there is generally no single correct course of action that should be taken when confronted with such ethical dilemmas, they do point out that there may well be an incorrect path to take. The guidelines they set out can help us to use our own personal judgement to avoid making such mistakes.
So I would advise anyone considering employment with BAE (or anywhere in the arms trade for that matter) to take a couple of hours to look through the Academy’s Ethical Principles in conjunction with carrying out a background check on the particular companies conduct. You can then decide for yourself whether you can perform the tasks expected of you by your employer, while also retaining your integrity as a professional engineer.

If you’re interested in the ethics of BAE, the companies involvement with the University, and what you can do about it at the upcoming referendum, then you can find more information at the ‘Let’s Disarm Leeds’ Facebook page.

Joel Millward-Hopkins

Image: controlarms on Flickr

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