Engineering oath

Would you swear an engineering oath?

As developments in technology push questions of ethical considerations further and further into uncharted territory, could engineers benefit from swearing a formal oath?

Written almost 2,500 years ago, the Hippocratic Oath is perhaps the most famous and enduring text in all of Western medicine. It is supposed to have been composed by ancient Greek philosopher, and so-called father of medicine, Hippocrates, and lays out a moral framework for the conduct of doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Included in the vows are modern concerns such as patient confidentiality and professional conduct. However, a number of lines in the original have steadily slipped out of sync with current thinking (it opens with a pledge to the god Apollo and forbids the use of scalpels, for example), so the oath has been subjected to several revisions and modifications. One such revision, penned by the General Assembly of the World Medical Association in 1948, is known as the Declaration of Geneva due to the location of its composition. Another, written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, a former principal of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University, Massachusetts, is known as the Lasagna Oath. Both versions are still widely sworn in medical school graduation ceremonies the world over.

Adherents of the oath praise it for setting out an ideal for newly qualified physicians to aspire to. Could a similar document help to guide engineers through any moral or ethical pitfalls encountered in their professional life? And if so what would it include?

Technology has vast potential to shape the lives of human beings. Ethical concerns are therefore central to the practice of engineering. Whether it involves bridges, power plants or the delicate surgical robotics, considerations of safety and risk must always be on the agenda. Poor engineering standards have grave implications for the quality of life.

An engineering code

The earliest known example of a code of conduct for craftsmen, engineers and builders is the Old Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Written in around 1780BC, it actually pre-dates its better-known ancient Greek cousin by 1,000 years. It features 282 decrees setting out the practice of everything from the sale of goods to marriage and adoption.

Forming part of this code are rules for the drawing up of builders' contracts and clear guidelines as to what is expected from them. Harsh punishments are laid out for those deemed guilty of negligence or substandard workmanship; for example, if an Old Babylonian householder was killed by a falling roof tile due to poor construction, then the builder would be put to death. Any damage caused as a result of poor workmanship had to be repaired along with the defect itself. The same applied to farmers who neglected to keep their irrigation systems in good repair; they had to make good the damage done to neighbours' crops, or be sold with their families to pay the cost.

The most famous existing example of the code takes the form of a 7ft-tall basalt index finger, which is currently on display in the Louvre, Paris. It was presumably placed in a prominent position for public perusal. Though the laws and practices it sets out are archaic and simple, the code is undeniably an early example of engineers being held responsible for their work and an acknowledgment of its impact on the lives of those who go on to use it or live in it. The message is clear: as holders of specialist skills and knowledge engineers have a duty incumbent on them to protect members of the general public.

The nearest analogue to the Hippocratic Oath in the modern engineering world is perhaps Canada's arcane-sounding Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. The ritual dates back to a meeting of seven former presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada held in 1922. Among them was HET Haultain of the University of Toronto who thought that engineers needed an organisation to bind them together and that the swearing of an oath would be the ideal way to guide the ethical development of young graduates.

Haultain subsequently wrote to Rudyard Kipling requesting his assistance in writing an oath and designing a ceremony. Kipling was more than happy to help, and penned the ritual now widely held across the country. A slightly shadowy affair, the ritual is held in private and its content is closely guarded by the Corporation of Seven Wardens, a group that exists only for this purpose.

The organisation says: "The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer has been instituted with the simple end of directing the newly qualified engineer toward a consciousness of the profession and its social significance and indicating to more experienced engineers their responsibilities in welcoming and supporting newer engineers when they are ready to enter the profession."

One well-publicised feature of the ritual is the bestowing of an iron ring to be worn on the little finger of the working hand to remind the engineers of their vows and their responsibility to the general public.

Kipling himself apparently described the ring's symbolism thus: "It is rough as the mind of the young. It is not smoothed at the edges, any more than the character of the young. It is hand-hammered all around and the young have their hammerings coming to them. It has neither beginning nor end, any more than the work of an engineer, or as we know, space itself. It will cut into a gold ring if worn next to it: thus showing that one had better keep one's money-getting quite separate."

Not to be outdone, the US Order of the Engineer launched its own joining ceremony in 1970. Inductees take an oath known as the Obligation of an Engineer. Espousing the virtues of integrity, respect, honesty and tolerance, the ceremony similarly features the bestowing of a ring.

Elsewhere in the world, ethics is largely confined to the various codes of practice or conduct laid down by professional bodies. These act as guides and references to help with day-to-day decision making. They are also statements of the organisation's contract with society setting out the ways that institutions and their members will behave with clients and the general public.

The first of these was drawn up in 1912 by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (which merged with the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1963 to form the IEEE, an organisation which also carries a strong ethical current in its motto, "advancing technology for humanity"). The IEEE's current Code of Ethics was drawn up in 1990 as a ten-point list written with the professed intention of committing members to the "highest ethical and professional conduct". Alongside more general concerns are a number of pledges specific to the field of engineering. Point one, "to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment", and point five, "to improve the understanding of technology, its appropriate application, and potential consequences", in particular being acknowledgements of the wider world.

Ethics in the UK

In the UK, the Royal Academy of Engineering launched a similar document titled 'Statement of Ethical Principles' in 2005, which was revised in 2007. It features a series of guidelines grouped together under several headings such as accuracy and rigour, honesty and integrity, respect for life, law and the public good, and responsible leadership: listening and informing.

The RAEng says the document "was produced through discussions with engineers from a number of different engineering institutions and with philosophers specialising in applied ethics. It is intended to be a statement of the values and principles that guide engineering practice and should supplement the codes of practice published by the various engineering institutions".

This was followed by a much more comprehensive document tilted 'Ethics in Engineering in Practice' in August last year. Contained within its 80 pages is a series of detailed case studies themed around each of the headline concerns. The aim is to give engineers a reference to turn to in times of uncertainty.

Richard Maudslay CBE, chairman of the RAEng engineering ethics working group, says: "The current ethical issues in engineering are many and varied. Different branches of engineering face different ethical issues. For example, engineers working on construction projects in some countries may face special challenges in relation to bribery and corruption. Engineers working in the medical equipment field face a different set of issues."

The IET too has drawn up its own code in the form of its 22-point 'Rules of Conduct' statement. Here too the more detailed entries are underpinned by a series of professional values such as honesty, integrity, competence, environmental sustainability, and safety and risk.

Additionally, the IET has appointed a disciplinary board to oversee and make a judgement on any reported case of misconduct. Over the years the board has issued several suspensions and expulsions. In April 1999 Mr KHL Kelvin of Singapore was suspended for one year after obtaining a personal loan from one of the suppliers to the company that he worked for. In December 2002, Mr Richard Soltysik of Colton, Rugeley, was expelled from the institution after being sentenced to nine months in prison for the construction of an unauthorised decoder and conspiracy to defraud.

The aforementioned codes, and others worldwide, have several common features. Broadly speaking these are safety and risk, responsibility for future generations and for the environment and data and information privacy. These then can be seen as the crucial ethical concerns of the modern engineer.

One of the most sobering and tragic examples of a poorly managed risk in the history of engineering was the Challenger space shuttle disaster. On a crisp winter morning in January 1986, a crowd gathered at the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of flight STS-51L. Just 73 seconds after lift-off, one of the rocket booster seals failed and the entire structure was rapidly engulfed in a giant fireball. All seven astronauts aboard lost their lives.

The night before the launch, engineers from contracting firm Morton-Thiokol Industries (MKI) recommended it be postponed given the low temperatures and due to potential problems with the O-ring seals on the external fuel tanks. Nasa was unhappy with this and ordered MKI to make a "management decision". The four senior managers present overruled the engineers and voted to recommend a launch. Nasa quickly accepted this decision, resulting in one of the most tragic and high-profile engineering disasters in modern times.

The environment and sustainability

Three years after the Challenger disaster, a tragedy of a different nature turned the world's eyes once more to ethical practice in engineering and business. Part way through its journey from Valdez, Alaska to Long Beach, California, the supertanker Exxon Valdez struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska. The accident covered 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean in thick, toxic oil and claimed the lives of thousands of seabirds and sea otters as well as many seals, eagles and orcas.

In the wake of this environmental catastrophe came the formation of the Coalition of Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), a non-profit organisation that set out ten basic principles addressing problems of sustainability for environmental issues such as climate change and water scarcity that can be publicly endorsed by companies as an environmental mission statement or ethic. While the majority of professional engineering bodies include something of this nature in their codes of conduct, CERES goes a step further in its attempt to join principle and practice.

With the broad consensus among leading scientists and researchers being that human activity is contributing to climate change, and steps being made towards a worldwide treaty with the recent drafting of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, it seems likely environmental concerns will form an increasingly large part of the working day of engineers of this generation and beyond.

Similarly demanding on man's relationship and responsibility to nature are the rapid developments in the fields of bioengineering and genetics. The last couple of decades have seen scientists growing ears on the backs of mice, blending feline and jellyfish DNA to make glow-in-the-dark kittens, and manufacturing robot walkers that are controlled remotely by the brain activity of rhesus monkeys. Perhaps the most profound and ethically challenging breakthrough came with the creation of the world's first synthetic life form.

In June 2010 Craig Venter, a leading figure in the team responsible for decoding the human genome, announced he had created an entirely new form of life by injecting a bacterium shell with genetic material created in the lab from scratch. The resulting cell grew and divided successfully, though its DNA contained just 485 genes – a tiny proportion of the roughly 20,000 that make up a human's genetic blueprint.

Venter's hopes that the technique could one day pave the way for the creation of more complex synthetic creatures able to clean up pollution, transform refuse into fuel or create new vaccines were buried under an avalanche of accusations of 'playing God' and 'opening Pandora's box'. While even an advanced researcher such as Venter is still some way from becoming the modern Prometheus, it's clear that his research, and that of others, is raising new debates around ethical issues.

Ethics in the digital age

The dawning of the digital era has also brought with it a cache of ethical concerns. Chief among these perhaps is the issue of privacy. In an age where it is the norm to share personal information such as taste in music and fashion as well as details on location, employment and education online, data has become a hugely valuable commodity as manufacturers and retailers attempt to sell more goods and services to users via targeted advertisements based on Web habits.

In January this year Google sparked controversy when it announced details of an overhaul of its privacy policies. When the changes come into force on 1 March, the company will be able to follow the Web activities of users across its search engine, YouTube and Gmail sites allowing it to piece together a detailed portrait of each user based on searches, emails and video views. The move has drawn heavy criticism from some privacy advocates, though the company insists the changes "will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience".

It's not the first time the company, whose ethics are guided by the famous pithy edict 'Don't be evil', has found itself at the centre of controversy. In a speech in December 2009, then-chief executive Eric Schmidt caused an outcry among privacy campaigners.

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," he said. "If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines – including Google – do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

Apple, too, came under fire last April when it was revealed iPhones and 3G-enabled iPads were tracking their owners' movements and saving them onto a hidden file. These files contained coordinates and a timestamp making it possible for anyone with the right knowhow to access the data and track the user's toing and froing. Apple rectified the issue but many eyebrows remain raised.

Facebook has also found itself under scrutiny. Last December the social network site was subjected to an external inspection following a Federal Trade Commission investigation concerning a laundry list of privacy issues such as data sharing with advertisers, access to accounts via third-party apps and "confusing" privacy settings.

Shortly afterward, 14 pictures from founder Mark Zuckerberg's private gallery were published anonymously online. Apparently a Facebook user was able to exploit a flaw in the site's system for reporting inappropriate pictures to gain access to the 27-year-old billionaire's photos. This glitch was promptly fixed but doubts still remain in the minds of many users.

As technology advances further, engineers of all stripes are pushing human capability and experience deeper and deeper into unexplored territory. Emerging alongside this technical innovation is the increasing need to reflect upon and investigate its corresponding ethical ramifications. The engineer is part of the world of technology and correspondingly part of the debate about the place technology has in society.

However, opinion seems to be divided on how effective codes of conduct or oaths are in guiding engineers through murky moral waters. A brief questioning of those gathered for a drinks reception following the IET's prestige lecture last month revealed a roughly even three-way split between those who welcomed the penning of an engineers' oath, those who saw the value in a code of conduct but considered the swearing of oaths old-fashioned and unnecessary, and lastly those who trusted the questions of ethics to be answered by the wider cultural forces of education and common sense.

For his part, RAEng's Maudslay believes that specialist training is required to fully prepare the modern engineer for the dilemmas that may be thrown their way.

"Personal morality issues can frequently be distilled into something that leads to a yes/no answer. Professional ethics frequently throws up issues which are very broad and complex and where a balance of judgement has to be made, often linked to a balance of risks," he says. 

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