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Chapter 3

Framing the Problem

Ben is assigned by his employer, Cartex, to
work on an improvement to an ultrasonic
range-finding device. While working on the
improvment, he gets an idea for a
modification of the equipment that might be
applicable to military submarines. If he is
successful, it could be worth alot of money
to his company. However, Ben is a pacifist
and does not want to contribute in any way
to the development of military hardware.

So Ben neither develops the idea himself nor
mentions it to anybody else in the company. Ben
has signed an agreement that all inventions he
produces on the job arethe property of the
company, but does not believe the agreement
applies his situation. For one thing, his idea is not
developed. For another, his superiors know of his
antimilitaritary sentiments. Yet he wonders if he is
ethically right in concealing his idea from his

How should we resolve controversial issues

related to engineering ethics?
Some kind of methodical approach is needed.
1977: Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA) temporary regulation
for limiting benzene amount in any working
place (1ppm).

1980: U.S. Supreme Court relaxed the OSHA

limitation (10 ppm, indicating that OSHA should
come up with substantial evidence for more
strict limits).

Case of Benzene Exposure in the

Was this conflict between OSHA and the
Supreme Court a result of disagreement over
basic moral beliefs?
Moral disagreement at this issue looks as if there is
some controversy of establishing minimum
acceptable health standards in a work-place.
There should be no question on limiting the benzene
content to have sufficient healthy conditions.
Possibly there is also un-clarity about the priorities
and trade-offs in relation to this issue. (There is no
such thing as perfect, carcinogen-free, or zero-risk
working conditions at any place.)

What is Common Morality?

Set of moral beliefs which most reasonable
people do share regardless of their background
(religious or secular).
Accepting bribes is unethical.
Concealing conflicts of interest for a responsible
engineer is wrong.

Some obvious areas of disagreement

Abortion, euthanasia, death penalty (in general).
Euthanasia for a certain patient (specific case).

But there is a general consensus over moral

beliefs. So why do moral disagreements occur?

How to formulate our moral beliefs?

Common features of human life include

Shared expectations and goals
Common moral traits

So moral beliefs should include general

principles such as not harming others, not to
cheat, keep promises, respect for others, not
to interfere with the freedom of others, etc.

How to formulate our moral beliefs? (cont.)

But of course, with specific exceptions:
Telling a lie is bad, but might be acceptable for a
certain situation.
One should be able to provide proper justification or
a good cause to do so.

Many engineering codes reflect these values

underlined by common morality.

Different Morality Perspectives

Distinction should be made between
Common morality
Personal morality
Professional morality

There could be conflicting answers from

different morality perspectives:
Taking bribe is obviously against professional and
common morality. It can be OK for a certain
individuals own moral values.
Designing destructive weapons could be OK for
professional morality but against personal and
common morality.

Engineers (apart from other professionals) have

further responsibility to the society in general
because of their expertise and capability of
design and production which can either harm or
benefit people.
Scope of responsibility for engineers is

Should an engineer inform the authorities when he/she

notices the wrong of other engineers?

Changes in common morality can impose

changes in professional morality and vice-versa.

Justification of basing professional ethics

issues on common morality
Attempting to make judgments based on
common moral values shared by everyone.
This would eliminate possible bias (some moral
values are important only by people having
faith in a certain religion or belief).
The Belmont Report: Sample Case.
Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of
Human Subjects of Research created by the former
United States Department of Health, Education and

Universalizability and Reversibility (Chapter 4

in 3rd edition)

Two Key Concepts:

Universalizability and Reversibility.
Universalizability: Whatever is right (or
wrong) in one situation is right (or wrong)
in any relevantly similar situation. (it
requires us to be consistent in our
Reversibility: Treat others as you would
have them treat you (Golden Rule). What
would you think if the roles were

How to Analyze a Case

(1) What are the relevant facts?
(2) What are the relevant kinds of ethical
The Case of Steven Severson (page 38 or 54)
Facts that are relevant?
Facts that are irrelevant?
Is there a breach of honesty if he deliberately omits
some data from his report?
How do universalizability and reversibility apply in
this case?

Factual Issues
What looks like a moral disagreement can be
disagreement over the facts of the situation
(possibly lack of sufficient information).
Example 1: Dialogue of Tom and Jim on OSHA
Example 2: Disagreement of Judy and Jane related to
affirmative action to avoid sexual or racial

Some factual issues never become clear:

There is no feasible way to prove that affirmative
action is the only way to overcome discrimination.

Factual Issues (cont.)

When the facts are clear, the possible
moral disagreements can be identified
Sorting relevant facts from irrelevant facts is
not always easy.
Known facts versus unknown facts:
Unknown Relevant Facts can make a big

Ethical Concepts and Conceptual Issues

How to define and measure?

Conflicts of interest

Some cases blatantly and obviously are

But there are also very obscure situations.

Conceptual Issues (cont.)

As far as health is concerned, what should be
the acceptable risk levels?
How to differentiate between bribery and
Listing major features of clear-cut cases can
help deciding on less obvious cases as well:
Example case 1. (OSHA vs. US Supreme Court)
Example case 2. (Steven Severson)

Specific Moral Problems vs General Moral

One can say that consensus is relatively easier
for General Moral Problems.
But most problems concerning professional
ethics faced by engineers are of specific type.
Specific Moral Problems are relatively more
difficult to resolve.

Conclusion: How to Resolve Problems

Identify relevant known facts.
Identify relevant moral concepts.
Try resolving factual issues. How unknown
facts could affect the problem?
Resolve conceptual issues.
Revisit the earlier steps to check for extra
relevant facts, factual issues, conceptual issues
and unknown relevant facts.
Additional relevant moral values, concepts, etc.
Suggest resolution with supporting reasons.

Framing the Problem Continued

In the previous sections we considered some
ways of sorting out
Factual and
Conceptual components of moral problems.
Sometimes this resolves moral problems!
But sometimes there is still uncertainty
about what ought to be done or decided MORAL PROBLEM

Moral Problem
means that there is disagreement or
uncertainty about the moral
evaluation of the person or action!
Now we are going to focus more
directly on these kinds of moral
problems and consider some
techniques for resolving them.

Two common Techniques:

Line-drawing and
Seeking a creative middle way.

Line Drawing
Line Drawing involves viewing a moral
problem on a spectrum.
Where we have:
Action on one end
Being clearly right
(positive Paradigm)

Action on the other

end being clearly wrong
(negative paradigm)

Line Drawing
Sample Case page 60-63:(or 66-69 in 3rd edn.)
Suppose Amanda signs an agreement with
Company A (with no time limit) that obligates her
not to reveal its trade secrets. Amanda later moves
to Company B, where she finds a use for some ideas
that she conceived while at Company A. She never
developed the ideas into an industrial process at
company A, and Company B is not in competition
with Company A; but she still wonders, whether
using those ideas at Company B is a violation of the
agreement she had with Company A. She has an
uneasy feeling that she is in a gray area and
wonders where to draw the line between the
legitimate and illegitimate use of knowledge. How
should she proceed?

What does the NSPE code say about disclosure of business and trade secrets?


Engineers shall not disclose confidential

information concerning the business affairs
or technical processes of any present or
former client or employer without his

Example page 63 (or 67):

Negative Paradigm
(clearly wrong)

test case

Positive Paradigm
(clearly acceptable)

Signed Agreement
Permission Granted
A and B competitors
A and B not competitors
Ideas jointly developed
Amandas Ideas only
Ideas developed on job
Ideas dev. off job
Used As lab Equipment
As equipment not used
(Is the situation in question more like the action is clearly right? or
Is the situation in question more like the action is clearly wrong)
*some negative and positive features may be more important than others (heavily

Complexities of the line drawing technique

general points need to be made (reading)

Pages 62-64 (or 68-69)

Conflicting Values:
Creative Middle Way Solutions
There are situations when two or more
moral rules or duties seem to apply and
when they appear to imply different and
incompatible moral judgments.
This situation arises in engineering ethics.
Sometimes when we take a closer look at
these situations we may find that one value
clearly has a higher priority than the other
Example: p64 (common morality)

Creative Middle Way Solution Sample Case:

(page 67-68 or 71-72 )
Brad is in the second year of his first full time job
after graduating from Engineering Tech. He enjoys
design, but he is becoming increasingly concerned
that his work is not being adequately checked by
more experienced engineers. He has been assigned
to assist in the design of a number of projects that
involve issues of public safety, such as schools and
overhead walkways between buildings. He has
already spoken to his supervisor, whose engineering
competence he respects, and he has been told that
more experienced engineers check his work. Later,
he discovers that his work is often not adequately
checked. Instead, his drawings are stamped and
passed on to the contractor. Sometimes the smaller
projects he designs are under construction within a
few weeks after the designs are complete.

At this point Brad calls one of his former

professors at Engineering Tech for advice.
I am really scared that Im going to kill
someone, Brad says. I try to over-design,
but the projects Im being assigned to are
becoming increasingly difficult. What should
I do? Brads professor tells him that he
cannot ethically continue on his present
course, for he is engaging in engineering
work that surpasses his qualifications and
may endanger the public.
What Should Brad Do?

What does NSPE canon 1 and 4 Say

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their
professional duties, shall:
Canon 1: Hold, paramount the safety, health
and welfare of the public in performance of
their professional duties.
Canon 4: Act in professional matters for each
employer or client as faithful agents or

(Brads obligation to his employer conflict with

obligations to public)

Seeking a creative middle way

looking for a way to resolve
conflicting values that comes as close
as possible to satisfying all relevant
Judgment and creativity are at a premium in
this kind of activity.
(line drawing and middle way solutions)

Easy Choice: sometimes a value seems to be much

more important than others we choose to honor the
more important.
In some cases we may be able to come up with a
solution to the conflicting values that enables us to
honor all of the relevant facts.
Sometimes we must make hard choices between
competing values.
**Its useful to create a range of solutions to the
conflict and first attempt to act in accordance with the
solution that most satisfactorily honors the competing
LIST BRADs OPTIONS (P.68 or 72) and decide on
possible outcomes.

Procedure for dealing with conflicting ethical concerns

Factual, conceptual, application,
moral issues

Conflicting Obligations

Forward for
further analysis

Easy Choice

Find Creative
Middle Way
Hard Choice
Fig.3.3 Resolving Conflicts



Feedback to factual,
conceptual, application,
and moral issues as