Ethical Engineering Means Choosing Your Work

I once heard a shocking comment from a colleague at a previous job in the aerospace industry. My colleague told me, “Joe, I think you’re a lot like me – you don’t really care about what your work is for, so long as it involves solving challenging problems.” I walked out of that conversation with a notion solidifying in my mind: if that company had that impression of me, I had to get out.

When engineering students, or young professionals, think about engineering ethics, they usually deal with topics narrowly pertaining to their problem-solving work. For example, making sure that they report correct results, that they do not misrepresent their data, or that they raise issues they find to their management. Human safety is often the main focus, especially preventing injury or loss of life due to improper operation of the engineered system. A classic example is the o-rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger‘s solid rocket boosters: an engineer had an ethical obligation to raise his concerns to try and save the crew, and the engineering management suffered an ethical failure in refusing him.

But what abut the ethics involved in the proper operation of a system? There is an aspect of engineering ethics that rarely gets attention in engineering instruction: an engineer’s ethical responsibilities in choosing which projects and programs to work on. A wonderful essay by Darshan Karwat on this subject appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog recently. As an aerospace engineer – a canonical “dual-use” discipline, meaning it has both civilian and military applications – I offer my own opinion here. Continue reading Ethical Engineering Means Choosing Your Work