Ethics: The Principles of Conduct Governing an Individual or a Group
Susan K. Sprague, PE, F.NSPE, Chair, NSPE Board of Ethical Review

Every profession has ethics – doctors and lawyers, dance teachers, retailers, and car salesmen – and each discipline of engineers has a similar code of ethics emphasizing protection of the public. The code has evolved over the years to include sustainable development and anti-discrimination principles, and it essentially covers all aspects of professional practice and guides the PE for prioritizing actions when dealing with the public, clients, and employers.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) established the Board of Ethical Review (BER) in 1954 to further its mission as the authoritative expert in the ethical practice in engineering. The purpose of the BER is to render impartial opinions pertaining to the interpretation of the NSPE Code of Ethics, develop materials, and conduct studies relating to ethics of the engineering profession. The engineering profession’s emphasis on ethics dates to the end of the 19th century. In 1946, NSPE released its Canons of Ethics for Engineers and Rules of Professional Conduct, which evolved into the current Code of Ethics. While these statements of general principles served as a guide, many engineers requested interpretations of how the Canons and Rules would apply to specific circumstances. These requests ultimately led to the creation of the BER. Ethics cases rarely have easy answers, but the BER’s nearly 700 advisory opinions have helped bring clarity to the ethical issues that engineers face daily.

Every year, the BER publishes 12 cases to be used by its members, other engineers, attorneys, and educators as guides for ethical conduct. NSPE members are appointed to serve on the BER and use their expertise to render impartial opinions on questions of ethics.

On December 5 and 6, I had the unique privilege of chairing the six-member NSPE Board of Ethical Review at NSPE headquarters in Alexandria, VA in the face-to-face discussions of 12 cases involving engineering ethics. The BER is seven professional engineers from across the country (PA, NH, FL, NM, WA, IN, and SD). Two members are ethics professors, three are in private practices, and two are in government positions. Being the Chair is an honor, and it comes with very few perks. We received the cases a few weeks prior to the meeting and we had homework to do to prepare. Some cases are real (submitted by members), but most are hypothetical. Each of us was assigned two cases to lead in our meeting.

The review of the cases is a methodical process conducted “old school” by the case leader reading the case facts and conclusion out loud to the group. It’s amazing how hearing the facts and listening to it being read can offer you a different perspective on the case.

We all take turns offering our opinions and we discuss the merits and ethical conflicts in each case. Do we agree with the conclusion? Were Engineer A’s actions ethical? What were Engineer A’s ethical obligations under the circumstances? Are the cited references from the Code of Ethics applicable to the case? Sometimes we finish discussing a case and reach consensus in 25 minutes, and a few have taken over 90 minutes to reach consensus.

You may ask how someone can find an opinion on an issue. The cases are cross-referenced by topic and the portions of the Code cited. For example, if you are interested in cases pertaining to reviewing another engineer’s work, changing employment, autonomous vehicles, etc., you can search under those topics. All published cases recognize the committee members, so my name is recorded on 24 cases and will be noted as Chair on this year’s 12 cases.

It’s a great experience to participate in something important to the profession and provide useful guidance to others. Sadly, both professors on our committee have observed their engineering students cheating on their school exams in ethics (they have video proof), so we still have much work to do to teach the next generation of engineers about ethics.

Test your individual knowledge of the language in the NSPE Code of Ethics by taking a quiz – a series of true/false questions.