Ethical Dilemmas in Mechanical Engineering

I found a set of ethics under the American Society of Mechanical Engineers website, found here. These are very similar to the National Society of Professional Engineers, found here.

Mechanical Engineering is the grandfather of all engineering disciplines. It is the foundation for any other form of engineering that we have today. Before disciplines were specified, engineering was engineering, and that engineering was essentially of the mechanical discipline.

Within Mechanical Engineering, it may seem slightly difficult to find issues for which ethics may be questioned. The most common and prevalent form of ethical challenge is properly disclosing all aspects of a design or system to the client and public community. This is described in the second section of the ASME Code of Ethics, stating that “being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity their clients (including their employers) and the public.”  This is important, because there are many instances in the past where full disclosure was not properly achieved, and as a result of it, catastrophic events occurred in the end.

A prime example of this is the failure to disclose ignition switch defects in the GM cars, brought to public attention in 2014, which resulted in 13 fatalities before being addressed and fixed. “[A GM engineer] was the only person within the company who knew prior to 2013 that the part did not meet manufacturing specifications,” (NBC News). To properly design something, you need to disclose the possible faults of the system so that the purchasing/investing party is aware of the possibilities of failure and/or interoperability, amongst other things. GM, the engineer, and all involved, violated our code of ethics in this scenario, while also violating the third aspect of our ethical code, where “striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession.” Essentially this is saying to not tarnish the public opinion of engineers, so that the honor and trustworthiness of the profession is preserved.

Impartiality is another very important part of our code, where while designing a system, we need to make sure that the system is designed in a way that correctly resolves the issue. That idea may not be what you stand behind 100%, but in reality, we are a team, and we all need to check each other. It is easy to say “what if” while reflecting on history, but in the event of The Titanic sinking, a study found that “ lower-grade metals that were more brittle, suggesting that lives might have been saved had the vessel been constructed with better material,” (CBC News). In this instance, what if we used materials that were more ductile (meaning they can bend more instead of break on impact). This could have related to someone being persistent on using the metals because of price, for instance, while another material may have been more suitable. We may never know, but I think this resembles a possible example of impartiality being violated.  If the system checks out via all of our safety checks and the like, then we need to be impartial to that decision.

Our code is segregated into the formal clauses, which we touched on above, and a list of attributes called “The Fundamental Canons,” which outline the duties of member engineers. The most profound Canons seem to be the first and second:

 

  • Engineers  shall  hold  paramount  the  safety,  health  and  welfare  of  the  public  in  the performance of their professional duties.
  • Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence; they shall build their  professional  reputation  on  the  merit  of  their  services  and  shall  not  compete unfairly with others.

To me, the overall welfare and health of people seem to be priority. Why would we design something that does not improve the lives of people, but rather diminishes them? As for the second canon, I think it is very important to advise solely based on areas of which you have expertise. Anyone can go to Google and come up with an idea, but that does not mean that it will necessarily work or be a logical and safe design. In the end, we need to approach every problem with a pedantic mindset, ensuring that we have not stretched our knowledge to points beyond where we can confidently approve something for manufacturing.

I came to college to become an engineer simply because (a) my family was full of engineers and (b) to understand how things work. Once I got to college, I realized that with a degree in engineering, I was taught a thought process that can be applied to literally anything in the world. We are taught how to problem solve, how to find solutions to problems that face every day life. We are given a toolbox of basics to apply towards the development of the world. With that, it probably sounds bold and generic, but I want to change the world. What in particular? I am not entirely sure. But when I look at what my family has done as engineers, and what other people in the world have done, it makes you realize what the potential of making a lasting impact is. We have an opportunity to change people’s lives for decades, and help people all over the world. When you look at it that way, it almost seems to be a privilege to attend such an institution (it is), so why not shoot for the stars, and see what happens. With this mind set, utilizing the ASME Code of Ethics is a guideline to ensure that we provide quality and safe systems to the mass populations, with the ultimate goal of bettering human welfare.

As for my research topic, I have chosen something that is completely different, pending actually being able to find some information on logistical management and how to effectively transport goods and people all over the world. I think the most pertinent aspect of this, from an ethical viewpoint, is how to do such a thing in a way that harms the environment the least. Beyond that, I think it is to do it in a way that is also the safest, and is necessary to provide proof for the safest and most reliable methods used.

With the idea of impartiality and full disclosure in mind, I think Mechanical Engineers can properly design and build systems that reach the overall end goal in mind: to create things that progress and enhance the overall “human welfare.” Essentially, we are trying to design things that are for the betterment of people, and our ethics directly drive the way that we do just that, and will help us to drive the future development of our ethical challenges.

References:

Barrett, P. M. (2014, Jun). The GM fiasco and overuse of secret settlements: Four blunt points. Business   Week, , 1. Retrieved from    http://0-search.proquest.com.libraries.colorado.edu/docview/1551189751?accountid=14503

 

“GM Report: Engineer Approved ‘Switch From Hell’ Even Though It Didn’t Meet Specs – NBC News.” NBC News. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.

 

“Poor Choice of Materials Made Titanic More Vulnerable – Quirks and Quarks.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 13 June 2014. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.

 

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