Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 237–258 | Cite as

Sustaining Engineering Codes of Ethics for the Twenty-First Century



How much responsibility ought a professional engineer to have with regard to supporting basic principles of sustainable development? While within the United States, professional engineering societies, as reflected in their codes of ethics, differ in their responses to this question, none of these professional societies has yet to put the engineer’s responsibility toward sustainability on a par with commitments to public safety, health, and welfare. In this paper, we aim to suggest that sustainability should be included in the paramountcy clause because it is a necessary condition to ensure the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Part of our justification rests on the fact that to engineer sustainably means among many things to consider social justice, understood as the fair and equitable distribution of social goods, as a design constraint similar to technical, economic, and environmental constraints. This element of social justice is not explicit in the current paramountcy clause. Our argument rests on demonstrating that social justice in terms of both inter- and intra-generational equity is an important dimension of sustainability (and engineering). We also propose that embracing sustainability in the codes while recognizing the role that social justice plays may elevate the status of the engineer as public intellectual and agent of social good. This shift will then need to be incorporated in how we teach undergraduate engineering students about engineering ethics.


Engineering codes of ethics Engineering education Paramountcy clause Social justice Sustainability 


The National Society for Professional Engineering (NSPE) revised its Code of Ethics in 2007 to encourage engineers to “adhere to the principles of sustainable development.” Similar organizations have stressed the need for engineers to support these principles in the course of their professional practice. Further calls, however, for engineers to consider the related issue of social justice have met with considerable debate over what such inclusion may mean for engineering codes of ethics (Scherer 2003). For example, Vesilind (2002) claims that “engineers can, while staying well within the bounds of the present Codes of Ethics, destroy or modify the environments that support the global ecosystem and in such manner kill future humans on a grand scale” (92). Others, though, have argued that while sustainability can be “engineered,” justice is a separate societal goal beyond the scope of the engineer (Agyeman and Evans 2003; Agyeman 2005). There is also the question of whether the addition of sustainability to the codes of ethics is redundant: i.e., does the fundamental canon for all professional engineers to “hold paramount the public’s welfare” already include a commitment to sustainability and perhaps social justice as well? Even those who agree that sustainability, justice, and the fundamental canon are not redundant, see the first two issues as outside of the paramountcy clause, thus devaluing such adherence in professional practice, perhaps even to the point of making such adherence supererogatory.

Much of the debate described above centers around the relationship among sustainability, justice, and public health and safety. By better understanding this relationship, the NSPE and other professional engineering organizations can appropriately incorporate sustainability into engineering codes of ethics, and thus exert a positive influence on the practice of engineering. We recognize there are many critiques of these codes in terms of their ability to affect the individual engineer who is often faced with many conflicting goals related to project execution. Some of these critiques are presented in Davis (2001), even as the author tries to dispel them. While we acknowledge the existence of these critiques, the implementation of the codes is not the subject of this paper. Instead, we intend to further discussion, particularly among professional engineers, of what should be included and prioritized within the codes. We aim to suggest that sustainability should be included in the paramountcy clause because it is a necessary condition to ensure the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Our argument rests on demonstrating that social justice in terms of both inter- and intra-generational equity is an important dimension of sustainability (and engineering). We also propose that embracing sustainability in the codes while recognizing the role that social justice plays may elevate the status of the engineer as public intellectual and agent of social good. This shift will then need to be incorporated in how we teach undergraduate engineering students about engineering ethics.

Calls for the engineering profession to deepen its commitments to sustainability and social justice and proposals to rephrase engineering ethics codes to better reflect such commitments have mounted in recent years (see for example Baillie and Catalano 2009; Catalano 2006a, b; Riley 2008.) Our approach adds to these calls by emphasizing the need to include sustainability in the paramountcy clause of the codes and by looking at social justice as a dimension of sustainability. We start our discussion with an overview of what the term sustainability has come to mean, first in terms of engineering codes of ethics and second, in terms of the engineering profession itself. This overview demonstrates the uncertainties regarding how sustainability currently meshes with engineering. We then show how the inclusion of sustainability in the codes serves to address these uncertainties.

Sustainability and Engineering Codes of Ethics

The phrase “sustainable development” was formally added to the NSPE Code of Ethics in 2007 and to ASCE’s code in 1996; however, it is missing from the codes for the other traditional engineering professional organizations. And, both ASCE and NSPE treat the term in different ways that affect its importance in terms of the hierarchy of values within the codes.

The NSPE code includes six fundamental canons, followed by rules of practice that provide guidance to engineers on how to adopt these canons as part of professional practice. Neither the canons nor the rules of practice include any reference to sustainability or to sustainable development. Instead, the six canons stipulate the paramountcy clause in terms of the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and refer to characteristics such as competency, loyalty, honor, reputation, and honesty in the fulfillment of professional duties. Rounding out the NSPE code is a list of nine professional obligations that, if adhered to, also help an engineer to follow the code. Several professional obligations are closely tied to specific canons. One of these nine professional obligations states that engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest. It is here that one finds the phrase engineers are encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development, as one of four suggestions for how to accomplish this professional obligation. In other words, according to the NSPE, while engineers are encouraged to “adhere to the principles of sustainable development” so that they fulfill their obligation to “strive to serve the public interest,” they are not required to follow these sustainability principles to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” One is left to conclude that NSPE does not view sustainable development as a necessary condition for maintaining the public’s safety, health, and welfare.

ASCE uses the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s (ABET) Code of Ethics as the framework for its own code. ASCE describes four fundamental principles for civil engineers to follow to ensure compliance with the canons, followed by the canons themselves, and then guidelines for how to practice each canon. None of the four fundamental principles specifically includes “sustainability.” However, ASCE changed the canons in 1997 to include sustainable development in the first and primary canon as follows: Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties. And in 2009, ASCE adopted the following definition of sustainable development: “Sustainable development is the process of applying natural, human, and economic resources to enhance the safety, welfare, and quality of life for all of society while maintaining the availability of the remaining natural resources.” However, despite the elevated importance of sustainability as compared to NSPE, ASCE still sees the responsibility for the engineer in terms of sustainability as secondary to safety, health, and welfare in that the engineer must “strive” for sustainable development, whereas he/she must “hold” safety, health, and welfare of the public as paramount. Still, despite this difference in importance, the location of sustainability in the first canon emphasizes that, at least for civil engineers, sustainability is intricately tied to the public’s safety, health, and welfare.

Besides civil engineering, the other traditional engineering disciplines include chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering with the respective professional associations of AIChE, ASME, and IEEE. None of these three associations specifically includes sustainability in its codes of ethics, although each includes reference to the environment. AIChE’s Code is relatively short and includes environment in its paramountcy clause as follows: Members shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties. IEEE’s Code is also relatively short and includes environment in its paramountcy clause though in a different way: members accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment. The ASME Code, among the longest of the professional Codes, also includes a reference to environment but not within the paramountcy clause. Instead ASME places environment within an individual canon: engineers shall consider environmental impact in the performance of their professional duties.

One could say that ASME, AIChE, and IEEE believe it is redundant to add sustainability to the professional Codes because it is covered by the paramountcy clause regarding safety, health, and welfare of the public. However, since all three organizations include environment in their Codes in different ways, it is more likely that these organizations have merely not progressed from environmental considerations to the more inclusive set of considerations embodied by sustainability. In other words, they include only the environmental arm of sustainability.

This assumption is supported by a review of a 2010 blog discussion on AIChE’s website regarding the question of whether sustainability needs to formally be included in AIChE’s code despite the inclusion of the term “environment.” This recent discussion appears to have started as a result of a March 2010 meeting of the Institute for Sustainability’s (IfS) First Regional Conference on Sustainability and the Environment for the Pacific Northwest. The blog reveals support for the inclusion of the broader concept of sustainability, as well as for the idea that codes of ethics are living documents that must be reviewed and updated periodically (AIChE 2010). Assuming then that environment is a proxy for how these engineering professional societies will treat sustainability, AIChE is likely to place sustainability within the paramountcy clause similar to ASCE; however with even more of a responsibility for achieving such sustainability as an equal goal with protecting the public’s safety, health, and welfare. On the other hand, while both IEEE and ASME view negative impacts to the environment as something to be avoided and/or disclosed, they appear to see environmental impacts as separate and of less importance than human impacts.

In short, considerable variation exists among engineering disciplines in terms of what each expects for its members professionally regarding responsibility for environmental issues and the more general concept of sustainability. Even the codes themselves are written for different objectives, e.g., ASCE’s code is written to provide more detailed guidelines for how to practice civil engineering (primarily consulting), as contrasted with IEEE’s code which is very general and articulates aspirations rather than rules. In other words, ASCE’s code focuses more on the “doing” of engineering while IEEE’s focuses more on the “being” that enables the practice of engineering, though all codes include both aspects. Despite their differences, it appears that the various engineering codes of ethics are moving towards including environmental sustainability as an important professional responsibility that is not redundant with the paramountcy clause, however is of lower priority.

The lower priority may be in part due to a belief that an engineered product can have a direct impact on human safety, health, and welfare; however an engineered product’s impact on the environment may only indirectly lead to an impact to human society. In other words, sustainable development is still seen by the engineering societies as an environmental issue that does not directly affect human safety, etc. It also appears that the engineering professions anticipate that there are some problems so severe in terms of public safety, health, and/or welfare, that an engineer may need to violate sustainability principles, whether inter- or intra-generational, to achieve acceptable solutions.

Sustainability and the Engineering Profession

Equating environment with sustainable development is understandable as seen within the engineering codes. The initial formulation of the term sustainability stems from use of the phrase “sustainable development” in the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, more commonly known as the Brundtland Report. As defined in this document, sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition grew out of the interest of the 1983 commission in finding strategies that would reduce the global environmental impacts caused by development, such as erosion from deforestation and climate change from increased energy use. In fact, the objective for sustainable development was a natural result of the evolution of the environmental movement from a focus on local problems to regional ones and then to global issues resulting from the use of modern technology.

The meaning of sustainable development, and the more general term sustainability, continues to evolve as they are applied to different contexts over time (Allenby 2009), and any review of the literature will reveal a multitude of definitions. Each profession seems to have its own version of the term that is framed by the context of what sustainability means for that sector. According to Bridger and Luloff (1999), approaches to defining “sustainable development” have tended to fall into two categories: Resource Maintenance versus Constrained Growth. While intergenerational equity is central to both approaches, they differ in terms of how they construe the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Bridger and Luloff (1999) use these interpretations and others to suggest that a critical dimension of any “sustainable community” definition is that the community must first be committed to social justice. And, despite the continued lack of an accepted universal definition, for most, the terms “sustainable development” and “sustainability” now encompass consideration of issues related to the environment, economy, and society.

Besides being influenced by the Brundtland Report, the inclusion of sustainability within the engineering profession has also been affected by the evolution of the profession itself. As described by Lucena et al. (2010), engineering in the eighteenth century focused on transforming nature which led to the development of networks to economically profit from such transformations while modernizing communities using technology. In other words, engineering historically followed more of a Constrained Growth philosophy as described by Bridger and Luloff (1999). From the 1980s, engineering as a profession began to consider sustainable development using more of a systems approach of interrelated networks, however as of today, sustainability is still not seen as inherent to engineering in the way, to take one example, economic efficiency is, at least as evidenced by engineering curricula.

While not universally accepted, there is one definition for sustainability that is increasingly being seen as applicable to engineered systems, and has been adopted by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE) for a new certification of practice test in sustainability. The certification of practice is a specialty certification that one achieves in a subfield after attaining licensure and substantial professional experience. The sustainability definition used by AAEE is:

Sustainability [in terms of engineering] is the design of human and industrial systems to ensure humankind’s use of natural resources and cycles does not lead to diminished quality of life due either to losses in future economic opportunities or to adverse impacts on social conditions, human health, and the environment. (Mihelcic et al. 2003, p. 5315)

To better see the implications of this definition, one must understand that the standard engineering design process is essentially a decision-making process that asks the engineer to determine what combination of alternatives is needed to solve a particular societal problem with technical dimensions. As with any decision process, the engineer establishes decision criteria and constraints e.g., the minimum load that must be carried, the maximum deflections allowed, the allowable temperature range, the minimum voltage, and so on. Based on the design criteria and the constraints, the engineer evaluates a set of alternatives and selects the best solution to the problem. This selection process typically involves making tradeoffs as often there is no single alternative that effectively meets all conditions better than all others. In addition, evaluating the alternatives often involves predicting the likely consequences of various actions without having complete and certain information. Along with regulations, professional standards, client desires, and best practices, the engineering codes help an engineer to prioritize among the many competing design criteria and constraints to select a course of action. As described by Lucena et al. (2010), this design (or decision-making process) is a natural product of the view of the engineer as a problem-solver facilitating technical modernization that unfortunately does not easily include ways to address those non-technical dimensions that may be critical for sustainability.

Placed against the Brundtland Commission’s definition, the Mihelcic et al. (2003) definition of sustainability clarifies what the “needs” are for current and future generations in terms that can be more easily operationalized by engineers as design criteria and constraints. In other words, from a sustainability perspective, the job of an engineer is to design technological systems to meet societal demand (growth), and in so doing, reasonably reduce negative impacts in terms of the range of economic opportunities, social conditions, human health, and environmental health for current and future generations. Standard measures can be used to quantify these potential impacts e.g., economic opportunities may be defined in terms of changes to industrial output, environmental health in terms of chemical and biological emissions or natural resource depletion, and human health in terms of exposure to chemical, biological, or physical risk. Social conditions remain as one of the broad terms within the definition of sustainability that still requires further consideration, but for this paper, we assume that measures of social impact can/will be developed.

We also need to understand how engineers traditionally incorporate such “sustainability” constraints as part of the traditional design process. Besides the many technical constraints for engineered systems, it is almost always standard practice for an engineer to consider the cost (or economic efficiency) of an engineered system as a design constraint since most engineered systems must be bought and sold.1 Similarly, in recent times, environmental laws and regulations have set environmental health and human health constraints that engineers have been required to include as part of the design process. Beyond regulations, environmental sustainability has become a desired attribute for consumer products with more and more voluntary codes such as LEED, Energy Star, etc. that affect marketability. As with product cost, the engineer often considers anything that affects marketability as part of the design process. In other words, engineers are already used to considering several of the sustainability “needs” in terms of the traditional design process, however, the way by which an engineer incorporates these “needs” is often at the aggregate level, as we will now go on to describe.

In terms of product costs, the standard methods for engineering economic analysis involve benefit-cost analysis: a technique that considers the total expected benefits of one alternative versus its total expected costs as compared to similar calculations for other alternatives. The expected costs and benefits are considered over the life of the supply chain and expressed using a common basis such as present worth. Benefit-cost analyses are limited to those benefits and costs that can be assigned market values. In other words, impacts without market assessments are not included in the analysis. While in an ideal world, the benefit-cost analysis results in the selection of a Pareto-efficient solution, i.e., some are made better off while no one is made worse off, this rarely happens. Instead, because of the aggregate nature of the analysis, equity considerations are not formally included and thus not considered. For example, a project that results in lower energy costs for a region may come as the result of displacing the source of income for a sub-population to allow construction of a hydroelectric dam. There are numerous critiques of the benefit-cost analysis method from these and other perspectives, a few of which include Craig et al. (1993), de Graaff (1975), and Iverson (1994).

Similarly, except for specific regulated cases e.g., those involving an endangered species, environmental impacts are also assessed using aggregate techniques. Life cycle assessment (LCA) has become a very common technique to look at aggregate environmental impacts across the supply chain. Essentially one sets the boundaries for a consumer product; delineates its life cycle in terms of the supply chain from raw materials to end-of-life; inventories the environmental emissions and natural resource uses for each step of the supply chain; determines the aggregate impact of that inventory in terms of standard environmental terms such as energy consumption, pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, etc.; and evaluates methods to reduce the aggregate impact, whether the impact is to eco-systems or human health. The LCA technique represents an improvement over past techniques because environmental impacts across the entire product life cycle (or supply chain) are considered rather than just one aspect of the supply chain e.g., the manufacturing process. However, because each particular impact is aggregated across the life cycle, certain sub-populations are not considered as an engineer tries to minimize impact. For example, a LCA may show that life-cycle chemical impacts are least for a particular alternative, however the actual burden may be placed on one particular species rather than spread across a variety of species. Critiques of the LCA technique tend to revolve around the ideas that (a) too much detail makes it difficult to understand the results, and (b) too much aggregation makes the results meaningless (Johnston 1997, among others). There are also critiques of LCA that suggest that if the tool is to aid with sustainability assessments, it needs to go beyond environmental issues to look at social ones as well (Dreyer et al. 2006).

Human health risk assessment represents a different approach from those two tools in that specific populations are typically defined by the regulations and must be considered. Some of these sub-populations include the workers in a facility, the population living within a certain distance of the perimeter of a manufacturing plant, or the target group who will use the product (a toy, a car, etc.). However, while various alternatives are considered in terms of the human health risk to that target population, these considerations are often couched in terms of absolute risk to the population and not comparative risk for several populations. For example, a risk analysis may show that the population within a part of a manufacturing facility is exposed to a risk that is below the regulated level. However, a comparison is rarely done to show how much that population’s risk has been increased as compared to workers in another part of the facility. In addition, human health risk calculations are typically performed only if required by a regulation, or to be factored into an aggregate benefit-cost or LCA calculation. Similar issues exist with ecological risk assessment.

In summary, the engineering profession is already incorporating various aspects of sustainability as constraints in the traditional engineering design process because of market requirements and existing regulations; however the overall approach reveals two primary problems. The first is that standard approaches to the engineering design process do not consider the economic and social impacts to the affected society. In other words those aspects of sustainability are missing and the current treatment of sustainability (or environment) in the codes is insufficient. The second problem for those sustainability issues that are addressed, is that the engineering design process treats them at an aggregate level that does not consider sub-populations along with the inherent equity and social justice issues.

But, should the engineering profession include these equity and social justice issues as part of the decision process? We suggest that it should since all engineering projects involve tradeoffs and these can often mean that some populations may be impacted more than others. Such a revised approach recognizes that while engineered systems impact product cost, environmental health, and human health, these in turn impact the social and economic opportunities for a community and for sub-populations within a community. To do so also means to recognize that sustainability is a social justice concept.

Social Justice as a Dimension of Engineering Sustainability

What does it mean to say that sustainability is a “social justice concept”? In saying this, we mean that social justice is a necessary condition for the furtherance or development of sustainability, rather than the other way around (as in, for example, Barry 1999). Before going on, we also need to clarify what we are taking social justice to be; as Riley (2008) has noted there are many approaches to and traditions of social justice, and the very concept may be intrinsically open-ended in that arriving at social justice is a “continuing process” and “ongoing struggle”(1). In this paper, we are taking social justice to be the fair and equitable distribution of social goods and harms, benefits and burdens, across a diversity of communities and populations, including populations underrepresented by virtue of considerations such as economic status, race, age, gender, nationality, or physical capability.

In understanding social justice as distributive justice, we are drawing on the highly influential theory of “justice as fairness” developed by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls. Others have developed deep and provocative associations between Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness and sustainability (e.g., Miller 1999), and Voorthuis and Gijbels (2010) have used this theory to defend the fairness of the “cradle-to-cradle” approach to design. Here we are turning to Rawls for two reasons. The first is largely pragmatic and tied to the paramountcy clause as it currently reads, the second is connected to the critique of benefit-cost analysis as described above.

First, the paramountcy clause as it currently reads obligates engineers, through what they design, to support the public, social goods of health, safety, and welfare. Succinctly put, the “fairness” in Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness comes from the idea that the ideal principles of justice are ones that arise from deliberation under conditions that are fair to all participants (so-called “rational contractors”) involved (Rawls 1971). These conditions turn out to be conditions of uncertainty: none of the participants know what place in society they would occupy in the society whose principles of justice they are deliberating toward. Rawls claims that under these conditions, participants would end up agreeing that all liberties, opportunities, and other primary social goods ought to be distributed equally, except when a different distribution would make everyone in society better off (54). On the surface of things, it might seem as though making social justice out to be a paramount engineering concern is taking a very large conceptual step, if not a leap. But, when we look at the paramountcy clause as identifying particular goods that engineers need to be concerned about producing, the step to saying they should also be concerned about how these goods are distributed seems to be one that is shorter and follows more naturally.

Second, we have already seen how attention to the impacts of engineering decisions on sub-populations within communities puts a strain on the typical benefit-cost analysis used in making these decisions. Taking the perspective of sustainability as a justice concept further increases this strain. This perspective demands that, when projecting impacts on future generations, care be taken not to look at these generations simply as aggregate population wholes (as, for example, “humanity,” in Mihelcic’s et al. 2003 definition of sustainability). We can see further limits of using benefit-cost analysis in the context of sustainable design projects by drawing upon Rawls’ understanding of how a rational contractor, under conditions of uncertainty, would go about making decisions. In discussing this point, we will first look at the difficulties in predicting the socio-environmental impacts of engineering projects and processes in a world where patterns of causation are becoming ever more increasingly complex. Our second consideration relates to the idea that, as a social justice concept, taking sustainability as an important design criterion means paying attention not only to equity in the distribution of socio-environmental burdens, but also of environmental and other social benefits, whose value may prove resistant to expression in economic terms.

  1. 1.

    In 2005, the London-based non-profit Forum for the Future published About Time: Speed, Society, People and the Environment, a slim volume designed to deepen public understanding of sustainability through a multi-disciplinary exploration of its relationship to time. The British ethicist Mary Warnock began her contribution to this volume by observing that a primary distinguishing feature of human as opposed to non-human animals is our ability to envision the future. Our everyday practices of ethical reasoning, Warnock went on to say, highlight this feature, “…in the real world, and especially in the world of political decision-making, we are all to some extent at least utilitarians” (Warnock 2005).

Warnock’s observation is fitting: it is hard to imagine anyone would seriously disagree with it. Still, if we are all to some extent at least utilitarians, we are at best imperfect ones under ordinary circumstances. Due to the daunting challenges posed to our ability to imagine the future posed by global climate change, we are growing more imperfect all the time. We know that, once developed, technologies and technological systems have unforeseen (and unforeseeable) consequences. Ordinarily, these impacts do not challenge our conventional ways of thinking about the relations of cause and effect. They often result from users taking a technology in a direction different from that intended by the original designers. While global climate change also leads to unintended consequences, these can be unintended consequences of a different sort. As some have pointed out (Jamieson 1992, 1996; Scherer 2003), global climate change creates a context in which we can anticipate that causes will lead to unpredictable effects along a variety of dimensions, including:
  • Scope and scale, which could be unprecedented;

  • Severity of impacts on particular geographical regions and human societies may vary considerably; the well-being of some populations may be sharply compromised while other populations would be better off;

  • Cumulative impacts: countless similar causes may produce countless similar effects that when taken individually have a negligible adverse impact; when combined, the negative impact is massive;

  • Synergy: effects may interact with one another in unexpected ways, with deleterious consequences.

As engineers develop projects designed to counter the effects of global climate change and to promote sustainability, they need to take these new kinds of unpredictable causal relations into account. It is not hard for example to discern difficulties involved in predicting the effects of innovative ventures in geo-engineering, such as the international Silver Lining research project ( aimed at propelling sea water droplets upwards to create clouds to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere. But the design processes of even more conventional engineering projects to address sustainability are also caught up in the new uncertainties of causal relations. Let us go back for a moment to Mihelcic’s definition of sustainable engineering. In order to determine whether any particular system’s design would be able to help counter the impacts of climate change, it is necessary to project a pattern that climate change might take, a demanding task made even more demanding by the causal relations just mentioned.

Rawls comes into the picture when we ask how these new relations call the use of benefit-cost analysis in engineering into question. It is reasonable to imagine he would have agreed with Warnock’s observation of how we normally (and rationally) approach decision-making under the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. Because in these situations we have a fairly good idea of what the probabilities are with regard to alternative courses of action, we turn to the principle of utility to maximize aggregate expected value. When in the classroom, one introduces Rawls’ discussion of principles of rational choice by asking students to choose between coin flip games, a typical undergraduate with a minimal knowledge of economics will likely choose a game where the expected value is higher (e.g., “heads you get $100/tails you lose $10) than another game where she or he could also choose (e.g., “heads you get $10/tails you lose $2) and thereby maximize expected value ($45 vs. $4). But in some cases where the probabilities of winning or losing are not easily determined, students tend to gravitate toward the outcome that answers the question: “What is the least worst thing that could happen to me?”—in other words, they will use maximin as a principle of rational choice. As Rawls has argued, it would be rational for individuals who had no knowledge of their place in life, including to which generation they belonged, to use this principle when deciding what principles of justice they should endorse (Rawls 1971).

Of course, the position of engineers designing solutions for problems in the context of the unpredictability of the “new” causal relations is quite different from that occupied by the rational contractors in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Still, Rawls’ perspective is a particularly valuable one within the context of thinking about sustainability as a social justice concept. It not only underscores the limitations of the use of benefit-cost analysis within the context of sustainable engineering practices, but also points to an alternative principle of rational choice in decision-making where probabilities are difficult to determine and social justice is at stake.

  1. 2.

    In his definition of sustainability, Mihelcic et al. 2003 focuses on the need to fairly distribute the adverse impacts of engineering projects. Social justice, however, involves not only a fair distribution of burdens and harms, but also of goods and benefits. It is tempting to think that this comes down to the same thing, in that a fair distribution of burdens would be nothing other than a fair distribution of benefits when seen from the opposite perspective: in this sense clean, quality air is nothing other than the absence of a polluted atmosphere. Imagine that a new major transportation project is projected to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2010 air quality control standards for 1-h nitrogen dioxide emissions across all affected communities. We can then affirm that the burdens (some exposure to nitrogen dioxide) as well as the benefits (lack of adverse exposure to nitrogen dioxide, as defined by the EPA standard) have been fairly allocated. But engineering for sustainability, taken as a social justice concept, also involves the fair distribution of benefits which are not directly the opposite of burdens defined by technical standards. Such benefits are especially resistant to being captured in standard economic terms, such as willingness-to-pay (see for example Sagoff 2004, 2007), and to conventional engineering benefit-cost analysis.


Turning to an example may help to bring out this point more clearly. In the past few years, a number of programs designed to promote sustainable transportation choices within community and neighborhood contexts have sprung up around the US. One example is the Eugene, Oregon SmartTrips, a project funded in 2010 by the EPA’s Climate Showcase Communities grants program. If met, the goals of Eugene SmartTrips, such as reducing the amount of CO2 emissions by some 14,000 pounds per year and the number of drive-alone vehicle trips by 12% in the covered communities, would serve to further overall environmental quality by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In this case, a benefit to a general (aggregate) population would result from mitigating an environmental burden shared by all involved. SmartTrips programs were not designed to connect sustainability with social justice. But, if we turn our attention to sub-populations served by communities with such programs, we can imagine how such a connection could be made, and so bring to the fore a benefit of improved quality of life that cannot easily be rendered in quantifiable terms.

The neighborhood of Highland Park, Minnesota, along with being the home of one of the authors of this paper, is both a site of St. Paul, Minnesota Smart Trips as well as a NORC, or Naturally Organizing Retirement Community, defined as a community in which a significant portion of the population is aging and intends to stay in place as they do. Nearly one-quarter of its residents are 65 or older; almost half of those within this group have an annual income of $30,000 or less, and 30% own no vehicle at all ( Given this set of characteristics, it might seem reasonable not to focus directly on this sub-population within the context of a Smart Trips program, as a sizable proportion does not drive and, of those who do, it can reasonably be assumed that most of them are not driving to make a daily commute. Although the greatest percentage of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can come from reductions in single-driver commuting trips, enabling those who fall under the NORC classification to be more mobile using local ride-sharing and other options may not only result in lowered emissions, but also in improving the ability of these residents to achieve their goals of aging in place; and, by so doing, to help preserve their dignity as well.

In this particular example, attending to sustainability would add to the quality of life of those in this community in two ways. It would increase dignity through allowing for those with relatively modest incomes to age in place, and it would decrease the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions. With the latter, a benefit is obtained by mitigating a burden. With the former benefit, however, there is no contrasting existing burden to be mitigated, as it is not a matter of replacing a deficit of dignity with its opposite, but rather of maintaining the dignity of a specific community demographic. This benefit accrues to that sub-population only: it would be difficult, for instance, to attach meaning in this context to the idea of “commuting with dignity.” Given that the value of dignity is not readily convertible into economic terms, this example points to the difficulty of accommodating sustainability, taken as a social justice concept, within the framework of benefit-cost analysis.

By highlighting these considerations, it might seem as though we may have inadvertently veered away from the primary claim of this paper: namely, that sustainability, understood as including a dimension of social justice, ought to have equal status with safety, health, and welfare in the paramountcy clause of engineering codes of ethics. This, though, is not the case. First, the example just given indicates how attention to sustainability as a social justice concept can have a direct, positive impact on both the environment and on human welfare. Second, this particular section has pointed to the scope of change at stake in including sustainability in the paramountcy clause. The scope of change goes beyond the ethical responsibilities of engineers to reach more basic and deep-seated engineering practices.

Catalano (2006a, b) has also suggested changing the paramountcy clause of engineering codes of ethics for the purpose of strengthening the profession’s commitment to sustainability and social justice. He does not however aim to strengthen this commitment by directly referring to sustainability or social justice within the codes; rather, he would substitute the phrase “the identified integral community” for “the public.” Catalano’s justification for this substitution is based on the idea that sustainable engineering design needs not only to look at the impacts on humans but also on animals and even ecosystems. As pointed out in the section on sustainability and the engineering codes of ethics, a number of engineering professional organizations are already taking steps to modify their codes of ethics in order to reflect environmental sustainability as an important professional commitment. While we agree with Catalano that sustainable design needs to take such a breadth of impacts into account, we believe changing the codes directly by strengthening their explicit commitment to sustainability (and so to social justice) is pragmatically preferable than strengthening this commitment indirectly through making the substitution Catalano proposes.

Including a concern for sustainability with the paramountcy clause of the codes is, moreover, not simply additive. It is potentially transformative, not only with respect to engineering practice, but also, as the next section will attempt to bring out, with respect to the role of the professional engineer in public life itself.

Sustainability, Social Justice, and the Status of Professional Engineers

As mentioned immediately above, in this section of this paper we aim to show that a collateral but still very significant effect of adding sustainability in the way we have been interpreting it to the paramountcy clause of the codes may be to elevate the status of the professional engineer within the US. As we mentioned when reviewing the engineering codes of ethics, we find that professional engineers are called upon both to do and to be. In other words, practitioners are called upon to do by holding paramount the health, welfare, and safety of the general public. And, they are also called upon to be by incorporating particular virtues into their lives that can be exercised in the course of their professional practice. In the context of the codes of ethics, such being and doing are integrated with one another. To put this in another way, it is through being virtuous that the commitments named in the paramountcy clause of the codes can be sustained.

One of the ways this connection between being and doing can be clearly seen is through looking at the place of honesty in the NSPE code of ethics.2 Within the NSPE code, injunctions to be honest and truthful appear both centrally and often. Of the six fundamental canons, two directly and one indirectly enjoin an engineer to be honest. By comparison, only one of the fundamental canons demands that an engineer be loyal. Other injunctions to be honest are embedded throughout the rules of practice and statements of professional obligations. For instance: Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony (II.3.a.); Engineers shall not falsify their qualifications or permit misrepresentations of their or their associates’ qualifications (II.5.a); Engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity (III.1); Engineers shall avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public (III.3).

If we were to draw a line connecting these injunctions to the need to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” it would pass directly through engineering work understood as the technical design of an object or process. When engineers act dishonestly with respect to falsifying their qualifications, they may compromise their ability to design a particular artifact in a way that would guarantee the safety of the public. If, for example, in the process of writing a proof-of-concept report an engineer deliberately exaggerated the claims for a particular innovation, the misrepresentation could also be detrimental to the public’s welfare. In general, being honest supports “doing engineering” in such a way that the commitments to the paramountcy clause can be successfully maintained.

Suppose we now take a step back from drawing a connection between being and doing in terms of the NSPE code of ethics, and look at the larger framework within which this connection is drawn. Two features stand out that will be important in considering how adding sustainability to the commitments which an engineer must hold paramount does more than simply expand the set of obligations of professional engineers. One feature has already been mentioned. As it currently stands, the NSPE code of ethics understands engineering work to be defined by its technical nature. It is within the framework of this definition that engineering work can be said to have social and ethical “impacts” on the public. A second feature is that as a professional practitioner, the engineer is not immediately situated as a member of the public itself. These two features parallel one another. The engineer’s work is taken to be primarily technical in character, not social. And the engineer is primarily situated within the firm or other place of employment—in other words, within a community of other professionals and not within the public at large. Much like the NSPE code encourages engineers to adhere to the principles of sustainable development, it also encourages, but does not obligate, engineers to participate in civic affairs (III.2.a.)

To say in a code of ethics that professional engineers ought to hold sustainability as a justice concept paramount along with the public’s health, safety, and welfare is to transform and reframe this connection between being and doing. In some sense, integrating sustainability into the design of engineering projects represents an additional constraint, but because sustainability is a normative concept it also represents a moral vision. Holding sustainability paramount is to recognize that the process of engineering work is something other than a movement from technical design to social impacts. Rather, it is to acknowledge that engineering work is itself techno-social in character from the very beginning of the design process.

It is also to acknowledge that the engineer, as a professional with a responsibility for social change, is, if not uniquely, then at least specially situated within the public as a whole. Much like ethical responsibility in general, the responsibility for acting so as to build more sustainable, just communities is a distributed one. Sustainability is everyone’s business. Still, while engineers are not the only ones responsible for sustainability, they are quite well placed to influence members of the general public, who in turn can make their preferences known to political leaders to value sustainability more highly than it is presently valued.

In other words, within a context of distributed responsibility for sustainability, engineers have a lead role to play with respect to influencing public opinion. In this role, engineers would not simply be one participant among others in public affairs, but would play a critical role akin to that of a public intellectual. In a recent article appearing in the professional magazine of ASME, Slabbert argued that “engineers must move into a central place in this nation’s intellectual life, rather than occupying a technical advisory role on the side” (2010). Slabbert’s plea for engineers to rediscover their place in American intellectual life is predicated on his hope that they will articulate a “new vision” of America’s “technological future” from which greater public demand for innovative technologies and consequently a reindustrialization of the American economy will directly follow. While in this paper we are approaching the matter of reconnecting engineers with public life from a different starting-point than Slabbert, we have come to a similar conclusion. And, in making a case for the importance of revising engineering codes of ethics to include holding sustainability as a justice concept paramount, we are suggesting a specific avenue by means of which this reconnection might take place. By means of this reconnection, we are hoping that the public image of engineering as a whole may be improved.

For the public image of engineering as a whole to be bettered, however, the voice of the engineer as a public intellectual must be a credible one. In order to bring about social change, she or he must be seen as a person “of integrity and character who can act of the basis of principles and ideas” (Jamieson 1992). The sheer strength of professional position is a necessary, but insufficient basis for an engineer to convincingly articulate to the general public why sustainability is an important value for everyone to share. She or he must also have the necessary social capital for her or his voice to make a positive difference. That social capital is public credibility or trustworthiness. Most recently in the US, public trust in the credibility of engineering was negatively affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Here, in his role as (at the time) CEO of British Petroleum and so its chief public spokesperson, Tony Hayward received widespread negative publicity for the “shape-shifting,” misleading character of his communications to the general public regarding the extent and seriousness of this event. But, if reconnecting to the public sphere means regaining public trust, it is important that the commitment to sustainability be supported and animated by social virtues, ones necessary for trustful interactions to take place among persons. To return to the distinction between “being” and “doing” raised at the beginning of this section, once the “doing” of engineering is expanded to include holding sustainability paramount, the “being virtuous” necessary to sustain sustainability within engineering codes of ethics would also need to be expanded so as to encompass more of the social virtues.

What, more specifically, would some of these social virtues be? To give this question the attention it deserves would be the subject for another paper. We can though say that on the list would be virtues such as humility, openness, and, of course, honesty. Jamieson (1992) has argued that it is necessary to cultivate humility in order to address global problems of climate change; a professional who exercises humility acknowledges that she or he does not have all the answers. A person with openness is an expert listener, taking seriously what others have to say, and so helping to establish trust. Honesty already occupies a prominent place within engineering codes of ethics, as we have seen with respect to the NSPE code. Its meaning in the NSPE code is fundamental: accurately representing to others what one knows to be the case. We can find a parallel to this in Scherer’s (2003) work on the ethics of sustainable energy, where he highlights the importance of honesty in providing a clear and accurate depiction of the risks involved with the development of new energy technologies. But, Scherer also calls for honesty to be a part of an ethics of sustainable energy for the role it plays in identifying and underscoring the difficulties of achieving sustainable energy. Facing up to the complexities of a problem can be seen as being part of an expanded notion of honesty. Such an expanded notion of honesty, one that goes beyond the avoidance of deceptive acts that would represent an engineered object as other than it actually is to a larger social context, would be one of the social virtues we have in mind as being necessary to support sustainability as a responsibility within the paramountcy clause.

As Mitcham has pointed out in an account of the development of the various codes of engineering ethics within the US, these codes began as an articulation of the duties that professional engineers owed to their employers, clients, and co-workers (2009). In this context what engineers had most to “be” was to be loyal, with responsibilities for public welfare and its associated emphasis on the virtue of honesty coming at a later point in the codes’ development. In showing the historical, contingent development of the codes, Mitcham opens the way for speculating as to what the next step in their development might be. Without directly referring to the codes, Mitcham wonders whether the next step in engineering ethics might be a policy turn, a turn that would reflect a shift away from individualistic-based engineering ethics toward a more ‘macro’ approach that could contribute to changing existing institutions and policies and so to transforming the way that engineering is taught and practiced (see especially Herkert 2009, pp. 46–48). In arguing in this paper for a revision of the paramountcy clause and for a greater emphasis on an expanded concept of honesty and other social virtues, our approach has strong elements of the individualistic-based tradition. Still, our belief that such changes will help to open the door for engineers to serve as public intellectuals can be seen as aligned with an impetus for change at the institutional level, including, as described in the next section, with undergraduate engineering education itself.

Undergraduate Engineering Education and the Codes

Currently US undergraduate engineering enrollments are stagnant, with female representation at 18% (relatively unchanged from the 1980s), and with US ethnic minority representation at just under 24% with Asian Americans included (Gibbons 2009). At the graduate school level, more than half of all students enrolled in graduate engineering programs are foreign nationals, a further indication of the declined image of engineering among US nationals (National Science Foundation 2007). An enhanced image of the engineer as a public intellectual whose work brings about positive social change may encourage more US students and more diverse students among them to consider engineering as a major and career choice. This suggestion aligns with a study stemming from the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions that concluded that one of the key factors influencing a girl’s choice to pursue a mathematically-based major such as engineering is how much she values working with and for people (Linver et al. 2002). While the study focused on girls, social connections may have an important role on the overall perception of the engineering profession and who chooses to become part of that profession.

Change to the engineering codes of ethics comes from the profession itself i.e., engineers. While the codes reflect the way engineers should “do” engineering and “be” engineers, the initial view of the profession most often begins in the undergraduate classroom. At the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics Mini-Conference in 2010, the authors of this paper participated as discussants on a panel exploring engineering sustainability and justice and why the current model for engineering education needs to change if graduates can be expected to think about justice in the context of their profession and work. As is hopefully obvious from the previous discussion, educating future engineers to think about justice associated with the global technological system requires thinking beyond technology as the answer to human needs to technology as part of the solution in contexts where justice is the integral need. We do not intend for our suggestions to be a roadmap for curricular change as that is not the focus for this paper; instead they are intended to stimulate further discussion. We do recognize that changes such as these will be challenging for engineering educators, particularly due to ABET accreditation requirements.

Current ABET requirements mean that all engineering students in accredited programs must learn about engineering ethics, however the coverage of engineering ethics varies depending on what approach a program takes. Some institutions have found ways to ensure that traditional engineering courses also require that students know the codes of ethics and how they influence engineering decision-making. Other colleges use full-fledged courses that help engineering students develop frameworks based on a fundamental understanding of moral theories, and how these theories in addition to the codes can be used to help with difficult decisions. Such varying coverage at the undergraduate level cannot guarantee that all engineering students know much more than the code of ethics for their discipline even if some are more broadly educated.

Some engineering disciplines have embraced sustainability as being important to limit impacts to future (human) generations caused by projects today. In particular, several engineering disciplines are closely connected to such a definition of sustainability because their projects have a direct association with the impacts e.g., a transportation project through forests, or filling in a wetland for development. However, other engineering disciplines are more removed from the impact because the impact often depends on how the engineered device is used by society; in other words human behavior matters and the engineer does not control that, or so he or she thinks. As such, educational approaches also differ by disciplines in terms of their view of the direct impact of sustainability and this further explains why the codes differ on this issue. Again, such varying coverage cannot guarantee that students and/or professionals know much more than the code of ethics for their discipline.

Even for an engineer who belongs to a discipline where the sustainability impact is direct and he or she has been exposed to the relevant code of ethics, the phrases “sustainable development” and “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public” do not necessarily imply that justice considerations must be made, or that some situations may present moral dilemmas in terms of sustainability versus justice. As stated before and used here as an example, engineering is based on designing a solution to a problem within a set of constraints and one of the constraints embedded throughout the education process is that of cost-effectiveness. To add the justice constraint means that part of the problem-solving method requires not just this calculation of cost-effectiveness, but also the determination of the distribution of benefits and costs among sub-populations. Traditional engineering economic analysis does not include frameworks for making this determination, but more important, this determination is not embedded as a constraint in engineering analysis. As such, even if the codes are modified to include sustainability in the paramountcy phrase, there will need to be deliberate efforts to modify the way engineering is taught such that social justice is routinely included as a constraint in a similar way that operation and maintenance costs are routinely included as constraints.

This problem of separating educational topics about justice from sustainability and even from ethics in the classroom is not unique to engineering; it can also be found in ethics education in the humanities including where one might least expect it to appear—in environmental ethics. As an example, environmental ethics has tried to respond to the challenge of including other issues by “scaling up” and a couple of things have happened. Environmental ethics textbooks have grown e.g., from a 500-page book in one semester to 800 pages in the next semester. But, this is secondary to the fact that even as volumes get larger, sustainability tends to be addressed in one section and justice in another, so that students exposed to one of these topics might not be exposed to the other. Some of this can be traced to the temptation within teaching ethics to play it safe. In this context, playing it safe consists of holding the material off to one side and the social off to the other, rather than approaching the teaching of ethics in terms of thinking what is to be human as being embedded within social-material or social-technical systems.

In summary, there is no current expectation that a student who has received a traditional undergraduate engineering education knows the meaning of social justice and its relationship to sustainability, much less how to address such issues in practice. If a practitioner has this ability, that expertise was gained via engineering experience over a career and not from the classroom. Making sure that students know how to include social justice as part of a sustainability design constraint would require rethinking the educational model to incorporate ways for students to learn about distributive justice and equity issues and to provide them with frameworks to handle these social considerations in the context of their discipline. This is just one aspect of the recent interest in national education circles to find ways to build bridges between engineering and the liberal arts to better prepare engineering practitioners of the future to tackle the more complex social-technical issues we face while ensuring that we have a populace with the technological literacy needed for the twenty-first century.

Concluding Thoughts

In this paper, we make the case that the engineering disciplines as embodied by the codes of ethics need to reaffirm the importance of sustainability and social justice as integral to both the practice of engineering and the essence of what it means to be an engineer. The additional benefits of such reaffirmation include elevating the status of the engineer as public intellectual and agent of social good. We also suggest that the engineering educational model will need to change to support such aspirations. Using the ASCE Code of Ethics as a starting point for the codes across the profession, we present the following rewording of the main canon and the guidelines for how to practice that canon. We hope that these suggestions prove as a fruitful platform for further discussions to ensure that the engineering codes of ethics meet the needs of the twenty-first century.
  • Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and the sustainable design of human and industrial systems in the performance of their professional duties.

  • Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health, and welfare of the general public and the environment, along with the distribution of such impacts, are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes, and devices.

  1. (a)

    Engineers shall approve or seal only those design documents, reviewed or prepared by them, which are determined to be safe for public health, welfare, and sustainability in conformity with accepted engineering standards.

  2. (b)

    Engineers whose professional judgment is overruled under circumstances where the safety, health and welfare of the public and its sub-populations are endangered, or the principles of sustainable development ignored, shall inform their clients or employers of the possible consequences.

  3. (c)

    Engineers who have knowledge or reason to believe that another person or firm may be in violation of any of the provisions of Canon 1 shall present such information to the proper authority in writing and shall cooperate with the proper authority in furnishing such further information or assistance as may be required.

  4. (d)

    Engineers should seek opportunities to be of constructive service in civic affairs and work for the advancement of the safety, health, well-being, and sustainability of their communities and the sub-populations within those communities.

  5. (e)

    Engineers should be committed to improving their communities and the sub-populations within those communities by adherence to the principles of sustainable development and social justice so as to enhance the quality of life of the general public.



  1. 1.

    Product cost should not be confused with the term economic opportunity contained within the Mihelcic definition. Economic opportunity goes well beyond product cost to include those opportunities that advance economic production in terms of goods and services.

  2. 2.

    We will let this code of ethics serve as a “proxy” for other engineering codes, as the latter have been shaped by the former (Vesilind 2002).



A version of this paper was presented at the 2010 meeting of the Forum for Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology (fPET) at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. We want to thank the anonymous reviewers who considered our abstract for this conference for their constructive and helpful suggestions, as well as those who reviewed this paper for publication in this journal.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyMacalester CollegeSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.School of EngineeringUniversity of PortlandPortlandUSA

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