Part 1. Values and Value Judgments
Part 2. Ethical Requirements on Action
Part 3. Moral Character and Responsibility
Part 4. Privacy, Confidentiality, Intellectual Property and the Law
The ethical notions I develop here are meant to be recognizable to speakers of English. The same general conditions of the practice of engineering would hold for many technologically developed democracies. However, some specific conditions of practice in engineering and applied science vary even between the United States and Canada. For example, in the United States not all engineers are required to be licensed in order to practice. Although some states are now moving to require engineers practicing within their borders to become licensed by some future date, most allow engineers practicing as employees in industry to be exempt from the requirement to be licensed. In Canada, however, all engineers must become licensed. (The process of licensure is different in the two countries.)
Some expressions of dislike are not a statement at all. For example, "Cough syrup, yuck" is not a statement. A statement has truth value; it can be true or false. However, if someone said "Cough syrup, yuck," it would be reasonable to surmise that the speaker dislikes taking cough syrup.
The second statement, because of its statement of "unalterable" opposition, is an adamant statement of opposition. Sometimes, more often in social, than in professional situations, people will drop the subject if someone expresses adamant opposition to something, because the person seems closed to reason or to further discussion on the topic. People may choose to drop the subject when statement of a like or dislike is made vehemently, because they wish to avoid an unpleasant exchange. However, although expressions of adamance or vehemence may function as conversation stoppers, they do not provide reasons for agreeing with the speaker about the value of the item or the morality of the action being discussed.
Some thinkers argue against the use of the term "values" because it may suggest that all values are somehow on a par. Worse yet, it may suggest that all values are reducible to monetary value or a measure of "willingness to pay" for something. Such a notion of a value is virtually indistinguishable from a preference and is, hence, purely subjective. One will find many careful thinkers who avoid the term "values" and speak instead of "goods" or "types of flourishing" when discussing desirable outcomes. Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas are prominent examples of such thinkers. The term "values" is so widely used, however, that it would only invite confusion if I were to try to avoid it. If the term "value" is used carefully as a noun or an adjective, the distinction between values and preferences will not be blurred.
The use of the term "value" as a verb, "to value," is confusing because it is virtually synonymous with either "to like" or "to assign a monetary value to." Using "value" as a verb obscures the distinction between value judgments and mere statements of preference. I will never use "value" as a verb. If a verb is needed, I will use "evaluate," meaning assess according to standards. This preserves the connection of value with reasons or standards and distinguishes it from mere preference.
That which is valuable as a means rather than "as an end," that is, for its own sake is said to have instrumental value. That which is valuable in itself (rather than merely as a means) is called an intrinsic value. (The same thing can be valuable as both a means and an end, of course; for example, health is both good in and of itself, but it also enables a person to achieve many other goods.) Prudential value, unlike aesthetic value, epistemic value, or the other types of value discussed in this section, is instrumental rather than intrinsic since prudential value is the usefulness of the thing in question in achieving some distinct end.
The term "economic value" is sometimes used as a synonym for "market value," but not always. "Economic value" often means the usefulness of the object in question for creating prosperity, and thus is a type of instrumental value. The economic value to a country of having a system of transportation and sanitation is not the price of these systems if sold, but rather the prosperity the systems help create.
Notions like "nutritional value," "sanitary implications," "security implications" or even "entertainment value," like "economic value," are particular types of instrumental value. Prosperity, nutrition, health, security and even entertainment are the sorts of things that humans have an interest in being able to obtain, even though in a given situation one might not need or want any more food, entertainment or security.
In 1823 Jeremy Bentham proposed his well-known utilitarian calculus in an attempt to provide a justification for legislative reform. This calculus requires that "utility," by which Bentham meant the property that tends to produce the benefit of pleasure or happiness, which Bentham regarded these as equivalent, be precisely measured. Despite Bentham's attempts to formulate a program for measuring utility, this part of his thinking remained vague.
In 1906 Vilfredo Pareto, in Manuale d'economia politica, showed that for classical economics all that was needed to measure utility was a statement of preferences by the individual or group whose interests were in question. This measure of preferences, however, provides no generalized measure of the amount of either pleasure or happiness for humanity, but only the preferences of the groups and individuals who are sampled.
There are subtle distinctions between the notions of a claim, an entitlement, and what a person is due, but these not essential for this discussion.
Several different arguments have been given believing that there are human rights. Such arguments are said to provide a "vindication" or "warrant for" human rights in general. One such argument is given by John Ladd. Ladd argues that the concept of a right is best understood in terms of the relationship of rights claims necessary to maintain moral integrity and to moral responsibility (notions which will be considered in Part 3). Ladd 1978, p 34.
One difficulty for those who have tried to take the idea of a moral right as the fundamental moral notion or who have begun by assuming the existence of human rights is that they do not provide any justification for such a notion. (The writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that human rights are a divine endowment. The view that human rights are divinely given may be unconvincing to those without religious convictions, and it may be suspicious to some who have religious convictions, because the writers of the Declaration of Independence were not religious authorities.)
Many have argued that there has been an excessive use of the notion of moral rights in the United States in recent decades with resulting neglect of other ethical notions and that this stems from a mistaken assumption that the moral evaluation of an act can be made without reference to the larger moral context in which the action occurs. Philosophers Annette Baier, John Ladd and Alasdair MacIntyre, legal theorists Clare Dalton and Joel Handler, and psychologist Carol Gilligan have argued variations of this point. Furthermore, the exclusive reliance on rights in characterizing moral problems derives from an extreme individualism and a view of human relationships as being tenuous or adversarial. The objection to an excessive reliance on the concept of a moral right does not imply that the concept is useless, however.
Theologians Stanley Hauerwas argues that the language of rights does not do justice to the moral beliefs of their religion. For example, the prohibition against murder in some traditions is rooted in the belief that only God should have the power to take life, rather than in a belief that rights are inherent in the individual. Nonetheless, Hauerwas subscribes to the formulation of human rights in Baier's culturally generalized sense.
Some have claimed that rights override, or at least take precedence over, other moral considerations. Philosopher Judith Thomson closely examines this view in her book The Realm of Rights and convincingly argues that it is mistaken. One of the counter-examples that she develops in detail is of a person violating another's property right by taking a shortcut and thus trespassing on the other's land because the trespasser is ill and needs medical attention.
It has been widely argued that the view that rights "trump" other moral considerations is a symptom of the contentious and self-assertive character of moral discussion in the United States today. Philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre have likened this view to our tendency to discuss moral life primarily in terms of rights and conflicts among rights, to the neglect of responsibilities, virtues and values realized in community life.
In cases of quarantine or in a case of the police taking over a private automobile in an emergency, the person whose liberty or property is taken has done nothing to deserve forfeiture of anything. For such actions to be just, they must be morally warranted by the importance of the competing considerations--in these cases, protecting the health of the public and coping with the emergency.
The relative emphasis on political as compared with economic rights is widely debated. For example, is a developing country justified in curtailing political rights in order to make major improvements in its citizens' economic well-being? Democracies, by their very nature, emphasize political rights. Some democracies, like Sweden, put equal emphasis on economic rights.
Some thinkers, like political scientist Amy Gutmann, argue that the laws that provide for public education have a basis in the principle that the survival of a democracy requires the education of the future citizens so that they can participate in democratic practices. This is a different rationale than an appeal to the existence of a human right to education.
The distinction between positive and negative rights helps to clarify a common confusion in discussions of suicide. The view that the right to life is an absolute right commits one to the view that it is always wrong to kill another person against their will. The claim that suicide, or assisting another to commit suicide is wrong requires another moral principle. The right to life, even if an absolute right, could nonetheless be waived. Hence, having a right to life does not by itself imply that one also has an obligation to live. Suicide, or requesting or assisting in euthanasia, would be compatible with a right to life, as long as the euthanasia was performed at the uncoerced request of the person whose life was at stake. This point is often obscured because the label "right to lifer" is often loosely applied to people who believe, usually on religious grounds, that it is always wrong to take any person's life, including one's own. Their view is better described as a belief in the sanctity of life.
Usually statements of obligations specify the acts that are required or forbidden. However, occasionally you will see such statements as this item from the NSPE code of ethics, "engineers have an obligation in their work to ensure the public safety." This provision means that engineers are morally required to ensure the public safety and does specifying what acts they should or should not perform in order to ensure safety. As we shall see those obligations are best described as responsibilities. The point of calling them moral obligations is just to say that they are morally required.
Corresponding to people's right to life there is a general moral obligation on everyone to refrain from killing other people. The moral requirement can be expressed as a moral rule as well as a statement of a general obligation. This general moral rule is: Do not kill anyone.
If we say everyone is morally obligated not to kill anyone, we are using "obligation" broadly. Often the term "obligation" is used more narrowly to refer only to moral requirements that arise from the promises, roles, relationships and memberships of that person--for example, the favors they have received and should repay. Some of the characteristics on which obligations in the narrow sense are based can apply to many people. For example, one might argue that citizens in a democracy have an obligation as well as a right to vote. In the narrow sense of "obligation," only some rights have corresponding obligations. Therefore, although there are "human rights," there are not "human (or universal) obligations" in the narrow sense of obligations.
The term "obliged" is close in meaning to the term "obligated." Both are used to mean constrained, compelled or required in some way. However, one speaks of being obliged when speaking about feeling; for example, I might feel obliged to you for your kindness. In contrast, when we are speaking about requirements or constraints, such as moral rules or law, we use the term "obligated," as in "citizens are obligated to pay taxes."
Moral rights are morally justified claims. We have seen how rights constrain what means are morally permissible to use in attempting to achieve the best outcome in a situation. Moral obligations also constrain such behavior. Some philosophers, like John Ladd, argue that for "rights" to be ascribable to a being, the being must have the capacity to decide when to waive or exercise that right. Of course, no one argues that person's rights go away when she is asleep, unconscious, or otherwise temporarily unable to make decisions. In some cases, there are obvious presumptions about how someone would exercise a particular right when she is temporarily unable to make the decision. For example, an unconscious person brought into an emergency room may be presumed to consent to treatment.
According to Ladd's criterion for the ascription of rights, some beings, such as porpoises, would be said to have rights only if they are able to choose whether or not to exercise those rights. However, whether a person thinks that porpoises have rights need not have any implications for that person's moral standards in treating porpoises, since moral behavior might be constrained by the same moral obligations and rules whether or not porpoises have the rights that would correspond to those rules. For example, it is wrong to wantonly kill them, even if they do not have a right to life.
There is a legal counterpart to a moral or an ethical obligation. A legal obligation is a legal specification that some behavior is required. Negative legal rights, which are the counterpart of moral liberties, specifically forbid acts of interference or harm. Positive legal rights are legally warranted claims to receive something--for example, a due process proceeding, or compensation for past injury. Although many legal rights are also moral rights, the two notions are not coextensive. For example, people have a moral obligation to keep their promises, although not all promises are covered by legal statute. Furthermore, as the laws upholding slavery illustrated, legal and moral obligations may conflict.
Because rights are justified claims, and those claims may be either pressed or dropped, rights can be either exercised or waived. Those who think it does not make sense to speak of the rights of beings incapable of rational choice may still argue that moral agents have considerable responsibility for and many obligations to such beings.
It is not entirely clear what it means to treat a non-human the way one would treat a person. For example, if you come across an injured wild rabbit and you are a conscientious animal rightist. Ought you leave the animal to its natural devices or get veterinary help for it? It turns out that there are some who call themselves animal rightists who think people should not interfere with animals even to the extent of having pets. Other animal rightists believe you should show the same concern for relieving animals" pain and suffering as you would for a human.
Further confusion may be caused by the fact that responsibility is sometimes used as a synonym for obligation, so that one may say, for example, "It is your responsibility to back up the computer files before you leave." To avoid confusion in this book the term "responsibility" will never be used as a synonym for obligation--that is, it will never be used in the form "responsibility to perform some act." It will be used exclusively in the form "responsibility for some outcome or state of affairs to be achieved. This is a point we will return to in the discussion of professional responsibility in Chapter 2.
Corresponding to the notion of moral responsibility is the notion of legal responsibility. A legal responsibility may arise in either of two ways: as a moral responsibility that is legally recognized and enforced, or as a legally mandated official responsibility. An example of the latter is the legal responsibility for deciding whether to move some community members from their homes to prevent their further exposure to toxic contamination. This responsibility may be assigned to a public official.
According to Herbert A. Simon's model of organizational behavior, people in formal organizations ideally make the decisions delegated to them on the basis of the organization's interests and values, rather than on the basis of the values they themselves hold.
Simon presents this not as a description of how organizational relations actually work and how administrators make decisions, but of how they ought to. That makes Simon's model what we call a "normative" theory, rather than a descriptive theory. This model of organizational behavior treats one competent person as completely substitutable by any other who comes to occupy the same position in the organization; that is, any agent in a given position would have the same official responsibilities, and any competent person in that position would make essentially the same decision. Others have argued that this is neither the way that organizations do or should operate.
The explicit question that the BER addresses in its discussion is whether certain actions of engineers described in the case are "ethical or unethical" and their decisions are based solely on applicable provisions in the NSPE code of ethics. The reasoning behind these simple binary judgments is what makes them interesting. The discussion of these cases reflect the norms of ethical practice put forward by this professional society. The cases that come to the attention of the NSPE's Board of Ethical Review cases are predominantly ones in which one licensed engineer has a complaint about another.
It is important to distinguish information that is private (rather than public) from information that is personal in the sense that it is information that would be intrusive for others to demand, obtain or discuss. For example, in the U.S. in the early part of this century some people (especially women) rarely disclosed their age. They considered this information highly personal even though their birth dates were matters of public record. The judgment of what matters are personal in the sense that it is intrusive for others (who do not have a special reason to know) to inquire about or discuss is highly cultural. For example, the Dutch consider it intrusive to look over the books in a person's book shelf without first asking permission. In some cultures it is considered impolite to speak of a woman's pregnant condition even when it is evident.
Prior to the 1976 Copyright Act there was a legal distinction between the protection of a work before it was published and after it was published. Common law protected a work prior to publication and federal statutory copyright law protecting a work after it was published. The 1976 Act attempted to do away with this distinction and create a unified system of protection that begins as soon as a work exists in a concrete form (5).