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Conflict Between the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers Canons One and Four

Updated on December 17, 2019
Ryan-Clancy profile image

Ryan is a student at Drexel University studying Mechanical Engineering with concentrations in Aerospace and Energy, and Systems Engineering.

Throughout one's journey as an engineer, it becomes clear that one of the prominent issues that arises time and time again in the field is a situation where an engineer is caught between doing his duty to the public or being loyal to his employer. In these cases, an engineer often feels conflicted between what course of action he or she should take. In this article, we will be addressing these situations and what to do based off of the National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics for Engineers.

The First Canon

The first Canon of the Code of Engineers states that an engineer should always “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public”. This dictates that above all else, the engineer has a duty to serve the public, and to prioritize the safety and security of the community. In other words, when making a product, the engineer must always keep in mind how his or her product will interact with the public. It is an engineers professional obligation to make it as safe as possible.

The Fourth Canon

The fourth canon states that an engineer must “act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees”. This says that an engineer always serves the person he’s working for. This can be for an employer or for a client. Whatever they need the engineer to accomplish, the engineer must complete to the absolute best of their ability.

The Conflict

Now, an interesting situation arises. Both of these canons dictates who an engineer should serve in his actions. However, if the two services contradict each other, an engineer is caught between serving his employer or the public. On the one hand, if he serves the interest of society over his employer, he can be terminated, which he may not be able to afford to do. On the other hand, he can do as his employer wishes and disregard the safety of the community, but will not lose his job and may even be rewarded for his dedication to the company. Obviously, this is a drastic example, and the degree of which it applies to “real-world” scenarios varies.

The vast majority of the time, these two canons do not conflict. The interests of a company almost always line up with the interests of the public, for a simple reason. If they disregard the safety and/or wishes of the public, people stop buying their products, and the company loses money. With this in mind, most companies choose to cater to the public’s wants. This allows engineers to serve the community, by serving their employer. There is no conflict in the canons, and the engineer can perform his or her duty to the best of their ability. That being said, a company’s goal is to make a profit. They might choose a cheaper option in the manufacturing of their product, despite the product being a little less secure.

Here’s where the wording of the canons comes into play. The first canon explicitly states that an engineer should hold the interest of the public “paramount” in all projects. This means above all else, the safety of the community should be an engineers top priority. If an employer asks him to do something that contradicts this point of morality, the engineer should do anything in his power to make his superiors understand the conflict. Only if he exhausts all possible options, and the company still goes ahead with the original plan, then the blame is not on the engineer. He did his duty to the public by dedicating all his effort to righting the situation, but sometimes it is simply out of the engineers hands. In fact, most of the time, the final say does not come from an engineer. Now, while this may seem like an obvious solution, it is not quite. To do this also requires initially opposing the directions from your superiors, which goes against the fourth canon, especially if the engineer continues to push for the desired adjustment.

"an engineer should hold the interest of the public 'paramount' in all projects"

In the defense of the management/business side of this hypothetical company, their goal is to help the company grow, and to increase its value as much as possible. Their first priority is to the company, not the public. With this in mind, the engineer should be careful to acknowledge that the company is not evil, they just have a different aim in mind.

With that in mind, one could argue that the engineer, by going against the employer, is actually helping it. People buy a product from a company because they trust it to be safe and helpful, and to serve its purpose flawlessly. The engineer, in his pursuit to make the product as safe as possible for the consumer, is ensuring that it does just that. This, in turn, will renew the trust the consumer has in the company, and heightens their reputation in society.

All in all, the Code of Ethics for Engineers should be updated to reflect this common conflict. The newer version should stress that when an engineer benefits the public first and foremost, it is a much more substantial benefit for all involved. When an engineer prioritizes the company’s profit, he betrays the trust the public has in him, and his integrity as a professional is damaged, possibly bringing about consequences amongst consumers as well. A possible adjustment would be the addition of “without going against the engineers first duty, to the safety of the community” to the fourth canon. This demands that an engineer do the best that their service can offer to their employer, but to always remember who they really serve, no matter the situation. The public’s dependence on engineers cannot be overstated, and as a professional in the field, it is always vital to remember that.


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