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Let’s talk about the ethics elephant in the room

15 September 2022

Norman Chan discusses some of the ethical challenges civil engineers may face in today’s unstable world.

Let’s talk about the ethics elephant in the room
Norman Chan is a member of the general ICE Council and vice chair of ICE Essex. Image credit: Norman Chan

I’ve wrestled with ethical dilemmas for years.

As the world we live in shows signs of cracks, a feeling of unease has started to manifest itself.

After listening to Strategy Sessions: The Engineer and Ethical Decisions, I feel the strength to raise this issue.

I’d like to put forward a few thought experiments. There are no right or wrong answers.

In a world, much like our own, there’s a species able to ‘direct the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience for [itself]’.

They have multiplied and spread across this world, building in the sky, the sea and on land.

The projects are numerous, imposing and technically magnificent. But like us, they’re confronted with the stark reality that their world cannot support many more of these developments.

They’re at a tipping point.

Scenario 1

A mega-project has started.

As part of this project many km2 of natural rainforest will be destroyed.

You are to design a small section (50m) of retaining wall, to support an on slip to the main highway.

The client insists that they want a ‘traditional’ reinforced concrete retaining wall.

They won’t budge on using alternative materials or techniques, and won’t pursue any other options.

No additional landscaping or carbon offset is allowed. The client isn’t interested and won’t change their mind on the matter.

What would you do?

  • Would you take the design job?
  • What if the small section was a larger section? 500m, 1km, 5km?
  • If you worked at a firm as one of hundreds of engineers, and your team was given this scheme as part of a larger multi-disciplinary team, would you still design it?

Scenario 2

Another mega-project is planned.

Major engineering challenges that have never been solved before have been identified, but you have a solution.

The numbers say it can work and even the contractors are on board. Money is no object.

However, once the project is completed, it would affect a small number of the local inhabitants — a small village of 20.

What would you do?

  • Would you complete the work?
  • What if the number of local inhabitants that were affected increased to 1000, 100,000, 1 million?
  • What if the project is of great benefit to locals and the surrounding area, but negative effects will be felt further afield, by a neighbouring country’s population?
  • What if these negative effects spread two or three countries away?

Scenario 3

One the largest schemes this world has ever seen is being planned.

The whole world will talk about the engineering prowess of this scheme for years. This is THE project to be on.

However, news reports from all over the world are stating that the funding of this project is dubious.

What would you do?

  • Do you complete the work?
  • What if you worked for a firm that is the sub sub-contractor, only tasked to design a small element of the project?
  • What if you are the sole ‘bread winner’ for your family?
  • What if this job is keeping your family safe?

Where does the ‘line’ lie?

If you said a strong ‘no’ to working on any of these imaginary projects, I salute you.

To be truthful, if I were placed in one of these situations, I wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t know what the ‘line’ is.

I’ve come to the realisation that this ‘line’ changes to your own individual circumstances, culture, and situation.

The following questions I raise for all of us to consider. They may be simplistic or naïve, but it’s worth thinking about:

  • Is our ethical code robust enough to help engineers navigate these ethical and philosophical issues?
  • If we’re starting to design and build with nature, not against it, shouldn’t we start thinking about the context of the projects we all work on (great or small)?
  • Is the way we’re trained as civil engineers fit for the 21st century? Do we solve the unsolvable, no matter what the context these challenges rest in?
  • Should we just celebrate the engineering prowess of a scheme, discounting the context that it was commissioned and built within?
  • Is our profession just a ‘service provider’? Do we take the commission and provide a service, no questions asked?
  • For those of us who work in firms, do we just ‘follow orders’? Does the legitimacy of a scheme rest on senior leadership only? They know what they’re doing, so should we just trust their judgement?

My internal struggle

I’ve spoken to a few engineers and the general feeling I get is: ‘If I don’t build it, someone else will’.

I understand this viewpoint, but it just doesn’t sit right with me.

I’m not in the position to reject work if any of the above come up. Luckily, I’m in the fortunate position where I believe that all the schemes we deliver help our residents.

This is my internal struggle.

Our profession can affect hundreds to billions of lives. And it’s my opinion that our profession is being used against the societies we wish to keep safe.

By focusing on the engineering challenges, the details, maybe we have lost sight of the bigger picture and a bit of empathy along the way.

Where do we go from here?

As Jack Rose, from the ICE Ethics Committee, suggested at the strategy session, could the ICE create some sort of toolkit to help engineers (anonymously) navigate such philosophical dilemmas?

I hope this blog starts a discussion on a very difficult and at times controversial topic.

From my observations, many of us have noted this, but we’re afraid to have an open discussion about it.

The institution doesn’t have the answer, nor do I expect it to.

The answer lies within us all.

Disclaimer: These are the opinions of the author, and not of the institution as a whole.

The ICE Ethics Committee

The Ethics Committee is one of several member-led committees and panels at the ICE.

Its role is to highlight areas of ethical concern for civil engineers.

Do you have an ethical challenge?

Speak to the ICE Ethics Committee
  • Norman Chan, ICE Council member, vice chair of ICE Essex