Engineering ethics is of concern to all practicing engineers. However, some ethical dilemmas can be difficult to resolve, and outside input may be useful in coming to a conclusion. Unfortunately, ethics is intricately tied to public safety and liability, and answering the ethical questions of other users could potentially place some of that liability on the answerer. To that end: should this site allow questions related to engineering ethics?
Yes, ethics questions should absolutely be allowed.
- The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, a requirement in most cases for engineers in the United States to become professionally licensed, has a section devoted to professional ethics. (For those readers not familiar with the FE, I should note that it is a multiple-choice exam.)
- The National Society of Professional Engineers publishes a Code of Ethics and appoints a review board that provides opinions in professional misconduct cases based on that code.
- In its 2012-2013 Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs, ABET specifies the following documented student outcome for all accredited engineering programs:
(f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
- "...does a conflict of interest exist?"
- "...is it ethical for me to follow this instruction?"
- "...am I required to report this?"
- "...can I accept this bid?"
And so on.
This is a concurring opinion with Air, but I want to point out a type of question that I think we should try to avoid.
Most ethical questions have some degree of opinion associated with their answers. Some people may place more responsibility on the customer to ensure that the product or design fits their needs, others may shy away from anything that seems dubious, regardless of the business to be won. However, I think most questions on this front, particularly of the kind that Air describes in his response, can be answered concisely. Even though there may be differing opinions, the arguments can be backed up and the site can help the OP arrive at an answer.
That being said, I think we should stay away from the open-ended philosophical questions. The general policy of the site should keep these away, but there is a difference between an ethical question of a close call for a specific reason on a specific project and the large and oft-asked question of "Is it ethical for an engineer to develop military and defense technology?" The first is something that a consensus can fairly easily be reached at, whereas the second is a very personal question that each engineer must answer for themselves when they're presented with such an opportunity.
That specific question regarding military contractors was the first thing I thought when I saw "ethics questions," and while it's an incredibly valid question, I think it's entirely inappropriate for this type of forum.
I don't think that they should be specifically excluded at this time. I don't have a lot of hope for ethics questions to be popular though.
Interesting ethics questions are rarely immediately black or white. If they are that obvious, they shouldn't need an answer here. Ethics questions typically hinge on knowing ALL of the details and ALL of the background. Most of these details would be too specific for general benefit or so specific that any anonymity would be lost.
I'm glad this is raised on meta (+1), but I think it's a bad idea.
It all hinges on the types of answers ethics questions would get - and I think a lot of answers to these questions would be opinion-based. I'm having a hard time seeing how many ethics questions could not be reduced to
Should I [. . .]?
In which case the only possible answers are opinion-based. There won't be any definitive answer to these.