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?

  • $\begingroup$ I added a question that is within this scope. I want to see how it goes. I am willing to delete it or edit it if it goes awry. $\endgroup$ – hazzey Feb 12 '15 at 3:18

Yes, ethics questions should absolutely be allowed.

Consider that:

Any subject area has the potential for subjective questions, open-ended discussion, polls and other types of off-topic content. However, there is plenty of room in the above topics for both objective, answerable questions and good subjective questions. Professional ethics is not a matter of he thinks this, she thinks that, I think the other thing. We have codes, we have standards, we are (hopefully) educated and trained to be able to answer questions of the form, "Given circumstances X, Y and Z..."

  • "...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.

  • $\begingroup$ Aren't the last two "..." questions legal and not ethical? Actually, the first seems to have a legal element, too. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 8 '15 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ Legal questions are often ethical questions, and vice-versa. It's up to the author of the question to clarify which context they're asking about. The point is that they could be purely ethical questions. $\endgroup$ – Air Feb 8 '15 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ True, but these are questions that are primarily legal (the last two, that is). $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 8 '15 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ Not at all. Exactly these sorts of questions appear on the FE. See my edit—it's multiple-choice. $\endgroup$ – Air Feb 8 '15 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ A question like "... can I accept this bid" can be asked for a number of reasons, some legal, some ethical. Ethical dimensions include: is the contractor submitting the bid ethical or does a bid require or imply unethical practice may be undertaken should a contractor be successful. $\endgroup$ – Fred Feb 8 '15 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ Air - I see what you mean. This and this were helpful. +1, assuming that these are the types of questions the site will get. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 8 '15 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ On the "Can I accept this bid?" question, I'd add that there is a very big ethical question there when there is nothing illegal about the bid, but you have serious doubts about the safety of your product should you be awarded the business. At my company, we have had requests for quote for replacement parts of competitor products. In some cases, we can do this. In others, we feel that even though we may design something similar, we don't know enough about the competitors product to properly design a safe replacement, so we no-quote it. $\endgroup$ – Trevor Archibald Feb 9 '15 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Trevor That was basically the sort of situation I had in mind. Approaching it from the opposite angle, it's not always straightforward to determine whether the lowest bid actually meets the specs. Engineers may come under internal pressure to agree that a lowball meets the project specs, against their better judgment. $\endgroup$ – Air Feb 9 '15 at 20:28

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.


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