Budny, 10:00
L10
Balancing Business and Ethics in an Engineering Environment
Zachary Yoder ([email protected])
PREFACE
Engineers are faced with many ethical decisions in their
work. Whether it involves personal or legal obligations,
important choices must be made on a daily basis. The codes
set by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)
and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
are not only helpful with making decisions but also deliver a
legally binding code that must be adhered to by all
professional engineers. However, the interpretation of these
codes can sometimes be left up to the engineer. As a future
engineer, I strive to not only adhere to these professional
codes but to also uphold my personal ethical beliefs.
SCENARIO
In this scenario I am working for Tesla motors,
specifically on their Powerwall project. The Powerwall is a
rechargeable home battery that can store and use renewable
energy, like solar power [1]. The Powerwall has already been
developed but Tesla has offered me a lot of money to lead a
project aimed at increasing the profit margins of the product.
This provides a specific challenge as the company is
attempting to make the device more desirable while still
lowering it’s cost to produce. Cheaper materials are being
used and corners are being cut in the design process resulting
in a lower quality product that is cheaper to make but is being
sold for even more. Additionally, these cheaper products are
creating more waste than before and are causing extra
pollution from the factory. However, as a young engineer, I
have very little experience working on products like this and
feel as though I am not qualified to tackle this project.
In addition, Tesla is trying to design the Powerwall so that
it will have a specific life and, after a certain number of years,
wear out and require expensive, new parts to replace. By the
time the product wears out, it will most likely have become
highly integrated into the consumer’s home and the buyer will
be very likely to spend the money to replace the Powerwall.
Obviously, this is an exaggeration of a realistic situation.
However, similar situations are very common and there is a
clear challenge in trying to operate an ethically sound
business while still turning a profit.
Ethical Dilemma
This situation brings up an important and unique ethical
dilemma. By largely cutting costs and cheapening the
production process, consumers are paying for a lower quality
product. Whether that is ethically wrong or just good business
may vary from person to person. It is also important to note
University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering 1
that not only could this be seen as ripping off the buyer, but it
could also be potentially dangerous. Consumers are expecting
to use this product on a daily basis to supply their homes with
energy needed for important household equipment. Also,
many consumers will use the Powerwall as an emergency
backup generator, and if the product is not made well it could
lead to malfunctions during those situations. If a buyer
purchases the Powerwall to support, say, a child’s medical
equipment during times that the power goes out, a
malfunction could be potentially life threatening.
Additionally, the Powerwall is a complex device that can
support up to 10 kWh of electricity, and potentially more in
the future [1]. Since I do not feel qualified to lead the project,
I would not only be misleading the company but also could
be creating a product that is a fire hazard or have the potential
for dangerous electric shock.
Finally, by increasing the price of the Powerwall, it will
make the product less accessible to the average buyer.
Although the company will make more money than before, it
will only further slow the process of transitioning to clean and
renewable energy. However, some may argue that a
business’s function is to make a profit, and environmental
concerns are not as important.
APPLICATION OF NSPE CODE OF
ETHICS
The National Society of Professional Engineers have set
forth a specific and conclusive code of ethics by which all
professional engineers are required to follow. After reading
this code, I believe it can be a good resource to refer to and
can be very helpful when faced with such a scenario. These
codes clearly and specifically lay out what ethical
expectations engineers are held to. There are a few sections of
this code that I found to be especially helpful when evaluating
a situation like this.
Rules of Practice
The first, and perhaps most important, is the code that
states “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and
welfare of the public [2].” This applies to this scenario
because creating a cheap version of this product could
potentially endanger the buyers of the product. In addition, if
the Powerwall were to cause a fire it could endanger those
living near the buyer.
Another line reads “Engineers shall undertake
assignments only in the areas of their competence” and that
“Engineers shall undertake assignments only when qualified
by education or experience in the specific technical fields
Zachary Yoder
involved [2].” In this instance I would not consider myself to
be qualified to undertake the assignment, therefore violating
the code of ethics. Not only could it result in me losing my
job, but also in the endangerment of the buyers or workers
who would be handling a product that might not be designed
properly.
Essentially this says that the public trust their welfare and
lives with the things that engineers make, and that engineers
need to recognize that. Although this does not necessarily
apply directly to this situation, I think it is a very important
canon in the ASME code that is not included in the NSPE
code.
The ASME code of ethics goes into more detail about the
importance of the environmental issues than the NSPE does,
devoting a small section to it. “Engineers shall consider
environmental impact and sustainable development in the
performance of their professional duties,” with sub points
saying that they must consider environmental health risks and
must work on “development that meets the needs of the
present” without putting future generations at risk [3]. This
further stresses the importance of using environmentally
friendly materials and creating minimal waste product while
still striving to develop clean energy products like the
Powerwall.
Professional Obligations
“Engineers shall advise their clients or employers when
they believe a project will not be successful [2].” Since I
recognized that this process could be potentially dangerous or
might not even work, I would be obligated to let my employer
know.
One of the most applicable codes is “Engineers are
encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable
development in order to protect the environment for future
generations [2].” Although this code is more of a suggestion
than a requirement, I still find it very important. Engineers are
ethically obligated to work for a cause greater than the
collection of wealth. In this case, the Powerwall has the
potential to be a defining tool in the transition to renewable
energy.
Footnote 1 describes sustainable development as “the
challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources,
industrial products, energy”…“while conserving and
protecting environmental quality and the natural resource
base essential to future development [2].” This specifically
brings up the importance of using sustainable materials and
eliminating unnecessary waste, both of which would not be
followed in this scenario.
This does not mean that we should shy away from
developing such technology. Oppositely, this calls engineers
to work even harder at developing effective, renewable
energy resources and tools, but in sustainable ways.
USEFULNESS OF CODES
Through my understanding of these codes of ethics, I
believe that they can be incredibly helpful when making an
important decision. The codes specifically lay out what
engineers are obligated to do. They are also very extensive
and can apply to almost any situation. It can help to simplify
the decision making process by looking at specific canons in
writing.
That being said, I do not think that the codes should be a
one stop all-encompassing decision making tool. Engineers
will need to consider multiple sources, in addition to the
codes, as well as their own personal ethics in order to make
an informed decision.
Additional helpful sources
APPLICATION OF ASME CODE OF
ETHICS
An additional source that I found valuable in the decision
making process was an article that I found online about
practically applying ethics to situations like this. Overall it
discussed the process of taking “abstract” ethics, like the
overarching themes that people try to live by, and narrowing
that down to practical rules and figuring out how to actually
apply those ethical values [4].
A second additional source that I found to be helpful when
approaching a situation like this is a verse from the Bible.
Although I am not the most religious person, I feel that this
verse is very applicable to almost any ethical dilemma. Mark
8:36 says “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole
world and forfeit his soul [5]?” Essentially what this verse is
saying is that no amount of wealth is worth compromising
your own personal beliefs and values. I think this is something
that should be considered when making any sort of ethical
decision.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers lays out
another code of ethics that are to be followed by all
professional mechanical engineers. The ASME code is very
similar to the NSPE code. As a whole I did not find the ASME
code to be significantly more helpful than the NSPE. It would
be more helpful if the ASME code contained more
information specifically for mechanical engineers. That being
said, there were a few parts that I found to have more detail
than the NSPE code did, and I think they apply well to this
scenario and could be helpful with situations similar to this.
The ASME code of ethics brings up a general statement
that is covered in the NSPE but not stated as clearly.
“Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health and
welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering
judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into
structures, machines, products, processes and devices [3].”
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Zachary Yoder
dangerous to anyone who buys it. Although it would probably
work well for a while, the product would eventually wear out
and might fail a family who requires it in a critical time. For
example, if a family buys the Powerwall to support important
medical equipment and fails when it is needed, I would feel
partially responsible for contributing to a medical emergency.
INFLUENTIAL EXAMPLES
There are many other examples that would influence my
decision in this scenario. One important outside example that
I would look to is a decision my father made as an attorney.
My dad is a big role model of mine, and he has greatly
influenced my decision making my whole life. Both my
parents have instilled in me strong ethical values, for which I
am very grateful. My dad was an attorney who was just
starting out at the time and was approached by a high profile
client that could offer a lot of money. Because his work has
strict confidential issues, I will be vague. Essentially, the
client was engaged in activities that were against my dad’s
personal ethics. He declined to take on the client’s case [6].
Although taking on this client would have resulted in a big
boost for my dad’s career, as well as a lot of money, he valued
his own personal beliefs above the desire for wealth. I have a
lot of respect for my dad for doing that, and I hope that in the
future I will be able to do the same.
PERSONAL DECISION
After considering the NSPE and ASME code of ethics, as
well as examining my own personal beliefs, I have come to
the conclusion that I would not accept this position.
Accepting this position would clearly violate both the
NSPE and the ASME codes, which would not only be
ethically wrong but also professionally and legally wrong. I
would be accepting a project that I am not qualified for and
would be producing a cheap and potentially dangerous
product.
More importantly, I would be strongly violating my own
personal beliefs and would be working in a job that I would
not feel good about and would leave me feeling guilty.
INFLUENCE OF PERSONAL ETHICS
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR HANDLING
SIMILAR SITUATIONS
My preexisting personal beliefs and experience would
greatly influence how I would approach a situation such as
this.
I have always had a strong passion for the environment. I
love the outdoors and have always spent time with my family
camping, hiking and fishing. The continued use of fossil fuels
is deteriorating the environment and will eventually cause
irreparable damage. Therefore, as an engineer in this situation
I would be thrilled to have this job, and would feel like I truly
am helping to make a difference by developing the Powerwall
technology. Working on this project would be incredibly
rewarding for me and a job offer like this would be nearly
impossible to turn down.
That being said, I would also have to consider many other
personal beliefs before making a decision. I have been raised
to always be honest. By accepting this project, I would be
going against that. I would be lying to the company by leaving
them under the impression that I am qualified for this position.
I would also be lying to the consumer by approving a
product like this and saying it will work well, when in reality
it is poorly made and likely to wear out after a few years.
By accepting this position, I would be asked to create and
approve a product that I know is made of cheap materials and
not of the highest quality. I do not believe that making low
cost, cheap products that have a high profit margin to be right.
This is cheating the consumer. My parents always got
frustrated when they would buy expensive products that
would work for a little while and then suddenly stop. I would
not feel comfortable working in a position where I am
producing something like that.
I would also be very uncomfortable knowing that a
product that I am in charge of producing would be potentially
Through examining the codes, researching similar
situations, and considering my own personal ethics, I have
come up with a process that I believe can be used to determine
the proper course of action for any situation in which an
engineer is presented with an ethical dilemma.
First, the engineer should consult the code of ethics. The
code applies to most situations and can give important
direction. It it also important to examine this carefully as
engineers are professionally obligated to follow this code. If
the decision they make violates the code, they could face
employment and legal consequences.
If the code of ethics does not apply to the situation, or does
not provide a conclusive answer, the next step would be to do
research. I was surprised at how many online resources there
are relating to ethical engineering decisions. One could
research their situation and find other times that engineers
have faced the similar scenarios and how they responded.
If, after considering multiple sources, the engineer is
unable to come to a decision, they should turn to family,
friends and personal beliefs. Friends or family members can
be a great source of wisdom, and they might have even been
through the same situation before. If the engineer is religious,
consulting religious material or asking mentors or pastors can
be helpful as well.
CONCLUSION
Engineers will often be faced with making important and
sometimes difficult ethical decisions. After examining the
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Zachary Yoder
NSPE and ASME codes of ethics I believe they can be very
helpful when faced with a tough ethical decision. Most
importantly, though, the engineer must do what personally
feels right.
REFERENCES
[1] E. Musk. (2015). “Tesla Powerwall.” Tesla (Website).
http://www.teslamotors.com/powerwall
[2] National Professional Society of Engineers. (2007). “Code
of Ethics for Engineers.” National Professional Society of
Engineers.
(Online
article).
http://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/Ethics/
CodeofEthics/Code-2007-July.pdf
[3] American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (2006).
“Society Policy.” American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
(Online article). https://www.asme.org/getmedia/9EB36017FA98-477E-8A73-77B04B36D410/P157_Ethics.aspx
[4] Q. Wang, W. Zhang, Q. Zhu. (2015). “Directing
engineering ethics training toward practical effectiveness.”
Technology in Society. (Online article).
[5] The Student’s Bible. (2011). “Mark 8:36.” (Print).
[6] J. D. Yoder. (2015, October 27). Telephone interview.
[7] NSPE Board of Ethical Review. (2013). “Public Health
and Safety – Delay in Addressing Fire Code Violations.”
National Society of Professional Engineers. (Online article).
http://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/BER%20Case%20No
%2013-11-FINAL.pdf
[8] “The Green Revolution.” Online Ethics Center for Science
and
Engineering.
(2013).
(Online
article).
http://www.onlineethics.org/Resources/Cases/GreenRevoluti
on.aspx
[9] WebGURU. (2015). “It Only Takes a Second.”
WebGURU.
(Online
article).
http://www.webguru.neu.edu/professionalism/casestudies/it-only-takes-second
[10] J. Basart. (2011). “Engineering Ethics Beyond
Engineer’s Ethics.” Springer Science+ Business Media.
(Online article).
[11] N. Burcea. (2014). “Business Ethics.” Journal of Public
Administration. (Online article).
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I want to thank my writing instructor, Dr. Koerbel, for
helping me out last minute to make sure my paper was
formatted correctly. I also want to thank my dad, Dwight
Yoder, for telling me about his own experiences and helping
me get started on this paper. Finally, I want to thank my
roommate Dan Kachnycz for always keeping me focused and
encouraging me to start early.
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Writing Assignment 3 - University of Pittsburgh