For the majority of the population, I would venture to guess that the word “ethics” brings to mind the works of Aristotle, Plato, and other similar philosophers. Some further thought on the topic leads to the realization that ethics spans all fields and disciplines. Medical Ethics is a very common philosophy course at Notre Dame, for example, but is not a required course for pre-med students offered through the college of science, despite its obvious relevance to the medical field. This course–Ethics and Professional Issues–is the only one of its kind offered in the college of engineering. However, in light of the many potential ethical issues present in all types of engineering, only computer science majors are required to take such a course. This is not to say that ethics is not discussed at all for other engineering majors–I can attest that mechanical engineering majors are exposed to ethical issues in the field–but perhaps not at the length that ethics deserves to be discussed.
In mechanical engineering, unfortunately, disregard for ethics usually results in injury and death. Take, for example, the General Motors ignition switch scandal of 2014, which resulted in over 100 deaths. Engineers working on the product were aware of the defect but the company went ahead with the design, presumably for reasons related to the time and money that had already been invested in the project. Similar issues arise in the field of civil engineering, where a careless mistake or a clear issue that is not addressed results in fatalities. To me, the most disturbing detail in the GM scandal is how many people knew about the defect and did not report it.
At first glance, computer scientists seem not to have issues like other engineers. Surely the developers of the gaming app on my iPhone could not possibly stumble upon an issue that would result in my personal harm if ignored. However, as Marc Andreessen points out in his Wall Street Journal essay, software and programming have become an integral part of almost every aspect of our lives. You would be hard-pressed to find a new car on the market that does not have software heavily embedded in its operating system. Additionally, computer scientists have the ability to access and store personal information. This may not result in fatalities per se, but the breach of one’s privacy can lead to the death of his or her financial security. Massive data breaches that have affected companies like Target in recent years have not only destroyed lines of credit, but also the reputation of the companies affected.
All engineers–and, in general, all people who create–also have the ethical responsibility to use original work, or at the very least, give credit where it is due. There is a famous saying that is often cited by designers: good designers copy, great designers steal (see: Thomas Edison). Of course, there should be an asterisk attached to this saying that distinguishes the importance of proper citation, for intellectual property is often more valuable than material property.
When so much of our world today is created by engineers (a term that I personally apply to computer scientists as well), it is clear that ethics are as prevalent to engineers as they are to those who practice medicine or study philosophy.