Virtues in Engineering

William F. May said of the expert: “He had better be virtuous. Few may be in a position to discredit him. The knowledge explosion is also an ignorance explosion; if knowledge is power, then ignorance is powerlessness” (Harris 30). In the context of engineering, this places engineers in a very special position. Because of this power, which few may ever possess, it becomes necessary for engineers to be virtuous or posses certain attributes for the welfare of the public and in order to be good engineers.

However, what are these virtues and why are they so critical to the function and operation of being an engineer? In establishing a list of necessary virtues, one must first consider the purpose of engineering. Webster’s Dictionary defines engineering as “the science concerned with putting scientific knowledge into practical uses” (“Engineering” 1a). Therefore, an engineer is a person who applies knowledge in such a way that others can benefit thereby. Knowing this, the task of discovering the virtues of engineers becomes much easier.

In order to be a good engineer one must therefore be technically competent. Without this, it matters little whether or not the engineer is honest, responsible, benevolent, just, reliable, compassionate, or generous. He will still fail in his basic purpose to alter the material environment by using his knowledge of math and science because he is not competent. An 18th century English writer and critic, Samuel Johnson, penned, “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful” (“Engineering Quotes).

Reflecting on this with respect to engineering, it becomes evident that knowledge without integrity or character directly affects the “safety, health, and welfare of the public” (Harris 376). Engineers are therefore intertwined with the public in a very symbiotic way. Each thrives off and is directly affected by the other. Engineers exist to fix and solve the problems found in the world around us created by the public. This technical competence is the distinguishing feature. It is what differentiates a professional, or an engineer from the body of the public.

Secondly, engineers must be honest and have integrity. From the respect of persons approach, “actions are wrong if they violate the moral agency of individuals” (Harris 129). Moral agency is characterized by autonomy, or the ability to govern or rule one’s self. By being dishonest we violate directly the moral agency of others by limiting their ability to make completely informed decisions. The very crux of informed consent is correct knowledge and an understanding of consequences.

Should an engineer be dishonest with a client, he is denying the client the ability to make an informed decision. Likewise, dishonesty is also self-defeating. If everyone chose to lie, deceive, or be dishonest, then no one would trust anyone else for anything. This in and of itself would undermine public trust and actually destroy the profession of engineering because the profession depends upon the marketability of its practical solutions to the public’s ever increasing demands. Honesty and integrity are also linked inseparably to the first-mentioned virtue of technical competence.

It is presupposed that the credentials possessed by an engineer, or any other professional for that matter, were obtained in an honest and upright fashion. “Imagine having surgery performed by someone who had cheated in medical school or found a way to short-circuit the requirements of medical residency” (Hinckley 18). One can only imagine the possible catastrophes that could endanger the safety, health, and welfare of the general public. Equally important to the virtues of honesty and integrity is that of responsibility.

Michael Armstrong related how “the ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch” (“Engineering Quotes”) This sense of accountability or responsibility epitomizes what any good engineer should embody. Analyzing this caliber of responsibility from a Golden Rule point of view we see from the perspective of the consumer or possible user of the engineer’s work just how important quality is.

The virtue of responsibility is linked to safety. Lastly, all good engineers should possess the virtue of benevolence. Or perhaps better phrased, a desire to do good. It has been said that an “engineer’s first problem in any design situation is to discover what the problem really is” (“Engineering Quotes”). With this in mind, those engineers who are striving to do good will have an eye more attuned to the things which require solving in life. Also, in the most basic sense, the desire to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public is rooted in the virtue of benevolence, or desire to do good.

An engineer who does not have this virtue of benevolence will place his own concerns and interests over those of the greater good. When followed to the end, a no benevolent engineer is a detriment to the profession because he fails to fulfill his purpose in altering the environment for the good of the public. Ultimately, these four virtues of competence, honesty, responsibility, and benevolence are tied to the possession of knowledge. A familiar quote from the recent movie, “Spiderman,” comes to mind where Peter Parker is told that “with great power comes great responsibility.

” Likewise, with the possession of knowledge comes the inevitable wave of necessary virtues, for knowledge is power. Works Cited “Engineering. ” Def. 1a. Webster’s New World Dictionary. 2nd College ed. 1978. “Engineering Quotes. ” 26 February 2005. Think Exist. com. . Harris Jr. , Charles E. , Michael S. Pritchard and Michael J. Rabins. Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases. 3rd ed. Belmont, California: Malloy, Inc. 2005. Hinckley, Gordon B. Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal our Hearts and Homes. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.