Where did ethics go?

Sept. 6, 2012
When I was in engineering school, tests were never proctored. When we took exams, the instructor never hung around in the room to watch over students and guard against cheating. At the end of the exam

When I was in engineering school, tests were never proctored. When we took exams, the instructor never hung around in the room to watch over students and guard against cheating. At the end of the exam, we all signed an engineering honor-code statement saying we had completed the exam honestly. There were only a few infractions of the code every year, and they were dealt with by a jury of students who had the power to bounce offenders out of engineering school.

The ethics displayed at my school were probably no different than those at other engineering colleges. Practicing engineers, in general, tend to be highly ethical. Civil engineers, for example, follow a Code of Ethics spelled out by the American Society of Civil Engineers that, among other things, directs them to put public safety and welfare above all other considerations.

There is a more-broad-based organization in the U.­S. called the Order of the Engineer, which promotes similar ethics. It sprang up in the 1970s and is modeled after a Canadian organization having similar principles. There are now local “links” on 278 U.­S. campuses.

When someone joins the organization, they agree to be bound to a code of ethics that, in part, says they will “participate in none but honest enterprises” and “pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect.”

You might wonder whether these are just empty words to the largely 20-year olds who take the pledge. Do these kids just look at the whole ceremony as a good excuse to go drinking afterwards?

Not according to Order of the Engineer Executive Director Paula Ostaff. “They take it very seriously,” she says. Someone taking the obligation gets awarded a ring, which they wear on the little finger of their dominant hand. The ring is supposed to serve as a symbol of their obligation to the engineering profession and to the public. “If they lose that ring, they order another immediately because it means so much to them,” says Ostaff.

Now contrast this serious treatment of ethics to the behavior that has been on display in the financial industry. For that we turn to Charles H. Ferguson, winner of an Academy Award for his documentary on the financial crisis and author of a book called Predator Nation, in which Ferguson uses newly released court filings to show “the financial sector has become increasingly corrupt, with the widespread fraud that caused the housing bubble going completely unpunished.”

There is one particularly telling incident Ferguson details, which involves the investment bank Goldman Sachs. In late 2006 and 2007, financiers were increasingly waking up to the idea that housing could implode. So the firm was trying to sell off its risky mortgage-related assets but was having trouble finding customers. “Smart people were already out of the question; only fools would do,” says Ferguson.

Citing information from the U.­S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report “Wall Street and the Financial Crisis,” he relates that, “A salesman pushing one of Goldman’s most-toxic offerings to a Korean client thought he could expand the sale, but wanted a better commission ‘as we are pushing on a personal relationship’ [i.e., I only screw my friends if I am paid well for it].” Ferguson further relates that the salesman got the extra commission.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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