Machine Design

Engineering ethics and the Ten Commandments

Engineers need ethics or a direct line to God. Otherwise they are morally adrift.

By Joel Orr

Edited by Stephen J. Mraz

The dictionary defines ethics as "The science of human duty; the body of rules of duty drawn from this science; a particular system of principles and rules concerning duty, whether true or false..."

But duty is a word that has fallen out of fashion. N'omi Orr defined it as "the undifferentiated requirements of a role." I have a duty as a father, citizen, brother, customer, employer, and so on. Each duty is defined by my role or position, not by my individual characteristics. Ethics is the science of those duties. Why should we care about such a philosophical topic?

Let's say you find out that your company is shipping products that are potentially dangerous, and planning to fix the problem in a later version. You mention the issue to your boss, who says, "Not our department's problem. Leave it alone." What should you do? Of course, you want to do what is right. But how do you decide that? You might review a code of professional ethics. The National Society of Professional Engineers ( adopted this Engineers' Creed in June of 1954, to parallel the Hippocratic Oath of physicians:

  • As a Professional Engineer, I dedicate my professional knowledge and skill to the advancement and betterment of human welfare. I pledge:
  • To give the utmost of performance
  • To participate in none but honest enterprise To live and work according to the laws of man and the highest standards of professional conduct
  • To place service before profit, the honor and standing of the profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations
  • In humility and with need for Divine Guidance, I make this pledge.

The NSPE Code of Ethics is extensive, detailed, and well worth reading. Another excellent source is the National Institute of Engineering Ethics, But note that the creed appeals to Divine Guidance. Can one find or create a code without a tie to God or a text inspired by Divine Guidance, such as the Bible? Those who do not have a priori faith in the inspiration of Scripture will be interested in a quotation from I. Taylor cited in Webster's: "The completeness and consistency of its morality is the peculiar praise of the ethics which the Bible has taught."

Completeness and consistency are no small matters when considering the scope of human behavior. For the ethics of the Bible to be considered complete, they must touch upon every conceivable aspect of human behavior. And if they are to be thought consistent, no part of them may contradict another part.

The dictionary's definition says that whether a system of principles and rules concerning duty is true or false, it is still "ethics." But of what value is a false system? If Taylor's observation is correct, it must follow that the ethics of the Bible are not only complete and consistent in their morality, but also true. For completeness and consistency in connection with observables such as human behavior perforce carry "truth" with them. So as "...a...system of principles...concerning duty...," they cannot be other than true.

But the Bible is a thick volume. To base a professional engineering ethical code on the whole Bible would make its evaluation difficult for anyone who is not a Biblical scholar. By choosing the Ten Commandments as its framework, any code of ethics takes a far more open path — one which invites inspection and judgment from a broad audience.

The Ten Commandments comprise the kernel of the Bible, its nucleus. Any principle found in the Old Testament or the New can be traced to the Ten Commandments, and it does not take much imagination to do so. This brief set of ten injunctions is crystalline and elemental in its purity.

A full exploration of the Ten Commandments is beyond the scope of this column. But N'omi Orr recently summarized them: "All ten say, essentially, ‘do not steal.'" Do not steal recognition, honor, or worship from God. Do not steal the day of rest from God. Do not steal respect from your parents. Do not steal someone's life. Do not steal your neighbor's wife. Do not steal, in general. Do not steal the truth from your neighbor, by bearing false witness against him. And in fact, do not covet — which means, ‘don't even think about stealing!'"

Examine any of the engineering codes of ethics, and you will find that they, too, are based on the Ten Commandments. Here are some ideas for firming up your ethical consistency: Meet with peers and discuss adopting a simple code of ethics, and being accountable to one another for keeping it. Make ethical issues a regular dinner-table topic of conversation at home, especially with children. And read famous ethics cases ( and share them with your family and peers. These include Roger Boisjoly's Attempts to Avert the Challenger Disaster (, and William LeMessurier's Emergency Repair of the Structural Supports for New York City's Citicorp Tower (

Endless ethical riches are inherent in the Ten Commandments. Whether or not you believe in their divine provenance, they are a great place to begin helping yourself to their boundless wealth. Remember: You are your most important project. And you are not finished yet.

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