Dr. Otto J. Helweg, P.E.
Dean Emeritus, College of Engineering and Architecture, NDSU
U.S. address: 33 Crystal Lane, Maumelle, AR 72113
Over Seas address: PO Box 2343, Kigali, Rwand

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Professional Ethics without Religion
Dr. Otto J. Helweg

It seems that writers on professional ethics attempt to dissociate ethics from religion. There are philosophical reasons why this is not only bad strategy but fundamentally flawed logically. If each individual does not have an existential reason for being ethical, all the codes in the world cannot produce ethical behavior. This paper argues that a theistic presupposition is a sufficient, if not necessary, condition to supply the existential motivation. Moreover, professional societies should encourage rather than discourage their members to integrate their theological inclinations with the appropriate ethical codes. Though the principles are generally applicable, the paper is written from the perspective of an engineer.

The field of ethics can be divided into two parts; first, what ought one to do?; and second, why should one do what one ought? Ethical literature concentrates, almost exclusively, on the first question as illustrated by the "Engineering Ethics" column in The Professional Engineer as well as the various codes (ASCE, 1962; Baier, 1965; Baum, 1980; Canfield & Bowman, 1954; Flores, 1980; Mantell, 1964; and Mock, 1969). However, most of the ethical code violations indicate that the problem is "not knowing what to do, but failing to do what one knows." (Alger, et.al., 1965) Consequently, this study attempts to redress this imbalance by dealing with the individual's motivation to be ethical.

Laymen have been frustrated because philosophers do not agree on an ethical system. That is, philosophers do not have a consistent answer the two questions raised previously. Some professionals have interpreted this diversity of opinion as meaning there is no definition (Vesilind, 1988) or no definition is possible. Such an attitude is understandable for engineers, scientists, and others who are used to statistical if not mathematical rigor. Nevertheless, two points may be made; first, disagreement concerning which ethical system is correct does not mean a correct system does not exist and second, in spite of seeming confusion, each person must choose the ethical system he or she will follow. In a sense to not choose is to choose by default.

The first question one encounters when deciding what one ought to do is whether ethics is normative (prescriptive) or empirical (descriptive). The former would accept an absolute standard of "good" while the latter would declare that "good" is relative, such as situational ethics. The following list of ethical systems will generally fall into one of these two camps.


First in considering what one ought to do, that is, which system of ethics is right (if any), it is helpful to list the alternatives. Though any taxonomy is somewhat arbitrary, the one suggested by Holmes (1984) will be followed.

Emotivist Ethics

Ethical emotivism holds that talk about ethics is based on emotion or feelings and as such has no objective content. For example, the logical positivists would allow ethical terms to be defined but would deny that emotive words have meaning because moral judgments are not definitions nor are they empirically verifiable. The emotive ethicist would not say, "stealing is wrong," but "people in Memphis feel stealing is not acceptable." Therefore, ethics is subjective (empirical, descriptive).

In support of this position, most would agree that the subject of ethics is highly emotional; notwithstanding, how does the emotive ethicists know ethical terms do not refer to something external to ourselves? To what would they attribute mankind's universal "judicial instinct" (Carnell, 1957).

Ethical Egoism

This ethical school is similar to utilitarianism (which follows) but ethical egoism bases "oughtness" on what is best for one's self while utilitarianism is based on what is best for society. Ethical egoism ranges from crass (destructive) selfishness to a "benign" selfishness (Scriven, 1966). The former would base "oughtness" on what ever satisfies one's wants, no matter how materialistic. Benign selfishness (really unselfishness) argues that seeking the good of society really maximizes our selfish desires because (among other things) it promotes a safe environment.

Of course strict selfishness would produce anarchy of the worst sort but unselfish behavior may, indeed, produce a desirable society. The problem would be convincing people that unselfishness would, in fact, benefit them more than crass selfishness. Such a theory would be severely tested when it came time to sacrifice one's own life for the sake of society. This seems to be the reverse of Adam Smith's "invisible hand." (Ferguson and Gould, 1975)

Utilitarianism, as mentioned above, defines "oughtness" as that which produces the best for society. This was recently popularized in the movie, "Star Trek II" in which Mr. Spock said, "the good of the many out weigh the good of the few." The problem is how to define "the good of the many." Would it be the dictator in Huxley's, Brave New World, or a similar totalitarian system?

Again, we have our "oughtness" built on an empirical base. Without the ability to define the "good of the many" in a normative sense, our "oughtness" may not only be incorrect, but might not protect individual rights or minority interests. Moreover, we still have the problem of convincing people to be unselfish. This has proven to be the Achilles heel of Marxism. That is, why should I sacrifice now for a future that arrives (if it does) after I am dead?

Christian Ethics

Rather than define "religious ethics," Holmes chooses to deal with a subset, Christian ethics. Both religious ethics and Christian ethics are normative systems that defines "oughtness" in terms of God's laws. Something is good or right because God says it is.

There are two problems with religious ethics. First, as an argument, it may be begging the question. One must presuppose a God who has created an ethical order as well as physical universe. (The failure of the Eastern Religions to accept this does not have a practical effect at this point.) Second, the various religions seem to have the same problem philosophers do by disagreeing on what God's ethical laws are. This second problem is not as severe as it may seem at first because all religions have remarkable agreement on the basic principles of ethics. For example, some form of the "golden rule" can be found in them all. (Hume, 1959)

In spite of these common elements in the ethics of all the major religions, they (with the exception of Christianity) are built on a legal system which can easily degenerate into casuistry. The distinctive of Christianity is that it deals with principles (ie. the "law" of love) rather than individual commands. Though the operation of love is further defined in Christian writings (namely the Bible), even here there can be areas of disagreement in the actual outworkings. For example, some feel serving in the armed forces is wrong while others believe it is an obligation.

The main thrust of this paper resulted because the author has found no reference dealing with professional ethics that examines the second question of ethics, "Why should one be ethical?" All the authors address what we ought to do and few, if any, even acknowledge the existence of the motivation to do what we ought. Many assume education produces motivation. The weakness of this assumption is obvious.

The study of economics give insight into motivation. The economic term "goods" was derived from what is good ethically. The economist assumes that the more goods, the better; both to society and the individual which (some economists acknowledge) means that man is basically selfish.

The results of this selfishness can be good or bad behavior (usually the latter is ignored). The issue is whether individual selfishness is good or bad for society. Some, calling upon Adam Smith's "invisible hand" say maximizing individual selfishness also maximizes social utility. However, others cite the "law of the commons" which says the opposite.

The law of the commons can be illustrated by ten shepherds each having 10 sheep on a meadow (commons) that can optimally support 100 sheep. One of the shepherds reasons that adding only one sheep will increase his income by 10% while hardly effecting the total output of the meadow. Of course the other shepherds quickly recognizes that unless they do likewise, they will lose out. The result is a ruined meadow.

The invisible hand might work where there are unlimited resources, but in a "zero sum game" the law of the commons will prevail. Moreover, Adam Smith seemed to presume that individuals maximizing their utility (selfishness) would do so fairly. Even Adam Smith recognized that common goods (water, air, etc.) and public goods (military service, education, etc.) were exceptions.

It may be further argued that individual selfishness will rarely, if ever, produce societal well being. In fact, one could argue that it is theoretically and practically impossible that integrating individual selfishness can somehow produce social good. Therefore, the problem is to motivate people to be unselfish.

This can be done by external motivation or internal motivation. Our law enforcement system is designed to supply external motivation and is primarily negative in that it punishes but does not reward. Society or culture may offer positive rewards, however.

The weakness with external motivation is the ability of some selfish individuals to not be caught so those who remain unselfish are like the shepherds on the meadow who do not react to the one increasing his herd. Also, an unacceptable burden is placed on the judicial system if a majority of individuals are not voluntarily "unselfish."

The theist's principal motivation is not to escape "being caught" but obeying God because in the final judgement, nothing is hid. There is, however, the problem of people fooling themselves into thinking they are obeying the divine command but in reality are engaging in casuistry. That is, they seek "legal ways" to be "illegal."

Christian ethics are based on internal motivation also, but with the difference that one is to obey the divine command "from the heart" as a result of having been forgiven, not for any negative or positive reward.

It is patently clear that even Christians, in spite of their internal motivation, do not always obey the law. This problem stems from the battle between the superego and the id (Freud,1952). Put in other terms, "we do not do what we want" (Romans 7:18-24). At least, however, the internal motivation is there which is a perquisite to conscious ethical behavior.

There are three conclusions to draw from the above arguments. First, there are persuasive arguments that say a theistic presupposition is a prerequisite to rational internal ethical motivation. Anscombe (1958) supports this by saying, "...it is not possible to have such a concept unless you believe in God as lawgiver..." The existence of a final judgement (completely fair with no hidden evidence) provides a minimum ethical motivation. Further motivation would be available to those who desire to obey God from gratitude rather than for reward or punishment. This is not to imply that atheists or non theists are not ethical, but only that they do not have a rational basis for their motivation.

Second, constructing a normative ethical system (which, by definition, codes of ethics are) from a relative foundation is a non sequitur. It would seem that only a normative (prescriptive) ethical system can supply the principles and standards on which we base our professional codes.

Finally, it is not necessary to agree that a theistic world view is the only foundation for ethical action or ethical motivation. But, if one concedes that the individual's theological presuppositions can produce the existential motivation to "do what one ought," then these presuppositions should at least be tolerated if not encouraged.

Some professional societies, in particular, the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, have taken a neutral if not negative stance toward religious groups. For example, the Christian Engineers have not been allowed to announce their luncheon meetings in the ASCE conference schedule. Instead, ASCE (and all professional organizations) should encourage members to integrate their faith as engineers, scientists, or other professionals with the practice of their profession. It may well be that this cadre of religious professionals is essential to support both the codes ("what ought one to do?") and the practice ("doing what one ought").

P. L. Alger, N. A. Christensen, and S. P. Olmsted, Ethical Problems in Engineering, John Wiley: NY; 1965

G. E. M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," Philosophy, Vol. 33, 1958

ASCE, "Code of Practice of the American Society of Civil Engineers," Adopted, January 1927, reprinted 1962, ASCE, NY

K. Baier, The Moral Point of View, Random House: NY; 1965

R. J. Baum, ed., Ethical Problems in Engineering, Vol. II: Cases, Renselear Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, 1980

D. J. Bronstein, Y. H. Krikorian, and P. P. Wiener, Basic Problems of Philosophy, 2nd ed., Prentice-Hall: NY; 1955

D. T. Canfield and J. H. Bowman, Business, Legal, and Ethical Phases of Engineering, McGraw-Hill: NY; 1954

E. J. Carnell, Christian Commitment; an Apologetic, Macmillan: NY; 1957

C. E. Ferguson and J. P. Gould, Microeconomic Theory, 4th ed. Richard D. Irwin: Homewood; 1975

A. Flores, ed., Ethical Problems in Engineering, Vol II: Readings, Renselear Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, 1980

S. Freud, "The Ego and the Id," Great Books of the Wester World, Encyclopaidia Britannica, Inc.: Chicago; 1952

A. F. Holmes, Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove; 1984

R. E. Hume, The World's Living Religions, Charles Scribners Sons: NY 1959

R. F. Ladenson, J. Choromokos, E. d'Anjou, M. Pimsler, and H. Rosen, A Selected Annotated Bibliography of Professional Ethics and Social Responsibility in Engineering, Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Inst. of Tech., Chicago, 1980

M. I. Mantell, Ethics and Professionalism in Engineering, Macmillan: NY; 1964

M. W. Martin and R. Schinzinger, Ethics in Engineering, McGraw-Hill: NY; 1983

J. Mock, ed., The Engineer's Responsibility to Society, ASME: NY; 1969

M. Scriven, Primary Philosophy, McGraw-Hill: NY; 1966

P. A. Vesilind, "Rules, Ethics, and Morals in Engineering Education," Engineering Education, Feb. 1988

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