Can ethical behavior survior survive in a world of big business and bigger government, tied together in a web of multibillion-dollar contracts? The answer is "yes," according to the three-year-old Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) -- if courses in practical ethics are built into the educational requirements for entering a profession.
Nationwide, more and more professional groups are drawing up new rules -- such as the new code of professional responsibility that comes into foce July 1 to the 37,000 lawyers of Illinois. As a result of the state's first legal ethics code, lawyers will be subject to disciplinary action for violaing the new standards set for advertising, lobbying, and protecting the public from possible injury by a client.
IIT is working hard to provide guidelines for other groups seeking to draw up codes of professional conduct. Equally important, say IIT faculty members, is a major drive to offer ethics courses specifically tailored to young men and women about to enter the professions.
Explaining the aim of the ethics center he helped set up in 1976, Ernest d'Anjou wrote: "While it is seldom possible to coerce or sermonize men into moral behavior, it is possible to educate them. Students and teachers, professionals and clients, businessmen and the public -- can all be informed over the ethical issues which they encounter daily."
To do just that, the IIT ethics center now offers four courses dealing with engineering ethics, business ethics, legal ethics, and "moral issues in architecture and planning." The next course planned is on the ethical use of computers.
One major study carried out by the Chicago-based center looked into the pressures facing those responsible for purchasing materials for their companies. The survey revealed that, in hypothetical cases of company purchasing managers being offered gifts (ranging from pencils to vacation trips), 60 percent of the respondents felt it was ethical to accept theater or sports-events tickets, 47 percent approved accept small appliances, and just 2 percent approved accepting vacation trips.
Such "data base" information, says ethics center project director Mark Frankel, must be gathered for all professions and analyzed. His goal is a clearer picture of what needs to be done both to help professionals deal with pressures in their work and to help protect the public. An important new step in this direction came this week with publication of the center's 157-page annotated bibliography of works dealing with "Professional ethics and Social Responsibility in Engineering."
Dr. Frankel says he believes that Today's professionals "are very likely to succumb to pressure unless they are very well supplied with information."
Particularly with new pressure added by government regulation, he explains prefessionals must be able to differentiate between their responsibility to their employers, to their clients, and to the general public.
At an IIT seminar bringing professors of philosophy and engineering together with practicing engineers, there was sharp disagreement over the case of faulty design on air breakes developed by a major US manufacturer. It was pointed out that, ethically, the engineers who discovered the faulty design should have gone public with their protests about the design error even though "such action would have resulted, most probably, in the loss of employment."
the way to resolve such "whistle-blower" problems, the seminar leaders concluded, is to have a firm ethics code that a professional can stick to in the knowledge that he will be supported by his colleagues.
IIT philosophy Prof. Fay Sawyier, who became interested in engineering ethics after researching the 1974 crash of an airliner, is well versed in the pressures facing professional people. In developing IIT ethics courses she has found that different professional call for different approaches.
Engineers, for example, must be taught to value themselves as independent decisionmakers, responsible for their actions -- particularly since many today go on to top management positions.
"To be able to dig in your heels and act morally," she says, "you must have self-respect." Instead, she finds that engineers often "think of themselves as efficient machines, as interchangeable parts, hired only for their competence at computing." To correct this attitude, she has designed courses based on case studies of all crashes and major engineering projects to show that engineers can-- and must -- value their own contributions.