Author Interview Engineering Ethics

Inspiring Possibilities

If ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do, Doctor Lorrainne Doherty (BSc Econ Hons, MPhil, DPhil) is here to clarify that with this critical addition to the engineer’s bookshelf.

Engineering Ethics in South Africa offers readers, students, lecturers and practising engineers a framework to guide them to professional and personal excellence. We spoke to Lorrainne about her passion for philosophy, the practical applications thereof, and where engineers – and the world – go from here.

What prompted you to create this title?
As a Complementary Studies Lecturer in the School of Mechanical, Industrial & Aeronautical Engineering Soft at Wits University for ten years, I quickly saw the soft skills gap within the hard skills environment of the sciences. Science is measurable, verifiable, calculable, empirical… It was very hard for me to motivate the importance of my subject to science-based students with an important topic that I couldn’t quantify!

Engineers are scientists by nature, then they encounter ethics and need to activate that right brain and ask questions that they’ve never considered; by provoking these debates we get the two brain halves to embrace and create true excellence. Because engineering revolves around solving some of the biggest systemic problems in society, it is essential that engineers (and other scientists) can see the philosophy behind human rights to truly understand human dignity. By combining these concepts in my book, where rights are measurable, we make these ethical issues more tangible for them while still encouraging and acknowledging the value of emotive input. By seeing dignity as a value and facts as rights we can accept that value informs fact and emotion informs decision-making; by understanding the lacuna between fact and value they come together more than they sit apart, which is apparent in the case studies. This is the first title of its kind to step into that gap.

How has the rise of digital media influenced the attention to ethics in professions?
Social media and access to information have undoubtedly benefited the poorest communities most, giving them both voice and data, which means that there is societal pressure on professionals to adhere to industry ethics and public opinion. Someone is watching everywhere, and social licence can make or break trust in not only an individual or brand but a profession as a whole. Ethics help us to stay on the right side of not only the law and morality but public opinion and support. It doesn’t matter if a spotlight shines on you if you aren’t doing anything wrong!

Why are ethics important to engineering?
Ethics are not just a question of moral integrity; in the case of engineering, they create the very foundation for the literal integrity of structures upon which the public depends upon. The idea that ethics is an optional extra is exactly why we find ourselves looking at catastrophic failures in the case studies. Beyond disaster, ethics guide all people and professionals to be better, to seek better and more equitable solutions, and to do the right thing when it is needed most. Engineers drive innovation and solve problems for the most vulnerable communities across the world; we need to support them in doing this as well, as sensitively, and as sustainably as possible, so having an internal ethical framework helps to guide excellent daily decision making for what I truly believe is the greater good.

Ethics should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct, it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and how this is to be achieved.

How does this title tie up with the code of conduct of ECSA?
ECSA has the role of providing a registry for engineers. The ECSA registry provides for both candidate engineers and professional engineers. Internationally, ECSA subscribes to the Washington Accord, Sydney Accord, and the Dublin Accord, which give engineers a global passport to work throughout the world. All of these engineering governance codes see ethics as one of the cornerstones, which guide us in managing not only our relationships but our environmental and social obligations. Beyond compliance, engineering ethics can help us to develop moral competence and identify better solutions. Simply, one cannot be a professional without embodying every aspect of the profession. ECSA is looking towards becoming a regulatory body in South Africa in the near future which would deem all professionals must be registered with them. But as the phrase goes, with great power comes great responsibility. ECSA will hopefully embrace this to enforce the code of conduct as a council of last resort, as well as engaging to both guide and develop professionals.

Can you briefly define the difference between ethics and morality?
Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct but while they are often used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, for example, codes of conduct, laws, or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.

Is South Africa in an ethics crisis? What are the symptoms of this?
I think the world is in an ethics crisis, and we can see this in the general lack of well-being for the average person. Successful implementation of ethics sees flourishing; if it is ethical, society benefits, if it isn’t, there will be a general malaise throughout the system. The fact that we are pressed to choose the least-corrupt politician to guide our democracy and economy is a frightening notion; even more, concerning is that we are not an isolated example as many think. We should have leaders who set excellent ethical and moral examples; a fish rots from the head down, so we can hardly expect society to maintain a virtuous backbone in light of this.

How do we steer out of it?
I think education is fundamental to this, and ethical philosophy across all levels and spheres is essential. It should be taught at the school level because it requires us to ask ourselves the really hard questions: how does the law define right or wrong versus my own interpretation, what are the ramifications to myself and others, and so on. A simple discussion I have in my lecture halls is “If you found a hundred-dollar bill, what would you do?” – most people would pocket it, but that’s stealing because it isn’t yours. By having these discussions, we can develop greater empathy and understanding of the world we live in and ourselves.

What is the value of the three-pillar approach to professionals? What professions in particular are sensitive to a growing ethical movement?
I think this title can lay the foundation for more sciences to follow. Obviously, ethics is a big consideration in the legal fields, but finance, technology and medicine also need to scrutinise their own three pillars:

  • The philosophical theory of ethics
  • The professional application thereof
  • Case studies to support and clarify pillars one and two

By using the sciences’ left-brain strength to approach the right brain of their field, we can answer some of the biggest dilemmas posed to both this modern world and industries to foster environments of trust, ethical behaviour, integrity, and excellence.

Can we briefly discuss one interesting case study to highlight the value of this title?
The Grayston Bridge disaster is a keen example of multiple failings of ethics that cost lives and was totally avoidable. From saving money on materials to taking structural shortcuts, even having plans prematurely passed, it was an absolute ethical failure within the profession.

In your experience what is the value of soft skills and how are these demonstrated in engineering?
Soft skills are personal competencies that improve human performance, facilitate effective interactions, and complement the technical requirements – or hard skills – necessary in sciences. Besides the value to the industry, where we become more mindful about creating sustainable solutions for the greater good, so-called soft skills are proven to create happier and more fulfilled lives. Happy professionals are more committed and successful professionals, so the holistic outcome includes the ability to collaborate more effectively with others, be mindful of the bigger picture, and eventually – hopefully! – take on leadership roles. For this professional growth and development, skills like ethics need to be an ongoing educational exercise.

What are your future hopes for discussions and education around ethics?
As I said, I hope we start to see ethics being introduced at school level to generate a philosophy of flourishing and well-being throughout society. While STEM subjects are essential for progress and development, we cannot neglect the soft sciences and the value they offer both individuals and society. It pushes us all to rise, but also helps us to stay positive in the human condition.

In conclusion, through theory, practice and case studies, this book attempts to show contemporary engineers what being ethical means and not only ‘how they may be better’ as professionals, but also ‘how they should know better’ too.

The launch of Engineering Ethics in Southern Africa will be in February 2023. Follow us on social media for more information or subscribe to our newsletters at 


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