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Twiddling the Ethics Knob

What a controversial word is “ethics,” with its explosive potential lending itself to varying interpretations. It’s like the word, “obscenity.” Everyone knows what it is, but how do you define it?

—Frank Lebell, The Manufacturers’ Representative

I’ve been thinking about ethics recently, but not the generic kind represented by violations like taking a company pen home. And who among us can claim to be purists? I can’t—I have plenty of company pens laying around my office. And, truth-be-told, my war stories get more polished and elaborate each year. Let the stones in my glass house be unthrown.

Without dusting off the inevitable business ethics textbook from college, most of us instinctively know what is right or wrong—and choose the high road, and not just on principle, but because experience guides us. Is the short term joy of dishonesty worth the impact on our careers? And, if you always tell the truth to the best of your ability, then you never have to worry about steering the story you’re telling.

However, the flavor of ethics I’m thinking about is represented by artificial certainty. As Mark Twain put it:

It ain’t what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

As engineers responsible for products important for people’s lives, we should be certain about what we say—more certain than a politician, for example. But how do we “know?” By testing, calculating, measuring and analyzing, that’s how. It would be great to always have complete knowledge, but we’re constantly called on to make decisions with incomplete information. As close as we may be, engineers are not God with perfect understanding of everything. Too bad.

I will say this, however. You should make a reasonable effort to gather the necessary facts to make a rational decision. Do your homework. If you want to change a process, first make an honest effort to understand why things were done a certain way. If you’re changing a part or a design strategy, make an honest effort to understand the existing circuit and design decision. In decision making, the brash confidence of youth is cute and might be appealing to upper management, but there be alligators lurking in the deep.

It’s hard to know the scope of what you don’t know, but it’s necessary. Wise up! If you don’t have sufficient information or context to make a decision, then defer to someone else or take the time to dig deeper.

Perhaps we can take some guidance from pop culture…know, or don’t speak.

I don’t think. Neither do I speculate, assume or hypothesize.

—Joe Sarno, The Way of the Gun

Do my comments stir any thoughts or recollections? What can you say about ethics in engineering?

2 comments on “Twiddling the Ethics Knob

  1. sanjaya_m
    October 17, 2015

    Really Ken, this is great but you did beat around the George W on this a bit. If we talk about ethics we need to establish some sort of baseline. Can we dare name them? We may not need to, but living breathing examples do work better than prose.

  2. Ken.Coffman
    October 18, 2015

    I did name a name: me. I have not always risen to a proper expectation. Show me someone who does and reveal a saint. I will say this, some people do not even try–and they do well in business. For a while, anyway. Then the karmic circle gets them: inevitably and inexorably.

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