I always think of ethics as ‘morals of convenience’. This is a little unfair. Wikipedia defines ethics as “…involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior” which is a better definition. If morals define what is right or wrong ethics are the ways in which we apply morals to the real world.
How far do you have to go to put yourself in the clear with regard to ethics in engineering? This is an issue that I always have trouble managing for myself.
An ethical question came up with regard to climate science. I am not a climate alarmist but there is strong evidence that the earth has warmed. However the climate issue is often represented as a catastrophic issue and this context is used to justify the presentation of data that is not strictly accurate so the mildly skeptical can be persuaded to ‘do the right thing’. You know – the end justifies the means.
Regarding this issue someone asked me the question “Oh crap, so thousands of scientists have been lying to us?”, my spur of the moment response was “It is like eVTOL. If you base thousands of engineers’ income on favorably manipulated battery energy density figures then it will be widely supported as credible. Are all engineers working at eVTOL companies lying to us?”
The comparison is not a bad one. eVTOL is predicated on the idea that if we can reduce or totally eliminate the emissions from aircraft, and use batteries, the systems become cheaper, simpler and more reliable. This will make travel cheaper and help the environment. This is a societal good.
However, there is a fundamental problem with this approach. Current battery energy density is such that aircraft are not commercially viable when you consider IFR reserve requirements and, as I wrote a couple of newsletters ago, the energy necessary to provide an acceptable environment for the passengers and crew.
For now we will ignore the safety aspects of the battery and power management systems which are significant and may further reduce the weight efficiency of these systems.
All conscious engineers on these programs know this is a problem. There are two main ways that the non viability of current batteries are philosophically managed in these programs:
- The performance is based on current battery weight efficiency and gives a very low range/speed/endurance but a market for a very low range/speed/endurance aircraft is justified in the business model.
- The performance of the vehicle is based on a non certified, non industrialized, or in the worst case non-existent, super weight-efficient battery.
- The performance is justified with an absurd weight fraction that reduces the weight of everything else other than the batteries and the payload in order to carry enough batteries at current or close to current energy densities
I won’t name companies or projects that fall into these three categories but you probably know who they are already – and some companies use a combination of these methods to create a surface level viable product and viable business model.
In case (1) the engineer can go ahead and work without ethical compromise. Most engineers do not care about flawed business models as they do not impact the technical aspects of the product which is their primary concern. Flawed business models used to attract large investments are the responsibility of the executive alone (generally)
For cases (2) and (3) some of the engineers know that critical aspects of the aircraft product are based on parameters and inputs that they know to be false or ‘forward looking projections’ at best. Does that make them ethically compromised?
As engineers we have all had moments in our career where you have generated a result out of an analysis that was much better than you thought it would be. As you acquire more experience you know to assume that these results are almost always wrong and you go back and double check your work.
This also occurs as you receive data from other engineers or departments. If it does not pass the sniff test or looks to be in error you take it back to the originator and run through the source material to make sure it is correct.
You have to be the reality filter for the rest of the project. Whether that information is technical or commercial. Whether management likes it or not, it is what they pay you to do. If you do your job properly you will find that management does not like it.
Your job is to be right, not to be popular. If your employer demands that you compromise your ethics to be part of the team then you are on the wrong team.