Tuesday, April 7

Engineering Ethics - Social Responsibility vs. Legal Liability

I wrote my short essay on the ethics involved in the world of engineering, and as I was doing my research, I came across and short essay that I thought was interesting. One of the arguments that the author brings up is who should take responsibility for a design’s final outcome? Is there a social responsibility to the public? From my perspective as an engineering student, I think that it should be the responsibility of every engineer to think of the consequences that could happen with the production their design. In the design process that we are taught early on in our education, there is a step that involves brainstorming ideas, research, and realizing the requirements that need to be fulfilled with each project. In my opinion, this should also be a point when engineers ask people outside of the project about their views on the possible designs. An important question they should ask the public is how they think this will impact them, whether it is in a positive or negative way. Then the engineers can use that information to make the best judgment on how to proceed on the project. But once the project is complete, the rights to use that design are given to another group (like a company). What if there is a problem in the future after the engineer has been separated from the project for a long amount of time? Does the responsibility fall onto the company that is now using the design? Or is the engineer responsible because they didn’t think about the long-term effects of the design? What do you think?



  1. As someone who has one foot in "basic" research and one foot in "applied" research for human machine interfaces I agree that designers do hold certain social responsibilities to make products as functional, safe, environmentally friendly, beautiful, as they can.

    I think I agree with the author that the legal responsibilities are a mere subset of the social responsibilities. The legal responsibilities relate to making every effort to produce a safe product, not violating patent laws, making a product that mostly does what you say it does. The social responsibilities encapsulate the legal but also stem from a desire to make a quality product. I think of an ideal product as a perfect combination of aesthetics, functionality, and engineering. From my experience most designers, engineers, programmers, usability specialists, etc. have a desire to make quality products that are high in value, that people will buy, use, that people won't be able to live without, and that people will rave to their friends and families about.

    Some products meet their legal responsibilities but not their social responsibilities. Or in simpler terms, we can have safe products which are perform inadequately. I think many of the cheap Walmart electronics might fall into this category. They are safe but comprised to meet certain competitive price points.

    In other cases, the product maybe inherently flawed due to incorrect assumptions in specification, faulty computer modeling, faulty prototyping, or inadequate testing despite the best intentions of the designers. Take the Apple laptop batteries which spontaneously combust into flames. I'm sure Apple investigated how such a design error could have occurred and took measures to prevent it from happening again, but they didn't hold that person responsible in the legal sense. It is unfathomable to think a single designer would (or could) have to pay for a multi-million dollar mistake. I think that is just part of the business relationship between the employee and the employer. When the employee produce good work the employer benefits from their intellectual property, it doesn't seem fair to flip it when they screw up whether they are around or not. I think it also falls on the company to have internal auditing to make sure that quality work is being produced. However, the designer may feel social responsibility and the company may hold them internally responsible to fix their mistake.

    I also think this article implies the consumers should have certain social responsibilities to consume responsibly. We vote with our dollars. We need to investigate what we consume and try as best we can to decipher real engineering merit, real usability, real innovation from dubious marketing, superficial specifications, purely emotional appeals. Those of us that hold formal education in design and engineering hold perhaps more responsibility. If we create a demand for crap products the market will produce crap products.

  2. I think while considering social responsibility and liability for engineering we should be clear in defining what the engineered item as well as whether it was mass produced. For instance, with Roger's example of laptop batteries it is unreasonable to hold the engineer responsible in such cases where the variables for cause of failure (explosion in this case) are numerous, undetermined and extremely unlikely. Some might argue saying its the duty of an engineer to know such variables and hence they should be held responsible for failures. But my counter argument is not that they should not be aware of such variables but that the choice of production should depend on factors such as the evaluation of risks. For instance, a surgeon performs appendectomy in a stable patient (no evident risk for complication) knowing fully well that there is always a risk of complications that are not considered life threatening or complication that would be implausible. Also if the item is a mass produced I don't think the weight of responsibility is as strongly imposed on the engineer as would have been for individual products. Continuing with the laptop battery example, the basic engineering behind batteries is not a new one (though there might be some advancements) and they have been used extensively for years in various devices which is evidence enough for its human safety record (environmental effects is a whole different can of worms) and the mass production means that the company that financed the production agreed for it. Therefore, I agree that engineer should be responsible for the effects of some of their products but we should have a clear idea of what the item is, what the effects were, and consider if its reasonable to put the weight of responsibility on just the engineer.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.