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Baukasten:Responsbility and Ethical Codes - digital

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Responsibility and Codes - digital

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The participants reflect on their responsibility as future engineers. They are encouraged to question their own work critically and to consider their work in a broader context. They will get to know options how to act and find solutions in situations when their personal values are in conflict with their job. In addition, they look for a code of ethics for engineers and reflect on its effectiveness and principles.

Technology is not ethically neutral, neither is the engineering profession. Engineers' work is often highly fragmented, with individual engineers specializing in specific fields. This leads to an alienation from the overall project which makes it easy to lose an understanding of the big picture. However, an overarching view is important for responsible action. If a conflict of responsibility is identified, a supportive network of colleagues is usually helpful to solve it.

In preparation for the session, participants develop a general understanding of the concept of responsibility and deal with the specific responsibility of engineers. To do so they read a text and a case study about a real life conflict of responsibility. The case studies are examples of moral conflicts some engineers have faced in the past. Afterwards the participants describe a situation where they have experienced a conflict of responsibility themselves. This creates a personal connection to the topic. During the session the participants discuss the case studies in two separate phases. There is plenty of time for intense exchange. As a follow-up, the students choose and read an Engineers’ Code of Ethics, reflect on it and apply it to the discussed case studies.

Responsibility and Codes - digital
Responsibility of engineers. Codes of ethics for engineers.
Responsibility, Conflicts of responsibility, Codes of ethics
Gaining interdisciplinary knowledge, Cooperation, Coping with dilemmas of decision-making, Participation, Reflecting principles, Acting morally, Support others
Forms of Learning
creative, cooperative, fact-oriented
Discussion, Individual reflection
Group Size
at least 3, ideally 6 or more
60 Minutes
Material and Space
E-Learning unit on the topic of responsibility, Case studies: conflicts of responsibility from professional practice
very good - basic building block in Berlin
Winter Semester 2020/21

Preparation and Follow-Up

Facilitators’ Preparation

The facilitators prepare an e-learning unit for the participants preparation in a forum (learning platform). Part of the e-learning unit are the different case studies. The amount of different studies depends on the group size as every participant only reads one or two. If there are six participants or more, all six case studies are used to show the variety of possible conflicts.

In larger groups the texts have to be about equally distributed amongst the participants (e.g. by poll or via the first letter of the participants’ surname). A slightly uneven distribution is of no concern. The discussion rounds take place in breakout sessions with 10 participants. Approximately every case study should therefore be represented in each group.

For groups with fewer than six participants, the facilitators select a limited number of examples or each participant is assigned two case studies.

Participants’ Preparation

The participants work through the e-learning unit in advance. The unit consists of four separate topic sections:

  • What is responsibility? - listen to own thoughts & speech
  • Hans-Ulrich Kammeyer on responsibility in the engineering profession - read and answer questions
  • Case study: conflict of responsibility from professional practice - reading and taking notes
  • Case study: personally experienced conflict of responsibility - write down a conflict from your own life and/or work

The two case studies are the basis for the discussions during the seminars’ presence phase. Therefore it is important that everyone is prepared.

Participants’ Follow-Up

The participants choose and read a code of ethics for engineers, reflect on it and establish a reference to the case studies.


Minute 00 - Introduction and first group work


The facilitators present the schedule.


Overall aim of today's session

  • Reflecting personal responsibility, especially in professional life
  • Practice dealing with conflicts of responsibility as an engineer and in real life work situations
  • Acting responsibly as a group

Today's schedule

  • 00:05 - What responsibilities does an engineer have?
  • 00:25 - What does responsibility mean to you personally and in professional life?
  • 00:60 - Follow-Up next week’s Preparation

Minute 05 - What is responsibility?


The facilitators introduce the topic by taking up parts of the e-learning and placing the session in the overall context of the seminar, e.g. a reference to the kick-off session in which the participants have created a mindmap on responsibility.


The following aspects can be taken up for example:

What is responsibility? - Perspective of the participants

  • Summarizing slide that reproduces the answers of the participants from the e-learning, e.g. as a word cloud or highlighting individual quotations that stand for certain basic attitudes.
  • Note: Create as much variety as possible in the evaluation within a session and between sessions.

What responsibility does an engineer have? - Perspective of the participants

  • Summarizing slide that reproduces the answers of the participants from the e-learning, e.g. as a word cloud or highlighting individual quotations that stand for certain basic attitudes.
  • Note: Create as much variety as possible in the evaluation within a session and between sessions.

Which values are important in relation to the engineering profession? - Perspective of the participants

  • Summarizing slide that reproduces the answers of the participants from the e-learning, e.g. as a word cloud or highlighting individual quotations that stand for certain basic attitudes.
  • Note: Create as much variety as possible in the evaluation within a session and between sessions.

Is technology neutral? - Perspective of the participants

  • Summarizing slide that reproduces the answers of the participants from the e-learning, e.g. as a word cloud or highlighting individual quotations that stand for certain basic attitudes.
  • Note: Create as much variety as possible in the evaluation within a session and between sessions.

Ambivalence of technique with Hans Jonas and Hans Ulrich Kammeyer

  • Not only when technology is maliciously abused, i.e. for evil purposes, but even when it is used benevolently for its actual and highly legitimate purposes, it has a threatening side to it that will have the last word in the long run. - Hans Jonas
  • To deal with the technical illusion provisionally, one can assume Jacques Ellul's formulation: The technique is ambivalent. This means that it is good and bad at the same time; the same technical action is not positive or negative, depending on the nature of the circumstances: it is always positive and negative at the same time, because it takes up the totality of the human being, which is never exclusively good or bad. - Hans Ulrich Kammeyer

Minute 15 - What responsibilities does an engineer have?


The facilitators present the tasks. They may also point out the guidelines for discussion in breakout sessions and underline the independence/autonomy of the small groups.

The participants work independently in groups of 10 and discuss the case studies from preparation. After 25 minutes of discussion time the breakout sessions end.


Overview tasks - small group work - 25 min

  • Task 1: Present read case studies to the group
  • Task 2: Discuss the assigned case studies

Task 1: Presenting the read case studies - 15 min.

  • Agree on who is presenting/summarizing which case
  • If several people have read the same case study, one person starts and the others add
  • Summarize your case study in 3 sentences concerning these aspects:
  • Values and conflicts between different values
  • Responsibility and conflicts between different responsibilities
  • Presented measures and problems encountered in their implementation

Task 2: Discussion of Kammeyers questions - 10 min.

  • Discuss the case studies with consideration to the following questions:
  • Which aspect of which case study do you find particularly important?
  • How is the ambivalence of technology evaluated in which case study?
  • What is and how far does the engineer’s responsibility extend in which case?

Notes on the culture of conversation/discussion

  • Talk slowly, one person starts and then names the next person
  • if you want to say something signal it
  • keep it short and only name a few key points
  • listen and refer to each other

Minute 40 - What does responsibility mean to you personally and in professional life?


The facilitators present the task which is split up into a guided individual exercise and a group work of 45 minutes. During the individual exercise one facilitator guides the participant in creating a “mindmap of interests and influences”. The facilitator may show a mindmap he/she has drawn by himself.

The facilitators introduce the tool “Jam Jar of the Individual” tool with the remark that networking with others can help to solve conflicts of responsibility.

The participants split up into groups of 6 to 8 members. In the group work the participants present their self experienced case studies to each other. They choose one case study to analyse further. The person who presented the chosen study takes notes and posts them to the forum. They include the tool “Jam Jar for the individual” into the discussion with the help of their “mindmap of interests and influences”.


'Our decisions often concern not only us but others Responsibility is first and foremost a system of values that each individual must decide for themselves. In that aspect, it contains an ethical component - you have to be aware of and make a choice on how you are going to impact the world. This duty to make these decisions and accept the outcomes of your actions (both positive and negative) carries over from your personal life to a societal responsibility as well. It can facilitate better decision making. (An example from a participant. Can be renewed if necessary)

Task: Mindmap of interests and influence

  • Take pencil and paper
  • Think of your personal case study: write down the most relevant decision in this situation in the middle of your mind map
  • Write down all parties that…
    • …were interested in your decisions
    • …have influence your decision directly or indirectly
    • …are affected by the consequences of your decisions in any way

Overview of tasks - small group work - 45 min

  • Task 1: Presenting personal case studies
  • Task 2: Discussion of the personal case studies
  • Task 3: Transferring a tool to a personal situation

Task 1: Presenting personal case studies - 20 min.

  • Present your case studies to each other:
  • Shorty present your case study (situation, denouement, outcome)
  • Shortly present the most important parties of interest and influence
  • Choose one case study as a group that will be further analysed

Task 2: Discussion of the personal case studies - 15 min.

  • Tasks for those the case study belongs to:
    • Share some more details of your case study with your group
    • your task will be to listen, not participate analysing
    • Take notes while the others answering the questions
    • Post your notes as a reply to this topic
  • Tasks for all the other group members: Have a closer look on the case and answer the following questions:
    • Which values are in conflict with each other?
    • How was the conflict been solved?
    • Which responsibility towards which party plays a role in the situation?
    • Which responsibility is (not) fulfilled by the taken decisions?
    • Why is it (not) fulfilled?

Task 3: Transferring a tool to a personal situation - 10 Min.

  • How can you connect the tool “Jam Jar of the Individual” to the case study?
  • How would support from whom have changed the situation?
  • Note: if you are quick choose another case study of a group member to further analyse

Jam Jar for the Individual

Alone, they will put you in. - Ton Steine Scherben

Opportunities for individuals to take action are very limited, but it is always possible for people to combine forces in order to tackle bigger issues - it is then no longer a question of individual interest, but instead a matter of allowing the common good to emerge. In twos, threes, hundreds or thousands it is not only more fun, but also demonstrates mutual support and motivation in order to overcome obstacles.

Minute 85: Follow-Up and Preparation


The facilitators present the follow-up and preparation.


Today’s Follow-Up: Evaluate a Code of Ethics

  • Please choose one code of ethics of any association of engineers or scientists. You can find many on the internet.
  • Read the code of ethics and answer the following questions in your learning journal!
  • What assistance does the code provide for the case studies?
  • Does this code change the way you view the case studies?
  • Would you sign the code? Do you see difficulties?
  • Does the origin of the code of ethics determine its content?
  • Note: This website for example provides codes of ethics from various engineering associations all around the world: http://ethicscodescollection.org/search?query=Engineering

Learning Journal

  • Reflect this week’s session in your learning journal (e.g.: Conflicts of responsibility, Jam Jar for the Individual, Further research)

Next week’s Preparation

  • insert preparation as needed

Notes and remarks

Authors’ Note

The building block is based on the German building block of the same name. It has been developed further a bit. This english version has been conducted successfully with 50 participants in the international Blue Engineering course at TU Berlin.

For a more intensive exchange and greater trust, it has proven to be best not to mix the groups of 10 for the second discussion round. The building block can be carried out as a 90-minute variant, e.g. by involving external experts. In Berlin a former Blue Engineering Tutor presented a conflict of responsibility (contribution to a military project), which he experienced in his first years of work and subsequently answered questions from the students.

The building block can be connected to the building block on the Productivity Worldview by Otto Ullrich by including this quote in the beginning: "The authority of steam makes the factory far more tyrannical than the small capitalists have ever been who employ workers.” (Friedrich Engels). Ullrich quotes Freidrich Engels who points out that technology has a huge impact on society and therefore engineers do. This lays great responsibility in the hands of engineers.

Furthermore, The facilitators can give the participants time to talk about their experience with the follow-up task from the building block “The productive worldview”. For this the participants are divided into groups of four. The following questions can be used as guiding questions:

  • Talk about Your Experiences - Group Work - 10 min
    • Which 3 people did you choose to talk to and why?
    • What reaction did you expect and why?
    • Did they react to your quotes from Otto Ullrich’s text as you expected?
    • How might the national, social or educational background of your 3 persons influence their views on the quotes?
    • Did talking to these people change your views on the text?

If necessary, the small group discussions can be shortened. It is advisable to allow time at the end of this building block to get feedback from the participants. The participants talk in small groups about how the seminar is working out so far. Questions can be: What are current/past problems? What's good about it? - one person per group collects the feedback and posts it in the feedback forum.

Further Notes

Still to come.

References and sources

  • Matthias Maring (Hrsg.) - 2011 - Fallstudien zur Ethik in Wissenschaft, Wirtschaft, Technik und Gesellschaft - ISBN 978-3-86644-608-3, Lizenz CC by-nc-nd 3.0
  • Klaus Kornwachs - 2015 - Der Konstrukteur und der Kunde - Philosophie für Ingenieure - Carl Hanser Verlag - ISBN 978-3446442399
  • English Translation: Illinois Institute of Technology - Ethical Principles of the Engineering Profession - 2002 - http://ethics.iit.edu/ecodes/node/6405
  • Hans Jonas - Verantowrtung neu denken - Redebeitrag - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N61nUnsy_bM
  • Hans-Ullrich Kammeyer - 2014 - Was ist und wie weit reicht die Verantwortung des Ingenieurs? - Verantwortung von Ingenieurinnen und Ingenieuren - Springer Verlag - ISBN 978-3-658-05530-1


Preparation - E-Learning Unit on Responsibility


The facilitators create a forum with a new topic for each section of the preparation unit. Make sure to number the topics already in the title and upload the corresponding content (see below). Participants work on the tasks in the order of numbering (1-4).


  • The preparation unit consists of five sections:
    • What is responsibility?
    • Hans-Ulrich Kammeyer on responsibility in the engineering profession
    • Case studies - Conflict of responsibility in professional practice
    • Case study - own conflict of responsibility

1 - Rethinking Responsibility

Please answer the following two questions in one reply to this forum post in ONE sentence each:

  • 1 - What is responsibility for you personally?
  • 2 - What responsibility does an engineer have from your point of view?

After answering the questions, read the following short speech by the sociologist Hans Jonas on rethinking responsibility:

"Never before has there been any responsibility as to what we have to answer for today. Both knowledge and power were too limited to include the more distant future in the foresight and even the globe in the consciousness of one's own causality. Only modern technology, with the unprecedented scope of its actions in space and time, opens up these horizons and thus moral reason is confronted with entirely new tasks. One of them is to rethink our responsibility. The attempt to do so is a duty of responsibility itself. So it happened to me..."

If you want to listen to the speech, here is a video. However, it is in German language - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N61nUnsy_bM

Further information about Hans Jonas can be found for example on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Jonas

2- Hans-Ulrich Kammeyer on responsibility in the engineering profession

Please read the following text first. And answer these two questions SHORTLY after reading!

Note: You will find it as a pdf below as well if you want to download it.

  • 1 - What is your opinion of the statement "Technology is neutral"?
  • 2 - Which values do you find important with regard to the engineering profession?

Who is Hans-Ulrich Kammeyer?

Graduate engineer, consulting engineer, test engineer for structural analysis; President of the Chamber of Engineers of Lower Saxony, Vice President of the Federal Chamber of Engineers

What is and how far does the engineer's responsibility extend?

The ambivalence of technology forces the profession to think further than before about its relationship to progress.

What is technology? What is morality? Can there be moral boundaries between technology and progress? If technology is a law of nature, i.e. it is as natural as a leaf or flower, then the engineers who generate and apply technology must ask completely new questions about what they do. An attempt to lay a foundation for such questions, to give engineers a direction for answers, has been made by the author of the following article.

I would like to try to explain the responsibility that we engineers have in the awareness of our profession and its practice. What about independent and freelance work? What about freelance engineers? Many of us - including many colleagues - cannot distinguish between a self-employed person, an independent person and a freelancer. I myself am a consulting engineer - so actually all three in one. First of all I am an independent engineer - I am also self-employed, but next to me so are many craftspeople, business people and company owners of all kinds.

And freelancers?

Am I a freelance engineer?

You don't have to be self-employed to be a freelancer, but you do have to be responsible for your own professional decisions - which is self-evident for the freelance engineer - but what is valid for all other (also employed) engineers? Doctors are always freelancers, even if they are employed. But is that also what an engineer is? Under private law? Criminal law?

In contrast to doctors, there is no clear professional code of conduct for the engineering profession. Now one might say that engineers are also only concerned with technology, not with people. Does this make a difference? Can we separate people from technology?

What is technology?

Anyone looking for answers to such questions cannot avoid approaching the questions of the conditions under which technical and constructive achievements are valid and of their conditions of use. At the same time, the criteria for the intention of their developments and for their use must be taken into account. Furthermore, philosophical disciplines and methodologies must also be included.

This also leads us to consider the question of what technology is worth and what its right to exist is.

The evolution of technology is linked to the evolution of humankind. Humanity meets the challenges that it has been, is and always will be faced with in the course of its evolutionary history through technological developments. The human desire to overcome the magical and miraculous has brought about the progress of technology as we know it today.

The history of the 20th century has clearly shown us that humanity, with and because of its technical inventions and developments, has unintentionally withdrawn from its own foundations of life and has become a threat to its own survival. The ability of nuclear fission, celebrated as technical-scientific progress, also taught humankind to fear when the first atomic bomb was dropped and led them to the moral limits of the compatibility of technology and progress. Where in the Middle Ages humanity sought a way out of omnipresent threats, such as the plague, with faith, hope and mysticism, in religious and magical answers, today it finds itself increasingly exposed to the technical illusion. An illusion which, contrary to expectations, not only has positive effects, but also takes on destructing and destructive effects (nuclear over-armament), creates imbalances (excessive power), and overrides moral aspects and human compassion and, in the wrong sense, makes inventors become victims, if we only think of Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer or of Roosevelt and Truman (the originators of the first atomic bomb). The example of nuclear physics and the production of the atomic bomb proves this to us again and again. But how is technology to be evaluated? Is technology basically positive? That has been seen for a long time. An example of the solemn proclamation of this buried ideology can be exhumed in the report "Technology, Employment, Growth" presented by François Mitterrand to the Heads of State of the West on June 5, 1982, at the Versailles Summit. It devoutly repeats the productivist creed that electronics and biotechnology would simultaneously solve the problems of inflation, unemployment, the North-South imbalance and even existential unrest.

In contrast, in the face of this productivity worldview, an opposing ideology has now emerged, namely the ideology of the refusal to grow, which basically claims that technology is bad.

In the face of the apparent paradoxes of technology, which is good and bad, positive and negative, necessary and harmful at the same time, the productivists and the growth deniers do nothing else than to eliminate this paradox by neglecting half of reality.

Faced with these two extreme points of view, some believe they can escape the dilemma caused by any paradox by claiming that technology is neutral and by pretending that it is good. Melvin Kranzberg has declared all these views to be false. He says: "Technology is neither positive, nor negative, nor neutral.” This law rejects the grossly simplistic schemes of both positive and negative technology and resists the natural temptation to conclude that it is neutral.

But the so-called neutrality of technology still represents the most reliable ideological foundation of the technical illusion today. The thesis of neutrality is apparently based on a consideration that betrays common sense. If technology is neither good nor bad, it seems that it must be neutral as a result, and everything else depends on the use made of it. But now mankind is constantly introducing technical innovations, as if it were a law of nature. With the same natural innocence man makes machines, including the atomic bomb with which a bird builds its nest or a beaver builds its dam.

The hypothesis of ethical neutrality refers technology to the world of matter and ethics to the world of abstract speculation.

This, of course, exposes the whole danger of the prescribed neutrality of technology and the so-called innocence of engineers. The fact that Wernher von Braun made his cooperation available to the United States does not justify his collaboration with the Nazis. To produce a rocket in White Sands is not morally more correct than to do so in Peenemünde, since it is not less dangerous for the humankind. Nor is it morally more correct to produce a rocket to explore the moon than to produce a rocket for military purposes, because in both cases you are working on the same technology that can be used by anyone for any purpose afterwards.

So if technology is neither neutral, nor positive, nor negative, then the question of its actual nature must arise.

I have already pointed out that we find ourselves in a paradox that cannot be resolved so easily.

The value of a technical object is not determined. The handling of one and the same knife, depending on whether it is used to cut bread or to murder a human being, takes on a different meaning. This trivial fact does not allow the knife manufacturer to decide whether his activity is permissible; it leads him to believe that his profession is neutral. Now, however, he is not: the person armed with a knife is no longer the same as the unarmed person; whether he acts well or badly is of more serious weight. Every action has an inherent gravity that gives it a far-reaching effect.

In order to deal with the technical illusion provisionally, one can assume Jacques Ellul's formulation: Technology is ambivalent. This means that it is good and bad at the same time; the same technical action is not positive or negative, depending on the nature of the circumstances: it is always positive and negative at the same time, because it takes up the totality of the human being, which is never exclusively good or bad. This formulation remains valid even beyond the conscious intention of man. The best intentions in the world are not enough to give a technical act a positive value, as the case of the first atomic bomb showed us.

Technology is not only ambivalent, but also ambiguous. Even if one knows in advance that it is both good and bad, it is impossible to guess which applications will prove positive and which negative.

In 1955, the common feeling about nuclear physics proved a rather large opinion of naivety. It was assumed that the atomic bomb would be the bad application, while nuclear power plants would be the good one, since they would be an inexhaustible source of energy, cheap and clean. The military application was of course bad, the pacifist one inevitably good.

The consequence of events has shown that this appreciation was fundamentally wrong. Indeed, the atomic bomb prevented the outbreak of war between the Western and Communist worlds. On the other hand, the terrible Chernobyl catastrophe brought the production of nuclear electrical energy into disrepute to such an extent that it was practically abandoned here: From now on, nuclear power plants were considered the absolute evil, an incalculable risk, even with the participation of human failure.

Meanwhile, on second thoughts, one will remember that Chernobyl ultimately led to the political collapse of Soviet power.

We must therefore break away from the general prejudice that man is sovereign and unchangeable in the face of technology. Sovereign in the sense that he could determine the course of technical development at will through decisions, choices or rejections. Unchangable in the sense that he could determine himself by reference to a system of values which are innate and permanent, which is called natural morality.

Reality is much more disquieting. Jacques Ellul has clearly shown that technology represents an autonomous, unitary, universal and totalitarian system, in the face of which the human being, alone or in community, is currently defenceless and unaided. He can accelerate the progress of technology in one point or another, but he cannot stop it.

Let's take an everyday example: an engineer submits a proposal for a new computer to the director of a computer company. This proposal is based on the fundamentals of optoelectronics, which would allow the production of a thousand times faster device in a thousand times smaller volume at a thousand times lower price - in short, it is the production of a computer that is a billion times more powerful compared to conventional devices. If this project can be realized with the available funds, the director will hardly have the choice to reject it. If he allows the opportunity to pass him by, then a competing company will take it up and exclude from the market all those who have refused progress. If he accepts the project, this director will force the directors of competing companies to act in the same way as he did.

In a word, no company director really has the freedom of a principled choice.

This means that any technical progress that is within the realm of the possible becomes inevitable.

One may therefore suspect that the progress of technology is an automatic process which is its own cause and which therefore has no other purpose apart from its own growth.

How can we write an instruction manual for technology, given the fact that we have so much difficulty in formulating instructions for the use of a simple technical device such as a telephone?

And yet, we need to deal with technology. This is the responsibility of all of us, especially those who drive these developments.

This responsibility also leads us engineers to take a closer look at technology - especially from a moral and ethical point of view. After all, all human culture has its origins in technology. The history of human culture and civilization is always also the history of technology.

Culture manifests itself not only in the most elementary arts like painting, sculpture and music. The art of engineering also reflects the cultural state of society. Technology and art have accompanied mankind from the very beginning. They have the same root: the creative, formative imagination of man. The art of engineering (like the art of healing) is one of the oldest useful arts. Ingenium, the spiritual-creative power, has always been the basis and driving force of this art. The remarkable acceleration of technology is about to overtake ethical judgement. Pluralization and globalization of ethical and moral values, together with the black-box character of technology, are unsettling people to the point of fear of life. The increasing difference between expert knowledge and lay knowledge requires trust - especially in the ethical integrity of the engineering profession.

Ethics is connected with technology, with science and business. Generally speaking, ethics is defined as the theorization of morality as a regulator of human coexistence. Ethics and morals seem to be the price that modern industrialized countries are willing to pay. Only serious crises such as the one we are now experiencing again in the financial and economic crisis show humanity the limits of ignorance and ruthlessness. This is the proof of historical experience - as soon as moral self-evidence disappears, the need for ethics arises. The number of doubters is increasing, and in our industrialized countries, too, demands for morality and ethics, for decency and thus for the well-being of all are taking on new dimensions.

For us engineers, the aspects of ethics and morals are omnipresent every day in the exercise of our profession. We decide on developments, planning and calculations, and thus on the use and safety of machines and buildings - a responsible task, as we believe, and a challenge we are happy to take on. Taking into account what is technically feasible, the principles of a (universal) ethics of technology find global approval among engineers in research and teaching as well as in practice. The engineers of Europe have long since adopted them in their own form in the Dresden Declaration on the occasion of the European Chamber of Engineers' Conference in Dresden in 1998. I am happy to quote the following points from this code, to which the engineers have committed themselves, among others:

Europe's engineers perform their work with responsibility towards humanity, the environment and themselves. Their work serves the well-being and further development of society in this millennium. Europe's engineers respect the performance of their professional colleagues. They measure their strength in a fair competition of quality and efficiency for the benefit of the consumer and for the protection of the environment. Europe's engineers are actively involved in shaping society both now and in the future. Through innovation and creativity they promote the art of engineering and building culture. They give themselves an order that meets their high ethical standards.

It remains our goal to put these principles, appropriately also legally, on the basis of a professional code of conduct for engineers. Being aware of our special responsibility towards society as a whole, humanity and the environment, we engineers are also thinking about a professional oath or vow for our profession (as in the case of doctors, the Hippocratic oath). In the high level of responsibility that engineers have, they must also be granted the authority to make decisions on their own responsibility - in accordance with a true freelance profession for as many engineers as possible! In this sense, only the implementation of a professional code of conduct can satisfactorily regulate the engineers' consciously autonomous actions.


Neirynck, J.: Der göttliche Ingenieur – die Evolution der Technik; expert verlag GmbH, Renningen

Wendeling-Schröder, U., Meihorst, W., Liedtke, R.: Der Ingenieur-Eid – ethische, naturphilosophische, juristische Perspektiven; scientia nova, Brette

Zimmerli, Chr.: Ethik in der Praxis – Wege zur Realisierung einer Technikethik; Lutherisches Verlagshaus, Hannover

3 - Case studies - conflicts of responsibility from professional practice

During the seminar you will discuss in small groups case studies that describe conflicts of responsibility of engineers. There are 6 different case studies. Which one you should read is derived from the first letter of your last name. Take your time for the case study, you will present it in the seminar to other students who do not know it yet.

Work out the following points:

  • 1 - Summarise your case study in THREE sentences to be able to present it to others next session.
  • 2 - Which values play a role and what is their relationship?
  • 3 - What conflicts of responsibility arise?
  • 4 - Which measures and problems are present?

Case studies - Insert case studies as PDF (adapt to the number of participants and distribute them among the students) - -

1) Congress hall case

C., who holds a doctorate in natural sciences and engineering, works in a major construction company as head of development for prestressed concrete structures that require special safety precautions during construction and maintenance. Since individual cases of damage have already become known in the professional world, C. urges his company to take appropriate safety measures when constructing a new hangar. In view of the additional costs involved, this proposal is rejected.

In fact, after some time, damage to the structure of the hangar occurs, causing considerable danger to human life and material assets. Although these dangers can be eliminated by immediate repair, disputes about the cause of the damage are being conducted at the highest level. During these negotiations, C. reminds the management of his timely warnings, which had called for a more careful approach, but had not been heeded.

Since this incident, there have been tensions between the management and C., which have noticeably affected the working climate. Nonetheless, C. drew the management's attention to the fact that the Berlin Congress Hall, which his company had helped to build in a joint venture, was also likely to suffer major damage on several occasions in 1973 and 1974, both verbally and in writing, and he presented concrete proposals to prevent the possible damage with preventive measures. Again, the management refuses to follow these proposals and intensifies its efforts to persuade C. to leave the company. "In this situation, the only option left to me would have been to go to the public prosecutor. This is where I see the problem of the employed scientist".

But even without C. having taken such a step, he is finally, after many years of service, "waiving all honors for his demonstrable services to the Group, but with a generous financial settlement, forcibly released into early retirement by means of a labor court settlement.

In 1980, the event of damage predicted by C. did indeed occur, with one person dying and several people injured, in addition to property damage amounting to millions. In the following investigations, C. makes his detailed expertise available to the institutions concerned. After completion of the investigation, the case of damage is explained to the public with technical failure.

During this time, C. confidentially discusses the case with his colleagues, who do not encourage him to take further steps, as the damage could not be reversed. There are also personal and factual reasons for not doing so: "It is not everyone's cup of tea to go down in history as a Michael Kohlhaas of high technology. Not inexperienced with the media, I don't want them to draw conclusions from my case that damage this way of construction". "On the other hand, I do not want to let the circumstances to be communicated [...] fall into oblivion. "Later I thought a lot about whether my behavior in the important cases [...] was correct. And I thought about how I could have acted differently towards my conscience".

Today, C. believes that in the situation at that time, only an ethics committee could have helped to prevent the damage. The best-informed expert, usually the engineer responsible for a project, should be able to approach such an institution confidentially, possibly even anonymously, so that, without the engineer in professional difficulties, the necessary precautions would be taken in time and effectively.

In 1991, when the president of the Federal Institute for Materials Testing at a congress of the Association of German Engineers took up the collapse of the congress hall roof in his lecture and declared that external signs of the impending failure "would certainly have been recognized as such if a competent observer had consciously searched for them", C. described the actual background to this in an open letter; the recipient answered this description by stating that he could not comment on it.

A little later, C. asks a personnel consultant, who answers questions about engineering careers every week in the VDI-Nachrichten, how he should have behaved in that situation. "In extreme situations like that," the answer is, "our current management system leaves the employee alone with his problem. He is in a real dilemma". Only by changing companies and exerting discreet pressure on the previous employer, the answer continues, can one possibly change his attitude without endangering his own career; whether this path would have been feasible in a specific case is left open.

This conflict consists in the fact that professionally required additional safety precautions cannot be enforced against the primacy of economic considerations. Although the engineer in question is personally committed to damage prevention within the company, his concerns are not taken into account. Moreover, the engineer has to accept a serious disadvantage for his professional career and still cannot prevent the foreseeable damage.

A refusal to work would not have been considered at all in this case, because only additional activities would have been able to resolve the conflict. Only the alerting of the public could have made a difference, but C. cannot bring himself to do so for a long time out of consideration for the reputation of his subject and the solidarity with his colleagues. Moreover: "Whoever reports his employer to the public prosecutor's office as a leading employee is not only out of the company very quickly, but is also hardly taken up again by another one".

As a long-term consequence of those events that still burden the person concerned, it must be noted that he finally turns to the professional public after all and today advocates institutional solutions that, if they had existed at the time, could have supported him in his conflict of conscience.

2) Sewage treatment plant case

The graduate engineer D. has been working for a large company in the chemical industry as a specialist for the purification of industrial waste water since the early 1970s. Among other things, he is involved in the project planning of a company-owned sewage treatment plant. D. considers the conventional, single-stage sewage treatment plant favored by the plant management to be inadequate and intervenes several times in favor of a multi-stage biological plant. Nevertheless the purification plant is taken in 1975 in the originally planned form in enterprise.

1982 D. submits a study to its superiors, which proves that a warning plant upstream of the purification plant, which is to indicate surprising poison impacts in time, cannot function in a large-scale plant. When it comes in May 1984 in the purification plant to a sensitive operational disturbance, it turns out that the warning device complained of by D. failed; he himself however is excluded from a service discussion over the incident and later transferred into another department.

In the meantime, D. has written a dissertation on the comparison of types of wastewater treatment plants, which is accepted by a technical university. Although he had already been forbidden by a superior to publish technical publications on wastewater treatment in 1983, he then published extracts from his dissertation and scientific articles in technical journals without obtaining a permit. In 1986 he was dismissed without notice because he had published official findings in violation of the ban.

D. filed a complaint against this dismissal and in 1989 reached a settlement under labor law in which the dismissal by mutual consent as of December 31, 1986 and a severance payment of DM 100,000 to D. were agreed. D. was able to continue his professional activities as a consulting engineer and as a university lecturer.

In this case, too, technically justified warnings from an employee are not accepted by superiors for economic reasons. The commitment of the engineer is so strong that he demonstrates the seriousness of his concerns by means of a scientific qualification parallel to his professional work. When the engineer continues his interventions in the company accordingly, he is put off by being transferred to another field of activity. When he communicates his critical insights to the professional public, he loses his job for good.

In the labor law disputes - there were fourteen lawsuits in all - the right to freedom of scientific publication naturally played a considerable role and eventually became the subject of a constitutional complaint. This complaint was dismissed in 1988, on the one hand because it did not meet certain procedural requirements, but also because the constitutional judges took the following astonishing view: "The obligation to obtain the consent of the defendants in the original proceedings" (the employer) "before publication does not, however, prevent the constitutionally guaranteed right to publish research results". That the obligation to obtain approval only makes sense if the approval is also - unconstitutional! - can be refused, and thus possesses an unconstitutional tendency in itself, does not seem to have become clear to the Federal Constitutional Court. Moreover, the fact that the obligation to obtain approval favors an anticipatory self-censorship of the dependent researcher and in this way directly interferes with the freedom of research does not exactly contribute to its constitutional compatibility.

3) Reactor measuring device case

The electronic engineer H. is employed by a well-known company in the nuclear reactor construction industry and develops measuring instruments and measuring systems for these reactors. When he started working for the company, he believed in the safety of nuclear energy technology and was fascinated by it.

However, already after half a year of work, his doubts about the reliability of the safety devices in nuclear power plants are growing due to concrete experiences with insulating material and changes in the shape of individual components of the measuring devices. H. expresses his safety concerns in writing to the company management and asks for an interview. This meeting takes place at the highest level already one day later.

First of all one expresses oneself positively in relation to its commitment and gives H. to understand that one followed the safety concerns immediately. However, there is no reason for concern, as the possible measurement errors are absorbed by other security systems. However, the expert H. is not very impressed by this explanation, and when asked by the management what he "would do", he replies: "Check and replace all the plug connections in question".

The representatives of the management then calculate the costs that such an action would cause, not to mention the fact that the media would exploit such an exchange action in public and thereby damage the company's business. As a precautionary measure, H. is threatened with legal action if he addresses his concerns to the public. The further discussion is without result.

Thereupon H. turns to the Technical Inspection Agency and to the public. The company reacts immediately by dismissing H. without notice and with an interim injunction threatening a fine of half a million DM if H. continues to claim that the safety of the nuclear power plants is endangered. Upon dismissal, the engineer is told by his previous employers that he no longer needed to look for a job in the immediate vicinity of the company headquarters.

However, the injunction does not stand up to judicial review; the court allows H. to publicly declare that the company's reactors are extremely vulnerable.

H. has been a sought-after speaker since his dismissal. Due to his "forced break" he uses every opportunity to share his findings. If the major nuclear accident he feared should occur, he does not want to be told later that he knew about it, but kept it quiet. His professional and economic future is completely open.

Again, the conflict is that the safety concerns of a responsible engineer are rejected by the company management because it shuns additional costs and possible loss of public reputation. Since the person concerned dares to flee into the public eye, he is punished with the loss of his job. Nothing is known of any action under labor law, but at least he can fight for freedom of professional expression in court.

4) Ford Pinto case

At the end of the 1960s, Ford Motor Company was in fierce competition on the American market with VW and the then newly released Golf. In order to launch a similar small car on the market, the Ford Pinto was hastily developed; for example, the machine tools for production were built parallel to the construction of the prototype. Tests already showed a dangerous error on the prototype: a collision at just over 40 km/h caused the gas tank to burst and led to the fire of the vehicle. The result was confirmed by repeating the test forty times. As a solution to the problem, Ford engineers proposed a plastic buffering system, which would have cost $11 per car in materials and installation. The management had to decide on this modification and its cost. In the following cost-benefit analysis, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculated that one human life was worth $ 200,000 in the event of a claim and estimated the number of possible deaths, injuries and burnt cars and their compensation costs (see Table 1).

From this comparative calculation, the managers made the decision to leave the construction as it was and not to use the plastic buffer. Further attempts by the engineers to make improvements met with resistance from management. The then head of the Ford Company, Lee Iacocca, was told: "Safety doesn't sell".

Cost comparison calculation in the case FORD-Pinto

As a background to the assessment, it is important to note that at the time the pinto was produced on a federal level in the USA, there were no safety standards for fuel tanks. Although a safety law for industrial products was passed in 1968, which Henry Ford described as government interference in the internal affairs of free entrepreneurship. The introduction of a safety standard for gasoline tanks was planned for 1970, but failed for a full eight years due to Ford's successful lobbying. During this time Ford produced 8 million pintos. However, word of the fire accidents got around about the Pintos and Ford was forced by public pressure to take remedial action. Today, although recalls are not very popular with car companies, they are a necessity for the image and integrity of a company. A case like Pinto's would probably not survive today's car company because of the boycott caused by the customers.

T. was a member of Ford's management team at the time and was partly responsible for the decision against plastic buffering. His concerns were overruled and he came to terms with it. But after the increase in the number of fire accidents, his conscience comes back to him. He is plagued by the question whether he could have changed something and how he should have behaved.

5) Iraq case

The commissioning engineer L. is sent to Baghdad (Iraq) by his company, a leading German company in plant construction, in the summer of 1989 to start up a partial plant in a steelworks for the production of structural steel and other qualities. There he acts as site manager vis-à-vis his company's direct customer, a German consortium of companies that had designed the entire plant and is responsible for the overall site management vis-à-vis the end customer; the end customer is the Nassr State Enterprise for Mechanical Industries, a company of the Iraqi state.

Before the trip, L. does not initially think about the actual purpose of the steel mill, even though he could have figured out a few things from certain documents and statements at the head office. He also suppresses critical questions from his circle of acquaintances, partly out of loyalty to his company, partly out of uncertainty and fear of possible consequences for himself. Arriving in Iraq, L. has to realize already in the first weeks that if only structural steel was to be produced, the cost of the plant would be greatly exaggerated. On the basis of installation plans, plant components already delivered, discussions with colleagues and because of the entire military ambience, he gains the impression that the plant has nothing to do with structural steel. From these facts as well as from customer statements and prefabricated samples, he finally has to realize that this steel mill is solely intended to produce gun barrels of all calibers and components for military combat vehicles.

L. feels how his conscience is increasingly stirred by this realization. He talks about it for nights on end with his colleagues - with whom he finds little sympathy - and long telephone conversations with his relatives. After a short vacation in Germany, he succeeds in suppressing the problem for a little while despite its daily obviousness. But then the conflict reawakens in him all the more and finally burdens him so much that he is no longer able to concentrate on his engineering work; all responsible work has to be taken over by his work colleagues, while he is almost only able to keep the construction site diary.

In this situation he calls his superior in Germany and complains that the actual purpose of the plant has nothing to do with the purpose stated in his employment contract. The superior declares that the company was only to supply the partial plant; it had not designed the entire plant and was therefore not responsible for its final purpose. L. asks for immediate replacement, which he is promised on the condition that he remains on the site for a few days until a certain interim completion of his work.

After about four months of work in Iraq, he returns to Germany to be immediately reproached by his superior, in which the word "refusal to work" is mentioned. Two weeks later, L.'s supervisor demands that he take on another task on the Iraqi construction site, as a colleague who has fallen ill has been replaced

L. is requested to vacate his workplace immediately. The company's personnel manager accuses him of refusing to work and suggests the possibility of immediate dismissal if no other solution is found. L. insists on his own timely dismissal and declares (knowing the recent landmark decision in the "doctors case") that otherwise he will go to the labor court.

On this reference the personnel manager immediately gives in, accepts the punctual notice of dismissal of L. and offers the immediate leave of absence under continued payment of all remunerations up to the year end. L., who is once again instructed that he must maintain silence about all business obligations, agrees and leaves the company at the end of 1989.

L. looks for a new job by means of job applications. During a job interview, a human resources manager tells him that L.'s moral attitude represents a risk factor for the company; if the company spends a lot of money on an engineer, it may well demand that he be loyal to the company in every situation. The application in question will be rejected without giving reasons.

After two months of unemployment, L. finds new employment with an environmental engineering company.

6) Open-plan office case

The engineer K., who holds a doctorate, runs an independent engineering office that provides consulting services in the field of building physics. At the beginning of the 1960s, he and his colleagues were involved in preparatory studies for the construction of a new office building on behalf of a major consumer goods company. Shortly before this, the idea of the open-plan office had arisen, an office concept in which several dozen to over a hundred workstations are arranged in a continuous room-like space.

This idea, however, meets with "all kinds of emotional and also objective objections. Those who have previously worked in a single room often see the transition to the larger room as a devaluation; the mutual interference makes work more difficult, tires them out and thus cannot be of any use, but must bring disadvantages for the entire company. These objections have proven to be justified in many cases". Thus also K. and its coworkers, on the organization of open-plan offices asked, warn the responsible architect of this new office conception. During the planning work in question, the client's company boss now "returns from a trip to the USA and, inspired by this trip, wants open-plan offices in his new administration building. I was against this and, despite the best cooperation in many other respects, I was finally faced with the decision to terminate our cooperation if we were to be rejected further".

After careful consideration, K. revises his attitude, because he feels that the main reason for the unpopularity of the open-plan office is the noise level at which the people working in it disturb each other: "In this respect, the open-plan office is an acoustic task". Accordingly, K. and his staff changed their consulting strategy: He followed the client's wishes and took over the acoustic optimization of the open-plan office. To this end, he conducts extensive studies on noise generation, noise propagation and noise pollution and designs measures to achieve an appropriate noise level, ranging from the building floor plan to sound absorption measures on the ceiling and floor to additional partitions between the workstations. The open-plan offices are designed according to these principles in such a way that, apart from selective deviations, a constant basic noise level of 50 to 55 decibels(A) can be maintained, a noise level that is considered completely harmless according to the latest findings of occupational science.

This case shows that not only engineers in dependent employment, but also self-employed engineers can get into a conflict between their own view of the problem and the expectations of others. If then the independent engineer insists on his initial understanding of the problem, he risks the dissolution of the consulting contract; under certain circumstances the financial consequences affect not only the head of the engineering office, but if necessary also his coworkers, whom he could not employ then further. In the present case, things are more favorable: "As a well-founded, independent consulting firm, it was not the economic disadvantage of withdrawing an order that could frighten us; the decisive factor was the attraction of the new. We carried out the development task, the scope of which went beyond the actual consulting assignment, with our own financing". K. thus solved the conflict by reformulating the problem (the concerns about open-plan offices) on a professional definition level (adverse noise pollution) and then using his professional competence and his freelance independence to successfully solve the problem. Admittedly, by limiting the problem in this way, he accepts that he will not be able to pursue other previously suspected difficulties, especially of a psychosocial nature.

4 - Case study - self-experienced conflict of responsibility

Write a self-experienced case study. When did you ever find yourself in a conflict of responsibility in your own professional practice? Please, report this experience in your own personal case study in about 100 words as a reply to this post!

Note: The case study does not have to concern the engineering profession. It can also describe a situation in a student’s job, internship, etc.

Follow-Up - Tasks on a Code of Ethics

  • Please choose one code of ethics of any association of engineers or scientists. You can find many on the internet.
  • Read the code of ethics and answer the following questions in your learning journal!
  • What assistance does the code provide for the case studies?
  • Does this code change the way you view the case studies?
  • Would you sign the code? Do you see difficulties?
  • Does the origin of the code of ethics determine its content?
  • Note: This website for example provides codes of ethics from various engineering associations all around the world: http://ethicscodescollection.org/search?query=Engineering