The Code of Ethics contains six fundamental canons. These include giving priority to people’s welfare, staying within the bounds of competence, being objective, being faithful to the client, not being deceptive, and being honorable, responsible, ethical and lawful to reflect well on the profession.
These canons can best be interpreted guided by the ethical position of deontology. Care ethics does not seem to apply because because the central concern is care of people, whereas that is not the only concern of the above canons. Improper engineering can cause hazards to life, so care is a part of the canon, but not the whole. Virtue ethics are more about moral character, and as such the last canons could fit, but not the earlier ones. Utilitarianism does not quite fit because it is more concerned with how actions turn out rather than the rightness or wrongness of an action for its own sake. For example, if the use of cheaper materials would maximize profits and usually the structure would hold up, this may satisfy utilitarian ethics. The employer/client might be happy, providing a bonus to make the engineer happy, and most people who used the structure might be happy. However, it would not fit with safety as a priority. This leaves deontology, which is most concerned with the rightness of rules and behaviors in themselves. This therefore fits the desire to keep people safe; as well as acknowledging that for the best results, an engineer needs to stay within his/her competency; and speaking from an objective scientific viewpoint on professional matters, working for the employer’s/client’s interests, and behaving in all ways that reflect well on the profession.
The Code of Ethics also has five multi-part rules of practice that expand upon the fundamental canons. The interpretation of the rules of practice should likewise be guided by a deontological ethical position. Rules and behaviors are right or wrong for a variety of reasons that vary with the issue addressed. Thus not every issue has to do with the care of people (care ethics) or whether one has a fine moral character (virtue ethics). Utilitarianism also seems to have limited fit. It is not necessarily going to lead to bad outcomes if one deceives one’s boss or takes a bribe, but most people nevertheless would not approve of these practices, and they are forbidden by the engineer’s code.
For example, safety first means that if an engineer’s judgment is overruled in a way that is unsafe, s/he has a duty to report it to the employer/client or, if that fails, the authorities. This could create uncomfortable situations, but the engineer should not consider his or her own comfort level or even that of his/her employer, but rather the potential consequences of improper engineering. This could also be described as care ethics, but not all the rules would fall under that description.
As another example, public statements should be objective, including only professional statements in areas in which s/he is well qualified. However, even while adhering to those limitations, if the engineer is being paid to give his/her opinion, s/he also needs to disclose this information. This allows the listener to judge for himself or herself whether or not the engineer’s statements may be influenced by such payments. This may have nothing to do with people’s safety, however, nor the happiest outcome; but it is a necessary transparency for public statements.
A third example is that to avoid deception, engineers may not allow others to misstate their qualifications or responsibilities. This may seem relatively harmless, thus would be easy to ignore; but it could have consequences in the future with trust issues.
Therefore, for each rule of practice, the reasons why they are right vary in terms of their consequences, but from a deontological perspective, in the final analysis they are internally correct. They reflect the duties the engineer has to act responsibly.