The Engineer’s Public Duty

The role of the institutions


Public interest and the professions,
 
The essence of professional conduct and standards is that they embody more than the narrow pursuit of the interests of the client or the professional himself. The notion of professional standards indicates the existence of wider obligations, one aspect of which is the recognition of the impact which an activity has on the public. On examination, all professions that justify such a description share, as one of their aims, the maintenance of the public interest, the nature of that interest depending on the activities in question. 

Thus, the public interest element in the medical profession is obvious enough, although now recognised as involving many ethical conflicts, such as the allocation of limited medical resources.1 The legal professions, as an important part of their function, have to safeguard the pubic interest in the proper administration of justice, expressed through long-standing professional rules.




Some of these are currently under public debate, including the question of rights of audience in the higher Courts. Also figuring prominently in recent months are the financial services professions, whose activities can now be seen to encompass a major public interest element in the maintenance of confidence in the free market system. In each of these cases, and others too, it is necessary to identify the nature and extent of the public interest and the corresponding public duty which can be said to fall on the profession. The engineering profession is, therefore, in no special position except, perhaps, in having sofar avoided public debate on its ethicalcodes, at least in the UK. 

The conventional starting point for a debate on public interest issues would be to examine the relevant rules of professional conduct and the procedures for maintenance of standards for the profession. These are discussed below in relation to engineering. Yet these rules and procedures cannot be regarded as definitive of the public interest. There exist overriding considerations which will be determined by the nature of the professional activity in question and from which the rules currently in force must derive their relevance and authority. 

The Enron scandal makes this point only too clearly, when the conventional accountancy and audit rules were seen to be inadequate and largely irrelevant to the threatened global crisis of confidence in the financial markets. The task of the professional bodies must be to identify and to reflect in their rules of conduct and procedures what the public interest demands of that profession. If the professional bodies fall behind in this role, they risk becoming irrelevant in that the public will itself become the driving force, expressed through Court actions or by government intervention in the name of the public.

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