Defining The Ethics And Social Responsibility Commerce Essay

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Defining Ethics and Social Responsibility; defines ethics as an individual's perception of what is right or wrong. It also shows that ethics is a difficult topic to consider as ethics is not as clear to follow as the law. For example a legal decision may not be an ethical one and also every individual may have a different ethical outlook due to their up- bringing, surrounding and life experience. The section also follows on to discuss the importance of social responsibility. Here it is found that an individual should always be aware of the effect their actions may not only have on their colleagues but also on their community around them. It is also discussed that an individual or company should act in a manner which will help society even if the law does not command it. Case studies were also reviewed in this section analysing both good and bad examples of ethical behaviour.

Critically reviewing Engineers Ireland Code of Ethics: Each of the four sections of the code was investigated and one clause from each of the sections was critically reviewed. It was found from the review that the code was of the utmost importance to Engineers and showed the obligation an Engineer has to the safety of the public, the environment in which they work and overall the conduct to which they are expected to conduct themselves in. Finally the effect of not adhering to the code of ethics was discussed showing that a breach of this code is taken seriously and may lead to a practicing Engineer being found guilty of gross misconduct.

Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster : This section of the paper discusses the challenger space shuttle disaster from the point of view of the engineering profession and investigates that if a code of ethics had of been adhered by the engineers involved could the tragedy have been avoided. Here Engineer Irelands code of ethics is applied to the key issues raised in the case study which involved engineers. Overall it was shown that an adherence to the code could have prevented the disaster.

Finally the paper concludes that a good ethical code and an awareness of social responsibility is of great importance to an Engineer as adhering to this code means that an individual can hold themselves to the highest possible standard in any given situation or action.

Ethics and Social Responsibility

Defining Ethics

The Oxford Dictionary defines ethics as,

"The basic concepts and fundamental principles of right human conduct. It includes study of universal values such as the essential equality of all men and women, human or natural rights, obedience to the law of land, concern for health and safety and, increasingly, also for the natural environment".[Oxford,2011]

Ethics is discussed frequently and can be found in many news articles when what is perceived to be an unethical decision has been reached by a country leader or government. It must be kept in mind that when considering ethics as a topic, that a legal decision may not always be an ethical one. In fact, the process of determining what an ethical decision is can be defined as a persons or group of people's perception of what is right or wrong.

It must be remembered that ethics is not simply about discussing the correct thing to do but is actually about making the correct decision and doing the right thing.

Considering Social Responsibility

Generally speaking, social responsibility can be defined as depicted by Bailey and Myers (1997) as "an example of ethical behaviour and is about relations between individuals or businesses and society".

The key questions social responsibility asks is to whom an individual or business is responsible and what this responsibility means in practice?

If figure 1 is considered below, it demonstrates the key elements which make up a socially responsible person or business.

Social Responsibility

Socially Aware


Law Abiding

Figure 1, showing graphic of Social Responsibility

According to this graphic a socially responsible individual should obey the law, be ethical and act as a good citizen by supporting the community.

Social Responsibility brings the meaning of belief in an individual's accountability to communities which is the belief an individual should take into account the social, ethical, and environmental effects of one's activities on their colleagues/staff and the community around them.

Social Responsibility is also a commitment to improve community well-being through discretionary practices and for businesses contributions of corporate resources. The practice of Social Responsibility depends upon the geographical area, industry and legal system and in result each country and company has its own specificity.

Traditionally, Social Responsibility means a voluntary approach and goes beyond what is a necessity of the law.

Ethics and Social Responsibility within Engineering

A Code of Ethics is especially essential in the practice of engineering as it not only deals with the ethics applied to the work place, but transcends into the engineer's personal morale as well.

Although engineers are primarily problem-solvers who are mainly concerned with the practicality and efficiency of their work, "there is a growing need for engineers to look at their ethical conduct and social responsibility as discussed by Wueste (1994)". The need for this is mainly due to the widely publicized disasters such as the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the Hyatt Regency Hotel walkways collapse and the Turkish Airline DC-10 crash.

Such disasters have led to the public becoming increasingly aware of the technological advances made in recent times and the growing need for a balance between these advances and the public safety to be attained. When this balance is disrupted, and society is consequently harmed, the conflict of who takes the responsibility arises and the engineer or their company's responsibility needs to be examined.

In order to show the importance and need for ethics and social responsibility within the engineering discipline two case studies will now be discussed , one of which shows how a poor code of ethics and being socially irresponsible can have disastrous consequences and alternatively how using a good code of ethics responsibly can produce positive results.

Turkish Airline DC-10 Crash

This case study by Chris Kilroy describes an incident of a faulty door locking device on the rear cargo door of a Turkish aeroplane and is shown in Appendix 8.1. There were incidents of door failures prior to the crash which lead to 346 people losing their lives.

There were three key people involved in the lead up to the crash, Dan Applegate who was the chief product engineer of the door lock system and his two immediate supervisors J.B. Hurt and M.C. Curtis. After the crash investigation which highlighted the door latches as the cause of the incident these three men's code of ethics and social responsibility were brought into question.

It emerged that Applegate had written a memo to both of his direct superiors regarding the safety of the aircraft. However both these men decided to ignore Applegate's warnings of safety in case that their company would be held liable for the repairs to all the aircraft and decided to try and pass the ownership of responsibility to the owner of the aircraft.

This raised a key ethical issue as to whether these men valued their companies' profit margin over the lives of passengers of the plane. Another key ethical issue arises with the chief engineer as well. He was the one person who had the expertise of knowing how dangerous this defect was.

He did the correct thing in notifying his direct supervisors of the problem. But when they took no further action on the matter, was he ethically correct to go along with the decision? Should his main concern have been for the safety of the passengers on the aeroplanes rather than loyalty to the company for which he worked. This case study highlights the need for a clear code of ethics and social responsibility.

Johnson and Johnson

The case study shown in Appendix 8.2 by Richard C. Bayer details the problems faced by Johnson and Johnson because of their acetaminophen-based analgesic drug Tylenol. The product was marketed with great passion and became a household name within a few years. In the early eighties, Tylenol was found to be contaminated with Cyanide.

During that same year 7 people died due to these capsules. Johnson and Johnson when made aware of the situation acted promptly. Even though findings showed that the deaths where localized Johnson and Johnson recalled all of its Tylenol capsules, which in total summed to 31 million bottles worth an estimated 100 million dollars.

Here in contrast to the Turkish Airline DC-10 crash the company followed its own "credo", putting the responsibilities to its consumers first, the responsibility to its staff second and the responsibility to its stakeholders and profits last.

Two key points can be taken from this case study;

1) By acting with a good ethical code and social responsibility to its consumers Johnson and Johnson prevented more lives being lost.

2) By acting in the way they did Johnson and Johnson gained the trust of their consumers and due to this, even though the loss suffered by the company at the time was very substantial they were able to recover quickly from the crisis.

In 2004 Johnson and Johnson received an award for "Excellence in Ethical Leadership" for its long term relationships with its consumers, its employees and also its stakeholders.

The contrasts in these two cases shown above prove that in industry mistakes in design can and will occur causing loss of life or massive expense. Having a good ethical code in these situations is vital so as the correct choices are made and the correct solutions are found in order to prevent or reduce the consequence of the mistake.

Engineer Irelands Code of Ethics

As can be noted from the previous sections in this report practicing a good code of ethics is of the utmost importance when working as an engineer within a company. However a problem arises due to different people having totally different moral or ethical views, thus creating a rather abstract and ambiguous view of good ethical conduct. It is therefore necessary to clarify these principles, especially in the workplace, hence, the introduction to a Code of Ethics in a profession.

Within this section of the report Engineers Ireland code of ethics will be critically reviewed. This code is divided into four sections which are stated below;

1) Relations with Colleagues, Clients, Employers and Society in general.

2) Environmental and Social Obligations.

3) Maintenance and Development of Professional Conduct and Standards.

4) Enforcement Procedures and Disciplinary Action.

One aspect of each of these four sections will be critically reviewed to show its importance when applied in industry.

Relations with Colleagues, Clients, Employers and Society in General

This section of the code of ethics outlines the behaviour and attitude expected of an Engineer regarding the people they come into contact with when carrying out their duty.

Clause 1.9 within this section as shown in Appendix 8.3.1 is a very important clause as it deals with an Engineers responsibility in relation to matters dealing with the health and safety of the public. This clause should be held by any Engineer as having the utmost importance as nothing is as valuable as the preservation of a person's health or life. In the case study reviewed earlier on the Turkish Airline disaster, if any of the three men involved in that instance would have used this code within their decision making process the lives of 346 people may have been saved.

Environmental and Social Obligations

This section of the code highlights the need for engineers to be aware of the potential impact their actions can have on the environment and society.

If clause 2.1 within this section is considered as shown in Appendix 8.3.2 this clause works very well with clause 1.9 previously analysed above. Within this clause there are three important words which state "welfare of society" which means an Engineer must not only consider the risk to people involved with a project but must also take into account of the potential adverse effect a project can have on the environment and society.

A case study which is relevant to this clause is the famous Aswan Dam in Egypt by shown in Appendix 8.4. Here the dam was built to create a new lake to hold back the summer flood waters meaning that farmers could plant an extra crop each year. The dam was an engineering success as it did exactly what it was designed to do.

However ethical questions arose into the success of the project over the social and environment impact the dam created. Now farmers which originally relied on the silt from the flood water to fertilize the ground were now using vast amounts of fertilizer. The population of the fish which lived in the river were greatly reduced due to the disruption caused by the dam and also the pollution caused by the fertilizers being applied to the ground. This in turn had a social impact on the people living downstream of the dam who relied on the fish for food.

This shows the importance of taking clause 2.1 seriously and highlights the need of engineers to be aware of the impact projects can have on the environment and society directly and indirectly involved.

Maintenance and Development of Professional Conduct and Standards.

This section of the code outlines how an Engineer is expected to behave with regards to their integrity, honesty and professional conduct.

Clause 3.3 as shown in Appendix 8.3.3 discusses the importance of competency and of an Engineer being aware of the level to which their qualification is adequate. An Engineer should always keep in mind that if they are unsure about a particular technical matter that they have a responsible attitude to consult with a specialist in that field or with someone who has more experience. This clause again can be tied into the other two clauses previously discussed as an Engineer willing to make a decision with a knowing lack of knowledge in a particular field may be acting in an irresponsible manner causing unnecessary risk to both people's lives and adverse risk to the environment.

Enforcement Procedures and Disciplinary Action.

This section of Engineer Irelands code of ethics discusses how their code of ethics should be upheld and what the consequence of a breach in the code means.

Clause 4.2 for example shown in Appendix 8.3.4 outlines the role of "the ethics board" in a situation where the code of ethics has been breached. It outlines how a member which is accused of breaching the code has rights to a fair hearing and that any decision made will be fairly adjudicated. This section of the code of ethics is important as it shows that the code is not only a guideline for Engineers to be aware of but that it must be adhered to and a breach of the code will have serious implications of a future within the Engineering fraternity.

Section 3 Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster describes a case study where a space shuttle explodes just over a minute into flight due to a faulty seal between the rocket booster segments. There were key social and political pressures involved in the decision to launch the rocket and after the disaster questions arose to whether the tragedy could have been averted if an Engineering code of ethics had have been adhered to. This section of this paper will investigate the importance of ethics within the engineering profession with reference to this case.

Issue 1

The first issue raised by this case study was the willingness of the top level managers such as Bob Lund who was the vice president of engineering for Thiokol to go against the decisions of his subordinate engineers who had hands on experience and knowledge of the issue. This point calls into question the ethics of these managers to go against their own engineering experience and that of their practicing engineers due to pressure being applied to them from the NASA co-operation.

If section 3 of Engineers Ireland code of ethics is referred to as discussed in section 4.3 an Engineer which needs to make a decision on a technical matter must be sure of their competency to make such a decision. In this instance the practicing engineers had the expertise and competency to make the correct decision and by the managing engineers decision to over- rule them broke the ethical code to which he should have be adhering to.

Issue 2

The second issue raised by the case study was that managers encouraged the launch due to a lack of data related to seal performance at low temperature. This showed the willingness of the managers to make decisions with a lack of the relevant information needed. This same way of thinking can be also found of the top level management of NASA who had been alerted to the design faults in the booster design but did not halt the program until the problem was investigated thoroughly and solved. Again this broke the ethical code described in section 4.3 of this paper as again management were making decisions in an irresponsible manner. In some instances especially within the NASA co-operation it seemed that decisions that were being made were for the good of the operation ignoring the safety of their crew.

Issue 3

The third issue raised by this case study calls into question the code of ethics discussed in section 4.1 of this paper which is an engineer's obligation to society to protect the public's safety. There were at least three senior engineers present at the teleconference with NASA officials who had the power to stop the launch of the space shuttle but failed in their duty to do so.

Bob Lund who was the Vice President of engineering with Thiokol on the night of the teleconference with NASA reversed his previous decision on the issue with the seals and voted for the shuttle to launch.

L.H. Sayer director of engineering design did not dispute the decision to launch the space shuttle at the teleconference with NASA even though aware of the problem with the seals. He was quoted as later saying that he should have done more to prevent the launch.

Jack Kapp Engineering Supervisor who had co-signed a memo alerting the problems with the seals a year previous to the launch remained silent throughout the teleconference with NASA and again did not dispute the decision to give the go ahead to NASA to launch the space shuttle.

It was due to the pressure put forward by the Thiokol general manager and the officials at NASA that caused these senior engineers to go against the strong objections of their subordinate engineers such as Roger Boisjoly who was adamant that the flight should be cancelled.

Even though Engineers can be put under pressure to make decisions in order to meet deadlines all codes of ethics for engineers remind them that their obligation to keep the public safe should be at the top of their priority list. Although company loyalty is important to engineers it should not be allowed to take precedence over public safety.

Issue 4

The final issue raised is again the code of ethics discussed in section 4.1 of this paper which is an engineer's obligation to society to protect the public's safety. However this time it looks at the practicing engineers at Thiokol who raised their concerns repeatedly over a period of two years with regards to the faulty seals.

Should these men have taken their concerns to a higher level as they knew that people's lives were being put at risk such as stated in section 4.1 of this paper. At the time there was a term known as the "organization man" as referred to by Vandekerckhove (2006) "which required employers to have an undivided loyalty to their employers". The engineers in question such as Roger Boisjoly may not have felt that the law would have protected them if they had of came forward to the appropriate authorities with the information which they had.

After the disaster Roger Boisjoly made the investigating officials clear of what had went on subsequent to the explosion. Upon realizing those warnings given by the practicing engineers at Thiokol could have prevented the tragedy, American Congress decided to protect "whistle-blowers". If the engineers had confidence in the law's protection, perhaps they would have pursued their complaints further. This law became known as "the whistle-blower protection act of 1989".

From applying Engineers Irelands code of ethics to any of the key issues involving the engineers raised in this case study it can be found that if they had adhered to a code of ethical conduct the disaster may have been averted and the lives of the seven astronauts involved may have been saved.


In conclusion, making decisions is a complex process especially when ethics becomes an issue. Decision-making can be systematic matter of considering fact however, when ethical issues arise the decision making process becomes more complex as then an individual perception of right or wrong will affect the outcome.

Handling ethical dilemmas and making ethical decisions are important parts of being a professional. As in engineering, the decisions that are made will have a direct effect on society as discussed earlier and therefore it is important that a high ethical standard be maintained. In the practice of the profession, it is up to the engineer to adhere to high principles of ethical conduct on behalf of the public, clients and employers, and the profession.

It is concluded from this paper that these decisions and standards can be maintained consistently by adhering to a code of ethics such as Engineers Ireland code of ethics previously discussed.

In all of the case studies shown in this paper where a poor ethical code was followed it was shown that the consequences of the decisions made in these instances had devastating consequences. This underlined the need to develop awareness of these ethical codes that will ultimately lead to mitigation or prevention of ethical dilemmas.


Bailey A, Myers A, An understanding of business Ethics, Journal of Business Ethics, 1997, Springer.

Vandekerckhove Wim, Whistleblowing and organizational social responsibility, 2006, Ashgate,, citied 25/04/2011.

Wueste, Daniel E. Professional ethics and social responsibility, 1994, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, United States of America. citied 24/04/2011