A practitioner in a professional field, be it medical, engineering, or legal, is distinguished by several qualifications that the public can reasonably expect such a professional to have attained prior to delivering the professional service sought for. One is the education achievement at a tertiary level as proof that the professional has acquired the specialized knowledge that underpins the delivery of the service. Another one is passing the professional licensing examination, e.g., the Bar exams for lawyers and the P.E. exams for engineers, evidencing the competence required to practice after some period of “apprenticeship”.
Yet another one is strict observance of a code of ethics that governs the professional life of a practitioner, running the gamut from avoiding conflict of interest, to subscribing to the tenets of environmental sustainability, to outright prohibition of fraud.
Since I’m an engineer by training and is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), I will use the publication, Ethics, Standards of Professional Conduct for Civil Engineers, by ASCE as an example.
The first of the seven Fundamental Canons in the publication states that “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.”
So I was rather taken aback to read the accusatory editorial title, Engineers scheme put lives to risk, that appeared on the May 2, 2007 issue of St. Petersburg Times in the Opinon section.
On closer read, it became apparent that the editorial is referring to the US Army Corps of Engineers and its role in the aftermath of the Katrina debacle. While the corps has previously borne the brunt of the public outcry on its failure to protect the residents of New Orleans, notably, but for the wrong reason, the collapse of the flood levees during the passage of the Hurricane, now the corps is “being accused of rigging a $32 million bid last year for massive drainage pumps on the city canals.”
Not knowing the facts of the case, it is not my intent here to pass judgment on the alleged impropriety, but rather to highlight the tendency, or propensity if you will, of the public to fault the collective community for the wrong-doing perpetrated by some of its members, the so-called black sheep, even in this land of individualism. While it is illogical to assume that the corps as a whole participates in the “chicanery”, it is even less tenable to imagine that the corps will likewise abandon the fundamental canons as aforementioned to knowingly inflict harm to the public whose protection is their raison d’tre in the first place.
Viewed in that light, the editorial, in my view, is a clarion call to the community, in this case the corps, to discipline its wayward members, if that is shown to be the case. The collective accountability of a professional community rests on the individual accountability of its members. Therefore, while being a member of a profession confers a sense of belonging and helps garner the esteem that the profession deserves, it also places an onus on the member to uphold the code of ethics and professional conduct lest the good name of the profession is tarnished as embodied in the 6th Fundamental Canon: Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.