Acting ethical according to your own standards is easy. We do it most every day. The problem is, your own ethical guidelines can be changed based on your personal motivation. If you have a goal you want to reach, you may be inclined to bend your ethical guidelines slightly to make it easier for you. Repeat this over the course of a couple years and you are no longer a very ethical person at all. We need a code of ethics because it keeps us centered around an unwavering ethical standard. When following a code of ethics, there is very little room for interpretation or “ethical drift” as I discussed earlier.
When I am faced with an ethical decision, my biggest decision is the decision to wait. I make sure to give myself enough time to emotionally remove myself from the situation and make a rational, ethical decision. This can involve consulting with friends, family, and mentors as well as the code of ethics (or in some cases constitution) for the given organization. Both of these factors allow me to align my own ethical standards with the organizations and make a good decision. I will look up the founding documents and the living, governing documents of an organization to see a history of how the ethics have been formed.
We studied the VW Diesel Scandal case in my small group. We considered the strain put on employees. They were put in a position, provided they knew what they were doing was illegal, to tell on the company or quit which could leave them without a job. We talked about many of the practical factors that can make ethical decisions difficult such as finances and personal relationships but came to the conclusion that often an ethical decision affects so many people around (in a sort of ripple effect) that there is no excuse for letting personal issues get in the way of ethics. Our decision was to keep consistently outing VW until some reputable outlet picked up our story.
One of the virtues that related to our case study was integrity. This is at the core of our argument that we must exercise good and ethical judgement. While the fear of losing your job can have an emotional response that could sway you to question blowing the whistle on your company, the ethical thing, and the decision with the most integrity, would be to call them out.
Another virtue is charity. Even though outing your company could have immediate consequences for you as a person, when thinking charitably, you are thinking selflessly. Your personal sacrifice can result in millions of people around the world having a better quality of life. In this case, less polluted air and having purchased a car which performs as advertised.
Finally the virtue of responsibility applies to our resolution. We need to be accountable for the engineering work we do. If we take part in cheating emissions tests, we can’t be worried about ourselves, we just need to be worried about being accountable for what we did. Admitting a wrongdoing is the first step to solving an ethical misstep. It is by definition realizing your “moral obligation to act for the good of others” and that is what we all became engineers to do.
One virtue I would like to add into this case is perseverance. At first, within your company, you may receive some backlash for blowing the whistle. Sometimes, in the case of Edward Snowden, the public also gives you backlash. What matters, however, is that you persevere through the backlash with your ethics guiding you. When you follow that path, you will surely arrive in a state where both you and others realize that you were just doing the right thing.
In conclusion, ethics can be a grey area and acting ethically can be very difficult at times. We are human and this is understandable. We have created tools such as codes of ethics and virtues for us to frequently look back upon and remind us to stay on the correct, ethical track.