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Deciding on what’s the right thing to do – Ethics in Engineering and Leadership

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“Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.” – Albert Einstein

The final blog post in this series deals with ethics, after a series of several talks by Dr Victor Cole, Walter Lee, Anne Lochoff, and Prof Daniel Seng. With the variety of perspectives provided from this wide range of speakers, perhaps my greatest takeaway was to find out the different aspects from which I could consider a problem, for me to understand why different people make different decisions, and most importantly, for me to choose a standpoint for myself, one which aligns with my own moral compass.

The first most important distinction to make perhaps would be that between morals and ethics. While these two terms are typically used interchangeably, morals refer more to the guiding principals of individuals, while ethics cover more of a socially agreed upon set of rules and norms. As part of my personal reflection, this post will cover my personal moral decisions, and how I wish to develop a strongly guided pathway for difficult decisions.

The importance of having a strong moral compass as an engineer transcends just the basic idea of doing no harm. Even in advanced technical topics which I’m currently pursuing such as signal processing and machine learning, ethics plays a big role once these theories are put into application. For example, the analysis of big data uses several aspects of signal processing and AI, how do we make sure corporations do not exploit the data entrusted with them? It seems almost like this problem has been exacerbated with the advent of advanced technology – it is now much easier to consolidate, package and sell information about people (it’s even the business model for software giants such as Facebook and Google). How do we come up with fundamentally new rules in light of this paradigm shift? It seems like this problem only has two solutions – getting people (lawmakers) to quickly set new rules (which may potentially stifle innovation, resulting in talent drain), or simply to wait it out until norms have been established in the industry (which may already have caused too much harm). I believe there isn’t any simple solution, but from a systems thinking perspective, I do think it’s about time we come up with a higher order process which may be able to help us devise new rules as technology advances.

As I slowly figure out what type of engineer / leader I hope to be, the consideration sets behind making decisions becomes more and more important. Knowing that I value integrity and honesty isn’t going to suffice any longer. Perhaps I’d be cheating to just dismiss it and say that it comes with experience, but I truly believe that developing this sense takes a lot more time (arguably even more difficult than developing a sense of engineering intuition). At least, at this very point in time, I know that I value the taking of responsibility for my decisions, and I do believe that this is a good starting point, before I start deciding what aspects to prioritise / deprioritise when making my decisions.

At the end of the day, moral standpoints must be guided by societal rules. These are “enshrined” in the rules dictated by law, which all members of society must adhere to. Fortunately, this provides us with some basic boundaries which keep us from making irrecoverably grave mistakes. Unfortunately, this also means that malicious individuals take advantage of the rule of law, barely skirting by the basic requirements without considering the true meaning behind these rules. I find that this is reprehensible, and I aspire to be an engineer who makes ethical decisions not just to satisfy the rules, but also to ensure that my work is done for the greater good. Being able to wear different hats in the future as an engineer, specialist, employee and a member of my society, I do believe that it is my responsibility to make good decisions for everyone, not just myself.

I share sentiments with most of the speakers that engineering education has sorely lacked the human aspect for the longest time, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to engage with eminent speakers from various fields about the topic of ethics.