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The Buzz

Ethics and the Professions: Engineering with John Kunz

By Alexis Garduno on February 15, 2013

Often, engineers approach ethics in the same way they design buildings, circuits, or products, according to Professor John Kunz, who spoke to a group of Stanford students, largely pursuing advanced degrees in engineering.

One of Kunz’s suggestions for avoiding confrontation was to point to the numbers. An engineer can tell a project manager, for example, that the reinforcement bar’s overlap is currently four centimeters, but should be a 100 centimeters. Four compared to 100 is a sizeable difference. Focusing on the numbers, Kunz said, makes the solution actionable, a problem to solve, and not a person to blame.

Scotty McLennan, the Stanford Dean of Religious Life, and his invited speakers are continuing to challenge students to think how they can both act ethically and still keep their jobs. Throughout the year, McLennan, has used each event, put on by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, as an opportunity to engage students in a dialogue about ethical dilemmas that can be unique to a profession.

“You’re going to be in a situation at some point in your career and have no idea what to do,” Kunz said. He said that it was not rare for him or any young engineer to face a difficult ethical question as early as one’s second year in the work force, as he did.

Later on in his career, Kunz was asked to inspect  Chilean buildings after an earthquake that had left many buildings standing. During his inspection, he was disturbed to find a building that sunk in on itself due to a gross mistake made by an engineering team.

Engineers working together are responsible for guaranteeing the safety of the building as a whole, in addition to each part that makes up that whole; when signing off on the project, these engineers are saying it complies with safety standards. Kunz warned students that in that situation, as in the future, there will be “enormous pressure to go with the team.”

He found a building branded with Spanish graffiti. Kunz said that graffiti “breaks my heart.”

He paused. The audience stared at the image of graffiti. Kunz continued.

“So somebody designed this and built this, and had no shame. And someone else’ relatives may still be inside.”

As an engineer with decades of experience, Kunz knew that multiple engineers were to blame for signing off on a building that was not safe, not in compliance.

“If you look carefully, you will see that this is a failed joint,” said Kunz.

Where there should have been one meter of overlap, the collapsed building had only 4 centimeters of overlap.

Mistakes of this kind were preventable. Kunz wanted those working in or aspiring towards this profession to remember the seriousness of the profession. “And it does matter…you have life, corporate, and global safety, we as engineers create.” Kunz later adds, “Engineers did this. Engineers built the building. That’s really cool; it’s a lot of responsibility.”

McLennan related this idea of safety back this notion of a profession representing a service. In identifying the characteristics that make a profession, a profession, McLennan said that, “You don’t put yourself first; you have an obligation to your client, your patient, the general public, some constituency you put ahead of yourself. That’s the classical definition.”

McLennan holds the respective profession accountable for the quality of its work, as an “obligation as a monopoly to do it well.”

Kunz said that he still finds these questions particularly challenging. McLennan and Kunz left students with a three-pronged test to check their decisions in any workplace, posed as personal questions. “We have suggested three things: look at yourself in the mirror. Another one is think about how it’s going to look on the front page of the newspaper, and third, think about your grandchildren,” said Kunz. Kunz commended students attending the dinner for beginning to ask these difficult questions, as they examine their actions.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's student-driven news portal. We review events and speakers and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. Undergraduate Stanford students write the articles and the Center for Ethics in Society edits and produces the content so that the student writers learn to translate academic subject matter into accessible terms and strengthen the clarity and precision of their writing.