It's worth taking a closer look at the IEEE's Code of Ethics, because of its position as the supposedly most professionally relevant guide to behavior in electronics engineering.
In researching the Code for this blog, I came across some interesting—and maybe a little disturbing—history. A good source was provided in the online notes for Prof. K.M. Passino's Ohio State University course, "Ethics in Electrical and Computer Engineering." In the course, Prof. Passino pointed out how the IEEE Code of Ethics has changed. For instance, in Article IV of the 1979 version, the IEEE Code stipulated that members shall "contribute professional advice, as appropriate, to civic, charitable, and other nonprofit organizations." The 1990 revision eliminated that stipulation. The 1979 version also directed members to "seek to extend public knowledge and appreciation to the profession and its achievements." That portion, too, was deleted in the 1990 version.
The professor then compared the new version of the IEEE Code with the codes of ethics of several other professions, and found that the other codes usually retained exhortations to serve the public. For instance, the American Bar Association's Rules of Professional Conduct call upon its members to offer a voluntary 50 hours of free pro bono publico ("for the good of the public") work every year. The American Medical Association's Principles of Medical Ethics, Section VII, says that "a physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health." Finally (for us, but there are many more examples), the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers, section III, 2, A, says, "Engineers are encouraged to participate in civic affairs; career guidance for youths; and work for the advancement of the safety, health, and well-being of their community." Many aspects of these ideas are missing from the current version of the IEEE Code.
Would it be a good idea for the IEEE to restore its more public-service oriented version of the code?
Perhaps contact Prof. Stephen Unger? Profile here: http://www.onlineethics.org/Connections/Community/SUnger.aspx
Check out his 2008 article in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/tocresult.jsp?isnumber=4538966
Interesting comments which -- like the parenthetical comments in the blog -- illustrate the degree to which this or any other code of ethics is subject to widely varying interpretations. Ethics are very personal and there is no single correct answer that can be applied to all members of the profession.
You object to military electronics work, but others view it as a patriotic endeavor to protect their country from its enemies.
You object to smartphones that occupy (you would probably say "waste") so much of your daughters' time, but others view them as one of the most wonderful inventions of the 21st century that have enhanced many people's quality of life and in many cases actually saved lives.
I could go on and on, but the simple truth is that there will never be universal agreement on what constitutes ethical vs. unethical behavior. There are too many shades of gray that one person sees as black and another person sees as white.
Thou shalt not create drones that shatter the lives of totally innocent civilians or invade another country's airspace when not at war. Rather work more on clean water projects or LED lighting. Less on smart phones that keep my teenage daughters' faces glued to their screens; not a blessing to mankind. Also remember to do some good rather than rack up billions of dollars while others making your products are jumping out of buildings. Lastly, stop whining when poor people finally get to compete with US engineers -- they studied just as hard and probably battled more to get the finance from their families. IEEE is going all out to get into China and India, so will need to be less USA centric in future, as the supply chain has already moved and it will be 50% or more of their total membership. Something like that...
IEEE is similar to Tupperware for High Tech. I belong and I volunteer as a treasurer, but expenses are skewed and charging $39 per article to non-members when books from Safari are not much more puts them into the thieving bracket. Too many flights for the top dogs, and too many meetings. You would expect some discount as a volunteer, or access to the digital library, but no.
Just be reasonable and you don't need to convene every decade to amend your ethics statement, and for those who are intending to become engineers, money or the quest for oil mostly wins, but you don't always have to make it so. All so called Ethics statements miss those two important conflicts, and the BBC, CNN or other widespread media have as little moral compass. The billions wasted on weapons could be used to build something of lasting value, like a pyramid, nice buildings, cheaper food, breweries, etc, etc, and stop rows at ethics committee meetings when they need to take out the prickly bits. Mother Theresa had no ethics statement to guide her, only compassion.
By the way, Prof. Passino's lecture notes are at http://www2.ece.ohio-state.edu/~passino/ee481.html , his discussion of the IEEE Code of Ethics is in http://www2.ece.ohio-state.edu/~passino/ECE481LecturesWeb/ECE481Lecture2Codes.pdf .
There is more to this in IEEE. They now also allow everyone (including lawyers, artists and others) to become members. It has diluted the composition of IEEE to the point that there are many IEEE members who don't even know Ohm's law. This begs the question, is it really the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers or has it becomes Institute of Everyone, Everytime and Everywhere. Therefore, IEEE represents no one. To their credit, many highly talented Elec. engineers continue to contribute to outstanding standards, innovations and the like, but the new breed of "know nots" are bringing down the value and respect commanded by the IEEE.
Nice thought provoking blog. All engineers should keep their field specific code of ethics in mind or at least at hand. I also agree that it is our duty to serve our community especially in regards to keeping the general public aware of the advancements in technology, and general guidelines that should be followed for safety. In response to your request for ethics courses to be mandatory, I believe that many universities do require them as part of the curriculum. I know at the University of Hartford (when I attended a few years back), engineering students were required to study the code of ethics in two courses, one being Ethics in the Profession where each code was deeply investigated.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.