Ethical Behavior

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A systems engineer’s knowledge and skills do not alone account for competency; engineers must practice within a framework of ethical and professional conduct. This section outlines the issues and elements of such conduct.


Common definitions of “ethics” include:

1. a system of moral principles.

2. the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: e.g. medical ethics; Christian ethics; [engineering ethics].

3. moral principles, as of an individual: e.g. His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.

4. The discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.

[1-3 from: 4 from Merriam Webster Dictionary]

“Moral”, in turn, is commonly defined as:

1. Of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior

2. Conforming to a standard of right behavior.

[Merriam Webster Dictionary]

Social, Legal, and Historical issues

Data Confidentiality and Security, Surveillance and Privacy

Issues related to privacy, confidentiality, and the security of individual information place special responsibility on the systems engineers who develop products that deal with such issues.

Contracts and Liability, Intellectual Property, Freedom of Information

Systems are typically developed in a society that has laws concerning contracts, intellectual property (copyrights, trademarks, and patents), freedom of information, and employment law. A systems engineer must be aware of such laws and be governed in their practice by the requirements and restraints of those laws. Typically the system requirements include legal and regulatory requirements that may not be stated in the system requirements document or provided by the customer. It is the systems engineer's responsibility to know and apply these laws and regulations.

Historical Developments, and Gender, Minor, and Cultural Issues

Since systems engineers develop and maintain products used by humans, it is important that they understand the historical and cultural aspects of their profession and the related context in which their products will be used. System engineers need to be aware of societal diversity and always act without prejudice or discrimination.

Codes of Ethics and Professional Conduct

The INCOSE Code of ethics [see:] addresses Fundamental Principles such as honesty, impartiality, integrity, keeping abreast of knowledge, striving to increase competence and supporting educational and professional organizations. From these principles a set of fundamental duties to society and the public are drawn, namely to:

• Guard the public interest and protect the environment, safety and welfare of those affected by engineering activities and technological artifacts.

• Accept responsibility for your actions and engineering results, including being open to ethical scrutiny and assessment.

• Proactively mitigate unsafe practice.

• Manage risk using knowledge granted by a whole system viewpoint and understanding of systemic interfaces.

• Promote the understanding, implementation, and acceptance of prudent Systems Engineering measures.

Rules of Practice then stem from these duties. The full INCOSE Code is available at the web site cited above.

The National Society of Professional Engineers code of ethics is of interest as well and can be found at:

Responsibilities to Society

All engineers who create products and services for society’s use have an obligation to perform in a professional manner. Because of the criticality and scope of many systems, systems engineers have special responsibility. The consequences of poorly designed systems or services that are delivered in an improper manner can have calamitous effects on society and do not serve the public good. The INCOSE Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states the systems engineers have a responsibility to “Guard the public interest and protect the environment, safety and welfare of those affected by engineering activities and technological artifacts.” (INCOSE 2006)


Books on the subject of ethics in general and engineering ethics in particular are numerous. Some specific recommendations would include:

1. Caroline Whitbeck, Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998-2007). There are in-depth discussion of the general nature of ethics, morality, value judgements, ethical relativism, etc. Interesting case studies discussed at length include: Citicorp building, Manhattan, structural adequacy, discussed several places, primarily pp 146 – 154. This case is of especial interest in that the structural engineer, on discovery of the inadequacies, openly dealt with the customer to correct them, but the fact that the problem and its correction were not made known to the public and to other engineers until 20 years later, led some to raise ethical concern. However, the engineer’s timely notification of the problem to Citicorp and his participation in their correction are viewed positively by many as an example of ethical behavior. [Also:] The Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy is also examined in, several places, primarily pp 136 – 146.

2. Mike Martin and Roland Schinzinger, Ethics in Engineering, (New York, McGraw-Hill, 4th ed, 2004).

3. Jimmy H. Smith (ed), Engineering Ethics – Concepts, Viewpoint, Cases and Codes, (National Institute for Engineering Ethics, edition, 2008).


1. Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research:

2. National Institute for Engineering Ethics (At Texas Tech University); Resources here address: Responsible Research, Cases and Scenarios, The Ethics Community, Ethic Codes and Guidelines and Bibliographies.

3. The EthicsWeb Bookstore ( This site does not have a sub-area specifically devoted to engineering or systems engineering ethics; the closest is “tech ethics”.

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