Sunday, August 28, 2005


Business vs. engineering ethics?

MarkN has an interesting comment on business ethics versus engineering ethics, suggesting from personal experience that the former is more problematic than the latter. He also suggests possible causes for the observed difference:
I often wonder what it is about business education versus engineering education that turns out such diametrically opposed (on average) world views. Or are there a set of personality characteristics that defines both education preferences and ethical behavior preferences?

I wonder whether there is data to support MarkN's basic assertion. If his assertion is true, the notions that education and personality differences might help explain the difference sound plausible. Also, could it be that the role of businesspeople places them in environments richer in potential conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas than engineers. Moreover, could it be that the potential rewards from ethical misconduct are greater for the businessperson. Either way, some straightforward reasoning shows how these factors might explain MarkN's observation.

Assume a probability p of successful ethical response to an ethical dilemma. Assuming a constant p across the population. If businesspeople face more dilemmas, then they will have a greater expected number of violations.

Assume that the probability p is not constant. Instead assume that success in facing an ethical dilemma is a decreasing function of the magnitude of reward available for an ethical violation. In an environment with a constant number of opportunities for ethical misdeeds, but where the engineer faces less reward than the businessperson for his or her misconduct, the business community will be observed to have a higher per capita incidence of misconduct.

Perhaps, in this light, MarkN's comment is not so surprising. In the future, as engineers become more entrepreneurial, as I believe they are becoming, we can probably expect greater opportunities and rewards for ethical misconduct to make it harder for engineers to choose to do the right thing.

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