Citation: Sharon Beder. 'Engineers, Ethics and Sustainable Development', Paper presented to the 10th International Congress of Logic, Methodology and Philoshopy of Science, Florence, 1995.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

  2. Professional Interests, Business Interests
  3. Public Interest, Self Interest
  4. Environmental Interest - A Case Study
  5. What is Ethical Behaviour in This Situation?
  6. The Ethic of Sustainable Development
  7. Conclusions


Most engineering codes of ethics worldwide exhort engineers to consciously put the public interest above all others. This seems to run counter to the market philosophy that the public interest will be achieved by individuals pursuing their own self-interest. It is this latter philosophy that is at the heart of sustainable development with its emphasis on economic valuation and economic instruments to achieve environmental protection.

Sustainable development policies generally embody an economic determinism with respect to technological change. It avoids the issue of ethics and assumes environmental and economic goals are compatible. Yet engineers today are grappling with the ethical dilemmas posed by everyday conflicts between the economic and environmental requirements of their work.

In the past conflict between self-interest and public interest was seldom a problem for engineers, since engineering works were almost synonymous with human progress. Today environmental issues have created a divergence between self-interest, employer interest, professional interest and public interest. But how realistic is it to expect engineers to display higher ethical standards than those normally expected of the wider community? And can individual ethics play a significant role in influencing technologies that are collectively shaped by professional paradigms and philosophies?

Modern engineering codes of ethics require engineers to put the public interest before professional interests and business interests. In the first part of this paper I will show that professional interests and business interests have always been aligned and that codes of ethics have been developed to serve professional interests within this context. In the second part of the paper I will consider the ethical requirement for engineers to serve the public interest comparing this with the prevailing ethic of the market which stresses self-interest as the norm. In the third part of the paper I will consider, with the use of a case study, how the alignment of business interests and professional interests and the conflict between self-interest and public interest are exacerbated by environmental controversies and how the environment inevitably suffers as a result. Finally I will show that sustainable development does not provide a new supporting ethic for engineering codes of ethics that will protect the environment by raising public interest above professional interests, business interests and self-interest.

Professional Interests, Business Interests

The first engineering society to adopt a code of ethics was the Institution of Civil Engineers in England in 1910. The American Institute of Consulting Engineers used the British Code to derive their own which they formally adopted the following year. Other engineering societies quickly followed. Such codes were, and still are, a mixture of moral values and rules of business etiquette governing how engineers should relate to each other in their business dealings, a code of gentlemanly conduct rather than a code of ethics to protect the public welfare.

Codes of ethics serve several purposes. Firstly they are the hallmark of the professions. Engineers "lay claim to professional standing" to distinguish themselves from workers in general and to share in the prestige of the older more respected professions of medicine and law.[1] Edwin Layton[2] claimed that the emergence of a professional identity was also a reaction to the large authoritarian bureaucratic structures which engineers were increasingly finding themselves working in. The ideal of professionalism was based on esoteric knowledge and social service and Layton identifies three themes to the new ideology. Firstly, the engineer was identified as the agent of technological change and so essential to human progress. Secondly, the engineer was considered a "logical thinker free-of bias" and therefore able to lead and arbitrate between classes. Thirdly, the engineer was thought to be socially responsible for ensuring progress and the benevolence of technological change.[3]

The claim to professionalism and social responsibility also enabled engineers to assert their independence from business,[4] at least rhetorically if not in practice. Engineers had readily aligned themselves with business and capitalist values because it was business people and their capital which enabled them to build their great works.[5] Layton points out "Engineers accepted without question the structure, power, and basic ideological principles of business."[6] David Noble suggests that the modern engineer came into being to serve the purposes of the capitalist.

From the outset, therefore, the engineer was at the service of capital and, not surprisingly, its laws were to him as natural as the laws of science. If some political economists drew a distinction between technology and capitalism, that distinction collapsed in the person of the engineer and in his work, engineering.[7]

Engineers, at least in the West, have therefore incorporated business values into their engineering activities. Zussman argues that "cost is itself a criterion of technical efficiency" which must be considered along with the physical properties of the materials. The purpose of technology, in a capitalist society, is determined by the market and engineering is seen as a means, not an end.[8] Ritti's study of an American systems design company also found that engineers placed great importance on having the opportunity to help their employing company increase its profits.[9] Whalley suggests that engineering employees "are socialised and selected" from the beginning to accept the legitimacy of both bureaucratic authority and the dominance of business values. These are secured by a career structure which rewards the trustworthy.[10]

Business interests and engineering interests have always been aligned and in the past there has been little conflict between engineering interests and the public interest since engineering works were perceived to be almost synonymous with human progress. However, as the community began to question whether new technology was always in their interest so engineering interests have been seen to occassionally conflict with the public interest and in recent years engineering codes of ethics have stressed the importance of prioritising the public interest. This element of the code of ethics can best be understood in terms of a social contact between the engineering profession and the community in which the engineering profession promises public service in return for professional status.

Public Interest, Self Interest

Most modern engineering codes of ethics state that engineers should hold paramount the health and safety of the public or, in the words of the Australian Code of Ethics, engineers:

shall at all times place their responsibility for the welfare, health and safety of the community before their responsibility to sectional or private interests...[11]

In a recently released discussion paper on "Dealing with Risk" the Institution of Engineers, Australia, argued that its code of ethics is part of a longstanding agreement the engineering profession has with the community; "its terms are that engineers will put the health, welfare and safety of the community before all other considerations; and the quid pro quo is, and should continue to be, that the community allows us to regulate the profession ourselves."

Traditionally morality has been defined by religion, laws and cultural conventions. In today's society many people are not religious and religious morality seems to be confined to issues of life, death and sexuality; not reaching far into people's everyday working lives. Laws also, necessarily only have limited jurisdiction. They can cover blatant fraud and deception but are not able to force engineers to make "good" judgements.

Increasingly in a market economy, the morality of working life (apart from a work ethic that stems from Protestantism[12]) is based on cultural conventions which often fall within the category of ethical egoism or self interest. Ethical egoism is a minimalist form of moral reasoning which some would argue has nothing to do with morality. It reasons that each individual should look after themselves. Some argue that this form of reasoning involves considering other people's interests as well because in the long-term it serves one's own self-interest to do so. Adam Smith, demonstrated ethical egoism in his argument that social welfare is best served by individuals pursuing their own interests and companies pursuing maximum profits in a free market.

Engineering ethics normally go beyond ethical egoism, at least in principle. The ethical principle that engineers put the public interest before other interests seemingly works against their self-interest. However some philosphers, such as Hobbes and Rousseau, discuss ethics and morality in terms of a social contract that serves self-interest in the long-term. The terms of this contract are that if everyone follows the rules of morality rather than acting on personal self-interest, then everyone will be better off, society will be a better place to live in.

Morality consists in the set of rules, governing how people are to treat one another, that rational people will agree to accept, of their mutual benefit, on the condition that others will follow these rules as well.[13]

However, as Rachels points out, there is a natural limit to the social contract. If people obey these rules so that they will be better off then, in cases where obeying the rules means they will be worse off, they won't do it. "We may not exact a sacrifice so profound that it negates the very point of the contract." [14]

This is particularly relevant to the engineering code of ethics because if it is a form of social contract which provides social status to engineers then it is not reasonable to expect engineers to obey any rules in the code of ethics which requires them to forfeit their status as engineers. If putting the public interest first requires them to risk their jobs and career then this will be seen as too great a sacrifice by most engineers. And because the individual status of engineers is so dependent on their employers, this social contract has little power for engineers.

Various studies have confirmed that codes of ethic and conduct have little power.[15] Engineers are essentially subordinate and their status derives from organisational mobility rather than technical expertise. As the Australian Institution of Engineers' Professional Practices Officer, Derek Baldwin, readily admits, "it takes a man or women of considerable strength and courage" to obey the code of ethics rather than his or her employer. And Michael Dack, a Director of the Institution, admits that the code of ethics has a "very weak moral power" compared to the employer who has the "power of economic life and death over an employee".[16]

Environmental Interest - A Case Study

For decades a combination of remnant religious beliefs, law and a culture of ethical egoism has served Western societies fairly well. Average standards of living have increased and nations have become wealthier and more powerful. But in recent times environmental issues have highlighted a conflict between self-interest, employer interest, professional interest and public interest. An Australian case-study will illustrate some of the issues involved.

In 1985 an engineering firm, approached construction company Transfield with an idea for a car tunnel to cross Sydney Harbour. The Sydney Harbour Bridge suffered traffic congestion at peak hours and the Tunnel would provide an alternative route between North Sydney and the City Business District (CBD). Transfield joined with the Japanese firm Kumagai Gumi to form a consortium that then sold the idea of a toll-financed tunnel, which they would build, to the Department of Main Roads. The Minister for Main Roads was particularly keen on the idea.

Before approval could be given to the Tunnel an environmental impact statement (EIS) had to be prepared. An EIS, which is required by law in New South Wales (NSW) for major road proposals, is supposed to provide a justification for the project, a detailed assessment of the potential environmental effects of the project and consider other alternatives. The aim of an EIS is to ensure that development decisions take account of and where possible mitigate environmental impacts. Transfield-Kumagai hired engineering consultants Cameron McNamarra to prepare the EIS on their behalf.

In Australia there has been a progressive loss of faith in the environmental impact assessment process. Communities likely to be affected by proposed engineering projects such as freeways, chemical plants and waste facilities are often disappointed to find that EISs are not the independent, objective assessment of environmental impacts that they expected. Increasingly such documents are being viewed by the local residents as sales documents for the project and the engineers who prepare them as mouthpieces for the proponents. Subconsultants working on EISs have also become concerned that their findings are edited and selectively reported in the final document.

The Harbour Tunnel EIS, as in most cases, supported the project and argued that there would be no adverse environmental effects. However in this case the consultants were accused of breaching the Engineering Code of Ethics, by North Sydney Municipal Council and the Society for Social Responsibility in Engineering, for not putting the public interest first. These organisations made representations to the Institution of Engineers, Australia (IEAust) alleging that the consultants had overestimated the benefits and underestimated the environmental costs of the Tunnel project. John Gerofi, an engineer who conducted an inquiry into the tunnel proposal for the Council, stated that; "The inquiry can find no rational explanation as to why competent and respected consultants employing professional engineers and other qualified staff would have produced an EIS with so many questionable assumptions which favoured the project, and with so many deficiencies."[17]

The Institution never proceeded with an investigation of the engineering consultants who authored the Harbour Tunnel EIS. Bill Rourke, the Institution's chief executive at the time, said that it had not been given evidence that constituted a prima facie case against any individual member of the Institution. The North Sydney Council decided not to assemble a case against individuals. Gerofi later stated in a letter to Engineers Australia, that "the defamation laws, plus a lack of resources and a reluctance to accuse individuals will prevent all but the most blatant ethical transgressions from being raised" if the Institution continues to confine its attention to individuals.[18]

This case raises various questions about ethics, engineering and the environment. Does a favourable interpretation of the data consist of unethical conduct? Is it fair to single out individual engineers who are doing the job as their employers require them to and who are not acting very differently from other engineers in similar positions? Can the environment be protected by ethical conduct?

What is Ethical Behaviour in This Situation?

An EIS, which includes scientific studies and economic analyses, purports to be an objective statement of environmental impacts. However the goal of an objective document is illusory if we assume that science itself is socially constructed. This is exacerbated by the circumstances of EIS preparation where large investments, careers and the viability of businesses are at stake. It is therefore inevitable that the values and goals of those preparing an EIS, and those who employ them, will shape its contents and conclusions through the way scientific data is collected, analysed, interpreted and presented.

In Australia environmental impact statements are done by or commissioned by the proponent of a project or development. The engineer working on that impact statement is therefore, either directly or indirectly, employed by a party whose interests may differ in significant ways from the public interest.[19] The immediate objective of their employer or client will be to get approval for the project to go ahead even though that project may have an adverse impact on the environment and on local residents.

Because the EIS is done rather late in the planning process the project proponent will almost certainly have committed considerable financial resources to a particular option at a particular site. From their point of view they will have balanced the community costs against their benefits and decided the project should go ahead. The EIS at this stage becomes another obstacle in a field of bureaucratic hurdles on the way to their end goal. But on top of this it is a public document that will be scrutinised by local residents, bureaucrats, politicians and environmentalists.

(i) Value Judgements in Scientific Studies

Naturally, project proponents will want that document to emphasise the advantages of the project to the community and to downplay the disadvantages. To a large extent that environmental impact statement is like a public relations document for the project. Any expression of possible adverse environmental effect or even any mention of uncertainty will certainly be magnified by opponents of the project and used in argument against the project.[20]

Values and judgements enter at every stage of the preparation of an EIS beginning with definition of the problem. Both justification and the framing of alternatives will be shaped by the way the problem that the project is supposed to be solving is defined. For example, in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel EIS, the problem was said to be traffic congestion. Traffic built up and slowed down on the approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, causing delays to people trying to cross the Harbour by motor vehicle. A second crossing was therefore justified on the grounds of traffic congestion, and alternatives framed, in terms of providing better road access across the Harbour.[21]

Opponents to the Tunnel did not perceive congestion to be a problem at all. Ted Mack, Mayor of North Sydney at the time the Tunnel was proposed, argued that congestion shaped a city by encouraging the movement of people and businesses to other parts of the metropolitan area so that new centres of activity were established. Ross Blunden, emeritus professor of traffic engineering, argued that congestion encouraged people to change their journey times or take public transport. Both men concluded that a second crossing, far from removing congestion, would merely attract more car traffic and that congestion on both crossings would be the eventual outcome.[22]

The scope of what is to be covered in the EIS is also a matter of judgement and the way it is decided varies from state to state. A narrow scope can make a project appear more desirable. With the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, one can see that, whilst the proponents argued that pollution would be reduced in the immediate vicinity of the Harbour because of the smoother flowing traffic, a broader scope would have ensured that the wider impacts of increased car usage encouraged by the Tunnel--greenhouse emissions, smog production and oil usage--were also taken into account.

The design of an EIS requires judgements of what types of impacts will be significant and the collection of data requires decisions about the time period and area over which samples are collected, the species to be studied and the quantities of individual specimens to be collected, and more generally the scale of study. Such decisions are not made only on the basis of what might be considered by a scientist to be appropriate, but will also be affected by considerations of cost, time availability, previous studies and perhaps even likely outcome. In the case of the Sydney Harbour Tunnel EIS many of these decisions were criticised.[23]

Similarly, methods of analysing data can vary in the sorts of results they produce and data they require and those preparing an EIS will choose the methods using many criteria, apart from the `purely scientific'. Even where the method of analysis is uncontroversial, assumptions and judgements will need to be fed into the analysis. Most EISs require some form of forecasting of population numbers or other human activities and this requires assumptions such as where people are likely to live and work and what their habits will be in the future.

Perhaps the most contentious analysis in an EIS is the cost-benefit analysis. A cost-benefit analysis (CBA) for a road project will require estimates of the value of time saved and may require estimates of the value of bushland or open space lost to the community. In the case of the Harbour Tunnel, a number of CBAs were done by various consultants. Those commissioned by proponents of the tunnel all showed that benefits outweighed costs and those commissioned by the opponents to the tunnel all showed that the costs outweighed the benefits.

In an EIS data collected and the results of analyses can be interpreted and presented in a number of ways. Even though real world engineering and environmental science is fraught with uncertainties an EIS can be carefully worded to avoid any impression that anything is uncertain.

The amount of judgement required in putting together an EIS raises the question of whether a person's ethical stance will affect the outcome. Here I am not talking about outright falsification or omission (which of course does happen occasionally). I am talking about subtle judgements within a range of legitimate and valid choices. Inevitably there will be a grey area between what is accepted as scientifically credible and outright deception which will depend on a person's viewpoint. (See diagram below)

Engineers have a legal obligation to avoid the outer area of falsehoods, omissions and deliberate distortions. So does ethical reasoning only apply to the grey area where they can get away with slight distortions? Or do they also have an ethical obligation, when operating within the range of scientific credibility, to make judgements in favour of the public interest and environmental protection? Is it reasonable to expect people to be conscious of the way they shape scientific studies and to endeavour not to be influenced by vested interests in that shaping?

From the standpoint of ethical egoism it makes sense for the engineer to prepare an EIS which favours the project. An engineer's career prospects are dependent on an employer's assessment of their loyalty and reliability. The employee/employer relationship is necessarily one based on trust.[24] The employer's judgement in this regard crosses organisational boundaries because job applicants need favourable references from previous employers. Engineers seldom have the sort of independent reputations that scientists sometimes build up through publications.

Even as self-employed consultants, engineers are dependent on the judgement of clients and that judgement is based on whether they are perceived to be able to deliver what is required by the client. Consultants with `overdeveloped' consciences, who do not put the client's priorities first, are less likely to be given work in future. In many fields the number of potential clients is very limited and consultants with troubling tendencies toward social responsibility will soon be well known.

If engineers relied solely on ethical egoism for moral reasoning then there is no reason why they should look beyond their employer's interest in preparing an EIS unless they themselves would be adversely affected by the project. However, engineers are expected by the community to go beyond self-interest. At a minimum, the code of ethics should prevent an engineer from producing a favourable EIS for the client/employer if this will mean that public welfare is endangered.

However, if an engineer believes the project does not endanger the welfare, health and safety of the community then s/he may feel justified in ensuring that the EIS is supportive, whether or not this has involved consciously making favourable judgements in favour of the project within the range of scientifical credibility or the grey areas surrounding it. This is especially so since most engineering codes of ethics also include a tenet requiring them to apply their skill and knowledge in the interest of the client.

Despite debate within the Australian Institution of Engineers, the Code of Ethics deliberately leaves out specific mention of environment in the tenet above leaving it up to the individual engineer to decide whether environmental protection is an essential ingredient of community welfare.

In discussions about their role in preparing EISs most engineering consultants refer to a different kind of moral reasoning, they argue that they have integrity (a virtue based ethic) and that therefore their EIS reports are not biased in favour of the proponent. Engineering codes of ethics also generally include tenets such as "engineers shall act with fairness, honesty and in good faith..." However, most engineers preparing an EIS would not consider making a judgement within the range of scientific credibility as being unfair or dishonest. This ethic may, however, prevent such an engineer from knowingly wandering into the grey area.

I would argue that most engineers are quite conscious of the way they manipulate an EIS to give a favourable outcome and that their claim of integrity has more to do with reputation than ethical behaviour. Engineering consultants that earn a reputation with the public for misleading and distorted EISs will be a liability to project proponents who want to gain public approval for their projects. On the other hand consultants who prepare an EIS that gives the opposition plenty of ammunition against a project or causes approval to be denied would also not get further work. Integrity for engineering consultants involves treading that fine line that enables a favourable EIS to be prepared without resorting to blatant bias; that is by remaining within or close to the area of scientific credibility.

(ii) The focus on individual people and projects

Despite the prevailing ethic of self-interest and the emphasis on individualism that modern capitalist societies convey, they depend on a sharing of values and collective activity. Engineering is one example of a collective activity that is built upon the work of past engineers and a consensus within the profession about what are appropriate technological solutions. The terms technological systems[25], technological traditions[26], technological paradigms[27], technological regimes[28] and technological trajectories used by scholars of technology all refer to the way technological development is a social enterprise shaped by the context within which it occurs.

The design, choice and implementation of technology is seldom an individual endeavour. Most engineering projects rely upon teams of engineers working together and no single engineer feels individually responsible for the outcome, nor is any project dependent on the willingness and cooperation of any one engineer. As Cohen and Grace point out:

"groupthink" typically is responsible for perceiving and articulating whatever justification there is for a project. A critical perspective is difficult for an individual to take, let alone sustain, in the course of "normal" engineering work under an accepted paradigm.[29]

Merton observed many years ago that engineers were unlikely to take full responsibility for their work and all its consequences because as employees they are "knit into a bureaucratic apparatus" with fixed spheres of competence and authority, and are "rewarded for viewing themselves as technical auxiliaries."[30]

Moreover the emphasis on individual ethics, which a professional code entails, tends to contain ethics within the microsphere of individual projects. In this case an EIS applies to a single project which on its own may have quite minor environmental impacts. It is often the cumulative impact of such projects that degrades the environment. Therefore an engineer working on a particular EIS may feel satisfied that the project will not significantly harm the environment but to what extent can such an engineer be expected to consider the cumulative impact of many such projects?

The Institution of Engineers, Australia clearly does not believe that this is possible. It has argued that EISs cannot adequately assess the cumulative impacts of projects and that "it was naive to expect the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] process to address longer-term sustainability issues."[31]

"Imagine for one moment an EIA on the impact of a coal power station on the local environment," Dr Webster [IEAust chief executive] said. "An EIA would not consider the possibility that alternative energy sources could be developed elsewhere, and assess the nett environmental impact of the various options."[32]

What is more, an EIS is merely a tool for identifying environmental impacts and adverse environmental consequences do not mean a project will not be approved. These consequences are weighed against the wealth to be created by the project and in most nations priority is given to the wealth generating potential of the project.

Clearly it is unrealistic and perhaps even unreasonable to rely on the ethics of individual engineers applied to individual projects to protect the environment from the impact of engineering works, particularly within a market economy where the self-interest ethic of the market dominates. However, a growing recognition of environmental decline has prompted governments all over the world to turn to sustainable development as a way of managing the environment. But does sustainable development supply a social ethic to replace the individualistic ethic of the market which would be more supportive for engineers who act ethically?

The Ethic of Sustainable Development

The central ethical principle behind sustainable development is intergenerational equity. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[33]

Intergenerational equity can be defended in both consequentialist and deontological terms. Firstly it can be considered in terms of ensuring long term consequences of today's actions. This utilitarian viewpoint fits the pragmatic concerns of some business interests. The environmental crisis threatens the sustainability of economic activity. Many activities such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, tourism and recreation are dependent on a healthy environment. Others are indirectly affected as it becomes more expensive to obtain resources and because pollution decreases the health of the work-force. Looking ahead to the future ensures the sustainability of business activities.

Intergenerational equity can also be considered a duty that current generations have to future generations or a right of future generations. However, if we examine the way that sustainable development is operationalised we see that it is done in a way that protects the market system and perpetuates individualism and self-interest above any ethic of equity.

David Pearce argues that if we are to ensure intergenerational equity then future generations need to be compensated for any environmental damage done by current generations and that this is best done by ensuring that damage is made up for by increased wealth and human-made assets. In other words natural capital (the environment) can be run down if human-made capital (money, equipment, infrastructure, knowledge etc) are increased.[34] In order to compensate future generations we need to value of the environment in the same way as we value human-made assets; that is we need to give it a monetary price.[35]

Environmental economists, such as Pearce, also claim that environmental degradation has resulted from the failure of the market system to put any value on the environment. They argue that because environmental `assets' are free or underpriced they tend to be overused or abused, resulting in environmental damage. Because they are not owned and do not have price tags then there is no incentive to protect them. This is a view shared by business people. The Business Council of Australia claims that the environmental problem;

is that important environmental assets tend not to be priced in a market like other assets. These assets are common property - they belong to everybody, and to nobody. Without ownership rights there is not the incentive for any person or group to look after them properly... if the environment has a zero price to users it will eventually be used up.[36]

These views, which have been incorporated into sustainable development rhetoric and sustainable development policies, call for putting a price on the environment. However the whole process of pricing the environment to ensure that decisions take account of environmental degradation works against intergenerational equity and instead extends market logic and market morality into a wider sphere of operation.

There are two main ways of operationalising the idea of putting a price on the environment. The first is through cost-benefit analyses. The second is through the use of economic instruments.

(i) Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA)

CBA has traditionally been used by governments as part of their decision-making processes but in the past environmental costs and benefits have usually not been quantified and incorporated into the analyses but listed separately in a qualitative form for consideration. The sustainable development approach is to incorporate these environmental costs and benefits by pricing them and incorporating them into the calculations.

In a way CBA is the ultimate embodiment of consequentialist ethics in that it seeks to ensure that good consequences outweigh bad consequences and consequences are measures in money terms. In reality however CBA works against the ethic of equity and the measuring of consequences in financial terms fails to capture the consequences fully.

CBA is about aggregated costs and benefits and does not deal with the issue of how they are distributed yet distribution of costs and benefits is of is of prime concern when considering equity. As long as the sum of benefits outweighs the sum of the costs, even if a small groups of people get the benefits and a whole community suffers the costs, the society as a whole is assumed to be better off by CBA. It is sometimes argued by economists that, if the total benefits outweigh the total costs, the winners could compensate the losers and still be better off; but this is only theoretical reasoning and seldom happens.

In a CBA, the value of future consequences is discounted (reduced) because it is assumed that costs and benefits in the future are not worth as much to people today. This is a direct result of using money as a measure. The logic behind discounting derives from the logic of money--that a person would prefer to receive money now than the same amount in the future. Daly and Cobb point out that the idea of discounting comes from the fact that money can be put in the bank to get interest and that people have a choice between putting their money in a bank or investing in the project in question. Economists forget this when they apply their models to things that don't grow like money in a bank, such as the environment.[37]

The use of a discount rate means that the further into the future that the costs or benefits are, the less they will be worth in the CBA calculations. Normal discount rates ensure that any costs or benefits more than 30 years in the future are almost valueless for the purposes of a CBA. Discounting therefore discriminates against future generations by saying that environmental damage in the long-term future can effectively be ignored.

CBA also rests on the assumption that environmental assets can be substituted by human-made assets and all that matters in the end is that the aggregate gains outweigh the aggregated losses. If a project generates more wealth than what it is calculated the environmental damage that is caused is worth, then the project should go ahead. The loss of environmental amenity is made up for by the wealth that is generated. As mentioned before CBA takes no account of who gains and who loses from the exhange of shared resources for profits; that is the substitution of common environmental amenity that is accessible to the whole community with private capital that belongs to the developers.

The method of calculating the value of the environment incorporates market values. The most popular method currently is to use contingent valuation, or willingness to pay surveys. People are asked how much they would be willing to pay to preserve a particular environment or their willingness to pay is inferred from their behaviour in the market such as the extra price they are willing to pay for real estate in non-polluted areas (hedonic pricing).

Using the market, whether an actual market or a contrived one, to value the environment tends to produce values that reflect and therefore maintain the prevailing distribution of income. Wealthier people are willing to and able to pay more for what they want so their preferences will have more weight in any survey. Moreover according to a CBA siting a dirty industry in an already dirty area will be less costly than siting it in a clean area where wealthier people can afford to live. This is because the decline in property values will be less as a result of the resulting pollution.

The valuation of the environment in terms of the total of what each individual is willing to pay denies a separate concept of public interest. As Lenihan and Fletcher state "The welfare of society has meaning only as the summation of the welfare of its individual members"[38] Daly and Cobb also point out that the economic view of value is based on a reduction of human values to individualism and reduces the world to one in which "individuals all seek their own good and are indifferent to the success or failure or other individuals' is fundamental to economics..."[39] Therefore valuation of the environment through CBA is a concept that embraces the values of ethical egoism and is in fact antithetical to an ethic of equity.

(ii) Economic Instruments

Another increasingly popular way of incorporating environmental values into decision-making is through the use of economic instruments. The idea is that prices of resources should reflect the true cost, including environmental costs involved in their extraction and manufacture. If this were the case then, the economists argue, people would use environmental resources more wisely.

Of course putting a monetary value on these costs suffers the same problems involved in cost-benefit analysis. However in practice, economic instruments seldom involve calculating the real value of environmental damage. Rather, in the case of price-based measures such as pollution charges, an extra amount is charged, chosen somewhat arbitrarily by the government, that is supposed to provide an incentive to change environmentally damaging behaviour. In the case of tradeable pollution rights, a level of emissions is chosen and rights to emit up to that level are traded between companies or auctioned off by the government. In both cases the idea is that by making economic adjustments, individuals and firms can continue to pursue their self interest and the environment will be protected at the same time.

Advocates claim that economic instruments provide a way that the power of the market can be harnessed to environmental goals[40]. They also serve a political purpose in that they reinforce the role of the `free market' at a time when environmentalism most threatens it. Chant et al argue that "contrary to the popular view that a market system leads to the abuse of the environment" it is in fact the absence of a market which leads to environmental degradation.[41] Economic instruments attempt to make a virtue out of the profit motive and ethical egoism:

The economists' preference for market solutions is an ideologically based one: Its first pillar comes squarely out of a philosophical tradition that grew from Adam Smith's notion that individual pursuit of self-interest would, in a regime of competitive markets, maximise the social good. That tradition is so firmly embedded in economics by now that most economists probably do not realize, unless they venture out into the world of noneconomists, that it is a proposition of moral philosophy...(Kelman 1983, p. 297)


A revolution in ethics is needed to displaces the powerful ethical egoism that rationalises the market as the predominant decision-making tool in our society. It is unrealistic to expect engineers to manifest higher ethical conduct than is the norm throughout the community in which they live. Sustainable development, with its rhetoric of intergenerational equity, is in reality a way of endorsing market morality and is inadequate to the solution of modern environmental problems.


1 Robert Zussman, Mechanics of the Middle Class: Work and Politics Amomg American Engineers, University of California Press, 1985, p.10.

2 Edwin Layton Jr, The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession, The Press of Cape Western Reserve University, Cleveland and London, 1971.

3 Layton, op.cit.

4 David Noble, America By Desiqn: Science. Technoloqy and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1977; Layton, op.cit.

5 David Noble, The Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, Knopf, New York, 1984, p.44; Whalley, op.cit., 1986, Zussman, op.cit., 1985, Richard Ritti, The Engineer in the Industrial Corporation, Columbia University Press, 1971, pp.54-5.

6 Layton, op.cit., p.67.

7 Noble 1977, op.cit., p. 34.

[8] Zussman, op.cit.

[9] Ritti, op.cit., p.54

[10] Peter Whalley, The Social Production of Technical Work: The Case of British Engineers, MacMillan, 1986; Robert Zussman, Mechanics of the Middle Class: Work and Politics Amomg American Engineers, University of California Press, 1985.

[11] Institution of Engineers Australia, Code of Ethics, Canberra 1995.

12 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans Talcott Parsons, Unwin University Books, London, 1967.

13 Rachels, op.cit., p. 143.

14 Ibid., p. 151.

15 Kenneth Prandy, Professional Employees: A Study of Scientists and Enqineers, Faber & Faber Ltd, London, 1965; William Rothstein, 'Engineers and the Functionalist Model of Professions', in Robert Perrucci & Joel Gerstl, eds, The Engineers and the Social System, John Wiley & Sons, 1969; William Kornhauser, Scientists in Industry: Conflict Accomodation, University of California Press, 1962; Robert Perucci and Joel Gerstl, Profession Without Community: Engineers in American Society, Random House, New York. 1969.

16 Sharon Beder, `Engineers, Ethics and Etiquette', New Scientist, 25 September 1993, pp. 36-41.

17 Anon, `Was there unethical behaviour in tunnel project', Engineers Australia, 14 July 1989, p. 10.

18 J.P.Gerofi, `Sydney Harbour Tunnel and the Code of Ethics', Engineers Australia, 20 October 1989, p. 4.

19 The reason for this is that it is assumed that the consultant needs to work closely with the proponent to understand the project and be able to recommend changes to the project as environmental impacts become evident.

20 Sharon Beder, "The Role of the Professional', in Environmental Impact Statements: Selected Readings, ed. by Sharon Beder, Environmental Education Project, Sydney University, 1990, pp. 45-48; Sharon Beder, "Bias and credibility in environmental impact assessment", Chain Reaction, No 68, February 1993, pp. 28-30.

21 Cameron McNamara, Sydney Harbour Tunnel: Environmental Impact Statement, Transfield-Kumagai Joint Venture, November 1986.

22 Sydney Harbour Tunnel, Environmental Impact Statement, video produced by Sydney University Television Services, 1991.

23 Sydney Harbour Tunnel, Environmental Impact Statement, video produced by Sydney University Television Services, 1991; personal communication, Alan Jones, Australian Museum, 1990.

24 Peter Whalley, The Social Production of Technical Work: The Case of British Engineers, MacMillan, 1986; Robert Zussman, Mechanics of the Middle Class: Work and Politics Amomg American Engineers, University of California Press, 1985.

[25] Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society,1880-1930, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1983.

[26] Edward Constant, `Communities and hierarchies: Structure in the practice of science and technology', in The Nature of Technological Knowledge. Are Models of Scientific Change Relevant?, ed. R. Laudan, D. Reidel Publishing Co, Holland, 1984.

[27] Giovanni Dosi, `Technological paradigms and technological trajectories', Research Policy, no. 11, 1982, pp. 147-162; Sharon Beder, `Pipelines and Paradigms'......

[28] Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, `In search of useful theory of innovation', Research Policy, vol. 6, 1977, pp. 36-76.

29 Stephen Cohen and Damian Grace, `Engineers and social responsibility: An obligation to do good', IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Fall 1994, p13.

[30] R.K. Merton, 'The Machine, the Worker and the Engineer', Science, Jan 1947, p.82.

31 "IEAust rejects government proposals for environmental impact assessments", Engineering Times, June 1995, p.1.

32 Ibid.

33 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Australian edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, p.85.

[34] Pearce admits that there are some environmental assets that cannot be replaced by human-made capital.

35 David Pearce, ed. Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy, Earthscan, London, 1991, p.

36 Business Council of Australia, Achieving Sustainable Development: A Practical Framework, BCA, 1991, p. 9.

37 Herman Daly and John Cobb, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989, pp.153-4.

38 John Lenihan and William Fletcher, Economics of the Environment, Blackie, Glasgow and London, 1979, p. 4.

39 Daly and Cobb, op.cit., p.159.

40 Robert Stavins, `Harnessing market forces to protect the environment', Environment 31(1): 5-7, 28-35; T.H. Tietenberg `Using economic incentives to maintain our environment', Challenge, March/Apr.,1990, p. 42.

41 John Chant, Donald McFetridge and Douglas Smith, `The economics of the conserver society', In Economics and the Environment: A Reconciliation edited by Walter Block. Canada: Fraser Institute, 1990, p. 62.