Ethics in Geotechnical Engineering

Ethics in Geotechnical Engineering

Ethical issues may be perceived differently across the world due to the disparity of cultural backgrounds and social settings. I believe this is sufficient reason to start the conversation on the issue with regards to the geotechnical profession in the context of the ISSMGE Time Capsule Project.

A key aspect comes from the very definition of profession. That is “any type of work that needs special training or a particular skill, often one that is respected because it involves a high level of education” or “a statement about what someone feels, believes, or intends to do, often made publicly”. Professional ethics has usually been framed in the context of the first definition, however, I will focus on the second one. This may be considered too simplistic by some, who frame the concept of profession around individual success – however, it elicits the origin of the word (i.e. a process where an individual – through his/her work – makes a public statement of his/her own contribution to the community).

When considering one’s profession as a ‘social practice’, the geotechnical engineer must not only make ‘extrinsic’ considerations (such as wealth, prestige, and power), but also ‘intrinsic’ ones, such as fulfilling one’s duty to accomplish the common good (i.e. finding the best ‘geotechnical’ solution for the client and society at large). In this way, the ethical dimension of work is expressed.

Such a process implies ethical self-reflection on the part of the geotechnical engineer. He/she must not only conform with the task at hand, but also question how to best meet the original request, while making sure that the results of his/her work fit within the common good to be accomplished.

Technical innovation is probably the most challenging field when making such ethical considerations. For us researchers, this means we should consider carefully the social consequences of technical progress. Social responsibility, however, is not only limited to researchers, but is deeply involved in the everyday work of technical professionals, where innovation and creativity are constantly required. Therefore, when faced with a request we should avoid simply pursuing goals that someone else defines, but follow our own judgments and values shared with the community.

Do you agree with this reflection about ethical issues in our profession? How do you “declare” your contribution to the community good while accomplishing your technical tasks?

I challenge you to reflect on these questions and fill in the following 5-minute pop quiz.

About the author:

Emilio Bilotta is Associate Professor at the University of Napoli Federico II (Italy) where he teaches Geotechnical Engineering and Tunnels and Underground Structures to undergraduate and postgraduate students. He enjoys research on tunneling in urban areas and tunnels under seismic actions as well as on ground improvement to mitigate the effects of seismic ground shaking and liquefaction on the built environment. Reading good novels is his favorite pastime.

About these articles:

To debate past, current and future issues in Geotechnical Engineering, the Time Capsule Project is welcoming and publishing short articles on the ISSMGE website.

We challenge you to write 200-400 words on any topic that will generate debate within the Geotechnical Engineering profession. Click here to submit your message for consideration.

Articles will be displayed for a limited time and views expressed need not be shared by the ISSMGE or held strongly by authors.