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Institutionalizing Ethics: Historical Debates Surrounding IEEE’s 1974 Code of Ethics

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Non-Canonical Canons of Engineering Ethics

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society, Engineering Ethics, and Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.977.1 - 26.977.18



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Paper Authors


Xiaofeng Tang Penn State University Orcid 16x16

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Xiaofeng Tang is a postdoctoral fellow in engineering ethics at Penn State University. He received his Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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Dean Nieusma Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Orcid 16x16

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Dean Nieusma is Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies and Director of the Programs in Design and Innovation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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Institutionalizing Ethics: Historical Debates surrounding IEEE’s 1974 Code of EthicsProposed paper for the “Non-canonical Canons in Engineering Ethics” special sessionThe Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) adopted its first Code of Ethics in1974. IEEE’s Committee on Social Implications of Technology (CSIT), and one of its coreleaders, Stephen Unger, played a principal role in the creation of this Code. CSIT and Ungerwere also committed to labor protections for “ethical engineers”—those practicing engineeringaccording to the Code’s cannons. In particular, Unger sought to establish institutional proceduresto enforce the IEEE Code by supporting engineers whose actions in the public interestsjeopardized their employment. In 1975, IEEE “entered its first and only Amicus Curiae, in a‘wrongful discharge’ ethics matter” (Elden, 2014), which tested IEEE’s typically comfortablealignment with managerial interests.As the predecessor of IEEE’s Society on Social Implications of Technology, CSIT was from itsbeginning committed to “providing a forum in which all IEEE members, as well as other expertsin non-technical fields such as law, economics and the social sciences, may express theirthoughts concerning the social, ethical, medical, legal, and moral implications of the presentcourse of the engineering discipline” (CSIT Newsletter, 1972). The CSIT Newsletter accordinglybecame a forum for vibrant discussions and debates about ethical issues related to the Instituteand its members. Based on archival research of the CSIT Newsletter from 1972 to 1976, thispaper revisits the early history of CSIT and its involvement promoting ethical standards inengineering practice and protecting those who followed them. The paper focuses specifically onUnger’s consistent efforts to ensure IEEE was responsive to the ethical and social dimensions ofengineering: his work proposing and drafting IEEE’s first Code of Ethics, his endeavor to defendethical engineering practitioners, and his publications on CSIT Newsletter that promotedinclusion into IEEE’s Code a cannon calling on engineers to “direct their professional skillstoward ends they deem, on balance, to be of positive value to humanity” (which was ultimatelyexcluded by IEEE’s Board of Directors). We conclude the paper with reflections on thecontemporary relevance of these early efforts to institutionalize ethics cannons withinprofessional societies like IEEE and ASEE.

Tang, X., & Nieusma, D. (2015, June), Institutionalizing Ethics: Historical Debates Surrounding IEEE’s 1974 Code of Ethics Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24314

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