by Noe' Brambila
"Autonomy" is a notable essay written by IIT student Noe' Brambila in October, 1996 to fulfill an assignment for a Moral Issues in Engineering course. The assignment asked "How is it possible (if it is ) to be self-directed and governed by a code of ethics?".
A profession's code of ethics is by definition a set of minimal rules of conduct to which the members of that profession should adhere. These rules, as we have seen in class, stem from and seem very similar to the moral standards that the general population follows. Just as we see in everyday life, these standards of conduct are by no means followed to the letter without exception. People in both cases under their own power choose to follow these rules or not. With the exception of crimes like murder and theft, in both cases those people choosing not to behave morally and/or ethically run little chance of being caught.
People who are part of a profession choose to follow the code of ethics of that profession of their own free will. In addition to the members of a profession choosing to follow the code of ethics, these codes are, as I mentioned, a minimum standard and by no means do the codes dictate behavior. These codes suggest a set of ideas and goal that one in a profession should work towards, and therefore they are not coercive. For instance the NSPE's code of ethics states that engineers shall "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties." In this canon there is no suggestion of a specific action that should be either taken or avoided.
It then becomes possible to be “self-directed and governed by a code of ethics” at the same time. The self-direction comes from one's own moral beliefs and the obligation to the other people within the same profession. The direction that the individual professionals take is within their own judgment as long as they remain at least within the bounds of the codes of ethics set forth by the profession. The governing then becomes a self-imposed regulation thereby alleviating the need for enforcement on the part of outside agencies.
The code of ethics is then able to govern professional conduct without stipulating penalties for failure to comply with the code because the members of the profession enter the profession willingly and therefore accept the code of ethics, likewise, willingly. The story of the Fifty-Nine Story Crisis serves as an example of professionals who willingly accept the codes of ethics established by professions. William Measure was under no obligation to either the city, his employers or anyone else, yet he took on the task of reevaluating the design of the building to assess any weaknesses that might have been overlooked. Measure's actions were not mandated by law and his code of ethics did not outline a specific response to the situation in which he found himself.
It is then easy to see that being governed by a code of ethics is not equivalent to being subject to the dictates to others. Professionals are always free to choose how they will act in the performance of their professional duties. These professionals are only subject to their own decision making and therefore responsible for their own actions. This means that the choices they make are indeed based on reasons of their own and not on the specific orders outlined by others.