Criteria for Blowing the Whistle
In an Engineering Context

De George (1981) offers some specific conditions for when an engineer is:

(a) permitted to blow the whistle-Moral Authority ;
(b) obligated to do so.-Moral Duty

Permissive Whistle Blowing per De George:

1) The harm that will be done by the product [or company action] to the public is serious and considerable.

2) The engineer (or employee) has made their concerns known to their superiors.

3) The engineer (or employee) has received no satisfaction from their immediate supervisors and he has exhausted the channels available within the company, including going to the board of directors.

Mandatory Whistle Blowing per De George:

4) The engineer has documented evidence that would convince a reasonable, impartial observer that his/her concern for public safety is correct and the company product or action is likely to cause serious and considerable public harm.

5) There is strong evidence that making the information public will in fact prevent the threatened serious harm.

Evaluating De George's Criteria

James (1991) believes De George is too lenient.  James believes an individual has a moral obligation to blow the whistle when the first three conditions are met, as well.  For James, the degree of the obligation depends on the extent to which we are capable of foreseeing the severity and the consequences of the wrongdoing.   He worries that De George's model leaves us with no guidance when we are confronted with cases involving sexual harassment, violations of privacy, industrial espionage, and so forth.  James also takes issue with the definition of the word harm.

Alpern (1991) argues that De George's model lets engineers off too easily from their whistle-blowing responsibilities.  Alpern believes that engineers must be willing to make greater sacrifices than others because they are in a greater position to do certain kinds of social harm. He believes that these obligations come from a fundamental principle of "ordinary morality," e.g. we must do no harm.

 

Ladd (1991) believes that requiring engineers to blow the whistle in non-extraordinary cases (such as in De George's conditions 1-3) can be undesirable from an ethical point of view because it demands that these individuals be "moral heroes."  Engineers should not have to be heroes or "saints."

De George and Ladd seem correct in claiming that engineers should not be required to be moral heroes or saints.  James and Alpern also seem to be correct in noting that engineers, because of the positions of responsibility they hold, should be expected to make greater sacrifices.

McFarland (1991) offers a compromise view and argues that, collectively, engineers might be held to a higher standard of social responsibility than ordinary individuals.  However, the onus of responsibility should not fall directly on engineers as individual engineers.  Rather, it should be shouldered by engineers as members of the engineering profession. 

McFarland's model is based on the assumption that, as moral agents, we have a prima facie obligation to come to the aid of others.  In describing the nature of this obligation, he uses a non-engineering analogy involving the infamous Kitty Genovese case. The analogy for engineers, McFarland draws from the Genovese case is that when no other sources of help are available, engineers should take responsibility by banning together.  If engineers act as individuals, they might not always have the ability to help.  If they act collectively, however, they might be able to accomplish goals that would otherwise not be possible. 

McFarland believes that an engineer's work must be seen in a wider social context, i.e., in its relation to society. Without that context, an adequate account of moral responsibility for engineers can't be given. Unless engineers work collaboratively on ethical matters, they will not be able to meet all of their responsibilities. McFarland's model encourages engineers to shift their thinking about responsibility issues from: the level of individual responsibility (at the micro-ethical level), to responsibility at the broader level of the profession itself i.e., the macro-ethical level.