ASCE Code of ethics

Several previous blogs have cited the NSPE code of ethics to set the ethical context for technical writing. Not surprisingly, the American Society of Civil Engineers also has a code of ethics. While the two are consistent in their basic premises, the ASCE code of ethics has some additional provisions. NSPE lays out six fundamental canons and then elaborates on each one.

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:
– Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
– Perform services only in areas of their competence.
– Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
– Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
– Avoid deceptive acts.
– Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.
—Fundamental canons of the NSPE code of ethics

The 2017 ASCE code of ethics

The 2017 version of the ASCE code of ethics had a total of eight fundamental canons. In addition to the NSPE canons, ASCE’s canons include continuing one’s professional development and treating all persons fairly.

There are also some differences between the comparable canons in the two codes of ethics. For example, ASCE includes compliance with the principles of sustainable development as part of holding paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public. It also specifically calls out establishing one’s professional reputation on the merits of one’s services and not on unfair competition. It’s worth noting that the differences between the two are generally differences in emphasis rather than of the basic principles.

As we’ve discussed previously, continuing education is a requirement for maintaining a license as a Professional Engineer. So whether it’s a fundamental canon or just mentioned in passing, you have to do it if you want to keep your license. Engineers should also promote the professional development of other engineers and prospective engineers.

The current ASCE code of ethics

ASCE has reorganized its code of ethics to address five stakeholders in order of priority:

  1. Society
  2. The natural and built environment
  3. The profession
  4. Clients and employers
  5. Peers

What hasn’t changed is that the safety, health, and welfare of the public are paramount.


Ethical questions aren’t always straightforward. Competing interests and values may force us to consider what’s most important—that is, we need to put first things first. For example, the engineer must act as a faithful agent of the client or employer, but not at the expense of public safety. That is, you may have to refuse to do as your employer asks if it would jeopardize members of the public.

Sometimes employers or clients don’t realize that what they’re asking is unethical. For example, I’ve had clients ask me to endorse their product. Simply telling them that it’s unethical for me to cross the line between science and advocacy was enough to get them to back off.

Similarly, sometimes people who aren’t familiar with the scientific method assume I set out to prove something. Once I even had to explain in a deposition that that’s not how it works. Instead, I let the evidence dictate the conclusion, and I can only falsify the hypothesis, not prove that it’s correct.