Do the Professional Ethics of Chemists
and Engineers Differ?*
Abstract: This paper provides a sketch of my general
way of understanding professions and then applies that sketch to a specific
question, how to distinguish between two very similar professions, chemistry
and engineering. I argue that the professional ethics of chemists do differ
from the professional ethics of engineers and that the differences are
important. The argument requires definition of both ‘ethics’ and ‘profession’
– as well delving into the details of chemistry and engineering.
Keywords: profession, ethics, morality, code of conduct, chemists,
My subject is not the ethics of chemistry and engineering, but the
ethics of chemists and engineers, not only those chemists and engineers
at the forefront of science but the much larger number whose work for government,
industry, or non-profits is, though useful – indeed, crucial to our health,
prosperity, and comfort – unlikely to lead to publication. My subject is
living practices, not timeless ideas. What I shall argue here is that the
professional ethics of chemists differs from that of engineers. This may
come as a surprise to many chemists, especially those who work with engineers
(as many do). The surprise is understandable for two reasons:
First, the differences I will point out are not necessary; they do not
derive from the ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ of chemistry or engineering. The
most striking of them is less than thirty years old. Not only could engineers
have standards more like the chemists’; they actually did not so long ago.
Such merely empirical differences are hard to guess.
Second, the differences between the ethics of the two professions are
not large – at least compared to the differences between the ethics of
either and the ethics of, say, lawyers, physicians, or accountants. The
differences between the ethics of chemists and the ethics of engineers
are therefore easy to overlook – or, when noticed, to dismiss as an individual’s
The differences are nonetheless significant (as the final section will
show). Awareness of the differences may not only help chemists understand
engineers better; it may also help them understand their own profession
better – as a few weeks in a foreign country can teach us more about our
own than we would otherwise learn in many years. And also like a few weeks
in a foreign country, understanding how another profession differs from
our own may suggest ways to improve our own.
1. Some Differences between Chemists and Engineers
On June 25, 2001, the Chicago Tribune reported that Phil Eaton,
a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, had synthesized
a new compound, octanitrocubane. Octanitrocubane was described in two different
ways, one emphasizing the practical, the other the aesthetic. So, for example,
the first paragraph of the Tribune’s report described octanitrocubane
as "the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosive", while the second
described it as "a cube-shaped molecule of flawless symmetry". The first
time Eaton is quoted, it is to say, "I think it’s gorgeous." Just before
this, Bart Kahr, a chemistry professor from the University of Washington,
gushed, "Eaton is to Chicago what Michelangelo was to Florence."
For those who think science is all about ‘learning nature’s secrets’,
synthetic chemists like Eaton are anomalies. Eaton did, of course, learn
how to make a new compound out of nature’s elements. But the compound itself
is not one of nature’s secrets. As far as anyone knows, octanitrocubane
has never occurred naturally. It is as much Eaton’s invention as the light
bulb is Edison’s. Nature merely provided the raw material. In this respect,
synthetic chemists resemble engineers more than they resemble analytic
chemists; their object is (in part at least) to make something, not simply
to know something. 
In another respect, however, synthetic chemists resemble architects
or industrial designers more than they resemble either engineers or other
chemists. Both Eaton and Kahr are impressed by the beauty of Eaton’s creation.
That beauty seems to be important to their assessment of Eaton’s achievement.
Octanitrocubane may turn out not to be as good an explosive as the Tribune
claims, but Eaton’s achievement in chemistry will remain. He has developed
a method for synthesizing octanitrocubane, used it successfully, and given
chemistry this "molecule of flawless symmetry". For engineers, on the other
hand, there is no achievement without practical use; neither beauty nor
knowledge is a normal part of assessing an engineering achievement. That
is not to say that engineers do not generate knowledge. They generate a
great deal. Nor is it to say that engineering achievements are never beautiful.
Some are strikingly beautiful – think, for example, of the Brooklyn Bridge
or some printed circuit boards. But neither the knowledge nor the beauty
is what engineers are likely to mention, much less boast of, when commenting
on their achievements. Neither Eaton nor Kahr sounds like an engineer.
What I have described so far is only a difference in attitude between
chemists and engineers. Such a difference has only an indirect relation
to ethics. A difference in attitude, while enough to alert us to the possibility
of a difference in ethics, is not enough to prove it. To prove a difference
in ethics we must look elsewhere; we must understand the professions in
Still, what I have already shown is significant; it is not at all what
we might expect from the history of the two professions. Until almost the
end of the nineteenth century, many chemists worked in chemical plants
much as engineers do today, overseeing their operation as well as checking
the quality of their processes or inventing new compounds. Others chemists
(metallurgists) did something similar in smelters, foundries, or steel
plants before there was such a thing as a metallurgical or materials engineer.
Then engineers, specially trained for the work, began to replace chemists
in these jobs. Why? Perhaps part of the explanation is the enormous increase
in the scale of the processes involved. Engineers seem to do better in
large undertakings than chemists. Perhaps part of the explanation is a
change in the way chemists were trained or saw themselves. During the last
part of the nineteenth century, chemical education, like chemistry itself,
became more ‘scientific’, more theoretical. And perhaps part of the explanation
is that engineering educators at last found a way to train engineers for
certain jobs chemists had previously done. Whatever the explanation, what
is clear is that chemists were once enough like engineers for engineers
to take over whole categories of work chemists had been doing; and they
remain enough like engineers that a good many chemists still work beside
engineers in jobs of similar description. To argue nonetheless that chemists
and engineers belong to different professions, each with its own ethics,
will therefore require us to be clear enough about what we mean both by
‘ethics’ and by ‘profession’ to tell when we have a difference in ethics
between professions. It is to the clarification of these terms that we
must now turn.
2. Ethics in General
‘Ethics’ has at least five senses in ordinary English. In one, it is a
mere synonym for ordinary morality, those universal standards of conduct
that apply to moral agents simply because they are moral agents. Etymology
fully justifies this first sense. The root for ‘ethics’ (‘ethos’)
is the Greek word for custom just as the root of ‘morality’ (‘mores’)
is the Latin word for it. Etymologically, ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ are twins
(as are ‘ethic’ and ‘morale’). In this first sense of ‘ethics’, chemists
and engineers must have a common ethics. This sense of ethics would make
our question trivial. Since the question does not seem trivial, this is
probably not the sense of ‘ethics’ that concerns us.
In four other senses of ‘ethics’, ‘ethics’ is contrasted with ‘morality’.
In one, ethics is said to consist of those standards of conduct that moral
agents should follow (what is sometimes also called ‘critical morality’);
morality, in contrast, is said to consist of those standards that moral
agents actually follow (what is also sometimes called ‘positive morality’).
‘Morality’ in this sense is very close to its root ‘mores’; it can
be unethical (in our first sense of ‘ethics’). ‘Morality’ (in this sense)
has a plural; each society or group can have its own moral code, indeed,
even each individual can have her own. There can be as many moralities
as there are moral agents. But even so, ethics remains a standard common
to everyone (or, at least, may be such a standard, depending on
how ‘critical morality’ gets cashed out).
‘Ethics’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘morality’ in another way. Morality
then consists of those standards every moral agent should follow. Morality
is a universal minimum, our standard of moral right and wrong. Ethics,
in contrast, is concerned with moral good, with whatever is beyond the
moral minimum. Ethics (in this sense) is whatever is left over of morality
(in our first – universal – sense, which includes both the right and the
good) once we subtract morality (in this third – minimum right-only – sense).
Since (as we shall see) professional ethics consists (in large part at
least) of moral requirements, this cannot be the sense of ‘ethics’
with which we are concerned.
The second (or ‘should’) sense of ethics is closely related to the fourth,
a field of philosophy. When philosophers offer a course in ‘ethics’, its
subject is various attempts to understand morality (all or part of morality
in our first sense) as a rational undertaking. Philosophers do not teach
morality (in our first, second, or third sense) – except perhaps by inadvertence.
They also generally do not teach critical morality, though the attempt
to understand morality as a rational undertaking should lead students to
dismiss some parts of morality (in its second, descriptive, sense) as irrational
or to feel more committed to morality (in its first or third sense) because
they can now see the point of it.
‘Ethics’ can be used in yet another sense, to refer to those special,
standards of conduct governing members of a group simply because they are
members of that group. In this sense, Hopi ethics are for Hopi and
for no one else; business ethics, for people in business and for no one
else; and professional ethics, for members of a profession and for no one
else. Ethics – in this sense – is relative even though morality is not.
But ethics (in this sense) is not therefore mere
mores. Ethics must
at least be morally permissible. There can be no thieves’ ethics or Nazi
ethics, except with scare quotes around ‘ethics’.
This fifth sense of ‘ethics’ is, I think, the one implied in the claim
that one profession’s ethics differs from another (or, at least, the one
that yields the most interesting interpretation of that claim). So, for
example, while a philosopher’s course in Chemical Ethics might differ from
her course in Engineering Ethics in any number of ways, such differences
would not answer our question. We could still ask whether the professional
ethics of chemists (in our fifth sense of ‘ethics’) differs from the professional
ethics of engineers.
3. Professional Ethics
What then is ‘professional ethics’ (given our fifth sense of ‘ethics’)?
That, of course, depends on what we mean by ‘profession’. Unfortunately,
‘profession’ resembles ‘ethics’ in having several senses. ‘Profession’
can, for example, be used as a mere synonym for ‘occupation’ – an occupation
being any typically full-time activity, defined in part by an easily recognizable
body of knowledge, skill, and judgment (a ‘discipline’), by which one can
earn a living. It is in this sense that we may, without irony, speak of
someone being a ‘professional thief’. ‘Profession’ can, instead, be used
for any occupation one may openly admit to or profess, that is, an honest
occupation: ‘Plumbing is a profession; thieving is not.’ ‘Profession’ can
also be used for a special kind of honest occupation.
There are at least two approaches to defining this special kind of honest
occupation. One approach, what we may call ‘the sociological’, has its
origin in the social sciences. Its language tends to be statistical, that
is, the definition does not purport to give necessary or sufficient conditions
for some occupation being a profession but merely to report what is true
of ‘most professions’, ‘the most important professions’, or the like. Generally,
sociological definitions understand a profession to be any occupation whose
practitioners enjoy high social status, high income, advanced education,
important social function, or other features easy for the social sciences
to measure. For social scientists, there is no important distinction between
what used to be called ‘the liberal professions’ (those honest occupations
requiring literacy) and today’s professions (strictly so called). Plumbing
cannot be a profession because both the social status and education of
plumbers are too low. Law certainly is a profession (in this sense), because
lawyers have relatively high status, high income, and advanced education.
Business managers probably also form a profession (in this sense), because
they too tend to have high income, high status, advanced education, and
important social function.
The other approach to defining ‘profession’ is philosophical. A philosophical
definition attempts a statement of necessary and sufficient conditions
for an occupation to count as a profession. While a philosophical definition
may leave the status of a small number of would-be professions unsettled,
it should at least be able to explain (in a satisfying way) why those would-be
professions are neither clearly professions nor clearly not professions.
What follows is such a philosophical definition, the product of many years
trying to fit the definition to the practice that members of professions
take themselves to be engaged in:
A profession is a number of individuals in the same occupation voluntarily
organized to earn a living by openly serving a moral ideal in a morally-permissible
way beyond what law, market, and morality would otherwise require. 
According to this definition, a profession is a group undertaking. There
can be no profession of one. The group must share a common occupation.
(So, for example, a group consisting of physicians and lawyers cannot form
a profession, though lawyers can form one profession and physicians another.)
The group must organize its occupation to work in a morally permissible
way. Where there is no morally permissible way to carry on an occupation,
there can be no profession. There can, for example, be no profession of
thieves or torturers. The organization must set standards beyond what the
law, market, and ordinary morality would otherwise require. That is, the
organization must set special standards. Otherwise the occupation
would remain nothing more than an honest occupation. These special standards
will be ethical (in our fifth sense of ‘ethics’). They will apply to all
members of the group simply because they are members of that group (and
to no one else).
More interesting, I think, is that these standards will be morally
binding on every member of the profession simply because of membership
in the profession. Each profession is designed to serve a certain moral
ideal, that is, to contribute to a state of affairs everyone (every rational
person at her rational best) can recognize as good (that is, as what everyone
wants to be). So, physicians have organized to cure the sick, comfort the
dying, and protect the healthy from disease; lawyers, to help people obtain
justice within the law; accountants, to represent financial information
in ways both useful and accurate; and so on.
These moral ideals must be pursued openly; that is, physicians must
declare themselves to be physicians, lawyers must declare themselves to
be lawyers, accountants must declare themselves to be accountants, and
so on. The members of a (would-be) profession must declare themselves to
be members of that profession in order to earn their living by that profession.
They cannot be hired as such-and-such (say, a physician) unless they let
people know that they are such-and-such. If their profession has a good
reputation for what it does, their declaration of membership will aid them
in earning a living. People will seek their help. If, however, their profession
has a bad reputation (‘I am a quack’), their declaration of membership
will be a disadvantage. People will shun their help. In general, if the
members of an occupation are free to declare themselves or not, they will
declare themselves only if the declaration benefits them overall (that
is, serves some purpose of their own at what seems a reasonable cost).
Where members of a profession declare their membership voluntarily,
their way of pursuing the profession’s moral ideal will be a moral obligation.
They will, that is, have entered a voluntary, morally permissible cooperative
practice (by declaring their membership in the profession – ‘I am a physician’).
They will be in position to have the benefits of the practice, employment
as a member of that profession, because the employer sought a so-and-so
and they declared themselves to be one. They will also be in position to
take advantage of the practice by doing less than the standards of the
practice require, even though the expectation that they would do what the
standards require (because they declared that profession) is part of what
won them employment. If cheating consists in violating the rules of a voluntary,
morally permissible cooperative practice, then every member of a profession
is in a position to cheat. Since, all else equal, it is morally wrong to
cheat, every member of a profession has a moral obligation, all else equal,
to do as the special standards of the profession require.
Like a promise, professional ethics (the special standards of the profession)
imposes moral obligations. These standards may, and generally do, vary
from profession to profession. Indeed, it is possible to have several professions
sharing a single occupation, one profession being distinguished from another
only by its distinctive professional standards. So, for example, professional
standards, including somewhat different moral ideals, seem to be all that
make physicians (MD’s) one profession of medical healer and osteopaths
The special standards of a profession generally appear in a range of
documents, including standards of admission, practice, and discipline.
A code of ethics is, however, a central feature of a profession. In the
United States at least, the publication of a formal code of ethics is generally
the signal that an occupation has organized itself as a profession. An
occupation’s status as a profession is (more or less) independent of license,
state-imposed monopoly, or other special legal intervention. While professions
often commit themselves to obey the law, they need not. Indeed, insofar
as the laws of a particular country are unjust (or otherwise fall below
the moral minimum), any provision of a professional code purporting to
bind members of the profession to obey the law would be void (just as a
promise to do what morality forbids is void).
4. Chemistry and Engineering: Two Professions
Chemistry is, I think, clearly a profession in the sense just explained
– or, at least, it clearly is in those countries where chemists have adopted
a formal code of ethics. Consider, for example, the Chemist’s Code of Conduct
(1994) of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The code apparently applies
to all ‘chemists’, or at least to all within the United States (the occupation),
not merely to ACS members. The code’s preamble states a recognizable moral
ideal, "the improvement of the qualifications and usefulness of chemists".
(Every rational person at his rational best would want chemists to be qualified
and useful.) The body of the code states "responsibilities" to the public,
the science of chemistry, the profession, the employer, employees, students,
associates, clients, and the environment. Some of these responsibilities
clearly go beyond what law, market, and ordinary morality demand. For example,
chemists are supposed to "ensure that their scientific contributions, and
those of [their] collaborators, are thorough, accurate, and unbiased in
design, implementation, and presentation". Chemists do not allow themselves
the hit-or-miss approach to chemistry that would pass without comment in
a plumber, pilot, or politician.
For engineers, the equivalent of the ACS code is the Code of Ethics
of Engineers adopted by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology
(ABET). Like the ACS code, the ABET code apparently applies to all engineers,
not just to members of ABET. Also like the ACS code, the ABET code (1998)
begins with a statement of moral ideals ("Fundamental Principles"):
Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor, and dignity
of the engineering profession by:
Even with this partial statement of the preamble, we begin to see differences
between the ABET code and the ACS code. The ABET code (like other engineering
codes) commits engineers to using their knowledge and skill for "the enhancement
of human welfare". While chemists aspire to make themselves ‘useful’, engineers
aspire to improve the overall welfare of human beings. An engineer is committed
to human progress in a way that a chemist is not. For engineers, human
progress is a professional commitment.
using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare;
being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity the public, their
employers and clients; […]
Now, it might be argued that I am making too much of this difference
in preamble. After all (it might be said), the first "responsibility" of
a chemist is to the public, and that responsibility sounds much like the
Chemists have a professional responsibility to serve the public interest
and welfare and to further knowledge of science. Chemists should actively
be concerned with the health and welfare of co-workers, consumers, and
the community. Public comments on scientific matters should be made with
care and precision, without unsubstantiated, exaggerated, or premature
Yes, the chemist’s responsibility sounds much like the engineers,
but it also differs substantially. There is, first, the absence of any
mention of improvement in human welfare. For all the ACS code says, serving
the public interest and welfare may consist of no more than avoiding harm
to the public. Chemists need not be actively "concerned" to improve
human health or welfare. The only improvement in the human condition the
ACS code seems to recognize is in "knowledge of science". That, and that
alone, is to be "further[ed]".
If we now compare this first "responsibility" of chemists with the corresponding
first "fundamental canon" of the ABET code, we shall see a second difference
between the ACS code and the ABET code:
Here again, the engineers seem to have set a higher standard than the chemists.
The chemists need only "serve the public interest and welfare". When the
public interest or welfare comes into conflict with another responsibility
(for example, a responsibility to the employer or the environment), the
ACS code provides no guidance. Presumably, chemists are to try to satisfy
both responsibilities as much as sensible, perhaps trading off some satisfaction
of one in order to obtain more satisfaction of the other. For engineers,
however, there is no question of trade-off. The engineers must hold the
public safety, health, and welfare "paramount". They are not allowed to
look after the interests of employer or environment until they have taken
care of the public.
Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public
in the performance of their professional duties.
This difference between the ethics of chemists and engineers is not
hard-wired into the profession of engineering, even though something like
the paramountcy provision is now present in most codes of engineering ethics.
The first codes of engineering ethics, those adopted in Britain and the
United States in the second decade of the twentieth century, did not contain
such a provision, though there were proposals for such a provision a few
years later. The first major American code to include such a provision
did not appear until 1974. Thereafter the provision spread quickly to other
The paramountcy provision has, as far as I know, not reached the code
of ethics of any scientific society. The only non-engineering societies
to adopt such a provision have been technical societies the membership
of which includes both engineers and scientists. For example, the Chemical
Institute of Canada (CIC) is open to "professional chemists, chemical engineers,
or chemical technologists". Its code of ethics (March 9, 1996) specifically
requires that members (among other things) "accept and defend the primacy
of public well-being". The Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy
(AIMM) – "an assemblage of scientists, engineers, and technologists" –
takes a somewhat different approach. The first rule of its code of ethics
(1997) reads: "The responsibility of members for the welfare, health, and
safety of the community shall at all times come before their responsibility
to the profession, to sectional or private interests, or to other members."
AIMM’s code seems to allow its members to trade off the public’s welfare
against, say, the environment (since the environment is not a merely private,
sectional, or professional interest). In both the CIC code and the AIMM
code, the engineers seem to have moved the chemists in their direction.
Engineers are not released from their higher standard, but chemists who
join the CIC or AIMM are bound to a higher standard than other chemists.
I should perhaps point out that neither the CIC code nor the AIMM code
is a professional code. There are at least two (related) reasons why they
are not. First, both the CIC and AIMM codes apply only to members of the
society in question, not to all members of the ‘profession’. Any engineer
or chemist can avoid application of the code to her simply by avoiding
membership in the society; there is no need to change profession. Second,
neither CIC nor AIMM can have a code of ethics that is at once a professional
code and applies to all its members. The members of CIC belong to three
different occupations: chemical technologists, chemical engineers, and
professional chemists. Much the same is true of AIMM’s membership. Its
members include technologists, engineers, and scientists. A professional
code – by definition – applies to members of one profession simply because
they are members of that profession. Because there are at least three different
occupations represented in each society (and perhaps at least three different
professions as well), there must be at least three different professional
codes. And, however similar they may be in content, they will have to be
written so as to apply only to one profession and to be subject to change
by that one.
I have, I believe, now established that the professional ethics of chemists
is different from the professional ethics of engineers. We must now consider
why the difference might matter.
5. Back to Eaton
Both the Tribune report I quoted, and an earlier article in Nature
(January 19, 2000), raised a question about the morality of Eaton’s work
on explosives. Both compared Eaton’s work with that of another chemist,
Alfred Nobel who, having invented dynamite and many ways to use it effectively
in weapons, came to regret what he had done, devoting much of the considerable
fortune derived from his inventions to avoiding their use in war. Much
of the money for Eaton’s research, several million dollars, came from the
U.S. military. Unlike Nobel, Eaton must have known from the beginning of
his research that he was working on a weapon. He is, in any case, now clear
about his reason for doing so:
I don’t consider the military an enemy. I’m damn glad we’re safe here.
I do believe it’s important that the country be able to defend itself.
The Army people really deserve a lot of credit for sticking it out and
providing a lot of funding [for octanitrocubane].
Kahr, on the other hand, is not so sure: "Would it trouble me to know that
one of my projects might be used for ill? Absolutely. I wouldn’t accept
a grant from a military agency under any circumstances." But – Kahr goes
on to make clear – this is only an individual judgment. Chemists are under
no professional obligation to refuse work that "might be used for
ill": "I am not trying to seem superior. We all draw our line in the sand
at whichever place is comfortable."
Like chemists, engineers sometimes do weapons research; and, like chemists,
engineers sometimes wonder whether it is appropriate for engineers to engage
in such research. But the engineering version of the question has a somewhat
different structure. For chemists, the chief questions are: a) will what
I do be useful? and b) will it serve the public interest? For chemists,
public safety is doubtless an element of the public interest, but it is
not a matter of special interest. Chemists are free to trade off safety
against other interests. For example, a chemist may, without professional
impropriety, treat the risk that octanitrocubane will eventually fall into
the hands of terrorists, making it easier for them to conceal explosives
of a certain power, as just one consideration among others (including the
interest in furthering knowledge of chemistry). For an engineer, however,
the public safety, along with public health and welfare, is paramount.
Engineers working on the equivalent of octanitrocubane should be building
public safety into it. That is part of their professional responsibility.
Where chemists and engineers work together, the engineer’s special concern
with safety may strike chemists as quite odd.
Engineers do, of course, balance safety against some other considerations,
that is, those other "paramount" considerations, the public welfare and
public health. Their profession does not require them to make anything
‘perfectly safe’ – where ‘perfectly safe’ means something like ‘has a zero
probability of causing harm to anyone’. For engineers, safety is a relatively
complicated notion. Generally, safety is defined for a specific product,
activity, or system. One relevant consideration in defining safety for
a specific product is what the public knows or expects, what the public
thinks is ‘safe enough’ for that product. The standard for a safe VW Bug
need not be the same as for a safe Saab or BMW. The public has a right
knowingly to trade safety for comfort, convenience, affordability, or even
Public knowledge or expectation is, however, not the only relevant consideration.
For many products (activities or systems), there is a governmental agency
that acts on behalf of the public. A city or state may adopt a building
code in part to assure the public that buildings will meet certain minimum
standards of safety. The Department of Energy may adopt safety standards
for fast breeder reactors. And so on. These governmental regulations also
help to define safety for engineers (more or less independently of what
the public knows or expects).
For engineers, safety also depends in part on the ‘state of the art’
at the time the product is made. If, for example, an engineer finds a way
to make some product safer without additional cost (say, by the substitution
of one alloy for another), she has an obligation to make the product safer
even though the public does not expect it and no government agency requires
it. The engineer’s discovery has changed the state of the art. If, however,
the improvement would add significantly to the cost of the product, the
engineer will have to balance the public safety against the public welfare.
Sometimes the balance will be clearly enough in favor of making the improvement;
then the engineer should make it. When, however, the balance in favor does
not seem clear enough (for example, when even well-informed engineers disagree
about whether the benefit justifies the cost the public would pay), the
engineer should seek some way of letting the public decide where its overall
interest lies, for example, by offering both the new product (at a higher
price) and the old product (at its old price), by asking the government
to decide whether to require the improvement, or by initiating a public
Should chemists change their code of ethics to give safety the same
priority engineers give it? That is a question for chemists (so long, of
course, as what they choose does not fall below the moral minimum). The
answer is not obvious. While it is probable true that chemists could win
back some jobs lost to engineers if they treated safety the way engineers
do, it may also be that chemists who pay that sort of attention to safety
will not be as adventurous (and therefore as useful in their own way) as
chemists now are. We have different professions in part at least because
serving some moral ideals well is (in practice at least) inconsistent with
serving others well.
[*] This paper was originally written during the
six weeks of July and early August 2001, when I was a Visiting Fellow at
the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE)-Canberra, Australia.
I read a first draft at a CAPPE seminar, Australian National University,
Canberra, July 13, 2001; a later draft at a CAPPE, University of Melbourne,
August 1, 2001; and another draft at CAPPE, Charles Sturt University, Wagga
Wagga, August 8, 2001. I should like to thank all those present, as well
as Jeffrey Kovac, for many helpful comments.
 For more on the anomalous status of synthetic
chemistry with the natural sciences, see S. Rosenfeld and N. Bhushan, ‘Chemical
Synthesis, Complexity, Similarity, Natural Kinds, and the Evolution of
a "Logic"’, in: N. Bhushan and S. Rosenfeld (eds.), Of Minds and Molecules,
Oxford University Press, New York, 2000, pp. 187-207.
 I should perhaps add that the distinction
here is not between chemistry as the ‘purer science’ and engineering as
the ‘more applied’. Eaton’s work is in fact much more applied than much
work in engineering; and the history of chemistry resembles the history
of engineering in combining important theoretical work with important applications.
For more on why much chemistry has never fit the (dying) distinction between
pure and applied research, see Jeffrey Kovac, ‘Professionalism and Ethics
in Chemistry’, Foundations of Chemistry, 2 (2000), 207-219.
 For a defense, see my Profession, Code,
and Ethics, Ashgate, 2002.
 I should like to thank Seumas Miller for
questioning me until I saw the need to make this point.
 The Rules of Conduct of the American Institute
of Chemists (April 29, 1983), though different in detail, is equally a
code of professional ethics for American chemists. The moral ideal stated
in the preamble is "To protect the public and maintain the honor of the
profession". Among its special "duties" are "To avoid associating or being
identified with any enterprise of questionable character". Does the existence
of this second code of ethics mean that the United States has two professions
of chemistry? I think not. The American Chemical Society (ACS) is the more
general association of chemists, including academics as well as chemists
working in industry; the membership of the American Institute (AIC) is
primarily chemists working in industry. For that reason, I think, the AIC
code is much more specific about employment practices and altogether silent
on other subjects about which the ACS code has something to say, for example,
the treatment of students. In addition, the AIC code has a somewhat different
function. Its final numbered paragraph imposes a duty on chemists "To report
any infractions of these principles of professional conduct to the authorities
responsible for enforcement of applicable laws or regulations, or to the
Ethics Committee of The American Institute of Chemists, as appropriate."
The ACS code has no equivalent provision. Because it can be used in disciplinary
proceedings, it seems reasonable for the AIC code to be both more specific
and less demanding than a code designed merely to guide conscience. While
designed as a legal or quasi-legal document, it does not, as far as I can
tell, contain any provision inconsistent with the ACS code. I therefore
think it reasonable to view the AIC code as offering specifications of
the ACS code, not as defining a second profession of chemistry.
References to Codes of Conduct on the Internet
Chemist’s Code of Conduct (ACS, 1994):
Code of Ethics (AIC, 1983):
Code of Ethics of Engineers (ABET, 1998):
CIC Code of Ethics (March 9, 1996):
AIMM Code (1997):
Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, 3241 S. Federal
St., HUB 204, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL 60616, U.S.A.;
2002 by HYLE and Michael Davis