What Are an Engineer’s Obligations When Freedoms Intersect?

Anyone who accepts a freedom, license, registration, or any privilege must also accept the duties and responsibilities that go with such considerations. Nothing comes for free, and the payment can be costly for those who do not understand the obligations that go with their actions. Unfortunately, some people out there have no issue with steering you astray; they do not share the same ethical, moral, or legal responsibilities that you possess or to which you are bound. You are the one who must honor and uphold your principles, morals, and ethical beliefs—only you; no one else can do it for you.

As we all know, or should know, freedom is not free. It is provided by those who defend the rights of others to have freedom—many who have given their lives to protect and serve others. The same is true for those who seek privilege or recognition as certified, licensed, and/or registered members of society. As a society with many differing points of view, we must always remember that our freedoms and rights stop when they conflict with someone else’s freedoms and rights. Agree or disagree, we all share the same space and must show respect for other points of view. Everyone has grown up with their own life experiences that form their norm.

Achieving the honor of being a Registered Professional Engineer also brings the responsibilities and obligations of honoring the legal oath to a code of ethics. As an engineer, my first and primary obligation is to serve the public’s interest. However, I also have obligations to the client and to my employer, so it is always a balancing act to ensure that these responsibilities are fulfilled while protecting the public’s health, safety, welfare.

Much has been made of individual freedom in today’s polarized society, but many of those espousing their individual freedom may have little or no knowledge about the meaning of “freedom.”  Freedom (the power or right to act, speak, or think as one desires without hindrance or restraint) is what Americans have fought, spilled blood, and died for, along with millions of others for centuries. Every generation has had its own issues and narratives to justify a self-serving or other-serving stance on the topic of freedom. Freedom remains a focal point in the United States and the world at large. This idea can be viewed from many angles.

Historically, the term “freedom from” goes back for centuries, but in 1776, freedom from “tyranny over these States” as administered by King George III of Great Britain became a battle cry of the Founding Fathers and led to the American Revolution and, ultimately, our independence. Since then, other events in America have expanded freedom and rights: the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Rights Amendment, which was approved in 1972 but is not yet fully ratified and enacted, along with further efforts to codify, through the democratic process, other expected or believed freedoms.

When one’s freedom intersects with someone else’s life and potentially does some form of harm, limits or prohibitions must be put in place to protect the common good. For instance, that’s why smoking is prohibited at most indoor gathering places and why safety restraints are put in motor vehicles. When an individual places themselves and others at risk, it would seem that they are overstepping the boundaries of freedom.

We must ask ourselves: Is America primarily a nation of freedom or a nation of laws? I would suggest that we are a nation of both freedom and laws; they interact. When Americans abuse the freedom and cause harm to those around them, their individual freedoms must be limited.

Tish Harrison Warren published an essay recently in The New York Times titled “The Limits of ‘My Body, My Choice’” in which she eloquently states the case for a vital balance between choosing for ourselves and caring for those around us: “We have obligations to others, even obligations that we do not willingly choose. Our personal preferences and maximal autonomy must be set aside for the sake of loving our neighbor and for the common good.”

While laws help establish limits on individual freedoms, we as individuals must also use common sense to control our freedom impulses. We must always consider what our actions do to others and how they affect the common good. As they say in the medical world, “Do no harm.” Regardless of our profession, we should always remember to do no harm.

We as a society need to understand that our freedoms have limits when they intersect with others who have the same freedoms. We all need to accept our responsibilities and the obligations that go along with our privileges and freedoms. As the saying goes, “Do to others as you would have them to do to you.” Accept the privileges and freedoms granted by those privileges, but also honor the obligations and responsibilities that go with those privileges. Protect the common good and hold the public’s health, safety, and welfare paramount above all other obligations.

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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