In making reports for contingent fees or fees of contingent value, the young engineer needs to exercise great discretion. This may be done without impropriety if done openly; but it is safe to assume that few opportunities will come to the young man with a reputation still to make in which he can do clean and creditable work on any such basis. The engineer called upon to make a report for a fee in stock which depends for its value upon the effect of his report in creating confidence in the public mind, takes a fearful risk. However honest he may be, he places himself in a position in which the danger is obvious and the advantage uncertain. If, having a contingent interest in the result of his work, he is afraid to say so in his report, he may safely consider his position unprofessional and unsafe. Contingent fees are a delusion and a snare, and in making it a rule to refuse them the young engineer will be likely to gain more than he loses.
Reports intended to influence the public upon subjects concerning which the engineer knows himself unqualified to speak with authority are to be classed with other forms of charlatanry. No man can claim infallibility of judgment, nor is this expected of the engineer, whatever his position; but those who pay for professional services have a right to demand that the man who assumes to speak as an expert shall have the special knowledge which will command for his opinion the respect of those who are well informed. I consider it unprofessional for the engineer to enter upon the discharge of any duties for which he knows he is not qualified, if for the satisfactory discharge of those duties he must assume a knowledge he does not possess. There has been an immense amount of unprofessional work done in the field of reporting, and many reputations have been blasted by a failure to draw nice distinctions in questions of professional honor. The young engineer cannot be too careful in this matter, and he will be fortunate if, with all the prudence he can exercise, he is able to avoid disaster.
Of a professional reputation dependent upon the accuracy as well as the honesty of reports ordered and used for speculative purposes, one may say as a marine underwriter lately said of an unseaworthy steamer, that he "would not insure her against sinking, from Castle Garden to Sandy Hook, with a cargo of shavings."
In the matter of expert service in the courts I am disposed to speak guardedly. I see no reason why an engineer should not willingly go upon the witness stand to give expert testimony if he has made proper preparation and has an honest conviction that his testimony can be given with a conscientious regard for the obligations of his oath as a witness. It is his duty and his privilege to defend his opinions, for the man without opinions which he is prepared to defend is worthless as a witness and cannot properly be called an expert. But the conscientious engineer has no right to appear as a partisan of anything except what he believes to be the truth. If he finds himself parrying the questions of the cross-examination with a view to concealing the truth, if he realizes that he is a partisan of the side which retains him, and feels a temptation to earn his fee by falsehood, concealment, or evasion, he can be sure that he is in a position in which no man of honor has a right to be. The abuses of expert testimony in civil and criminal suits are many and grave; its uses are perhaps exaggerated, and the witness stand is not an inviting field for the young engineer seeking a satisfactory career.
How far an engineer can properly use for his own advantage information gained in the discharge of duties of a confidential nature, is a question at once delicate and difficult. He cannot help knowing what he has learned, and his knowledge is his capital. He must be governed in this matter by the considerations which influence men of honor in the ordinary relations of life. Stock and real estate operations, on confidential information which belongs to one's principals, are usually in violation of the simplest rules of professional honor. The manager who advises his brokers by telegraph and his principals by mail cannot, I think, claim to have a very delicate sense of right and wrong. He can judge his own conduct by the standard he would apply in judging like infidelity on the part of those employed by him.
In professional criticism of professional work, it is easy to fall into ways which are wrong, morally and professionally. Criticism which is designed merely to advertise the critic serves no good purpose, and savors of charlatanry or something worse. Only a small proportion of the current critical literature of engineering serves any good or useful purpose, since it has no other or higher object than to help the critics to climb into notoriety on the shoulders of the older and wiser men with whom they are brought into competition. I regard as unprofessional every effort to discredit honest and intelligent work, and every form of disguised advertising designed to give an engineer a greater prominence than he has earned by successful and creditable work, or is entitled to claim by virtue of fitness for more than average professional achievements.
It is neither possible nor desirable to catalogue the unprofessional practices which in one way or another come to the notice of those observant of current happenings in the several departments of engineering. It is the contention of some that right and wrong are relative terms, applying to no action or line of conduct save as it is considered in relation to coincident and contingent circumstances. I will not deny that this may be true of all professional acts, but the impossibility of an arbitrary classification under the heads right and wrong, honorable and dishonorable, need not make it difficult for a man to formulate a code of professional ethics by which his own conduct shall be governed. There are certain broad ethical principles which never change. One is that a man cannot serve two masters having conflicting interests, and be faithful to each. Another is that, however skillfully one may juggle words to conceal meanings or evade responsibility, if the intent to deceive is there, he lies. Professional ethics are no different from the ethics of the Decalogue; they are specific applications of the rules of conduct which have governed enlightened and honorable men in all ages and in all walks of life.
It is only when the moral sense is blunted or temptation presents itself in some new and unrecognized form that it is difficult to draw the line between right and wrong. I am aware that a delicate sense of honor often comes between a man and his opportunities of profit, and that a fine sensitiveness is rarely appreciated at its value by those who employ professional service. I know that in this busy world men of affairs do not always stop to weigh motives, and that confident assurance always commands respect, while modest merit is distrusted. But I do not know that a man can sell his honor for a price, and retain thereafter the right to stand erect in the presence of his fellows. I do not know that any engineer can make for himself a creditable and satisfactory career of whom it cannot be said that, whatever his mistakes or successes, his failures or triumphs, he has held his professional honor above suspicion.