At the Pittsburg meeting of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, held from the 16th to the 19th of February, Mr. James C. Bayles, the President, delivered the following address:
GENTLEMEN OF THE INSTITUTE: Having availed myself somewhat liberally during the past two years of the latitude which is accorded the president in the selection of the topics presented in addresses from the chair, I do not need to plead safe precedent as my warrant for devoting the address which marks the conclusion of my service in the dignified and honorable office to which, through your unmerited favor, I have been twice chosen, to the consideration of some of the questions in casuistry the answers to which will be found to furnish a basis for a code of professional ethics. It is not asking too much of the engineer that his professional morality shall conform to higher standards than those which govern men who buy and sell with no other object than the getting of gain. The professional man stands in a more confidential relation to his client than is supposed to exist between buyer and seller in trade. He is necessarily more trusted, and has larger opportunities of betraying the confidence reposed in him than is offered the merchant or the business agent.
For the reason that he cannot be held to the same strict accountability which law and usage establish in mercantile business, he is under a moral obligation to fix his own rules of conduct by high standards and conform to them under all circumstances. Whatever the measure of his professional success - whether wealth and reputation crown his career, or disappointment and poverty be his constant and unwelcome companions - no taint of suspicion should attach to any professional act or utterance. Not only should we be able to write above the wreck of bright hopes, "Honor alone remains," but upon our great and successful achievements should it be possible for others to inscribe the legend, "In honor wrought; with honor crowned."
It is frequently and confidently asserted that at no time in the history of the world were the standards of business honor so high as now. The prevalence of dishonesty, in one form or another, is held to show that there is a great deal of moral weakness which is unequal to the strain to which principle is subjected in the keenness of business competition, and in the presence of the almost unlimited confidence which apparently characterizes commercial intercourse. The enormous volume of the daily transactions on 'change, where a verbal agreement or a sign made and recognized in the midst of indescribable confusion has all the binding force of a formal contract; the real-estate and merchandise transactions effected on unwitnessed and unrecorded understandings; the certification of checks on the promise of deposits or collaterals, and a hundred other evidences of confidence, are cited as proof that the accepted standards of business honor are high, and are kept so by public opinion. All of this is true, in a certain limited sense; but the confidence which is the basis of all business creates opportunities for dishonesty which changes its shape with more than Protean facility when detected and denounced.
The keenness of competition in all departments of professional and business enterprise presents a constant temptation to seize every advantage, fair or unfair, which promises immediate profit. It is unfortunately true that the successful cleverness which sacrifices honor to gain is more easily condoned by public opinion than honest dullness which is caught in the snares laid for it by the cunning manipulators of speculation. The man who fails to deliver what he has bought, to meet his paper at maturity and make good the certifications of his banker, loses at once his business standing, and is practically excluded from business competition; but if he keeps his engagements and is successful, the public is kindly blind to the agencies he may employ to depreciate what he wants to buy or impart a fictitious value to what he wants to sell. Viewed from this standpoint, it may be questioned whether the accepted standards of business morality are not, after all, those fixed by the revised statutes.
In so far as the engineer is brought in contact with the activities of trade, he cannot fail to be conscious of the fact that serious temptations surround him. Such reputation as he has gained is assumed to have a market value, and the price is held out to him on every side. It should not be difficult for the conscientious engineer, jealous of his professional honor, to decide what is right and what is not. He does not need to be reminded that he cannot sell his independence nor make merchandise of his good name. But as delicate problems in casuistry may mislead or confuse him, it is to be regretted that so little effort has been made to formulate a code of professional ethics which would help to right decisions those who cannot reach them unaided.
Standing in the presence of so many of those who have dignified the profession of engineering, I should hesitate to express my views on this subject did I not believe that many earnest and right-minded young men in our active and associate membership will be glad to know what rules of conduct govern those whose example they would willingly follow, and how one not a practicing engineer, but with good opportunities of observation and judgment, would characterize practices which have been to some extent sanctioned by custom. To those who have yet to win the gilded spurs of professional knighthood, but who cherish a high and honorable ambition, my suggestions are chiefly addressed.
An ever present stumbling block in the path of the young engineer is what is lightly spoken of as the "customary commission" - a percentage paid him on the price of machinery and supplies purchased or recommended by him. That manufacturers expect to pay commissions to engineers who are instrumental in effecting the sale of their products is a striking proof that the standards of business morality are quite as low as I have assumed them to be; that engineers do not unite in indignant protest against the custom, and denounce as bribe-givers and bribe-takers those who thus exchange services, shows that the iron has entered the souls of many who may be disposed to resent such plain terms as those in which I decree it my duty to describe transactions of this kind.