Faith in Focus

Engineering, Ethics and Christianity



In March this year I was given the opportunity to give a lecture to the final year engineering students at Canterbury University. The lecture was part of the Dean's Lecture Series, in which people from the community are invited to give lectures on subjects that may be of interest to the students as they shortly embark on their careers. The topic I was given was 'Engineering, Ethics, and Christianity'. Below is the text of the address.


Introduction: Defining the Terms


Our lecture today is on Engineering, Ethics and Christianity, so let’s begin by defining our terms. I am certainly no expert on the subject of engineering, but since you are all final year students, I figure I am fairly safe in leaving that one to you.

            The term “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethos or aethos (both words are found). Ethos means ‘customs’ or ‘habits’. Aethos is similar in meaning but carries the added connotation of a haunt or abode and that throws a certain light on the deeper meaning of customs and habits in human life. The customs we are talking about are not external or theoretical. On the contrary, we

live in them. They form the milieu in which we move and are comfortable. If they are our ethical principles, we ought to be ‘at home’ with them.

            So how do we use the term today? The Shorter Oxford Dictionary define “ethics” as “the science of morals”. Another dictionary has: “The science which treats of the nature and grounds of moral obligation; moral philosophy, which teaches men their duty and the reasons of it.” Strictly speaking, therefore, when we use the term “ethics”, we are not speaking of a code of conduct or a set of laws by which to live. For that we could use the term “morality” or “moral code”. Moral codes tell us how we should act. But with ethics, we take a step back from this and reflect on the question: Why is it right or wrong to do this? Ethics is the science of reflecting on morals and making judgements about them. To give a specific example, take the following statement: You should act in such a way as to respect and preserve the natural environment in which we live. This is a moral law or principle. But in the science of ethics, we have to wrestle with the question: Why should we respect and preserve the natural environment? Because the government says so? Because of the Resource Management Act? Because this is a nice thing to do? Because we can’t think of a better way to live? Or what? Only when we come to terms with the ethical aspect will we be “at home” with the moral code in question, so much “at home” that it would be unnatural for us to violate that code.

So much for ethics. What about the third part of our topic - Christianity? Christianity is the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught a great deal about God and how we can know him. His teachings explain why there is evil and suffering in the world and how we can be saved from it. And Jesus also taught a great deal about how we should live. In one address, known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus interacted with the views of the Jewish religious leaders of his day, called Pharisees. Here is what he said:


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and

teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).


When Jesus referred to the “Law and the Prophets”, he meant the Old Testament Scriptures, which are the books of the Bible from Genesis through to Malachi. And it is clear from what he said here that Jesus did not want to be understood as teaching a radical new moral code. On the contrary, his own ethical position was based on and explained the truths found in the Old Testament. So if we are going to speak of Christian ethics, we will want to draw on the Bible as a whole - the 39 books that comprise the Old Testament and the 27 books that comprise the New Testament.

Just in passing, you may be asking the question, what relevance can the Bible have, written so many years ago, to the society of today? Well, the Bible tells us about a God who is always there, and who does not change in terms of his character and the ethical principles that are expressed in his law. So those principles are relevant for every age and society and this was

certainly the position that Jesus held and taught.

What I want to do now is list a number of ethical principles found in the Bible - principles that are pertinent for you as engineering students.


Principle 1 Caring for the Environment


Earlier we raised the question why should we respect and preserve our environment and its natural resources. The Bible’s perspective on this is that the world in which we live has been created by God. We read this in the opening sections of the Bible in the book of Genesis, which is a word that means ‘beginning’. Genesis chapter 1 informs us that God made the world and everything in it and that what he made was “very good”. We also read that of all God’s creatures, it was man who was made in God’s image. We could spend quite a bit of time talking about what that means, but at least part of the concept is expressed in Genesis 1:26 where we read:


“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over thefish of the sea and over the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”


So at least part of what it means to be created in the image of God is that God himself is a king and ruler over his creation and that man himself is to exercise that role in the world at large. However, the Bible tells us that the world is important to God, that he upholds it, and that he cares for it. So when this passage talks about man ruling over all the earth, it is not ruling in the sense of subjugation and abuse that is intended, but ruling in the sense of husbanding and caring for the world. Using its resources, yes, but also protecting them and preserving them for future  generations.

Interesting in this connection is the fact that later on there were a number of laws given to Israel as a nation that explicitly require the preservation and protection of the natural environment. For example, in Deuteronomy 22:6 we read:


“If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.”


Under this heading, we can also mention the fact that God prescribed a sabbatical system in Israel in which the land was left fallow every seventh year so that it could recover from heavy cropping. Again, these were laws were designed to protect the environment. Its resources could be utilized, but not destroyed - husbanded, not abused.

At this point I’d like to mention the IPENZ Code of Ethics. IPENZ is the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand and monitors the academic developments and maturity of engineers in NZ. Once you are a full member of IPENZ it is acknowledged that you have the professional skills, maturity and ability to act in a competent way that will be highly regarded and valued by society.

In the 1996 edition of the IPENZ Code, which I understand is the latest edition of it, you have the following:


“Members shall be committed to the need for sustainable management of the planet’s resources and seek to minimize adverse environmental impacts on their engineering works or applications of technology for both present and future generations.”


From a Christian point of view, this is a laudable commitment and you ought to be encouraged in it. Of course, we have the Resource Management Act in this country and there may well be other codes that the government requires you to follow in your work. But from a Christian ethical standpoint, the reason why these principles should be upheld is that the world has been made by God and we ought to care for and protect it. The issue of how much waste is generated by factories, how the waste is eliminated, even the aesthetic impact of the buildings you help construct - these factors should all be taken into account in your work.

That brings us to the second principle.

(To be Continued)


Mr Michael Flinn is the Minister of the Reformed Church of Bishopdale-Dovedale.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000