Dr Lorrainne Doherty pictured with SAIMechE CEO, Uncel Mhlembe

I had the opportunity to attend the recent launch of the publication: “Engineering Ethics in South Africa”, together with our Editor, Susan Custers. Held at the Juta offices in Sandton, author Dr Lorrainne Doherty, took guests through the need for South Africans to be keenly aware of their actions and decisions in light of competing and often conflicting interests. Dr Doherty’s lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand as well as guest lecturing to industry in a time when it has never been more important to navigate the sometimes murky world of ‘what’s right’ and what’s wrong’. 

Below follows some extracts from the book covering the sort of questions on which the answer is built.

Ethics and Morals: Are They the Same?

In practice these two words are used interchangeably. This hints at the relationship of interdependence these two terms enjoy in society, in the workplace and for the individual. Together they contribute to and provide us with a direct sense of:

However, in philosophical theory the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ are specific, distinct and different. Each serves a precise purpose with its own set of consequences.

Differences between ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’


The word ‘ethics’ comes from the Greek word ‘ethikos’ and relates to ethos or character. It concerns human judgement such as:

Our judgements are rooted in our values and beliefs and thus can be considered relative and/or conditional because what one person judges to be ‘good’ another person might judge to be ‘bad’. Similarly one person might judge an individual worthy of praise because they have met the passmark for an assessment, whereas another would consider this achievement not praiseworthy because in meeting the minimum requirements for passing the assessment, the candidate has done so with the bare minimum of marks. 

This example serves to remind us of the importance that vales play in our lives. It is proposed they are not only deeper than attitudes and more embedded in our character, but perhaps even longer lasting. Our values are developed over time (the course of our lifetime from birth until death). 


The words ‘ morals’ and ‘morality’ come from the Latin ‘moralis’, a concept concerned with actions, not issues of human character. It arguably speaks directly to our behaviours. It concerns issues of:

Unlike ethics, it concerns accepted norms and practices and thus can be considered absolute/unconditional but, most importantly, universal. Within society, there are invariably accepted ‘ways of doing’ things.

Sometimes these are codified through laws, whilst sometimes they are just accepted practices, such as giving up one’s seat on a bus or train to an elderly and/or infirm person. In any event these norms can arguably be interpreted as representing societal values, which speaks to the interdependency of ethics and morals and how they influence each other.

In reality

…Asking ourselves “What is ethical?” and “What is moral?” These seemingly simple questions have a reality that is often much more complex and it’s not uncommon for an air of personal confusion to be present as we examine our stance in situations that present themselves as moral dilemmas and/or moral conflicts.

As irrational as it seems, it is often by knowing and/or understanding what is unethical that we get a sense and understanding of what is ethical.

We can do this by applying our skills of observation, knowledge and understanding in a way that helps us reach a decision on whether it impedes or prohibits either our own or the broader community’s flourishing/well-being. If we use this distinction, it can be found to be extremely useful in assisting us when we consider issues where blurring can easily occur and our decisions on ethicality and morality seem confused and lack substance and consensus.  

Case Studies

Dr Doherty’s publication includes information on whistle-blowing in South Africa as well as some case studies where the lack of engineering ethics and the fatal absence of accurate and suitable risk & safety mitigation strategies have had disastrous consequences such as the Tongaat Mall Collapse, the Boeing 737 Max 8 Design, and the Ford SA Kuga and Ford Pinto case.  


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