Philosophy 318: Professional Ethics
Theodore Gracyk

Outline of McGinn Essay

Here are the highlights of the case study:

  • The Z bicycle company wants to produce a composite-material bike frame, because these have become popular.
  • Z contracts Smith to advise them. (Smith claims to be an expert.)
  • Smith creates a plan, and hires Brown as an additional consultant on the project. Smith asks Brown to endorse his proposal.
  • Brown does not endorse Smith's proposal and tells Smith why.
  • Brown agrees to attend a meeting where Smith will present his plan to Z. At the meeting, Z discovers Brown's refusal to endorse the plan and this is an important reason why Z does not adopt the proposal.
  • Employees of Z are impressed by Brown, and contact him with an offer to have him create a proposal to replace Smith's failed proposal.
  • Brown declines; he works for Smith.
  • When Z ends its contract with Smith, they approach Brown again, who now agrees to work for Z, but only after Smith agrees that there is no conflict of interest.
  • Although Z wants a composite-material bike frame, Brown thinks that they don't need it. In addition to his exploration of that project, he investigates another alternative. Jones, his contact at Z, tells Brown that Z does not want to explore the alternative, so Brown does this part of the project with his own money. 
  • Brown shows Z both what they want (very expensive to do) and his own alternative (very inexpensive, producing bigger profits).
  • When Z chooses Brown's unauthorized plan, Brown gets a share of profit on each bike sold. Brown shares some of this with Smith.


Smith tries to "buy" an endorsement. Brown refuses to comply. However, Brown is slow to tell Z that Smith is incompetent. It seems that Brown was, by his initial silence, willing to let Z waste its time and money.

Brown's presence at the meeting with Smith and Z would normally have been understood by Z as meaning that Brown supported Smith; Brown should not have been there unless Brown was sure that Smith deserved support. Did Brown attend to support Smith, or to undermine Smith?

When Z tries to hire Brown, Z puts Brown into competition with his own employer, Smith.

Brown ignored the direct instructions of his contact at Z. Brown decided that Z did not know its own interests! (Or, at the very least, that the person in charge of the situation did not, or had personal interests for not doing so.) Brown correctly guessed that it was better to improve the existing product than to take the RISK of putting a new product on the market (a product that was not yet tested by real users on a large scale).

When Brown showed the unauthorized plan to Z, Brown advised the client in an area where the client did not seek advice. Did Brown engage in self-interest? Did Brown do something beyond the requirements of duty? Perhaps both?

McGinn's View of Moral Decision-Making

McGinn proposes that the bicycle case shows the importance of TWO MORAL PRINCIPLES that hold for engineers.

  1. An engineer should serve the client's legitimate interests to the best of her/his abilities

  2. An engineer must be concerned for the health, safety, and welfare of the general public.

McGinn thinks that what's good and bad in the interactions of Smith, Brown, and Jones can be understood by reference to these two.


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            Last updated Jan. 14, 2009