Remembering an Ethical Engineering Advocate

By on September 24th, 2023 in Articles, Ethics, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, News and Notes, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

By Joseph Herkert and Clinton J. Andrews

The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) lost one of its leading lights when Stephen H. “Steve” Unger passed away on 4 July 2023, at the age of 92 ( Unger’s life and career have three types of significance for SSIT, IEEE, and the engineering profession. First, Steve Unger was a celebrated engineer, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Columbia University, and IEEE Life Fellow, who penned two books on digital logic [1], [2] and while at Bell Labs participated in the development of the electronic telephone switching system. Second, Unger was a co-founder of SSIT’s predecessor organization, the Committee on Social Implications of Technology (CSIT) [3], and an active member and leader during SSIT’s first two and one-half decades. Third, Unger was a pioneer in the emerging field of engineering ethics [4] including authoring one of the first textbooks on the subject [5] and drawing on his experiences within IEEE/CSIT/SSIT to illustrate the importance of professional society involvement in promoting and supporting ethical behavior by engineers. In this remembrance, we focus on the last two of these achievements, his role in CSIT/SSIT and his contributions to the field of engineering ethics.

The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) lost one of its leading lights when Stephen H. “Steve” Unger passed away on 4 July 2023, at the age of 92.

As mentioned, Unger was a co-founder of CSIT in 1971 and as vice-chair (1980) guided its transformation to SSIT beginning in 1982 [3]. In the early days of the new society, he served as SSIT’s second president (1985–1986). By the 1990s when we both became involved with SSIT, Unger was organizing and hosting in New York City quarterly meetings of the SSIT Administrative Committee (AdCom) in his conference room at work, catered with takeout sandwich orders he fetched. At that time, SSIT leadership was going through a transition from a small group of dedicated volunteers primarily located in the Northeast U.S. to a more geographically diverse leadership engaged in a broad range of activities, including conferences and collaborations with other IEEE societies. The transition to a larger, more broadly engaged AdCom (eventually renamed Board of Governors) with some meetings outside of New York was frustrating for Unger, who much preferred discussing social and ethical issues of technology to planning for conferences, budgeting, and other minutia of a more broadly engaged technical society. He nonetheless continued to participate with and support the new generation of SSIT leaders well beyond the beginning of the millennium, continuing to serve as Ethics Committee Chair and filling other posts when needed including Publications Chair and Professional Activities Committee for Engineers (PACE) representative. It is no exaggeration to say that SSIT, with two journals and a newsletter, a portfolio of conferences, including the IEEE ETHICS conference series, 27 chapters worldwide, and extensive standards activities would not be what it is today without the foundation laid by Unger and other early architects of the society.

While Unger was interested in a number of sociotechnical issues including government-imposed secrecy regarding scientific and engineering knowledge [6], his greatest contributions were in the area of engineering ethics. He was a champion of engineering Codes of Ethics, having contributed to the drafting of the original IEEE Code of Ethics in 1974 [7] and the significant overhaul of the code in 1990 [8]. Although Unger disagreed with some of the provisions of these codes [7], today’s more expansive IEEE Code, which includes provisions on ethical design, sustainable development, privacy, intelligent systems, and diversity and inclusion [9] would not be the model of engineering professionalism that it is without these earlier contributions of Unger and other CSIT members.

The 1974 Code evolved in part from Unger’s chronicling [10] of the classic engineering ethics case of the three engineers who were fired after calling attention to safety problems in San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) System’s automated train controls. Other outcomes included the issuance by the IEEE of an amicus curiae brief in support of the engineers in a lawsuit they brought against BART and the establishment of the IEEE Member Conduct Committee [11]. The BART engineers were the first recipients of CSIT’s Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest, subsequently renamed in honor of the late Carl Barus, a former chair of the SSIT awards committee (

Unger’s work stood out at a time when few engineers were actively engaged in the scholarship of engineering ethics.

In 1995, Unger was appointed to the new IEEE Ethics Committee and served as its chair from 1997 to 1998. Along with the previous Chair, the late Jerry Engel (another distinguished leader of SSIT), Unger helped establish a number of reforms in IEEE ethics policies and practices including the establishment of an ethics hotline. These developments proved to be too much, too soon for the IEEE Board of Directors and a backlash occurred resulting in the termination of the hotline and consolidation of the Ethics Committee with the Member Conduct Committee [12]. It is only in recent years that the kind of progress Unger worked so diligently for 20 years earlier materialized in significant changes to IEEE’s ethics policies, procedures, and programs [13].

As important as Unger’s work on engineering ethics was within IEEE, its greatest impact has perhaps been on teaching and scholarship in the field of engineering ethics. His book Controlling technology: Ethics and the responsible engineer [15], first published in 1982, is both an engineering ethics textbook and a handbook on doing engineering ethics within a professional society. The latter is important since most of the engineering ethics literature only addresses professional societies to the extent they promulgate Codes of Ethics. Unger not only detailed the importance and making of codes, but the struggles to elevate the codes to more than window dressing. His work on engineering ethics was also widely published in journals both within IEEE (including SSIT’s IEEE Technology and Society Magazine) and outside of IEEE on such topics as engineering ethics education [14], [19], ethics support [15], [16], [17], bribery [20], real-world ethics cases [21], and the need for social responsibility and high ethical standards in engineering [18], [22]. Unger’s work stood out at a time when few engineers were actively engaged in the scholarship of engineering ethics.

Steve loved to debate and could be intense and persistent (he once persuaded one of us to go for a walk in subzero weather in Alberta, Canada, to discuss the IEEE ethics arena), but was also compassionate and collegial. Above all, he was a thoughtful mentor to us and other SSIT volunteers. All SSIT members, indeed all IEEE members and engineers of every stripe, have been greatly enriched by the contributions Steve Unger made to engineering ethics and professionalism.

Author Information

Joseph Herkert is an associate professor emeritus of science, technology, and society at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695 USA, and the chair of the SSIT Technical Committee on Ethics and Human Values. Email:

Clinton J. Andrews is a professor and the associate dean for research with the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 USA, and the past-president of IEEE SSIT.

The full version of this article, including references, can be accessed HERE.