The Citigroup Center was a massive structure constructed in the heart of Manhattan in 1977. The structure was designed by Hugh Stubbins and William LeMessurier was the main consulting engineer on the project, who was very involved in much of the design process too. The structure was celebrated for both its innovative design that utilized an unconventional load path to accommodate St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church, which rested below its massive columns, and the structure’s general grandeur. At the time of completion the structure was the seventh tallest building in the world (Morgenstern, 1995). However, given the assumptions and consequential analysis made by LeMessurier, it was later realized that the structure was particularly vulnerable to ‘quartering winds’ and, theoretically, a 1 in 16 year event could produce high enough winds to cause failure. The main weakness were the bolted joints in the beams, they were much weaker than welded joints and were insufficient to resist the loading from the quartering winds. This critical oversight was largely due to LeMessurier’s hurriedness and lack of scrutiny while implementing his novel design, along with following New York design codes that had assumptions intended for more traditional structures. Ultimately, LeMessurier got in contact with various Vice-Presidents and a Chairman in Citicorp and together they schematized and implemented a plan to covertly remediate the problem by welding over the bolted joints. As finalized by Andrews (2008): LeMessurier’s actions were deemed ethical, given that once he realized his own mistake he selflessly strove to correct it. It is emphasized that his decision to assume responsibility and rectify the problem were what branded him as an ‘ethical engineer’.
LeMessurier’s actions have been under scrutiny since the scandal became public and there are questions regarding whether his actions were entirely ethical, if he had acted to protect his reputation or the public. During the repair and strengthening operations in the tower many facts were withheld from the public and considered misleading, vague press releases were offered in attempts to cover-up the structure’s inadequacy. Decisions were being made by both LeMessurier and head officials from Citicorp, who were partially managing the situation. The situation became especially critical when Hurricane Ella was expected to make landfall in New York during peak hurricane season in September. Ella possessed wind speeds that could have reasonably reached the Citicorp Centre’s structural limit though the Citicorp team and LeMessurier refused to release a public statement outlining the potential risks to the public. Furthermore, LeMessurier had argued that the mass dampener, which was designed to satisfy the structure’s serviceability limit state, could provide extra resistance against high winds and be thought of as an emergency safety factor (Morgenstern, 1995). On the other hand the mass dampener was not designed to operate for such a purpose and the technology had not undergone adequate experimentation to validate its usefulness as a measure against ultimate failure. In addition the dampener was electricly powered, very risky considering a power failure during a hurricane is relatively typically and would render it ineffective.
In 1998 the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Board of Ethical Review (BER) had reviewed a hypothetical case very similar to the Citicorp fiasco and concluded that the need to avoid widespread panic did not justify the preservation of the facts and lack of public communication. In 1999 the BER had opened the subject to all NSPE members and the results were published in NSPE’s Engineering Times largely echoed the BER’s conclusion (Eugene, 2002).
The NSPE decision regarding LeMessurier's actions aligns with the idea of Kant’s duty based ethics and utilitarianism . Kant’s duty based ethics is founded on the idea that everyone should follow universal principles and that human life must be respected . White lies, according to Kant’s duty based ethics, are not acceptable even if the truth could cause more harm. While LeMessurier’s white lies could have prevented panic, it was not ethical according to Kant as this is not a principle that people should follow. This is further exemplified in the PEO code of ethics where engineers should be “…discouraging untrue, unfair or exaggerated statements with respect to professional engineering .” In essence, engineers should be truthful with their work and should let decision-makers such as their management decide when and, if necessary, to keep information confidential.
This NSPE conclusion also has a utilitarianism bias. Utilitarianism states an action is ethical if it provides the greatest benefit to the most number of people with intensity, duration and equality distribution factors considered . In the Citicorp situation, providing the public with the truth would have caused the greatest benefit to the most number of people as people would be informed on whether or not to risk to working in the area. Public panic could happen, but would likely be reduced since LeMessurier was already working on rectifying the design flaws. Telling the truth would align with the equality distribution, as described by utilitarianism, because everyone would be treated equally with the same knowledge. However, due to the white lies, only LeMessurier and Citicorp officials knew the truth. This makes LeMessurier’s actions unethical according to the utilitarianism theory.