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Ethical Theories Cristina Arimany Kerri Marsh Edward Porrello Monica Valencia Introduction Brief history of ethical thought Ethical theories The Disaster at Bhopal The Titanic Tragedy A Brief History of Ethical Thought

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Ethical Theories

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Ethical Theories

Cristina Arimany

Kerri Marsh

Edward Porrello

Monica Valencia


  • Brief history of ethical thought

  • Ethical theories

  • The Disaster at Bhopal

  • The Titanic Tragedy

A Brief History of Ethical Thought

  • The moral and ethical theories that engineers apply are derived from a Western cultural tradition.

  • They come from the ancient Greeks and ancient religious thinking and writing.

  • The philosophers with the greatest influence are Socrates and Aristotle.

Moral Theory

  • Moral Theory: Defines terms in uniform ways and links ideas and problems together in consistent ways.

  • Moral concept is an important aspect in the four following theories.

Moral Theories

  • Utilitarianism: Seeks to produce the most utility.

  • Duty Ethics: There are some duties that should be performed.

  • Rights Ethics: We all have moral rights that should be protected.

  • Virtue Ethics: Actions as right that manifest good character traits and regards actions as bad that display bad character traits.


I.What is it?

  • Good actions are those that serve to maximize human well-being.

    II. Benefits:

  • Maximizes positive affects for many people.

    III. Downfalls:

  • Ignores the individual.

  • Difficult to predict consequences of actions.


Problem Solving Approach:

  • Determine Benefits to Society.

  • Determine Costs to Parties involved.

  • Compare Benefits to Costs.

  • If Benefits to Society outweigh Costs, then it is ethical to pursue project.


Example Problems:

A)Building Dams

B)Waste Isolation Pilot Plant


Building Dams:

  • Benefits:

    a) Stable flow of drinking water.

    b) Flood control.

    c) Recreational opportunities

  • Cost:

    a) Relocation of flood-zone residents.


Result: Since the benefits of building the dam outweigh the costs, it is profitable/ethical to build the dam.


Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP):

  • Benefits:

    a) Safe storage of dangerous waste.

    b) Nuclear Power = electricity.

    c) Radioisotopes = medicine.

  • Costs:

    a) Potential danger to residents near transportation routes.


Result: Since the benefits of building WIPP facilities outweighs the cost to society, then it is ethical to go ahead with project.


Two Tenets of Utilitarianism:

  • Act Utilitarianism – Focus on action, not rules.

  • Rule Utilitarianism – Focus on moral laws, not on action.


Act Utilitarianism:

  • John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

  • Believe that rules of morality were derived from trial and error throughout the course of time.

  • Believe that rules should be broken in order to maximize benefits to society.


Rule Utilitarianism:

  • Believe that moral laws take precedence over action.

  • Adhere that although following rules might not always maximize benefits to society, it will ultimately lead to the most good overall.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

  • What is it?

  • An Application of Utilitarianism

  • Goal is to maximize Benefit-to-Cost Ratio.

  • Benefits:

  • Quantifiable method for analyzing ethical dilemmas.

  • Downfall:

  • Similar to utilitarian in that benefits are often difficult to predict.

Duty and Rights Ethics

  • What are they?

  • Good actions are those that respect the rights of the individual.

  • Benefits:

  • Maximize positive effects for the individual.

  • Downfalls:

  • Basic rights of one person may conflict with basic rights of another person.

  • Doesn’t account for overall betterment of society.

Duty and Rights Ethics

  • Duty Ethics

  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

  • Ethical actions are those that can be written as a list of duties (e.g. “Be Honest, Be Fair, etc.)

  • Rights Ethics

  • John Locke (1632-1704)

  • People have fundamental rights that people have a duty to respect.

Virtue Ethics

What is a virtue?

A moral distinction and goodness.

  • In virtue ethics, actions are considered right if they support good character traits (virtues) and wrong if they support bad character traits (vices).

Virtue Ethics

  • Virtue Ethics determine what kind of people we should be.

  • A virtuous person exhibits good and beneficial qualities.

  • Personal morality cannot be separated from business morality. If a person is virtuous in his personal life, then he is also in his business life as well.

Virtue Ethics

  • In using Virtue Ethics, it is important to ensure that the traits you identify as virtues are indeed virtuous and will not lead to negative consequences.

    • Example:

      Honor: (dignity, integrity, pride). This may seem good because of integrity but it might give you negative consequences because of pride (wars to preserve honor of nation).

Personal vs. Corporate Morality

  • Is there a distinction between the ethics practiced by an individual and those practiced by a corporation?

  • How can a company display human traits like honesty and loyalty?

Personal vs. Corporate Morality

  • While dealing with individuals, corporations should be considered pseudo-moral agents and should be held accountable in the same way that individuals are.

  • A corporation must respect the rights of individuals and should exhibit the same virtues that we expect of individuals.

Which Theory to Use?

  • How do we decide which theory to use?

    In order to obtain a complete understanding of a problem, it is best to analyze the situation using multiple ethical theories.

  • Example: A chemical plant discharges a hazardous waste into the groundwater the city will be compromised with health problems.

Which Theory to Use?

  • Rights Ethics indicate that this is unethical.

  • Utilitarian Analysis indicates the same. Economic benefits would be outweighed by negative effect of pollution and costs to ensure a safe municipal water supply.

  • Virtue Ethics indicate this is irresponsible and harmful.

  • They all show the same conclusion.

Which Theory to Use?

  • What if they come up with different conclusions?

    • The answers should be weighed.

  • Generally, rights and duty ethics should take precedence over utilitarian consideration because the rights of individuals should receive stronger weight than the needs of society as a whole.

Non-Western Ethical Thinking

  • Ethics are not geographical or cultural

  • Ethics standards are similar worldwide

Non-Western Ethical Thinking

In Arab countries…

  • Foundations of ethical principles grounded in traditions of Islam

  • Islam is very similar to Christianity

    Ethical principles of Buddhists, Hindus, and all major religions of world are similar

Non-Western Ethical Thinking

  • Personal ethics are not determined by geography

    “When in Rome, do as the Romans”

  • Not applicable to personal morality

Disaster at Bhopal

  • December 2, 1984

  • Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India

  • Leak developed in storage tank

  • Toxic cloud of gas over surrounding area

    2,000 Deaths200,000+ Injuries

What Happened?

  • Accidental pouring of water into the tank

    • Two pipes side-by-side

    • Wrong pipe connected to tank

Several Factors

  • Curtailment of plant maintenance

  • Refrigeration unit

  • Alarm system

  • Flare tower

  • Scrubbers

Who to Blame?

  • Plant Designers – Not at fault…Did job by anticipating such problems

  • Management – Obviously negligent

  • Union Carbide – Negligent also

  • Indian Government – Few safety standards


  • Lawsuits filed totally over $250 billion

  • Job training and relocation for accident victims

  • Chairman charged with culpable homicide

  • Estimated 10,000 people injured will suffer permanent damage

Titanic Tragedy

  • April 14, 1912

  • British Liner Titanic

  • Crashed into an iceberg and sank off the coast of Newfoundland

    1,500 lives were lost

Several Factors

  • Warnings of ice not received or ignored

  • Ship continued at full speed

  • Not a sufficient amount of lifeboats

  • Lifeboats launched partially occupied

  • Wireless operator of nearby ship had retired for the evening

Who to Blame?

  • Ship’s Captain – Did not slow ship down

  • Company – Did not change course of ship even when warned of ice

  • Designer – Not enough lifeboats

  • Crew – Not proficient in emergency procedures


  • 1,500 deaths

  • New measures to promote safety

  • Regulations concerning lifeboats and safety equipment


  • Fledderman, Charles. Engineering Ethics. Second Edition.

    Pearson Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2004

  • Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2003.

  • Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. 2004.

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