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Engineering Ethics

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  1. Engineering Ethics Richard A. Burgess, M.A. Texas Tech T-STEM Center and Deputy Director, National Institute for Engineering Ethics Summer 2012

  2. STEM includes Engineering • No single profession impacts modern life as thoroughly as engineering does. (examples: cars, buildings, electronic devices, water) • Despite the ubiquity of engineering, it is not uncommon for people to know very little about engineering.

  3. Engineering: Design Under Constraint • Engineering as “design under constraint” • Lessons Amid the Rubble: An Introduction to Post-Disaster Engineering and Ethics by Sara Pfatteicher

  4. Constraint • In a perfect world, engineers would be able to design and deploy products that are maximally safe, efficient, and effective. • This would be prohibitively expensive and time intensive. • Engineers must often balance quality considerations with time and financial constraints. • This requires thoughtfulness and ethical fortitude.

  5. Tension • Engineering is marked by a tension between competing interests: • Corporate/commercial • Personal (e.g. salary, promotion, etc.) • Public • These interests do not always align. • Tension between the costs and benefits of technology. All technology, even the most beneficial, has a cost.


  6. Engineering Ethics • Given the aforementioned characteristics, it is clear that ethics is an important part of engineering. • Engineering ethics can also be complex. • “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” (National Society of Professional Engineers, Code of Ethics) • Who is the “public”? • How do we define “welfare”?

  7. The Role of Ethics in Engineering • Ethics is integral to the practice of engineering. • Engineers imprint their values on virtually everything they do. Even something as simple as specifying the height of a bridge can have ethical ramifications (See Sara Pfatteicher’s book)

  8. Sources of Guidance • Engineering is considered a profession and has a code of ethics; several in fact. Examples: • American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) • American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) • Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) • Obligations – the codes discuss the obligations engineers have to the public, to their clients, and to their fellow engineers. • Aspirations – some codes also emphasize opportunities for self and community development.

  9. Foundational Principles • Arguably, three general ideas underwrite the codes of ethics. • Principle of Utility: The right thing to do is to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. • Principle of Respect: People should be treated as ends-in-themselves and not as mere means to an end. • Virtue Ethics: Right and wrong is not only about performing a certain action, but about being the right kind of person. We should cultivate virtues such as honesty, compassion, courage, and temperance.

  10. Incorporating Ethics into STEM • It can be helpful to refer to these codes of ethics and approaches when discussing ethics in PBL contexts. • In addition to providing guidance, the codes and principles can help identify issues to begin with. • In other words, these codes/principles can improve not only reasoning, but sensitivity as well.