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

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Engineering Ethics

Richard A. Burgess, M.A.

Texas Tech T-STEM Center


Deputy Director,

National Institute for Engineering Ethics

Summer 2012

stem includes engineering
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.
engineering design under constraint
Engineering: Design Under Constraint
  • Engineering as “design under constraint”
  • Lessons Amid the Rubble: An Introduction to Post-Disaster Engineering and Ethics

by Sara Pfatteicher

  • 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.
  • 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.
engineering ethics
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”?
the role of ethics in engineering
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)
sources of guidance
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.
foundational principles
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.
incorporating ethics into stem
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.