Engineers Must Embrace Aspirational Ethics

Aug 31, 2012

by Mark Crawford ASME.org

As an academic field, engineering ethics is shifting away from focusing on ethical problems from the perspective of individual engineers to more expansive concerns, such as codes of ethics concerning human development and human rights, often led by professional societies and national and international bodies.

"More recent research involves historians and social and behavioral scientists, as well as science and technology scholars, who examine issues of complex systems and collective as well as individual responsibility," says Rachelle Hollander, center director at the National Academy of Engineering. "This involves issues of design and implementation and whether traditional theories and approaches in ethics must be revised, augmented, or cast aside in light of the difficulties that complexity creates for development and management."

Modern problems in engineering ethics that Hollander mentions include:

  • Do ethical commonalities cover all engineering fields, or is different guidance needed?
  • To what assistance in fulfilling their ethical responsibilities are engineers entitled?
  • How can engineered systems identify and address issues of social inequity?
  • How should engineers participate in societal determinations about promoting innovation?
  • Are there engineered systems that are too complex or dangerous to introduce in society?
  • How should engineers and the engineering profession contribute to a future that is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable?
  • What is the proper role for engineering ethics across political, geographical, and generational boundaries?

Need to Re-Focus

Ed Harris, professor of the history and ethics of professional engineering at Texas A&M University, believes one of the most important ethical issues engineers face is the need to re-focus from preventive to aspirational ethics.

Engineers Without Borders projects, such as this job in Nicaragua, are examples of humanitarian engineering. Photo source: ASCEHouston.org

"This would be a shift away from preventive ethics, which concerns itself with the prevention of professional misconduct and harm to the public from technology, to what I call aspirational ethics, which has to do with using technology to promote human well-being," says Harris. "Some scholars use the term 'peace engineering' or 'humanitarian engineering'—a good example would be Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers without Borders."

Macro and Micro Challenges

A related term for aspirational ethics is macroethics—the effort to collectively make the best possible engineering decisions on critical issues that have global impact, such as human cloning, sustainable development, stem cell research, and climate change.

"Research and teaching related to engineering ethics have for the most part focused on microanalysis of individual ethical dilemmas in areas like health and safety issues in engineering design, conflict of interest, representation of test data, whistle blowing, quality control, trade secrets, and gift-giving, with little attention being paid to macroethics in engineering, and still fewer attempts to integrate both microethical and macroethical approaches to engineering ethics," says Joseph R. Herkert, associate professor of ethics and technology.

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

One of the most important ethical issues engineers face is the need to re-focus from preventive to aspirational ethics, which uses technology to promote human well-being.Prof. Ed Harris, Texas A&M University