How we understand, teach, and learn about engineering ethics

Ethics has long been acknowledged as central to engineering education; yet current approaches to teaching engineering ethics fail to understand the the psychological and philosophical literature about how ethics are learned. The three dominant modes may be identified as:

  1. The ethical theories approach: Akin to approaches to calculus; provide the students with theories (e.g. duty ethics, utilitarianism, etc.) and some problem sets in which they apply the appropriate theory to rationally address the problem
  2. The case studies approach: Typically examines ethical cases of two types: disasters—as warnings against bad ethics—and exemplars—for future pattern matching to guide ethical decisions.
  3. The know-the-rules approach: Essentially outlines the rules, then demands obedience. This approach is common in discussions of plagiarism at university, but also guides use of codes and standards.

Both the first and second approaches may be nuanced by direct discussion of codes of ethics and how they should have been applied or were applied to good effect, while the third approach is perhaps the bluntest instrument. All three approaches are well-intentioned, but they suffer from the same flawed assumption: they assume ethical decisions are rational, although we know this is not the case. Ethical decisions are made from moralities that are less matters of thought than intuitive behaviours. No amount of propositional knowledge (as might be gained from any of the three approaches) has the power to actually create a practice. Justifications of ethical actions are post-hoc reasons for what in effect is an intuitive or emotional action. As such, ethics education involves shaping emotions, not just reason. So we must engage the whole person.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that the challenge for any approach is that morality—from which ethics stem—is “organized in advance of experience” (Haidt, 2012). As such, moral function that allows for ethical decisions or ethical reasoning is actually pre- cognitive and pre-rational. Alasdair MacIntyre (2007/1981), in his seminal critique of modern ethics, After Virtue, argues that since the Enlightenment, ethics have been rendered incoherent because philosophers have maintained a language from shared substantive beliefs and communal commitments, with neither the commitments and beliefs nor even agreed upon meaning for the language. The result has become a rootless, individualistic morality controlled by superficial formalisms (the theories and rules) but in which the “good” has become subjective. Without the shared beliefs, commitments, or even language, we have little hope of creating a productive and robust ethics as communities or as professions.

Thus, if we are going to prepare engineers to make ethical decisions in which goods are broadly shared rather than individualistic, they need to do more than apply theories, pattern- match cases, or uphold rules—particularly in fields where codes have not kept or cannot keep pace with technological change. To enable ethical praxis in engineers of widely diverse ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds, we need to engage students at a level that goes beyond the rational to include students’ whole selves—their thinking, their emotions, and their worldview, or what Charles Taylor calls the “social imaginary.”

The social imaginary is our pre-cognitive and pre-reflective understanding of the world embodied through images, stories, legends, and related practices. It is not individual but “shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society” (Taylor, 2007). A case studies approach, it could be argued, attempts to create such a sense of shared story that can enable practice. However, the stories need to work their way into their sense of larger social significance—that is, they need to be abstracted up. They would need to absorb ethical behaviour into their praxis by having their social imaginary expanded in ways that are beneficial to the profession (hence constraining), yet also empowering to allow response to the unforeseen.

In his presentation, Irish proposes an extension to the case study approach that serves as a first step towards a more holistic ethics education – involving students writing and role-playing a tribunal about a proposed wind farm. The exercise aims to ground students in a particular, which requires them to expose their intuitive beliefs and make commitments, and invite them to reach an understanding of the public goods of a given situation, but also of how such goods might require them to embrace a social imaginary beyond their prior experience.