Author: Sarah Jayne Hitt, Ph.D. SFHEA (NMITE, Edinburgh Napier University).

Keywords: Collaboration; Pedagogy.

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design.

 

Premise:

Most engineers and engineering educators have experienced or read about a situation that makes them think, “that would make a great case study for students to learn from.” Examples of potential cases can be found in the news, in textbooks, and in the workplace. However, it can be difficult to translate a real world situation into an educational resource. This article sets forth a “recipe” based on recent educational scholarship that can be used to create case studies ideal for classroom use.

 

Case study purpose:

Recipes are created for different reasons – sometimes you want comfort food, sometimes it’s a healthy detox meal, sometimes it’s a stand-out celebratory feast for a special occasion. In a similar way, case studies should be written with a deliberate purpose in mind. To help you consider these, ask yourself:

Next, it’s important to remember that there are different kinds of learning within ethics education. The Ethics Explorer highlights these with its focus on graduate attributes which specify what characteristics and attitudes we hope engineering graduates will develop through this learning. For example, do you want to focus on students’ abilities to identify or identify with an ethical situation? Or do you want them to be able to reason through options or make a judgement? Or is it important for them to learn ethical knowledge such as professional codes or practices? Any of these could be a good focus, but in general, it is useful to write a case study aimed at one particular purpose, otherwise it can become too unwieldy. Plus, case studies that have a specific learning aim can make it easier to devise assessments related to their content. 

 

Case study ingredients:

Just as cooks do when preparing to make a meal, case study writers assemble ingredients. These are the components of a case that can be mixed together in different proportions in order to create the desired result. And, as in cooking, sometimes you should use more or less of an ingredient depending on the effect you want to create or the needs of your audience. But in general, educational scholars agree that these elements are necessary within a case study to promote learner engagement and to achieve the desired educational outcomes. 

1. Setting / Context.  Ethical issues in engineering don’t happen in a vacuum. Often they are exacerbated by the setting and context in which they occur, whether that’s a start-up tech company in London or an aid organisation in Brazil or in a research lab in Singapore. An authentic environment not only makes the case more realistic, but it also can add important extra dimensions to the issues at stake (Valentine et al., 2020). However, to ensure you don’t run afoul of IP or other legal concerns, it can be best to fictionalise company names and invent hypothetical (yet realistic) engineering projects.

2. Characters. Ethics is a fundamentally human concern; therefore it’s important to emphasise the emotional and psychological elements of engineering ethics issues (Walling, 2015; Conlon & Zandervoort, 2011). In real life, every person brings their role, point-of-view, and background to their consideration of ethical dilemmas, so case studies should replicate that. Additionally, aspects like age, gender, and ethnicity can add complexities to situations that replicate the realities of professional life and address issues relevant to EDI. Case studies can help students imagine how they might negotiate these. 

3. Topic. Besides the overarching ethical issue that is related to an engineering discipline, case studies are most effective when they incorporate both macro- and micro-ethical considerations (Rottman & Reeve, 2020). This means that they require students to not only deliberate about a particular scenario (should I program the software to allow for users to see how their data is used?), but also about a wider concern (how should transparency and privacy be negotiated when consenting to share data?). The chosen topic should also be specific enough so that there is opportunity to integrate elements of technical learning alongside the ethical dilemma, and reference broader issues that could relate to ethics instruction more generally (Davis, 2006; Lawlor, 2021). 

4. Cause for Conflict. An ethical dilemma could arise from many kinds of conflict. For instance, an employee could feel pressured to do something unethical by a boss. A professional could believe that a stance by an institution is unjust. A person could experience internal conflict when trying to balance work and family responsibilities. A leader could struggle to challenge the norms of a system or a culture. In simplest terms, ethical dilemmas arise when values conflict: is efficiency more important than quality? Is saving money worth ecological harm? Case studies that highlight particular conflicts can help promote critical thinking (Lennerfors, Fors, & Woodward, 2020).

 

Narrative:

Once the ingredients are assembled, it’s time to write the narrative of the case study. Begin with a simple story of around 250-500 words that sets out the characters, the context, and the topic. Sometimes this is enough to gesture towards some potential ethical issues, and sometimes the conflict can be previewed in this introductory content as well.

Then, elaborate on the conflict by introducing a specific dilemma. You can create an engaging style by including human interests (like emotion or empathy), dialogue, and by avoiding highly technical language. Providing different vantage points on the issue through different characters and motivations helps to add complexity, along with adding more information or multiple decision-making points, or creating a sequel such as justifying the decision to a board of directors or to the public. 

Ultimately, the narrative of the case study should be engaging, challenging, and instructional (Kim et al., 2006). It should provide the opportunity for students to reconsider, revisit, and refine their responses and perspectives (Herreid, 2007). Most of all, it should provide opportunities to employ a range of activities and learning experiences (Herkert, 2000). Your case study will be most effective if you suggest ideas for discussions or activities that can help learners engage with the issues in a variety of ways. 

 

Putting the frosting on the cake:

The community of professionals committed to integrating ethics in engineering education is strong and supportive. Running your ideas by an expert in the topic, a colleague, or a member of our Ethics Ambassadors community can help strengthen your case study. Most of all, discussing the issue with others can help you develop your own confidence in embedding ethics in engineering. The more case studies that we develop from more perspectives, the more diversity we bring to engineering education and practice – we can all learn from each other. We hope you start cooking up your own case study soon!

You can find information on contributing your own resources to the toolkit here.

 

References:

Conlon, E. and Zandvoort, H. (2011). ‘Broadening ethics teaching in engineering: Beyond the individualistic approach’, Science and Engineering Ethics, 17, pp. 217-232.

Davis, M. (2006) ‘Integrating ethics into technical courses: Micro-insertion’, Science and Engineering Ethics, 12, pp. 717-730.

Herkert, J.R. (2000) ‘Engineering ethics education in the USA: Content, pedagogy, and curriculum’, European Journal of Engineering Education 25(4), pp. 303-313.

Herreid, C.F. (2007) Start with a story: The Case study method of teaching college science. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Kim, S. et al. (2006) ‘A conceptual framework for developing teaching cases: A Review and synthesis of the literature across disciplines’, Medical Education 40, pp. 867-876.

Rottman, C. and Reeve, D. (2020) ‘Equity as rebar: Bridging the micro/macro divide in engineering ethics education’, Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 20, pp. 146-165. 

Valentine, A. et al. (2020) ‘Building students’ nascent understanding of ethics in engineering practice’, European Journal of Engineering Education 45(6), pp. 957-970.

Walling, O. (2015) ‘Beyond ethical frameworks: Using moral experimentation in the engineering ethics classroom’, Science and Engineering Ethics 21, pp. 1637-1656.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Author: Dr. Natalie Wint (UCL). 

Topic: Responsibility for micro- and nano-plastics in the environment and human bodies.  

Engineering disciplines: Chemical Engineering; Environmental Engineering; Materials Engineering; Mechanical Engineering. 

Ethical issues: Corporate social responsibility; Power; Safety; Respect for the Environment. 

Professional situations: Whistleblowing; Company growth; Communication; Public health and safety. 

Educational level: Intermediate. 

Educational aim: Becoming Ethically Sensitive: being broadly cognizant of ethical issues and having the ability to see how these issues might affect others. 

 

Learning and teaching notes: 

This case study involves a young engineering student on an industrial placement year at a firm that manufactures cosmetics. The student has been working hard to impress the company as they are aware that this may lead to them being offered a job upon graduation. They are involved in a big project that focuses on alternative, more environmentally friendly cosmetic chemistries. When they notice a potential problem with the new formulation, they must balance their commitment towards environmental sustainability with their desire to work for the company upon graduation.  

This dilemma can be addressed from a micro-ethics point of view by analysing personal ethics, intrinsic motivations and moral values. It can also be analysed from a macro-ethics point of view, by considering corporate responsibility and intergenerational justice. The dilemma can also be framed to emphasise global responsibility and environmental justice whereby the engineers consider the implications of their decisions on global communities and future generations.  

This case study addresses two of the themes from the Accreditation of Higher Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37. 

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities, as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:   

Teachers have the opportunity to:    

 

Learning and teaching resources: 

Professional organisations: 

EU agencies: 

Industry publications: 

EU law: 

 

Dilemma – Part one: 

Microplastics are solid plastic particles composed of mixtures of polymers and functional additives; they also contain residual impurities. Microplastics generally fall into two groups: those that are unintentionally formed as a result of the wear and tear of larger pieces of plastic, and those that are deliberately manufacturedand added to products for specific purposes (primary microplastics). Microplastics are intentionally added to a range of products including cosmetics, in which they act as abrasives and can control the thickness, appearance, and stability of a product.  

Legislation pertaining to the use of microplastics varies worldwide and several loopholes in the regulations have been identified. Whilst many multinational companies have fought the introduction of such regulations, other stakeholders have urged for the use of the precautionary principle, suggesting that all synthetic polymers should be regulated in order to prevent significant damage to both the environment and human health. 

Recently, several changes to the regulation of microplastics have been proposed within Europe. One that affects the cosmetics industry particularly concerns the intentional addition of microplastics to cosmetics. Manufacturers, especially those who export their products, have therefore been working to change their products. 

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:  

1. Discussion: Professional values – What ethical principles and codes of conduct are applicable to the use of microplastics? Should these change or be applied differently when the microplastics are used in products that may be swallowed or absorbed through the eyes or skin?

2. Activity: Research some of the current legislation in place surrounding the use of microplastics. Focus on the strengths and limitations of such legislation.  

3. Activity: Technical integration – Research the potential health and environmental concerns surrounding microplastics. Investigate alternative materials and/or technological solutions to the microplastic ‘problem’.  

4. Discussion: Familiarise yourself with the precautionary principle. What are the advantages and disadvantages of applying the precautionary principle in this situation?  

 

Dilemma – Part two: 

Alex is a young engineering student on an industrial placement year at a firm that manufactures cosmetics. The company has been commended for their sustainable approach and Alex is really excited to have been offered a role that involves work aligned with their passion. They are working hard to impress the company as they are aware that this may lead to them being offered a job upon graduation.  

Alex is involved in a big project that focuses on alternative, more environmentally friendly cosmetic chemistries. Whilst working in the formulation laboratory, they notice that some of the old filler material has been left near the preparation area. The container is not securely fastened, and residue is visible in the surrounding area. The filler contains microplastics and has recently been taken out of products. However, it is still in stock so that it could be used for comparative testing, during which the performance of traditional, microplastic containing formulations are compared to newly developed formulations. It is unusual for the old filler material to be used outside of the testing laboratory and Alex becomes concerned about the possibility that the microplastics have been added to a batch of the new product that had been made the previous day. They raise the issue to their supervisor, asking whether the new batch should be quarantined.  

“We wouldn’t ever hold such a large, lucrative order based on an uncertainty like that,” the supervisor replies, claiming that even if there was contamination it wasn’t intentional and would therefore not be covered by the legislation. “Besides, most of our products go to countries where the rules are different.” 

Alex mentions the health and environmental issues associated with microplastics, and the reputation the company has with customers for being ethical and sustainable. They suggest that they bring the issue up with the waste and environmental team who have expertise in this area.  

Their supervisor replies: “Everyone knows that the real issue is the microplastics that are formed from disintegration of larger plastics. Bringing up this issue is only going to raise questions about your competence.”  

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Personal values – What competing personal values or motivations might trigger an internal conflict for Alex? 

2. Activity: Research intergenerational justice and environmental justice. How do they relate to this case? 

3. Activity: Identify all potential stakeholders and their values, motivations, and responsibilities. 

4. Discussion: Consider both the legislation in place and the RAEng/Engineering Council Ethical Principles. What should Alex do according to each of these? Is the answer the same for both? If not, which set of guidance is more important? 

5. Discussion: How do you think the issue of microplastics should be controlled? 

6. Activity: Alex and their boss are focused on primary microplastics. Consider the lifecycle of bulk plastics and the various stakeholders involved. Who should be responsible for the microplastics generated during the disintegration of plastic products?

7. Discussion: What options for action does Alex have available to them? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? What would you do if you were Alex? 

8. Activity: Technical integration related to calculations or experiments on microplastics. 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Case enhancement: Glass safety in a heritage building conversion

Activity: Do engineers have a responsibility to warn the public if there is a chance of risk?

Author: Cortney Holles (Colorado School of Mines, USA).

 

Overview:

This enhancement is for an activity found in the Dilemma Part two, Point 1 section of this case: Debate whether or not Krystyna has an ethical or professional responsibility to warn relevant parties (“of matters . . .  which are of potential detriment to others who may be adversely affected by them” – The Society of Construction Law’s Statement of Ethical Principles).

After introducing or studying the Glass Safety case, teachers may want students to dig deeper into the ethical issues in the case through a debate.  The resources and lesson plan below guide teachers through this lesson.

 

1. Introduce the debate assignment:

Students will debate whether or not Krystyna has an ethical or professional responsibility to warn relevant parties. Build in some time for students to prepare their arguments in small groups (either during class or as a homework assignment).  Create small groups of 2-5 students that can develop positions on each of the following positions on the question of the debate:

Does Krystyna have a responsibility to warn Sir Robert or future residents of the buildings about the glass?

 

2. Supporting the arguments in the debate with texts:

Provide students with resources that offer support for the different positions in the debate, listed below.  Perhaps you have assigned readings in the class they can be asked to reference for support in the debate.  Teachers could also assign students to conduct independent research on these stakeholders and positions if that matches the goals of the class.

 

Resources:

Journal articles:

Law:

Professional organisations:

Educational institution:

Ethics:

 

3. Running the debate in class:

Key concepts this debate can cover:

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Author: Dr Fiona Truscott (UCL). 

Keywords: Ethical theories; Societal impact; Decision making; Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI); Health. 

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to better understand ethics and its connection to engineering education. It is also useful for students who are being introduced to this topic. 

 

Premise: 

Engineering, technology, and society have always had a close relationship, with changes and innovations in each affecting the other two. For instance, being able to communicate and access information instantaneously and 24/7 has changed our relationships with family, friends and colleagues as well as with employers and governments. While this certainly has some benefits, such as being able to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, is always being connected a good thing? We’ve seen a blurring of the lines between work and home with both positive and negative impacts. Social media algorithms bring us cute cat photos but they also spread misinformation. Ethics in engineering invites us to question how we should respond to the development and deployment of new technologies like these.   

Ethics can especially be seen through engineering innovations that mean life or death. For example, pacemakers are medical devices developed in the late 1950s that can regulate a person’s heart rate when their natural cells are damaged or misfunctioning. This diagnosis used to be a death sentence, but now millions of patients have pacemakers, completely changing their life expectancy and standard of living. At the time, however, there were ethical questions to answer about how they should be tested and implemented.  

Technology and engineering do not just affect society; society also influences engineering. This can be seen through the discovery of Viagra, which was originally developed as a treatment for heart disease but in clinical trials it was found to have little effect on heart disease but a much more interesting – and lucrative – side effect. The market for Viagra and similar drugs is worth billions of dollars, directing research and funds towards treating a condition that is not necessarily a life or death situation just because we are willing to pay for it. What engineering focuses on, or doesn’t, is determined by what society wants, thinks is important, or will pay for. Ethics invites us to identify and consider our values and how those influence what problems engineers identify and which ones they choose to work on. 

Clearly our decisions as engineers have an impact on society, so how might we approach making these decisions? Luckily there are people who have been thinking about how to make society-impacting decisions for thousands of years – ethicists! Ethics gives us a framework for balancing different opinions, needs, and values when making decisions, big or small. There are three lenses that we can use when thinking about ethics within Engineering: Professional, Theoretical, and Practical. 

 

Professional ethics: 

Professional engineering ethics is the question of how an engineer should behave in a professional setting or situation. Typically, professional engineering bodies, such as the Institute of Chemical Engineers, produce codes of conduct which outline how members are expected to behave in professional contexts. Members agree to follow these codes when they join the professional body. Many professional bodies’ codes of conduct are based on the joint statement on ethics from the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council (2017). 

This is similar to an ethical theory, Virtue Ethics. The key question in virtue ethics is what makes a good person? A good person is one who fulfils their purpose. By following behaviours called virtues that fulfil that purpose, and avoiding ones that don’t, called vices, a person can always make the right ethical decision (Blackburn, 2003; Johnson, 2020).  

Coming from another angle we can look at what the responsibilities of an engineer are, and ask who they are responsible to. Typically, an engineer has a client that they are working for but they are also responsible to the wider community and the public. Buildings must fulfil the clients’ needs but must also comply with regulations. Where these responsibilities are in opposition, law and codes of conduct can help an engineer decide a path forward.  

 

Theoretical ethics: 

Besides Virtue Ethics, first propounded by Aristotle, there are several other ethical theories that influence engineering ethics. Utilitarianism is a theory developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. A basic description of Utilitarianism is that the best ethical action is the one that produces the most happiness for the largest number of people. Here the approach centres not on an action itself but on the consequences of it. Utilitarianism is very context dependent, with all potential actions on the table, and it requires a collective or community-based approach. However, there appears to be a big flaw which is that it could justify harm to a few if it brought happiness to the many. Bentham and Mill both emphasised a key caveat: that we should select the action which produces the most happiness for as many as possible without causing harm to individuals (Blackburn, 2003; Johnson, 2020). 

Also writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries but coming at ethical decision making from a very different angle is Immanuel Kant and his duty-based theory of ethics, also called deontology. Kant argued that sentient beings are ends in themselves and not means to achieve something else. The ethics of an action therefore should not be decided by its outcomes but is inherent in the action itself. When making an ethical decision, you should choose the course of action that you would be willing to follow under all circumstances, otherwise known as the categorical imperative. While this approach aligns with many legal systems, we can all think of circumstances when typically unacceptable actions become acceptable (Blackburn, 2003; Johnson, 2020). 

While no individual person follows Aristotle, Bentham, or Kant all the time, they do give us some insight into how people make ethical decisions. In general people will want the most happiness for the most people but they also have personal, legal or societal red lines that they won’t cross; or, that they will cross depending on the situation.  

 

Practical ethics: 

Practical Ethics is focused on the reality of making decisions when faced with an ethical issue. One useful approach for engineers outlined by Caroline Whitbeck (1998) is the analogy to solving design problems, something engineers are very familiar with! In design problems, we have a series of constraints and requirements that any successful solution needs to fulfil. We come up with a range of potential solutions, some that don’t fulfil the criteria, and some that do. We then select a successful solution based on our own experience, priorities, or interpretation of the brief. Other people will select different successful solutions. The same is true for ethical problems: there are criteria that must be achieved for a successful solution and each individual might choose a different successful solution.  

Engineers are very familiar with what constraints and requirements look like in design problem solving but what about ethical problem solving? This is where Aristotle, Bentham, and Kant pop back up again. Some criteria will involve harms that we want to avoid or ways to produce the most happiness, while others will be values that we hold to under any circumstances.  

 

Conclusion: 

While it may not always be clear how much impact a single engineer’s actions can have on the ethical decisions of a whole project or company, one area where we can have a significant impact is in design. Who can and can’t use our creations? Who are we excluding or favouring in our design decisions? Until recently crash test dummies were modelled on the 50th percentile man (Criado Perez, 2020). Car safety systems were designed around this dummy ensuring they survived the safety tests. Female drivers tend to be shorter, so they move their seat further forward and higher up, meaning that they are more likely to be an ‘out of position’ driver. Additionally, car seats are too firm for female drivers, throwing them forward faster on impact and not deforming as much, dispersing less of the energy of the crash. The effects of this engineering design decision is that in car crashes, women are 17% more likely to die, 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 71% more likely to be moderately injured because of the design choices made (Criado Perez, 2020). Who engineers do, or don’t, design for is an ethical question that has real world impact. 

Given the impact that engineering and technology has already had and will continue to have on society, we need to include ethical thinking in our day-to-day practise to ensure that we understand the consequences of our actions and decisions, and that our work makes positive impacts and minimises negative ones.   

 

References: 

Blackburn, S. (2003) Ethics: A very short introduction. Oxford: OUP. 

Criado Perez, C. (2020) Invisible women. Vintage. 

Johnson, D.G. (2020) Engineering ethics. Yale University Press. 

RAEng and Engineering Council joint Statement of Ethical Principles. 

Whitbeck, C. (1998) Ethics in engineering practice and research. Cambridge University Press. 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Author: Konstantinos Konstantis (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens). 

Keywords: Ethical theories; Societal impact; Privacy; Freedom; Security; Pedagogy; Risk. 

Who is this article for? This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help prepare students with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for.  

 

Premise: 

It goes without saying that the way we design and use technology plays a crucial role in our daily lives. Engineers and their decisions have a huge impact on society (Unger, 2005). Technology is presented as a very promising solution for many societal problems, such as the environmental crisis and poverty. At the same time, many ethical challenges arise. The imminent possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots replacing humans in a vast array of professions, and the everyday cyber-related issues concerning privacy, freedom, property, and security, are just a few of the challenges that the information revolution has bequeathed to us. Furthermore, advances in biomedical technology and, in particular, genetic engineering and developments in reproductive procedures, raise very similar issues including the reconfiguration of the distinction between the artificial and the human. Without a consideration of ethics, engineering could be inadequately or inappropriately designed to address these challenges. 

Walczak et al. (2010) assert that ethical development comes as an output of three components. First, the knowledge of ethics refers to the ability of engineers to understand what is ethical and what is not ethical. In this component belongs the understanding of the professional responsibility of engineers and of codes of ethics for engineers. Second, ethical reasoning refers to the ability of engineers to first understand ethical problems and then to deal with them. Third, ethical behaviour refers to the ethical intentions that engineers have during an ethical problem and ethical solutions that engineers provide to that problem (Walczak et al., 2010). According to Walczak et al. (2010), formal curricular experiences, co-curricular experiences, student characteristics, and institutional culture are four aspects that influence ethical development of engineering students.  

However, there is a disconnection between these four aspects and ethical development. There are five obstacles that are responsible for this disconnection (Walczak et al., 2010, p. 15.749.6). First, “the curriculum is already full, and there is little room for ethics education,” second, “faculty lack adequate training for teaching ethics,” third, “there are too few incentives to incorporate ethics into the curriculum,” fourth, “policies about academic dishonesty are inconsistent,” and fifth, “institutional growth is taxing existing resources.” Among other ways to overcome these obstacles, Walczak et al. (2010, p. 15.749.9 – 15.749.10) recommend the integration of curricular and co-curricular activities. Student organisations and service learning are two examples of how to integrate ethics in engineering education effectively. For instance, student organisations could organise lectures in which engineering students have the chance to listen to engineers talk about real life ethical problems and dilemmas. Secondly, service learning is a way for engineering students to combine ethics education with their engineering practice. Participating in community service activities offers the opportunity for students to understand the role of engineers and their responsibility towards society. Finally, integrating ethics alongside technical curriculum and within the context of engineering projects can help students understand the ethical context of their work.   

This is an important reason for integration, because as van de Poel and Royakkers (2011) describe, ethics helps engineers to deal with technical risks. Martin and Schinzinger (2009) show us how different subfields of engineering, such as computer and environmental engineering, could benefit from the inclusion of ethics. Baura (2006) analyses how engineers could have acted in concrete ethical dilemmas that have been presented in the past, in order not to lead to some of the engineering disasters that have happened. Martin and Schinzinger (1983) highlight engineering as “social experimentation,” requiring the need for the ethical education of engineers in order for them to be ready to take the right decisions in dilemmas they will have to deal with in the future. According to Fledderman (2011), codes of ethics of engineers and an array of ethical theories could be combined to offer ethical problem-solving techniques (for example ‘line drawing’ and ‘flow charts’) to engineers.  

However, ethics should be integrated in engineering for another reason as important as those listed above. Technology not only shapes society, but it is shaped by society too. Therefore, engineering ethics should be twofold. First, engineering ethics should address ‘disaster ethics,’ and second, it should be about “the social aspects of everyday engineering practice” (Kline, 2001, p. 14). Traditionally, engineering accidents become the cause for engineers and engineering ethicists to analyse the ethical implications of technology and the ways that engineers could take decisions that will not lead to disasters again. These examples are called ‘disaster ethics’. The “social aspects of everyday engineering practice” have to do with the fact that technology is not made in a single time when an engineer has to take a serious decision that may cause an accident or not, but rather in daily and regular practice. These aspects are referring to the co-constitution of technology and society and how engineers can “deal with everyday issues of tremendous significance regarding the ethical and social implications of engineering” (Kline, 2001, p. 19).  

The Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering have published the Statement of Ethical Principles, which should be followed by all engineers in the UK. Statements like this are useful to encourage engineers to act ethically. But, ethics in engineering should be integrated in the whole “engineering life”. From research to implementation, ethics should be part of engineering (Kline, 2001).  

If courses relevant to engineering ethics are absent from the curriculum, engineering students take the message that ethics is not important for their education and therefore for their profession (Unger, 2005). In contrast with the claim that ethics is innate and therefore cannot be taught (Bok, 1976), ethics should be integrated in engineering teaching and practice. The fields of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and History of Technology could play a crucial role in covering the twofold aspect of engineering ethics as presented in this article. Scholars from these fields, among others, could give answers on questions such as “How do engineering practices become common, despite the fact they may be risky?” This is what Vaughan (1997), in her analysis of the Challenger disaster, calls “normalisation of deviance”. This is the only way for engineers to understand the bidirectional relationship between technology and society, and to put aside the dominant ideology of neutral technology that affects and shapes society and doesn’t get affected by it. No matter if engineers want to add ethics into the making of technology, “in choosing a solution, engineers are making an ethical judgement” (Robison, 2014, p.1). 

To conclude, there are many engineering challenges that need to be addressed. Integrating ethics in engineering is one of the best ways to address these challenges for the benefit of the whole of society. This is also the way to overcome problems relevant with the difficulty to add ethics into the engineering curriculum, such as the fact that the engineering curriculum is already full. Ethics has not only to do with the way that technology affects society, but also with the fact that society shapes the way that engineers design and develop technology. If ethics is integrated in engineering education and the curriculum, students perceive that their actions in engineering are not only technical, but at the same time have to do with ethics too. They don’t perceive ethics as a separate ‘tick-box’ that they have to fill during engineering, but instead they perceive ethics as a fundamental part of engineering. 

 

References: 

Baura, G. D. (2006) Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective. Academic Press. 

Bok, D. C. (1976) ‘Can Ethics Be Taught?’ Change, 8(9), pp. 26–30.  

Fleddermann, C. B. (2011) Engineering Ethics (4th ed.). Pearson. 

Hagendorff, T. (2020) ‘The Ethics of AI Ethics: An Evaluation of Guidelines’, Minds and Machines, 30(1), pp. 99–120.  

Kline, R. R. (2001) ‘Using history and sociology to teach engineering ethics’. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 20(4), pp. 13–20.  

Martin, M. W. and Schinzinger, R. (1983) ‘Ethics in engineering’. Philosophy Documentation Center, 2(2), 101–105. 

Martin, M. W. and Schinzinger, R. (2009) Introduction to Engineering Ethics. McGraw-Hill. 

Poel, I. van de, and Royakkers, L. (2011) Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell. 

Robison, W. L. (2014) ‘Ethics in engineering’, 2014 IEEE International Symposium on Ethics in Science, Technology and Engineering, pp. 1–4.  

Unger, S. H. (2005) ‘How best to inject ethics into an engineering curriculum with a required course’, International Journal of Engineering Education, 21(3), 373–377.  

Vaughan, D. (1997) The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. University of Chicago Press. 

Walczak, K., Finelli, C., Holsapple, M., Sutkus, J., Harding, T., and Carpenter, D. (2010) ‘Institutional obstacles to integrating ethics into the curriculum and strategies for overcoming them’, ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, pp. 15.749.1-15.749.14.  

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Author: Professor Manuela Rosa (Algarve University). 

Keywords: Societal impact; Equity; Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI); Design; Justice; Equity; Communication; Global responsibility. 

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate social sustainability, EDI, and ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help to prepare students with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for. 

 

Premise: 

The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, adopted by the General Assembly of United Nations on 9 December 1975, stipulated protection of the rights of people with disabilities. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity, demands that all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, must recognise that the dignity of the human person is fundamental and so the development of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals must meet all segments of society in a way that “no one will be left behind”.  

In relation to engineering, The Statement of Ethical Principles published by the Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2005 and revised in 2017, articulates one of its strategic challenges to be positioning engineering at the heart of society, enhancing its wellbeing, improving the quality of the built environment, and promoting EDI. To uphold these principles, engineering professionals are required to promote social equity, guaranteeing equal opportunities to access the built environment and transportation systems, enabling the active participation of all citizens in society, including vulnerable groups. The universal design approach is one method that engineers can use to ensure social sustainability. 

 

The challenges of universal and inclusive design: 

Every citizen must have the same equality of opportunities in using spaces because the existence of an accessible built environment is fundamental to guarantee vitality, safety, and sociability. These ethical values associated with the technical decision-making process were considered by the American architect Ronald Lawrence Mace (1941-1998) who defined the universal design concept as “designing all products, buildings and exterior spaces to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible” (Mace et al., 1991), thus contributing to social inclusion.  

Universal accessibility according to this universal design approach is “the characteristic of an environment or object which enables everybody to enter into a relationship with, and make use of, that object or environment in a friendly, respectful and safe way” (Aragall et al., 2003). It focuses on people with reduced mobility, such as people with disabilities (mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive dimensions), children and elderly people. Built environment and transport systems must be designed considering this equity attribute which is associated with social sustainability and inclusion. 

The Center for Universal Design of the North Carolina State University developed seven principles of universal design (Connell et al., 1997):  

1. Equitable use 

2. Flexibility in use  

3. Simple and intuitive use  

4. Perceptible information  

5. Tolerance for error  

6. Low physical effort  

7. Size and space for approach and use.    

These principles must always be incorporated in the conception of products and physical environments, so as to create a ‘fair built’ environment, where all have the right to use it, in the same independent and natural way. This justice design must guarantee autonomy in the use of spaces and transport vehicles, contributing to the self-determination of citizens.   

The perceptions of the space users are fundamental to be considered in the design process to achieve the usability of the built environment and transport systems. Pedestrian infrastructure design and modal interfaces demand user-centred approaches and therefore processes of co-design and co-creation with communities, where people are effectively involved as collaborators and participants. 

Achieving an inclusive society is a great challenge because there are situations where the needs of users are divergent: technical solutions created for a specific group of people are inadequate for others. For example, wheelchair users and elderly people need smooth surfaces and, on the contrary, blind people need tactile surfaces.  

Consequently, in the process of universal design, some people can feel excluded because they need other technical solutions. It is then necessary to consider precise inclusive design when projecting urban spaces for all.   

Universal design is linked with designing one-space-suits-almost-all, and inclusive design focuses on one-space-suits-one, for example design a space for everyone (collective perspective) versus design a space for one specific group (particular perspective). As the built environment must be understandable to and usable by all people, both are important for social sustainability. Universal design contributes to social inclusion, but added inclusive design is needed, matching the excluded users to the object or space design.  

In order to promote social inclusion and quality of life, to which everyone is entitled, universal and inclusive co-design of the built environment and the transportation systems demands specific approaches that have to be integrated in engineering education: 

 

Conclusion: 

Universal and inclusive co-design of the built environment and transportation systems must be seen as an ethical act in engineering. Co-design for social sustainability can be strengthened through engineering acts. Ethical responsibility must be assumed to create inclusive solutions considering human diversity, empowering engineers to act and design justice.  

There is a strong need for engineers to possess a set of skills and competencies related to the ability to work with other professionals (for example from the social sciences),  users, or collaborators. In the 21st century, beyond the use of technical knowledge to solve problems, engineers need communication skills to achieve the sustainable development goals, requiring networking, cooperating in teams, and working with communities.  

Engineering education must consider transdisciplinary approaches which make clear progress in tackling urban challenges and finding human-centred solutions. Universal and inclusive co-design must be incorporated routinely into the practice of engineers and assumed in Engineering Ethics Codes.  

 

References: 

Aragall, F. and EuCAN members, (2003) European Concept for Accessibility: Technical Assistance Manual. Luxemburg: EuCAN – European Concept for Accessibility Network.  

Connell, B. R., Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller, J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., Sanford, J., Steinfeld, E., Story, M. and Vanderheiden, G. (1997) The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh: North Carolina State University, The Center for Universal Design. USA.  

Mace, R. L., Hardie G. J. and Place, J. P. (1991) ‘Accessible environments: Toward universal design,’ in W.E. Preiser, J.C. Vischer, E.T. White (Eds.). Design Intervention: Toward a More Human Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, pp. 155-180.  

Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons. (1975). Proclaimed by G/A/RES 3447 of 9 December 1975. 

United Nations. (2015). Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2015, New York.  

Additional resources: 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Professor Sarah Hitt SFHEA (NMITE); Professor Raffaella Ocone OBE FREng FRSE (Heriot Watt University); Johnny Rich (Engineering Professors’ Council); Dr Matthew Studley (University of the West of England, Bristol); Dr Nik Whitehead (University of Wales Trinity Saint David); Dr Darian Meacham (Maastricht University); Professor Mike Bramhall (TEDI-London); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Data security of smart technologies.

Engineering disciplines: Electronics, Data, Mechatronics.

Ethical issues: Autonomy, Dignity, Privacy, Confidentiality.

Professional situations: Communication, Honesty, Transparency, Informed consent.

Educational level: Intermediate.

Educational aim: Practise ethical analysis. Ethical analysis is a process whereby ethical issues are defined and affected parties and consequences are identified so that relevant moral principles can be applied to a situation in order to determine possible courses of action.

 

Learning and teaching notes:

This case involves a software engineer who has discovered a potential data breach in a smart home community. The engineer must decide whether or not to report the breach, and then whether to alert and advise the residents. In doing so, considerations of the relevant legal, ethical, and professional responsibilities need to be weighed. The case also addresses communication in cases of uncertainty as well as macro-ethical concerns related to ubiquitous and interconnected digital technology.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and/or activities as desired

Learners will have the opportunity to:

Teachers will have the opportunity to:

 

Learning and teaching resources:

 

Summary:

Smart homes have been called “the road to independent living”. They have the potential to increase the autonomy and safety of older people and people with disabilities. In a smart home, the internet of things (IoT) is coupled with advanced sensors, chatbots and digital assistants. This combination enables residents to be connected with both family members and health and local services, so that if there there are problems, there can be a quick response.

Ferndale is a community of smart homes. It has been developed at considerable cost and investment as a pilot project to demonstrate the potential for better and more affordable care of older people and people with disabilities. The residents have a range of capabilities and all are over the age of 70. Most live alone in their home. Some residents are supported to live independently through: reminders to take their medication; prompts to complete health and fitness exercises; help completing online shopping orders and by detecting falls and trips throughout the house. The continuous assessment of habits, diet and routines allows the technology to build models that may help to predict any future negative health outcomes. These include detecting the onset of dementia or issues related to dietary deficiencies. The functionality of many smart home features depends on a reliable and secure internet connection.

 

Dilemma – Part one:

You are the software engineer responsible for the integrity of Ferndale’s system. During a routine inspection you discover several indicators suggesting a data breach may have occurred via some of the smart appliances, many of which have cameras and are voice-activated. Through the IoT, these appliances are also connected to Amazon Ring home security products – these ultimately link to Amazon, including supplying financial information and details about purchases.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Activity: Technical analysis – Before the ethical questions can be considered, the students might consider a number of immediate technical questions that will help inform the discussion on ethical issues. A sample data set or similar technical problem could be used for this analysis. For example:

2. Activity: Identify legal and ethical issues. The students should reflect on what might be the immediate ethical concerns of this situation. This could be done in small groups or a larger classroom discussion.

Possible prompts:

3. Activity: Determine the wider ethical context. Students should consider what wider moral issues are raised by this situation. This could be done in small groups or a larger classroom discussion.

Possible prompts:

 

Dilemma – Part two:

You send an email to Ferndale’s manager about the potential breach, emphasising that the implications are possibly quite serious. She replies immediately, asking that you do not reveal anything to anyone until you are absolutely certain about what has happened. You email back that it may take some time to determine if the software security has been compromised and if so, what the extent of the breach has been. She replies explaining that she doesn’t want to cause a panic if there is nothing to actually worry about and says “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” How do you respond?     

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Professional values – What guidance is given by codes of ethics such as the Royal Academy of Engineering/Engineering Council’s Statement of Ethical Principles or the Association for Computing Machinery Code of Ethics?

2. Activity: Map possible courses of action. The students should think about the possible actions they might take. They can be prompted to articulate different approaches that could be adopted, such as the following, but also develop their own alternative responses.

3. Activity: Hold a debate on which is the best approach and why. The students should interrogate the pros and cons of each possible course of action including the ethical, technical, and financial implications. They should decide on their own preferred course of action and explain why the balance of pros and cons is preferable to other options.

4. Activity: Role-play a conversation between the engineer and the manager, or a conversation between the engineer and a resident.

5. Discussion: consider the following questions:

6. Activity: Change perspectives. Imagine that you are the child of one of Ferndale’s residents and that you get word of the potential data security breach. What would you hope the managers and engineers would do?

7. Activity: Write a proposal on how the system might be improved to stop this happening in the future or to mitigate unavoidable risks. To inform the proposal, the students should also explore the guidance of what might be best practice in this area. For example, in this instance, they may decide on a series of steps.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Dr Sarah Jayne Hitt (NMITE); Dr Matthew Studley (University of the West of England, Bristol); Dr Darian Meacham (Maastricht University); Dr Nik Whitehead (University of Wales Trinity Saint David); Professor Mike Bramhall (TEDI-London); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Safety of construction materials.

Engineering disciplines: Mechanical, Materials.

Ethical issues: Safety, Communication, Whistleblowing, Power.

Educational level: Beginner.

Educational aim: To develop ethical awareness. Ethical awareness is when an individual determines that a single situation has moral implications and can be considered from an ethical point of view.

 

Learning and teaching notes:

This case concerns a construction engineer navigating multiple demands. The engineer must evaluate trade-offs between technical specifications, historical preservation, financial limitations, social needs, and safety. Some of these issues have obvious ethical dimensions, while others are ethically more ambiguous. In addition, the engineer must navigate a professional scenario in which different stakeholders try to influence the resolution of the dilemma.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to the AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to:  

 

Learning and teaching resources:

 

Summary:

Krystyna is a construction engineer working as part of a team that is retrofitting a Victorian-era factory into multi-unit housing. As an amateur history buff, she is excited to be working on a listed building for the first time in her career after finishing university three years ago. However, this poses additional challenges: she must write the specification for glass windows that will maintain the building’s heritage status but also conform to 21st century safety standards and requirements for energy efficiency. In addition, Krystyna feels under pressure because Sir Robert, the developer of the property, is keen to maximise profits while maintaining the historic feel valued by potential buyers. He also wants to get the property on the housing market as soon as possible to help mitigate a housing shortage in the area. This is the first of many properties that Dave, the project’s contractor who is well-regarded locally and has 30 years of experience working in the community, will be building for Sir Robert. This is the first time that Krystyna has worked with Dave.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: What competing values or motivations might conflict in this scenario?

2. Discussion: What codes, standards and authority bodies might be relevant to this scenario?

3. Activity: Assemble a bibliography of relevant professional codes, standards, and authorities.

4. Activity: Undertake a technical project relating to testing glass for fire safety and / or energy efficiency.

5. Activity: Research the use of glass as a building material throughout history and / or engineering innovations in glass production.

 

Dilemma – Part one:

On her first walk through the property with Dave, Krystyna discovers that the factory building has large floor-to-ceiling windows on the upper stories. Dave tells her that these windows were replaced at some point in the past 50 years before the building was listed, at a time when it wasn’t used or occupied, although the records are vague. The glass is in excellent condition and Sir Robert has not budgeted either the time or the expense to replace glass in the heritage building.

While writing the specification, Krystyna discovers that the standards for fire protection as well as impact safety and environmental control have changed since the glass was most likely installed. After this research, she emails Dave and outlines what she considers to be the safest and most responsible form of mitigation: to fully replace all the large windows with glass produced by a supplier with experience in fire-rated safety glass for heritage buildings. To justify this cost, she highlights the potential dangers to human health and the environment of not replacing the glass.

Dave replies with a reassuring tone and refers to his extensive experience as a contractor. He feels that too many additional costs would be incurred such as finding qualified installers, writing up new architectural plans, or stopping work altogether due to planning permissions related to historic properties. He argues that there is a low probability of a problem actually arising with the glass. Dave encourages Krystyna not to reveal these findings to Sir Robert so that “future conflicts can be avoided.”

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: What ethical issues that can be identified in this scenario?

2. Discussion: What interpersonal dynamics might affect the way this situation can be resolved?

3. Discussion: If you were the engineer, what action would you take, if any?

4. Activity: Identify all potential stakeholders and their values, motivations, and responsibilities using the SERM found in the Learning and teaching resources section.

5. Activity: Role-play the engineer’s response to the contractor or conversation with the developer.

6. Discussion: How do the RAEng/Engineering Council Statement of Ethical Principles and the Society of Construction Law Statement of Ethical Principles inform what ethical issues may be present, and what solutions might be possible?

 

Dilemma – Part two:

After considerable back and forth with Dave, Krystyna sees that she is unlikely to persuade him to make the changes to the project that she has recommended. Now she must decide whether to go against his advice and notify Sir Robert that they have disagreed about the best solution. Additionally, Krystyna has begun to wonder whether she has a responsibility to future residents of the building who will be unaware of any potential dangers related to the windows. Meanwhile, time is moving on and there are other deadlines related to the project that she must turn her focus to and complete.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

The Society of Construction Law’s Statement of Ethical Principles advises “provid[ing] information and warning of matters . . . which are of potential detriment to others who may be adversely affected by them.”

1. Activity: Debate whether or not Krystyna has an ethical or professional responsibility to warn relevant parties.

2. Discussion: If Krystyna simply warns them, is her ethical responsibility fulfilled?

3. Activity: Map the value conflicts and trade-offs Krystyna is dealing with. Use the Mapping Actors and Processes article in the Learning and teaching resources section.

4. Discussion: If you were Krystyna, what would you do and why?

5. Discussion: In what ways are the professional codes helpful (or not) in resolving this dilemma?

6. Discussion: ’Advises’ or ‘requires’? What’s the difference between these two words in their use within a code of ethics? Could an engineer’s response to a situation based on these codes of ethics be different depending on which of these words is used?

 

Enhancements:

An enhancement for this case study can be found here.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Professor Dawn Bonfield MBE (Aston University); Johnny Rich (Engineering Professors’ Council); Professor Chike Oduoza (University of Wolverhampton).

Keywords: Ethical principles; Code of conduct; Engineering professionals; Ethical decision-making; Ethical behaviour.

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help to prepare students with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for.

 

Premise:

The Statement of Ethical Principles published by the Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2005 (revised in 2017) contains the recommendations to which all UK engineers should comply. It sets out four fundamental principles that all engineering professionals should aspire to follow in their working habits and relationships.

At the launch of the revised document, the Chair of the Engineering Council said “The profession needs to ensure that the principles are embedded at all stages of professional development for engineers and those technicians, tradespeople, students, apprentices and trainees engaged in engineering.”

These principles are based on the premise that engineering professionals work to enhance the wellbeing of society, and in so doing they are required to maintain and promote high ethical standards, as well as to challenge unethical behaviour. The principles are the foundation for making decisions when faced with an ethical dilemma in engineering.

 

The four principles:

The code defines four fundamental principles of ethical behaviour: Honesty and integrity; Respect for life, law, the environment and public good; Accuracy and rigour; and Leadership and communication.

The requirement for engineers to embody honesty and integrity is based on the expectation that engineers can be trusted. It seeks to position the engineering community as one that possesses the respect and confidence of the public. People should feel confident that the word of an engineer is a reliable one, and that decisions taken by engineers are fair and without compromise or conflict.

Respect for life, law, the environment and public good demands that engineers are law-abiding and have the public’s best interests at heart. This allows people to feel safe when they drive over bridges, fly in aircrafts, and use electrical equipment. It reassures them that engineering designs have been tested, are legally compliant, and that the engineer puts, above all else, the wellbeing of the public, future generations, other members of the profession, and the environment in which we live. This principle also covers the protection of data and privacy of the public.

Accuracy and rigour ensures that engineers are trained, competent and knowledgeable, and that they do not pass themselves off as experts in areas where they are not competent. It requires that engineers keep their knowledge up-to-date, and share their knowledge and understanding with others in their profession. It calls for engineers to take a broad approach to problem-solving, considering a variety of external factors which may influence the risks of any project.

And finally, the principle of leadership and communication ensures that engineers lead by example, that diversity and inclusion are valued, and that people are treated fairly and with respect. It is concerned with the impact of engineering on society in the broadest sense – with how the public sees engineering and how engineering addresses public, social and environmental justice concerns. It requires engineers to be considerate and truthful when acting in a professional capacity, and to raise concerns where necessary.

These four principles underpin professional codes of conduct for engineers, and they provide guidance on how ethical decisions should be made, giving a set of values against which engineers can behave.

 

Using the principles to unpick right from wrong and make the best decision:

While these principles can form a useful basis for ethical decision-making within engineering, it is often the case that conflicts arise that prevent the decision pathway from being straightforward, when there is no obvious right or wrong answer. There may be other principles that need to be considered, relating to the organisation or the institution that the engineer is working for. Furthermore, there may be other considerations associated with a person’s religion, culture or belief system. We shouldn’t forget that other constraints such as cost and time will also impact on the possible options available.

So, decision-making in engineering is rarely straightforward. It is not like a mathematical equation with right and wrong answers, but rather with degrees of rightness, balances of pros and cons and, often, with some costs incurred for the sake of a greater good. Various tools and frameworks exist to help the decision-maker with ethical problems. Probably the simplest logical method considers each of the possible solutions against the ethical principles that are to be complied with. These can then be considered in relation to the stakeholders affected, and a list of pros and cons can be developed. They can even be scored and weighted.

What if a decision is required quickly? How do we ensure that we are likely to make the best one? These questions are partly due to the values that we subscribe to as engineers, and as individuals. They become embedded in our subconsciousness through our training and practice. When decisions need to be made in a hurry, we rely on heuristics, or simple rules or instincts that feel consistent with the ethical knowledge and expertise that we have built up during our career. These heuristics, however, are subject to cognitive biases – psychological patterns of thought that divert us from purely rational approaches. Being aware of these biases can help to minimise or compensate for them.

 

Conclusion:

Engineers should utilise the Statement of Ethical Principles and knowledge of the specific context they are working in, to make the best decisions on the situation or dilemmas at hand. Ultimately, decisions that we make as a professional engineer are our individual responsibility, and whatever decision results, we should be prepared to justify and stand by them, knowing that we have taken these in good faith and for the right reasons. Ethical decision-making can be practised throughout an engineer’s education by using a variety of case studies to explore a range of scenarios an engineer could face. The Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering Professors’ Council’s Engineering ethics case studies can be used for this.

 

Additional resources:

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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