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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.