Educational Forum

Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 299-308

First online:

Teaching ethics to scientists and engineers: Moral agents and moral problems

  • Caroline WhitbeckAffiliated withthe Department of Mechanical Engineering, Rm. 3-137C, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Email author 

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In this paper I outline an “agent-centered” approach to learning ethics. The approach is “agent-centered” in that its central aim is to prepare students toact wisely and responsibly when faced with moral problems. The methods characteristic of this approach are suitable for integrating material on professional and research ethics into technical courses, as well as for free-standing ethics courses.

The analogy I draw between ethical problems and design problems clarifies the character of ethical problems as they are experienced by those who must respond to them. It exposes the mistake, common in ethics teaching, of misrepresenting moral problems as multiple-choice problems, especially in the form of ‘dilemmas’, that is, a forced choice between two unacceptable alternatives. Furthermore, I clarify the importance for responsible practice of recognizing any ambiguity in the problem situation.

To foster in students the skills they need, teaching examples should preserve the open-ended, multiply-constrained, and ambiguous character of problem situations as experienced by the agent. I give guidelines for constructing open-ended scenarios that present moral problems much as an agent would experience them — guidelines which strongly influenced the construction of ‘cases’ in the latest edition of “On Being a Scientist” — and I discuss how to present historical cases and cases from the instructor’s own experience to best foster agent-centered learning.


agent-centered active learning ethics problems design cases