Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 1395–1404

Engineering Ethics: Looking Back, Looking Forward


  • Richard A. Burgess
    • National Institute for Engineering Ethics
    • Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Marilyn A. Dyrud
    • Oregon Institute of Technology
  • Joseph R. Herkert
    • Arizona State University
  • Rachelle D. Hollander
    • National Academy of Engineering
  • Lisa Newton
    • Fairfield University
  • Michael S. Pritchard
    • Western Michigan University
  • P. Aarne Vesilind
    • Bucknell University
Meeting Report

DOI: 10.1007/s11948-012-9374-7

Cite this article as:
Burgess, R.A., Davis, M., Dyrud, M.A. et al. Sci Eng Ethics (2013) 19: 1395. doi:10.1007/s11948-012-9374-7


The eight pieces constituting this Meeting Report are summaries of presentations made during a panel session at the 2011 Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) annual meeting held between March 3rd and 6th in Cincinnati. Lisa Newton organized the session and served as chair. The panel of eight consisted both of pioneers in the field and more recent arrivals. It covered a range of topics from how the field has developed to where it should be going, from identification of issues needing further study to problems of training the next generation of engineers and engineering-ethics scholars.




Lisa Newton, Fairfield University

This Meeting Report began as conference panel I organized for the 2011 annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE). “Engineering Ethics” has been around, as a field, for about three decades. With the help of Brian Schrag, APPE Executive Secretary, I picked the pioneers: Michael Davis and Michael Pritchard, working with Rachelle Hollander and Vivian Weil, brought out the first materials in the field, which had become an area of serious concern after some high-profile accidents traceable to the neglect of basic ethical principles. To these pioneers, I added some newer voices: Richard Burgess, Marilyn Dyrud, Joseph Herkert, and Aarne Vesilind.

We asked them all to reflect on where the field was coming from, where it was going, and what we ought to be doing now. We may divide their answers to the questions posed into three categories: (1) developing and standardizing the field itself; (2) developing the curricula, connections, colleagues and institutions we need to bring up the field’s next generation of scholars; and (3) keeping up with the developments in technology.
  1. 1.

    As Rachelle Hollander points out, the field began with the personal connections among scholars at some distance from each other exploring the same topics, scholars that she was able to bring together from her post at the NSF. We must extend those connections to include all who will deal with today’s (and tomorrow’s) major questions of technical policy.

  2. 2.

    Meanwhile, we should solidify positions in the standard settings for the teaching of philosophy and traditional (academic) ethics. One pressing need is to educate the next generation of scholars in engineering ethics. They must be schooled in the workings of the business system and the historical commitments of the engineer; they should be able to distinguish their engineering commitments from their management commitments and to know when the demands of public safety override the demands of economics. Since engineers are often required to participate in matters of policy, significant research in the ethics of technology will have to accompany this preparation.

  3. 3.

    As Joe Herkert argues, developments in technology outpace every predictor, leaving us (humanity) with an inestimable universe of problems that (in the nature of future technology) we simply cannot conceptualize, let alone arrange to deal with. One collateral field of problems of vital moment to the health of humanity, is the expansion of waste dumps, the leftovers of rapidly changing (and obsolescing) technologies. As Marilyn Dyrud points out, this mass of unyielding matter, most from the USA, apparently has no future use except to provide tiny amounts of precious minerals for sale on the open market—after poisoning the workers who extract them and the air, land, and water in the area where they are extracted. This is an engineering problem: as early as the 1990s, Natural Capitalism, the pioneering work by Lovins, Lovins and Hawken, described a manufacturing sector whose products would be totally reusable and recyclable. Much of Europe, and other homes of enlightenment, have carried out their recommendations. Where is the United States in all of this?



Rachelle D. Hollander, National Academy of Engineering

Intellectual and personal connections are important to develop a field; so is funding. The program Ethics and Values Studies at the National Science Foundation supported the beginnings of the field of engineering ethics in the 1980s. The issue of risk provided an intellectual construct that engaged many scientists, engineers and scholars as well as non-scholarly individuals and groups. How to define, characterize, understand risk became and remains central to controversies involving science, engineering, and technology. This intellectual focus exemplifies how questions of engineering ethics require trans-disciplinary attention.

Connections create research communities. In the 1980s Michael Pritchard of Western Michigan University talked to Michael Rabins and Ed Harris at Texas A&M University because they were working on some of the same problems. The collaboration has lasted more than 20 years; their textbook Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases is in its fourth edition. A next generation of faculty including both philosophers and engineers now teaches engineering ethics at TAMU; stand-alone courses and infusion of ethics across the engineering curriculum are more and more common; ABET requires engineering colleges to address ethics in accreditation; the NSF program “Ethics Education in Science and Engineering” has been supporting engineering ethics education since 2004.

There is clearly progress (with a small “p”). The discussion of the ethical parameters that are critical to professional ethics–of character and judgment, and of organizational constraints and opportunities—is increasingly sophisticated. Two current projects at the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society (CEES) at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), supported by the National Science Foundation, demonstrate this.

“Energy Ethics in Science and Engineering Education,” a collaborative project of CEES with Arizona State University (ASU), examines individual and collective responsibilities for improving energy supply, distribution, and use in the U.S., using a model that examines technological and sociological plausibility as well as ethical desirability of energy options. It tests materials and approaches in graduate programs at ASU. In 2013, a National Institute on Energy, Ethics, and Society (NIEES) will engage fifteen graduate students from energy research programs around the nation in a week-long program, to prepare them for leadership in energy ethics and energy ethics education; and a public workshop at the NAE will work with energy science and policy audiences on expanding energy ethics education.

In the second award for a Phase I Climate Change Education Partnership (CCEP), the NAE is working with ASU, the Museum of Science-Boston, the University of Virginia-Charlottesville, and the Colorado School of Mines to develop a national network to address the challenges of climate change and engineered systems in society. The goal is to enhance education on these issues, including issues of governance, sustainability, justice, and trust and public engagement. The audience: educators, students, engineers, policymakers and leaders from public and private sector organizations. The network will develop programs for engineering education in colleges, K-12 education, and informal education in science centers and citizens forums.

These projects draw from prior years’ efforts to develop connections. I hope they add to them. To find out more, contact


Michael S. Pritchard, Western Michigan University

As I reflect on the challenges posed by such recent “big news/bad news” events as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I am struck by the apparent lack of preparedness to respond effectively to them. These events differ in important ways from most of the “big news/bad news” stories that are staple fare in engineering ethics classes. The Pinto could be recalled and a buffer inserted between the gas tank and the protruding bolt that threatened to cause an explosion if it penetrated the tank. The structure of the Hyatt Regency walkway could be easily remedied, and it was presumably one-of-a-kind, a serious departure from standard construction practice. And so on. While such improvements could hardly be expected to remove all risk of failure, they could render them acceptable.

But what is our understanding of ‘acceptable risk’? This, it seems to me, is a very problematic matter when we consider engineering projects that expose the public to risks that, when something very bad happens there is no adequate “game plan” for effectively managing the damage and recovering from its blows.

For example, in calculating risks in deep water oil drilling, one obvious risk is that the joints of the pipes will not hold. It might be calculated that the risk of such a thing happening is very slight. But it would seem that more than this must be taken into account in determining the acceptability of taking that risk. We also need to know what the likely consequences will be should this unlikely event occur. And we need to know what sorts of precautionary measures will be taken to keep the odds of such an accident from occurring as low as projected. Finally, we need to know what sorts of measures will be taken to contain and rectify matters should such an accident occur, despite our best efforts to minimize its occurrence.

Safety and risk go hand-in-hand. To set standards of safety requires a determination of acceptable risk. Of course, we may find it necessary or desirable to accept risks even when we cannot plausibly say that a product, process, or project is ‘safe’. Here we might say it is ‘safe enough’, an indication that we are willing to assume substantial risks in order to obtain whatever benefits might be expected from the product, process, or project. Perhaps we could call it “acceptably unsafe.” These thoughts are just the beginning of what could prove to be a complicated analysis of an interesting and important set of interrelated concepts—acceptable/unacceptable, safe/unsafe, risk/risky, and so on.

This is a forward-looking agenda for engineering ethics—an agenda that can be informed by the problems we have not handled so well thus far. But by helping us all learn from our mistakes and oversights, engineers can help us better meet the challenges of the future. And if they don’t accept this as their responsibility, who will?

The Next Generation of Scholars

Michael Davis, Illinois Institute of Technology

Engineering ethics has achieved much since its inception more than three decades ago. It now has half a journal of its own (Science and Engineering Ethics)—as well as several other journals that regularly print work in the field. It has several good textbooks for teaching an undergraduate course—whether called Engineering Ethics, Engineering Professionalism, or the like. These textbooks, used around the world, have—along with a number of scholarly works—helped to define the field and distinguish it from two near neighbors, studies in technology and society (STS) and philosophy of technology. Engineering ethics has also had more than three decades of success in winning funds from public and private sources.

In only one respect is there much reason for worry. In North America, the field’s birthplace, there is not, as far as I know, a single program to train the next generation of scholars—as there is for medical ethics, business ethics, and other important fields of practical or professional ethics. If we look beyond North America, we will, as far as I know, find only one program that can count as training the next generation of scholars in engineering ethics—at Delft Technological University in the Netherlands.

I should therefore like to sketch a curriculum for a North American version of Delft’s program, hoping someone reading this will, seeing the market for philosophers or engineers so trained, find the money and faculty to set up such a program.

First, the next generation should know something about the history and sociology of engineering. I stress “engineering”, not “technology”. Technology predates engineering—and even today much technology is the work of architects, chemists, computer scientists, web designers, and other non-engineers. To understand engineering, especially engineering as a discipline or profession, it is necessary to understand how engineers differ from other “technologists”, especially in their training and ways of working.

Second, the next generation should know how to talk with engineers about their work, especially about the ethical problems that arise in it. That sounds easy, but in fact it is not. The difficulty of talking with engineers is one reason why a number of philosophers, including Michael Pritchard and I, have had to do empirical research not only on ethical issues in engineering but on what engineers do. The social scientists who should be doing this sort of empirical work seemed—and, for the most part continue to seem—unable to do it.

Third, the next generation needs to know enough philosophy to count as philosophers—or, at least, to draw on philosophy without finding philosophers intimidating.

There is, of course, much more to say about what should go into a good program to train the next generation of scholars in engineering ethics—but I have now used the space allotted to me. And, of course, the hard question is: How do we (concerned scholars, administrators, and philanthropists) start up one or more such programs in North America?

Educating the Next Generation About Engineering

Richard A. Burgess, National Institute for Engineering Ethics

The National Institute for Engineering Ethics (NIEE) has recently partnered with the T-STEM Center at Texas Tech University (TTU) to examine how engineering ethics can and should be incorporated into K-12 engineering education/outreach. In so doing, NIEE is following in the footsteps of others who have worked to educate the “next” generation about engineering and its impact on human life. The hope is to incorporate existing insights, develop new ones and, most importantly, help acquaint a new generation with the responsibilities and opportunities that engineering represents.

Following the successful incorporation of ethics in the 2010 Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at TTU, the staff at NIEE and T-STEM began exploring additional ways in which ethics could be seamlessly included in K-12 engineering education. T-STEM has developed a model of the engineering design process called FRAME. This model is used to educate teachers about engineering and to provide a heuristic for completing classroom engineering projects. The current focus is on developing an ethical reasoning process that will fit each step of the FRAME model. The new model will be utilized in T-STEM’s work with local middle and high schools and it will be incorporated into annual summer workshops held for K-12 educators.

Not surprisingly, teaching ethics in a K-12 setting introduces several challenges. Perhaps one of the most obvious of these is the potential to alienate parents by stepping on their territory regarding moral education. This challenge is, in my view, not as worrisome as it may appear. It is important to stress that the project is focused on cultivating sound engineering judgment and not on identifying ultimate moral principles that, in some respects, inform this judgment.

A thornier challenge arises when considering how to empower K-12 teachers to both confidently and competently discuss ethics with their students. Teaching ethics can be difficult even for those with an extensive background in the subject. Effective K-12 ethics education will not only raise ethical issues for discussion, but will improve how students grapple with these issues. Thus, the K-12 teacher’s job will be to do more than introduce a couple of thought provoking questions about the ethical implications of a project.

Arguably, the most interesting challenge is determining what to teach. Enhancing sensitivity and the ability to reason have been traditional goals of ethics education. However, is this all we (educators) wish to accomplish when talking to students about the obligations engineers have? Or, should we adopt a more proactive and robust view of the process? Do we, in other words, structure engineering ethics education to reflect a specific, normative view of engineering? While more overtly paternalistic, such an approach would offer an inoculation against the increasingly “gun-for-hire” view of engineering that pervades the attitudes of so many engineering majors today. The approach is made even more attractive when we consider developments in energy, communication technology, the built environment and so on.

While I’ve outlined several challenges, it is worth emphasizing the opportunity a project like this one represents. Regardless of a student’s future career choice, developing a more sophisticated understanding of engineering is a substantial benefit.


P. Aarne Vesilind, Bucknell University

Engineering has always had an uneasy relationship with ethics. The first known effort by engineers to codify the practice of engineering was the 1914 ASCECode of Ethics which addressed ethical concerns between and among fellow engineers and included such rules of conduct as “do not steal another engineer’s client” and “do not speak disparagingly about a fellow engineer.” With time, the code incorporated the engineers’ duties to employers and to clients and such rules as “be loyal to your employer” were added. Then in the 1970s the recognition that engineers have a moral responsibility to the public led to the addition of the famous “engineers shall hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public” clause.

During the past few decades, as engineers have became increasingly concerned with their role in environmental protection and destruction, they have recognized, with some embarrassment, that the ASCE Code of Ethics had little to say about questions regarding the engineer’s responsibility to the environment. The code did not spell out what if any responsibility engineers had to non-human animals, plants, or places, and did not offer advice on what to do about such problems. The only guidance engineers had was that the actions of the engineers should not diminish the welfare of the (human) public.

Luckily for the engineers, a 1987 United Nations commission introduced the concept of “sustainable development.” Engineers immediately embraced sustainable development because it allowed “development” while at the same time searched for ways to provide for “sustainability.” Accordingly, the first canon of the ASCE Code of Ethics was modified to include not only the engineer’s responsibility to public health, safety, and welfare, but it now requires that the engineer also “consider the principles of sustainable development.”

This modification, the first attempt at trying to include environmental concerns in an engineering code of ethics, is to be lauded, but the revision of the code falls far short of defining an environmental ethic for engineers. The objective of sustainable development is to enhance the living standard (of people) without destroying non-replenishable natural resources. The natural environment is valued only for what it can provide for our benefit, which is an inadequate environmental ethic. The statement is also weak in that all it asks of the engineer is to “consider” the principles of sustainability. If an engineer considers these principles and then rejects them, he or she has not acted unethically, according to the code.

Obviously, there is a lot work to be done. Engineering societies such as ASCE, and individual engineers in practice, have to figure out how to incorporate environmental concerns into their ethical thinking and evaluation. The future of engineering, and perhaps the future of the world, depends on how successful they will be.

Keeping Up with Technology

Joseph R. Herkert, Arizona State University

As the field of engineering ethics moves forward, one area demanding more of our attention will be the ethical challenges of emerging technologies (Marchant et al. 2011). The term “emerging technologies” generally refers to developments in such fields as nanotechnology, neurotechnology (and cognitive science), biotechnology, and robotics, as well as advanced information and communication technology.

An example of the hundreds if not thousands of emerging technologies under development is the concept of “pervasive computing” which expands the notion of the “smart house” to the entire built environment (and perhaps the natural environment as well). A fictional representation of pervasive computing can be found in the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report, but pervasive computing is hardly science fiction. Its broad outlines are already beginning to take shape in today’s world of smart phones (now including built-in geographical positioning systems), microprocessors embedded in everyday objects such as wrist watches, smart cards, radio frequency identification tags and implants, and face recognition technology, all potentially wirelessly interconnected in faster and faster broadband networks. Such technical possibilities pose daunting ethical challenges such as protecting personal privacy in a system designed explicitly to know who you are, where you are, and your personal preferences.

A key question for ethics is whether such emerging technologies have unique characteristics that set them apart from previous technologies. Many observers believe the answer is an unequivocal yes and point to such novel characteristics as accelerating pace of development, mind-boggling systems complexity, seemingly unlimited reach, embeddedness, specificity, and malleability of form. Another factor often highlighted is that these technologies are not being developed in a vacuum but rather tend to converge with one another in both processes and products.

The engineers and computer scientists behind these technologies often seem quite convinced of the ethical imperative behind such developments, from military robots that can be programmed to follow the conventions of war to autonomous machines that transcend not only human intelligence but also human moral character. Ethicists such as James Moor have taken a more cautious view of such developments, suggesting that emerging technologies call for more than “ethics as usual,” including ethical thinking that is better informed, more proactive, and characterized by more and better interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists, engineers, ethicists and others.

In confronting emerging technologies, ethicists can draw on concepts that have successfully been applied to earlier technologies. Moral imagination, for example, can be useful in addressing the complexity and malleability of emerging technologies; and preventive ethics can provide useful lessons on the need for ethical analysis to be more proactive rather than post hoc. But new ethical tools are also needed. For example, Deborah Johnson and others, drawing on concepts from science and technology studies, have been developing an anticipatory ethics specifically geared to the pace, complexity, and embeddedness of emerging technologies.

Whether we will one day encounter moral machines remains to be seen; a more immediate problem is to prove the moral reasoning of humanity is up to meeting the ethical challenges posed by emerging technologies.

E-Waste: A Looming Issue

Marilyn A. Dyrud, Oregon Institute of Technology

Where do old computers go to die? In Japan, they go to recycling centers; buyers pay a modest recycling fee folded into the unit’s retail price. In the European Union, old computers also go to recycling centers: the 2000 WEEE legislation requires that each computer part be stamped with a recycling center identifier, and that center is responsible for disposal; export is forbidden. In the United States, the process is simplified: outmoded computers and peripherals are sent to third world countries, thus circumventing the issue. The US has no coherent federal recycling program for e-waste and is the world’s leading exporter of outmoded electronics, discarding about 130,000 old PCs daily (UNEP 2009).

The US fixation on “new toys” is devastating both to the environment and humans in developing countries. Guiyu, for example, is a “recycling” center in Southern China focusing on materials recovery: workers, unimpeded by protective equipment, smash open computers with sledge hammers and cook circuit boards in acid baths to extract traces of precious metals (gold, silver, titanium, copper), practices that release toxic materials, such as phosphorus and cadmium, into the air. Non-recoverable materials are burned and the debris tossed in the nearby river. As a result, the once-pastoral rice fields have been transformed into mountains of electronic trash, and 50 % of area school children experience significant respiratory illnesses. Guiyu has no potable water, and the river is so acidic that it eats metal (2002).

Recent statistics are truly staggering: in 2007, the US disposed of 3.16 million tons of old electronics; internationally, the total was 20–50 million tonnes, anticipated to increase substantially in the next decade (2010). More disturbing, those numbers do not include the burgeoning countries of India and China, where use of electronic gadgetry is accelerating: according to UNEP 2009, computer waste will increase from 2007 levels by 400 % in China and South Africa and 500 % in India by 2020.

Engineers are uniquely suited to contribute to the solution rather than the problem. Engineering schools can begin the process by enlightening students to the enormous issue of e-waste and the havoc it wreaks; industry can complement education by introducing some relatively easily implementable changes, including designing with disposal in mind and increasing product life cycles (PCs currently have a life span of 18 months). Most importantly, the US needs to develop a coherent national recycling plan, rather than the current patchwork of impotent state programs. Following the example of the EU’s RoHS and WEEE legislation would be an effective strategy, forcing the country to clean up its own foul nest, rather than exporting toxic waste to the third world.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012