Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 205–222 | Cite as

Teaching ethics in engineering education through historical analysis



The goal of this paper is to stress the significance of ethics for engineering education and to illustrate how it can be brought into the mainstream of higher education in a natural way that is integrated with the teaching objectives of enriching the core meaning of engineering. Everyone will agree that the practicing engineer should be virtuous, should be a good colleague, and should use professional understanding for the common good. But these injunctions to virtue do not reach closely enough the ethic of the engineer as engineer, as someone acting in a uniquely engineering situation, and it is to such conditions that I wish to speak through a set of specific examples from recent history. I shall briefly refer to four controversies between engineers. Then, in some detail I shall narrate three historical cases that directly involve the actions of one engineer, and finally I would like to address some common contemporary issues.

The first section, “Engineering Ethics and the History of Innovation” includes four cases involving professional controversy. Each controversy sets two people against each other in disputes over who invented the telegraph, the radio, the automobile, and the airplane. In each dispute, it is possible to identify ethical and unethical behavior or ambiguous ethical behavior that serves as a basis for educational discussion. The first two historical cases described in “Crises and the Engineer” involve the primary closure dam systems in the Netherlands, each one the result of the actions of one engineer. The third tells of an American engineer who took his political boss, a big city mayor, to court over the illegal use of a watershed. The challenges these engineers faced required, in the deepest sense, a commitment to ethical behavior that is unique to engineering and instructive to our students. Finally, the cases in “Professors and Comparative Critical Analysis” illuminate the behavior of engineers in the design of structures and also how professors can make public criticisms of designs that seem wasteful.


engineering ethics engineering education historical analysis innovators 


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Copyright information

© Opragen Publications 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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