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Professional responsibility: Focusing on the exemplary

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The literature on ethics in science and engineering tends to dwell on the negative, emphasizing disasters, scandals, and problems of wrongdoing in everyday practice. This paper shifts to the positive, focusing on the exemplary. After outlining different possible conceptions of responsibility (ranging from a minimalist view of “staying out of trouble” to “going above and beyond the call of duty”), the paper discusses the importance of certain virtues for scientists and engineers. Finally, a broad range of examples of exemplary practice is offered.

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Notes and References

  1. See Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok, eds., Teaching Ethics in Higher Education (1980, Plenum, New York), or any of the Hastings Center monographs on various professional areas.

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  2. Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, IN) has been instrumental in reviving serious interest in the virtues both in philosophical ethics in general and professional ethics in particular. William F. May’s, Professional Virtue and Self-Regulation, in Joan Callahan, ed., Ethical Issues in Professional Life (1988, Oxford, New York), pp.408–411 makes a strong case for paying special attention to the virtues in professional life. Albert Flores, ed., Professional Ideals (1988, Wadsworth, Belmont, CA) also focuses on the importance of virtues in the professions. It contains a selection from Mike Martin and Roland Schinzinger’s Engineering Ethics (1983, McGraw-Hill, New York) that emphasizes the importance of conscientiousness and acceptance of accountability for engineers. John Ladd, Bhopal: An Essay on Moral Responsibility and Civic Virtue (1991), Journal of Social Philosophy XXII (1): 73–79 makes a strong case for engineers possessing civic virtues. More recently, three articles focusing on virtues in engineering have appeared in this journal: Simon Robinson and Ross Dixon, The Professional Engineer: Virtues and Learning (1997), Science and Engineering Ethics 3: 339–348; Douglas J. Crawford-Brown, Virtue as a Basis of Engineering Ethics (1997), Science and Engineering Ethics 3: 481–489; and Eugene Schlossberger, The Responsibility of Engineers, Appropriate Technology, and Lesser Developed Nations (1997) Science and Engineering Ethics 3: 317–326.

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  3. These cases are published, along with extensive commentaries in Michael S. Pritchard, ed., Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach (1992, Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Kalamazoo, MI). This project was supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. DIR-8820837.

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  4. For more on Bolander, see Nancy Ross-Flanigan, GM Engineer Lands Prize for Innovations, Detroit Free Press, March 30, 1995, p. 1A; also, Imagination in Overdrive, Detroit Free Press, March 30, 1995, p. 1D. It is noteworthy that several of the innovations for which Bolander is credited combine safety improvements and cost savings.

  5. Personal interview.

  6. Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson, December 23, 1990.

  7. Not all instances of the heroic in science and engineering need involve such risk taking. See example, Taft H. Broome, Jr., The Heroic Mentorship (1996), Science Communication 17 (4): 398–429. Broome discusses the important role that mythological heroes can play in mentor/mentee relations in science and engineering education, suggesting that this might be an antidote for the “toxic” effect mentors can have on their mentees in regard to scientific misconduct.

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  8. J. O. Urmson, Hare on Intuitive Moral Thinking, in Douglas Scanor and N. Fotion, eds., Hare and Critics (1988, Clarendon Press, Oxford), p. 168. I call these good works in my paper, Good Works, Professional Ethics 1 (1&2): 155–177.

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  9. It should be noted that all the examples that follow focus on the efforts of particular individuals, However, organizations can also be exemplary. See, for example, Albert Flores, Engineering Ethics in Organizational Contexts: Monsanto Co., in Albert Flores, ed., Designing for Safety: Engineering Ethics in Organizational Contexts (1982, Center for the Study of the Human Dimensions of Science and Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY), pp. 3–39. Much more work of this sort could be done.

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  10. The account below is based on: Ralph A. Fine, The Great Drug Deception (1972, Stein and Day, New York), Ch. 8, MER/32—Thalidomide, pp. 167–181; William Grigg, The Thalidomide Tragedy—25 Years Ago, FDA Consumer, February 1987, pp. 14–17.

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  11. This account is based on Linell Smith, Air Bags are his Bag, Baltimore Sun, Section D, July 7, 1997, pp. 1 and 8.

  12. Carole Beers, Don Shakow’s moral beliefs put to test in the workplace, The Seattle Times, February 16, 1997, B4.

  13. This account is based on A. Mauri Rouhi, Government, Industry Efforts Yield Array of Tools to Combat Terrorism, Chemical & Engineering News, July 24, 1995, pp. 10–19. The special information about Livesay is in a block entitled, How one chemist’s outrage sparked a counterterrorism invention, p. 12.

  14. Of course, there are many other true stories that, although less dramatic, can be told. Henry Petroski’s To Engineer is Human (1985, St. Martin’s Press, New York) emphasizes the importance of engineering failure for future success. But it also features the notable success stories of Joseph Paxton’s 19th century Crystal Palace and John Roebling’s bridge builder, both of which include extraordinary concern for safety.

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  15. What follows is based on Dave Wylie, AVIT Team Helps Disabled Children, Currents, Electrical Engineering, Texas A&M University, Summer 1993, p. 7.

  16. See the May 1997 report by the Biomass Energy Design Project Team, Design and Feasibility Study of a Biomass Energy Farm at Lafayette College as a Fuel Source for the Campus Steam Plant.

  17. For the full account, see Rogers Commission, Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Washington, D.C., June 6, 1986).

  18. What follows is based on personal conversation and Boisjoly’s presentation, Commencement of a Professional Career, delivered to the Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University, January 21, 1994.

  19. This example is based on Donald J. Giffels’s commentary on my talk, Education for Responsibility: A Challenge to Engineers and Other Professionals, the Third Annual Lecture in Ethics and Engineering, Center for Academic Ethics, Wayne State University, April 19, 1995.

  20. For an illustration of Beason’s involvement in areas of considerable controversy, see his articles, The New SBCCT Impact Standard, Glass Magazine, February 1996, pp. 35–41; and, Impact Resistance Testing, Glass Magazine, February 1996, pp. 42–3.

  21. William F. May, Professional Virtue and Self-Regulation, in Joan Callahan, ed., Ethical Issues in Professional Life (1988, Oxford University Press, New York), pp. 408–411.

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  22. W. F. May (1988), p. 408.

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  23. W. F. May (1988), p. 408.

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Work on this paper was supported by National Science Foundation Grant #SBR-930257.

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Pritchard, M.S. Professional responsibility: Focusing on the exemplary. SCI ENG ETHICS 4, 215–233 (1998).

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