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A Principlist Approach for Thinking About the Social Impacts of Engineering

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Social Responsibility and Social Justice I: Pedagogical Perspectives

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Jonathan Beever University of Central Florida Orcid 16x16

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Jonathan Beever is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and faculty with the Texts & Technology Program at The University of Central Florida. He has held postdoctoral positions with Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute and with Purdue University’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering before joining UCF. He has held fellowships with the Kaufmann Foundation, the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and the Global Sustainable Soundscape Network. Jonathan works and publishes at the intersection of environmental ethics and bioethics, focusing on questions of ethics, science, and representation. He teaches a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses on related topics.

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Andrew O. Brightman Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Andrew O. Brightman is an Associate Professor of Engineering Practice in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University where he serves as Assistant Head for Academic Affairs. His research background is in cellular biochemistry, tissue engineering, and engineering ethics. He and his multidisciplinary team are committed to developing effective pedagogy and tools for enhancing ethical reasoning skills for innovative engineering design and socially responsible engineering practice.

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An important and recent report created by the National Academies and the Institute of Medicine highlights an emerging shift in thinking about the process of technology development. The report, commissioned by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), focused new attention on the conversation about societal impacts of engineering, particularly the designing and implementation of new technologies. This report suggests a need for changes in both the content of the conversation about societal impacts of engineering that now includes broader issues such as social justice and autonomy and in the participants of that conversation. These changes raise an important question for engineering educators: “How do we best prepare engineering students to participate in the changing conversation about the societal and ethical impacts of their profession?” Developing an answer requires a rethinking of paradigms and pedagogies for teaching about professional responsibilities and communication, especially with the broader range of stakeholder communities impacted by the engineering of new and emerging technologies. We propose that the conceptual power of mid-level normative principles provides a rigorous framework for a process-based engagement of engineers with ethical reasoning in a diverse community of participants. It opens space for engineers to even more richly understand the complexity of both direct and indirect societal impacts resulting from their work. Thus, in this paper we argue that Reflexive Principlism, an approach to ethical reasoning applied reflectively in the engineering context, is an important component of a response to these challenges. The specification and balancing of principles essential to Reflexive Principlism requires a dialogic reflectivity among codes, cases, and the perspectives and potential concerns of diverse stakeholders. Developing an answer to the question of appropriate pedagogy certainly will involve significant dialogic interactions between engineering educators and educators in several disciplines in the humanities. Although some key engineering educators are focusing the emphasis of their work on these issues, the terms, discourse communities, and practices associated with the literature on autonomy and social justice, for example, most often come from other disciplines and are not readily ascertainable by engineering students or faculty. As complex societal and ethical issues like these are gaining emphasis in engineering contexts, engineering professionals as well struggle to frame their thinking and find effective language for the necessary broader communication. In this paper we describe how Reflexive Principlism provides a framework within which engineers can responsibly and effectively communicate about the changing content and with a more diverse range of participants in the conversation concerning the potential impacts of engineering on society.

Beever, J., & Brightman, A. O. (2016, June), A Principlist Approach for Thinking About the Social Impacts of Engineering Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26408

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