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Behavioral Ethics and Engineers: Factors Affecting Decision Making in Cases Involving Risk and Public Safety

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session - Ethics Decision-Making

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Harold W. Walker Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Professor Walker is the Schwaber Professor of Environmental Engineering at WPI. Prior to coming to WPI, Professor Walker was the Founding Chair and Professor of Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University (SUNY). He started his academic career as a faculty member in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geodetic Engineering at Ohio State University. He has taught concepts in engineering ethics for over 10 years

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Traditional approaches for infusing ethics into engineering curricula emphasize a Rationalist model. In this approach, student learning is focused on understanding and recognizing ethical issues and developing better reasoning skills. To guide ethical decision making, students practice determining facts, clarifying concepts, identifying relevant ethical principles, and weighing evidence. While developing better reasoning skills is critical, research suggests that a person’s judgement is also affected by a host of social and psychological factors occurring throughout the decision making process. This paper explores how the ethical decision making of engineers can be improved through a better understanding of these social and psychological factors (so-called “Behavioral Ethics”). To this end, Behavioral Ethics was introduced into an engineering design course to examine ethical questions centered around issues of risk and public safety. To guide the identification of learning outcomes, a Behavioral Ethics rubric was developed which outlined key attributes for recognizing how behavioral factors may influence awareness of ethical issues, judgement, as well as the ability to undertake an ethical course of action. A Behavioral Ethics module was developed which included lecture materials and case studies. A class activity was developed based on the classic Ford Pinto case study in which students read narratives of engineers involved and identified how specific cognitive, situational, or institutional factors may have influenced their decision making.

Walker, H. W. (2019, June), Behavioral Ethics and Engineers: Factors Affecting Decision Making in Cases Involving Risk and Public Safety Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32143

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