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Broadening and deepening engineering students’ perspectives on morality and ethics

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2017 Pacific Southwest Section Meeting


Tempe, Arizona

Publication Date

April 20, 2017

Start Date

April 20, 2017

End Date

April 22, 2017

Conference Session

Technical Session 4b

Tagged Topic

Pacific Southwest Section

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Paper Authors

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Jason Matteson Northern Arizona University

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David M Richter Northern Arizona University

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With the primary tenant of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) articulating that engineers shall “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” and other professional engineering societies using the same or similar language, engineers need broader and deeper understanding of moral and ethical theories to make informed decisions about their designs. Ethical understanding is necessary for engineers to determine the appropriateness of pursuing a project, intentionality and consequences of their design choices, integration with and effects on current systems, and implementation of the final artifact by society. From common devices to complex systems, the technology engineers design profoundly shapes society and changes our environment, which in turns affects society. As complex systems become more pervasive into our everyday lives, ethical decisions regarding technology and policy require engineers to consider multiple moral theories in more depth than “do the greatest good”. With this guiding thought, we developed an “Ethics of Engineering Design” course to introduce engineering students to multiple moral theories with specific examples of how one could apply the theory to particular technologies. Throughout the semester, we introduced students to Moral Relativism, Rule Utilitarianism, Pluralism, and Virtue Ethics. To provide context how to apply moral theories, we discussed cases of whistleblowing, Flagstaff’s Dark Skies policies, self-driving cars, DARPA’s mach-20 glider and hummingbird drone, Universal Design (designing for disabilities), industrialization of agriculture, and Alaskan mining operations. In addition to moral theories and cases, we introduced concepts and ideas: the impulse towards technological design, discrimination, capitalism, sustainability, governments and democracy, participatory design, social justice. This paper will provide examples of how we applied and discussed these moral theories, cases, and concepts. We believe the structure of this course provided students with a framework for integrating knowledge from liberal studies requirements (such as philosophy) to their engineering courses. We encourage engineering faculty to provide students with opportunities to engage in critical thinking in order to develop deeper connections to liberal studies courses.

Matteson, J., & Richter, D. M. (2017, April), Broadening and deepening engineering students’ perspectives on morality and ethics Paper presented at 2017 Pacific Southwest Section Meeting, Tempe, Arizona.

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