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Engineering Ethics in Global Context: Four Fundamental Approaches

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Engaging Ethics, Internationally

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Qin Zhu Colorado School of Mines Orcid 16x16

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Qin Zhu is Research Assistant Professor in the Ethics Across Campus Program and the Division of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences at Colorado School of Mines, where he is also helping with managing the Daniels Fund Faculty Fellows Program that provides scholarly and grant support for faculty to explore ways to integrate ethics into their applied science and engineering curricula. Qin is also completing his second PhD degree in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Qin holds a bachelor’s degree in Materials Engineering and a PhD in Philosophy (concentration in Ethics of Technology and Engineering) from Dalian University of Technology (DUT) (Dalian, China). Qin has broad teaching and research interests in the ethical, historical-cultural, and policy perspectives of engineering practice and education. His research has drawn on theories, methods, and practices from a wide range of fields including philosophy of technology, engineering ethics, engineering education, and Confucian ethics. His work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Science and Engineering Ethics, Engineering Studies, History of Education, and Technology in Society.

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Brent K Jesiek Purdue University, West Lafayette (College of Engineering)

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Dr. Brent K. Jesiek is an Associate Professor in the Schools of Engineering Education and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University. He also leads the Global Engineering Education Collaboratory (GEEC) research group, and is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award to study boundary-spanning roles and competencies among early career engineers. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Michigan Tech and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Science and Technology Studies (STS) from Virginia Tech. Dr. Jesiek draws on expertise from engineering, computing, and the social sciences to advance understanding of geographic, disciplinary, and historical variations in engineering education and practice.

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As engineering work becomes ever more global, growing numbers of educational institutions, programs, and initiatives are grappling with how to better prepare their engineering graduates to more effectively cross geographic boundaries. Nevertheless, students typically receive very little guidance on how to act ethically and professionally when working with people from cultures different from their own. Among existing engineering ethics textbooks, the topic of engineering ethics in global context is rarely discussed in much depth. Without exposure to typical methods and tools for defining and solving ethical problems in the global workplace, students may find themselves trying to extend what they have learned about professional ethics in their own cultures to new contexts, including by adopting a “learning by doing” approach. As a consequence, practicing engineers may be confounded by tensions between the realistic requirement for working ethically across cultures and the fact that their professional ethics education has mainly been based on prevailing conditions in their native sociocultural context.

In order to address this tension, some philosophers and engineering educators have recently been writing scholarly articles and piloting pedagogical programs to explore ways to improve students’ ethical competency in global context. Unfortunately, there remains little agreement regarding what counts as global ethical competency, much less how to cultivate it among students. Further, scholars often fail to clearly articulate and communicate their foundational positions. The goal of this paper is to bring greater clarity to the field by conceptualizing and synthesizing some of the most fundamental and prevalent approaches to engineering ethics in global context.

More specifically, this paper begins by arguing that discrepancies in efforts to situate engineering ethics in global context often derive from different understandings of what constitutes the global. Second, this paper argues that these different understandings have led to four partially distinct approaches to engineering ethics in the global context, namely: (1) global ethical codes, or building up a code of ethics based on a set of universalist values that is expected to be applied across cultures; (2) functionalist theory, which posits some fundamental, shared characteristics internal to the engineering profession that apply globally and might prove foundational for creating ethical codes; (3) cultural studies, which emphasizes the importance of cultural differences in formulating effective ethical decisions in the global context; and (4) global ethics and justice, which engages students and professionals in ideas and practices aiming to promote global justice. By examining the extant literature, pedagogical activities, and policy reports, this paper compares and contrasts these four approaches to understand how their assumptions, goals, and methods are relevant to and/or distinct from one another other.

Third and finally, this paper explores the possibility of synthetizing these four approaches in broader contexts of the global engineering profession. It also briefly discusses how engineering can learn from the histories and experiences of other professions (e.g., business, medicine) in integrating the global dimension into professional ethics education. In doing so, we hope to start building up a platform on which engineering educators and policymakers interested in global engineering education can more effectively communicate with one another and thus work together to create educational programs and policies that are not only better aligned with their objectives, but also demonstrate greater awareness of alternate perspectives and approaches.

Zhu, Q., & Jesiek, B. K. (2017, June), Engineering Ethics in Global Context: Four Fundamental Approaches Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28252

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