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Engineering Ethics: Teaching Moral Theories To Engineers

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2002 Annual Conference


Montreal, Canada

Publication Date

June 16, 2002

Start Date

June 16, 2002

End Date

June 19, 2002



Conference Session

Moral Theories and Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

7.484.1 - 7.484.8



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Paper Authors

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Arthur Kney

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David Brandes

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Mary Roth

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Kristen Sanford Bernhardt Orcid 16x16

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Engineering Ethics: Teaching Moral Theories to Engineers

Kristen L. Sanford Bernhardt, Mary J.S. Roth, David Brandes, Arthur D. Kney Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Lafayette College


The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has long required that engineering programs address professional issues, including ethics, in their curricula. While engineering programs have approached this mandate from a variety of perspectives, adding code- based “ethics components” to existing courses in the curriculum seems to be the most common strategy.1

The Engineering Division at Lafayette College, a small, undergraduate institution, has chosen to address this requirement with a course called “Engineering Professionalism and Ethics.” The course, which is required for all engineering students, has been taught by engineering faculty for the last thirteen years. It has been taught in more or less its present form since 1998.

The course uses a case study approach. However, the first section of the course, which was developed with significant interaction with the Philosophy Department, focuses on moral philosophy. Moral theories are then used as a basis for understanding and examining the engineering codes as well as the cases. This approach equips students with the tools to recognize arguments based on different types of moral theories. The students also learn the strengths and weaknesses of the theories. As a result, when a student needs to convince a colleague that a particular course of action is right, she or he is in a better position to make a rational case.

Although this paper is intended to be primarily a description of a particular course, a brief grounding in the existing literature should make the description more useful. According to Haws2, at least 42 papers that addressed the teaching of engineering ethics were published in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference proceedings between 1996 and 1999. In analyzing the papers, Haws looked at which students were required to take the courses and the content of the courses. He also considered the question of why we need courses in engineering ethics. Based on his analysis, he suggests that there are three primary objectives for engineering ethics instruction: improve students’ ability to think divergently, improve students’ ability to take the view of a non-engineer, and equip students with the vocabulary to articulate their ethical reasoning. He goes on to argue that of the six basic approaches to the subject he identified (“professional codes, humanist readings, theoretical grounding, ethical heuristics, case studies, and service learning” (p. 223)), none are sufficient in and of themselves, and that “theoretical grounding” (or the teaching of ethical theory) is critical.

This paper describes the origins of the professionalism and ethics course at Lafayette College, the current content of the course, the reasons for incorporating moral philosophy, and some possible future directions for the course. The course, as currently taught, does not meet Haws’

Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2002, American Society for Engineering Education

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Kney, A., & Brandes, D., & Roth, M., & Sanford Bernhardt, K. (2002, June), Engineering Ethics: Teaching Moral Theories To Engineers Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. 10.18260/1-2--10660

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