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Ethics’ Orphan: Unintended Consequences

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Novel Methods in Engineering Ethics

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.526.1 - 15.526.14



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Paper Authors


Marilyn Dyrud Oregon Institute of Technology

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Marilyn Dyrud is a full professor in the Communication Department at Oregon Institute of Technology and regularly teaches courses in business and technical writing, rhetoric, public speaking, and ethics. She has been active in ASEE for over 20 years, serving as OIT's campus rep, ETD section rep, compiler of the annual engineering technology education bibliography, and past chair of the Pacific Northwest Section. She serves on two division boards (engineering ethics and engineering technology) and was named Fellow in 2008. In addition to ASEE, she is active in the Association for Business Communication, where she chairs the Teaching Committee, edits a pedagogical column for one of the association's journals, and sits on the editorial boards for two journals, and the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Ethics’ Orphan: Unintended Consequences


This paper explores unintended consequences, those unpredictable repercussions that inevitably result from an action or decision. While ethical problem solving involves examining the ramifications of potential courses of action, unintended consequences is a topic typically not included in a standard ethics course. Specifically, the paper focuses on definitions, types, a case study of the 1915 Eastland disaster, contemporary examples, and classroom suggestions.


“Technology,” notes Steven VanderLeest “is not neutral. It has an intrinsic bias that is built into it from the original inception of a particular problem, throughout the entire design process, all the way to the implementation, use, and disposal of a product.” That bias, he further explains, determines the primary use of the device, although the user certainly can employ the product in “ways the designer did not intend.”1 Because human practitioners do not always follow predetermined usage, unforeseen results emerge.

Unintended consequences are inevitable, due to our inability to project how we will interact with new technology or decisions. Typically, these consequences are negative, “unpleasantly rather than pleasantly surprising,” as Edward Tenner suggests,2 ranging from the trivial and inconvenient (Wii addicts who accidentally throw their remotes through television screens due to sweaty hands) to the potentially life-threatening (the arms race that ensued from the Manhattan Project). Because they are unpredictable, unintended consequences naturally flow from virtually every invention, action, and decision that we make.3

This paper examines the phenomenon of unintended consequences, focusing on definitions, types, a case study, contemporary examples, and offers pedagogical suggestions for exploring a topic that is not typical ethics fare. Because engineers design and develop technology, which Tenner defines as “humankind’s modification of its biological and physical surroundings,”2 it is crucial that our students become aware that “things” may take on lives of their own, which may be anathema to their envisioned function.


A number of authors call for a broader education in engineering that includes study of the liberal arts, economics, and public policy—three areas that engineering and technology development impinge upon. Technological change results “from the very nature of technology and the priorities and conscious motivations of those who design and implement technology”4 and is thus part of a political process. To remove engineering from its social, economic, and political contexts and view it as a singularly technical venture also serves to remove the responsibility for the use of these technological creations.

A study of unintended consequences clearly links design, use, and responsibility issues. For the purposes of this paper, we will use Daniel Little’s definition of the term as “a result that came

Dyrud, M. (2010, June), Ethics’ Orphan: Unintended Consequences Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15637

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