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Identifying Moral Foundations and Disciplinary Frameworks of Engineering Ethics

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session 4

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Jonathan Beever University of Central Florida Orcid 16x16

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Jonathan Beever is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and faculty with the Texts & Technology Ph.D. Program at The University of Central Florida. Dr. Beever holds numerous national level leadership positions and works and publishes at the intersection of environmental ethics and bioethics, focusing on questions of ethics, science, and representation. He teaches a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses on related topics.

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Laurie A. Pinkert University of Central Florida

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Laurie A. Pinkert is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. Her research examines the role of communication practices and writing infrastructures in disciplinary development within fields such as engineering.

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Identifying Moral Foundations and Disciplinary Frameworks of Engineering Ethics

Engineering ethics has consistently focused on the ways in which individuals make ethical decisions and, in turn, the ways in which engineering ethics educators can cultivate ethical decision making in individual’s behaviors. The target of this type of inquiry has been on the explicit outcomes of ethics: increasing reasoning skills, developing ethical motivation, evidencing ethical sensitivity. While this focus has been important for analyzing and shaping the ways that engineers develop, it often ignores the value positions from which individual start in favor of attention to frameworks that can shape continued development. Yet engineers often need to work across value and motivation differences, suggesting that cultivating ethical outcomes may not be solely linked to the frameworks that facilitate such outcomes but also connected to the implicit values – the foundations – that shape individuals. In response to this problem, we argue that engineering ethics education ought to work to identify ethical orientations—made up of both moral foundations and ethical frameworks — present in engineering sub-disciplines and determining how these orientations might support (or inhibit) effective decision-making across disciplinary boundaries.

Moral foundations, as defined by moral foundations theory (MFT), are an individual’s system of intuitive normative orientations to a particular ethical problem. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt spear-headed the development of this moral foundations theory in his 2012 The Righteous Mind. While MFT was developed with an eye toward better understanding political differences, we argue that these same moral foundations operate generally as threshold concepts (Meyer and Land 2006), creating the possibility for engaging in a previously inaccessible way of thinking and irreversibly altering ethical thought and practice – in the context of STEM disciplines as much as in the context of political thought. As such, we expect that disciplines with shared moral foundations are more likely to share modes of thought and practice, making the process of building shared decision-making frameworks more readily possible for those who share disciplinary and ethical homogeneity than for those who do not.

A diversity of frameworks for cultivating ethical decision-making have been developed and implemented within and across STEM disciplines. For example, some frameworks have focused on the moral sensitivity of individuals as a necessary condition for ethical decision-making. Other work has focused even more narrowly on individuals in specific disciplines. Specifically within engineering, several additional frameworks have been proposed to capture the essence of individual ethical decision-making; however, there is not one that has been widely adopted across all sub-disciplines of engineering. This diversity of framework compounds the diversity of moral foundations to such an extent that the ethicists failure to make sufficient differentiations among them will lead inevitably to a poor understanding of ethical decision-making.

Beever, J., & Pinkert, L. A. (2018, June), Identifying Moral Foundations and Disciplinary Frameworks of Engineering Ethics Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30595

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