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Must Engineering Ethics Presume A Secular Foundation?

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics IV

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.917.1 - 13.917.19



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Paper Authors

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Robert Niewoehner U.S. Naval Academy

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

Must Engineering Ethics Presume a Secular Foundation? Abstract

Current formulations of engineering ethics presume a strictly secular foundation, despite the strong influence religious perspectives have historically exerted on moral philosophy, particularly in the West. This paper explores a Christian foundation for engineering ethics, and addresses three principle questions:

“Why allow for a non-secular foundation for engineering ethics?” This question is important because diverse sources assert that a valid engineering ethics must necessarily be universally acceptable, and hence necessarily preclude religious perspectives.

“What are the requisite presuppositions for a robust engineering ethic?” That is, what foundational questions must first be answered for a system of engineering ethics to be warranted? Engineering ethics needs a theoretical foundation and that foundation must necessarily provide reasons for humanitarian and environmental responsibility. That necessitates a philosophical system in which the individual, the community and the environment are so meaningful that they morally obligate the engineer.

“How might a Christian articulation of engineering ethics contribute to the broader cause of progress in engineering ethics scholarship and practice?” Here the paper examines a Christian rationale for traditional themes in engineering ethics (such as product safety), and then suggests other avenues in which Christian perspectives might advance future scholarship.

The case is made that engineering scholars and practitioners from both secular and religious perspectives should encourage dialogue with religious insights into the challenges facing engineering ethics.


This paper expresses my personal pursuit of intellectual integrity. Contemporary theologian John Piper credits Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) with having taught him, “If God exists, then he is the measure of all things, and what he thinks about all things is the measure of what we should think.”1 Given I agree with Piper’s and Edwards’ conception of God, their argument compels me to agree, while admitting that I do not presently think in this way (even if I should). Furthermore, my agreement with their understanding of both humanity and nature demands that I not harbor two conceptions of life, meaning, and ethics: one for my private life and one for my secular work context. No, instead, I must wrestle to ground some conception of the engineering vocation which is both consistent intellectually with my worldview, and yet sensible and defensible in the pluralistic context in which I teach.

Niewoehner, R. (2008, June), Must Engineering Ethics Presume A Secular Foundation? Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3355

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