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On Defining Engineering Ethics: A Challenge To The Engineering Community

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2003 Annual Conference


Nashville, Tennessee

Publication Date

June 22, 2003

Start Date

June 22, 2003

End Date

June 25, 2003



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

8.885.1 - 8.885.10



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Billy Koen

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Section 1761

On Defining Engineering Ethics: A Challenge to the Engineering Community

Billy V. Koen Department of Mechanical Engineering, The University of Texas/Austin, USA


When the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) established Evaluation Criterion 3: Outcome #f, it signaled a renewed interest in instruction in ethics at colleges of engineering in the United States.[1] Outcome #f states that “Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility.” As a result, all colleges of engineering have an obligation to document their instruction in ethics for accreditation. Everyone wants the engineer to do what he or she ought to do, but ought implies ethics, and the study of ethics is in a mess. Is the state, the existing situation, the individual, a religion, or some absolute standard to be the final arbiter of the good and the ethical? The engineer seeking professional guidance is quickly drowning in a sea of “ist.” Should he or she believe the intuitionist, the empiricist, the rationalist, the hedonist, the instrumentalist, the situationalist, the pragmatist, or (if this is an acceptable word for one who endorses Ayer’s emotivism) the emotivist?[2] Recent books on ethics for engineers provide different guidance to ethical conduct.[3,4] One bases the study of ethics on the classical virtues; another one, on utilitarianism, rights ethics, and duty ethics—each with passing glances at competitive systems such as pragmatism, situation ethics, and the theories of Rawls. The problem is that the most candid authors admit that the choice of underlying assumptions about which ethical system to use determines what is to be taken as ethical behavior. For example, the authors who wrote the first book cited above remind us that “After this selection [of principles and methods], a specific range of right action appears . . . Different sets of principles and methods yield different ranges that often overlap only partially.” More disturbingly, there are significant omissions in recent books on engineering ethics that must confound the well-read engineering student. Seldom do we find Ludwig Wittgenstein’s position on ethics discussed in the engineering classroom, for example. This is ironical because Wittgenstein is one of the best known modern philosophers and, most notably in the current context, he was, at one time, also an engineer. Through his work on language, he ultimately held the position that the claim of an absolute ethical system (the position of most, if not all books on

Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2003, American Society for Engineering Education

Koen, B. (2003, June), On Defining Engineering Ethics: A Challenge To The Engineering Community Paper presented at 2003 Annual Conference, Nashville, Tennessee. 10.18260/1-2--12355

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