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Promoting The Agenda Of Engineers: John Rawls And Justice In Engineering Ethics

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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

7.957.1 - 7.957.8



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Paper Authors

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David Haws

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Session 3261

Promoting the Agenda of Engineers: John Rawls and Justice in Engineering Ethics

David R. Haws Boise State University


When we lecture on engineering professional practice, we often begin with the public procedures of professional registration, and the public pronouncements of the Professional Engineer’s Code of Ethics. Yet our discussions of engineering ethics typically focus on private rather than public autonomy. When can a kickback be seen as the cost of doing business? Should we launch a marginally safe but useful product? Should we sign a report that we know to be incomplete or deceptively worded? Theoretical ethics lends depth to our discussion and helps us to explain such dilemmas in terms of virtue, utility, or duty, but the questions themselves bear on engineering situations that disturb our private sense of morality and bear on private autonomy. We should also be concerned with the impact of engineering on public autonomy. What privileges can engineers legitimately claim? Who has the responsibility to oversee the engineer’s professional conduct? To whom do engineers “owe” their public explanations?

The professionalization of engineering is an on-going process. Engineers are becoming “more” professional (a more specialized, essential core of knowledge; more restrictions on educational background; and less external oversight). Our students need to discuss the professional aspirations of engineers within the broader context of the social contract—the construct that holds our private and public autonomy together. What are the ethical implications of a dynamic social contract, and how might we justify the engineer’s changing benefits and obligations? Theoretical ethics adds depth to our discussion here as well.

Much of engineering ethics must deal with the engineer’s responsibility to society, and society’s responsibility to engineers. We should approach engineering professionalization as an opportunity to discuss a number of views on the social contract (Socrates and the citizen’s obligation of gratitude to the polis, Thomas Hobbes and the notion of absolute sovereignty, John Locke and rights of property, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and popular sovereignty, Immanuel Kant’s “kingdom of ends,” John Rawls and the concept of justice as fairness, and Jürgen Habermas and the procedures of discourse ethics). However, in this paper I will limit myself to the relevance of John Rawls and the problems of a “well-ordered” society. This will include a discussion of the two principles of justice, the original position, and the concept of primary goods—as may or may not justify the special privileges of professionalism claimed by engineers.


It seems apparent that our remote ancestors became socialized in nuclear and extended family groups, but why did they then choose to merge with other family groups to form larger social communities? Maybe they began to recognize that other contiguous family groups could provide

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

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Haws, D. (2002, June), Promoting The Agenda Of Engineers: John Rawls And Justice In Engineering Ethics Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. 10.18260/1-2--10687

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