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Teaching Ethics To Engineers

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2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

Advances in Civil Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.1178.1 - 9.1178.8



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Paper Authors

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William Carpenter

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

Session Number 1515

Teaching Ethics to Engineers William C. Carpenter University of South Florida

1. Introduction A typical course in Engineering Ethics consists of sections on the elements of moral philosophy and on engineering society codes of ethics. Often numerous ethical case studies are considered to demonstrate application of the moral theories and to show how codes of professional ethics can be applied to ethical problems. Typical moral theories considered are the Utilitarianism theory advocated by Benthem and John Stuart Mill and the Respect for Person theory advocated by Kant. Such theories have their limitations. Because of these limitations, application of these theories to ethical case studies can give different results. Engineering students often have a difficult time understanding the limitations of moral theories and interpreting the application of these theories to ethical problems. The approach presented in this short paper helps alleviate these student difficulties.

The mathematical training of engineering students uniquely prepares them for understanding the limitations of ethical moral theories. Engineering students easily grasp concepts from optimization theory. Moral philosophy can be viewed as an optimization problem. When so formulated, the limitations of a number of moral theories is then easily grasped by students. A brief discussion of concepts from optimization theory is first presented. Then, the moral theories of Utilitarianism and Respect for Persons are briefly detailed and formulated using concepts from optimization theory. The advantages of this formulation are then discussed in the Conclusion.

2. Optimization Theory The ethical decision making process can be formulated as an optimization problem. With this formulation, there is a function, such as utility, which is to be maximized. The function can be expressed in terms of some variable x or a number of variables xi, i=1,...n. There may be, however, conditions imposed on the problem so that some values of xi may not be allowed. This formulation is the classical formulation of optimization theory where one wants to

Maximize f ({x}) subject to the constraints (1)

gi({x}) ≤ 0, i=1,...n (2)

where {x} is the set of design variables. Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education

Carpenter, W. (2004, June), Teaching Ethics To Engineers Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--13862

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