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The Ethics Engine: A Mathematical Approach For Motivating Engineering Ethics Discussion

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Engineering Practice for a Moral World

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1288.1 - 11.1288.11



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Paper Authors

author page

Gene Moriarty San Jose State University

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

The Ethics Engine: A Mathematical Approach for Motivating Engineering Ethics Discussion


I distinguish three kinds of engineering: Traditional Engineering of the past, Modernist Engineering of the present, and Focal Engineering of the future. I associate Virtue Ethics (VE) with the person who stands out in Traditional Engineering, Conceptual Ethics (CE) with the process which stands out in Modernist Engineering, and Material Ethics (ME) with the product which stands out in Focal Engineering. All three types of engineering and all three types of ethics are intertwined and cannot be separated, but they can be distinguished. How are these three types of ethics to be adjudicated? I suggest conversations, discourse, the open exchange of information, dialogue, all of which is part of what I call The Conversation of the Lifeworld.

Assessments are made within the conversation of the lifeworld. For example, engineers in a group within the workplace can and should dialogue about what makes them morally or ethically good as well as technically good engineers. Being morally good engineers, I suggest, requires the practice of the virtues of honesty, fairness, and care. Opening up a conversation about virtues to be practiced in the workplace requires a point of departure, which can take the form of mathematical Index Functions. The appeal of this to the engineer is obvious. Though ethics is not about numbers, numbers can facilitate entrée into the discussion. Conceptual Ethics, adjudicated at the professional level, and Material Ethics, at the level of the social world, can also benefit from mathematical Index Functions, again, to facilitate entrée into the discussion.

The aim of this paper is to present the mechanism of what I call The Ethics Engine involving a set of nested mathematical Index Functions. In addition, I will present a variety of examples showing how a class of approximately 30 students can be broken up into 5 groups of six, each group representing a different company working on part of a new device. Each group can discuss the Virtue Ethics of individual engineers. Then representatives from each group can form a team of professionals who will dialog about the Conceptual Ethics of the companies involved. Then the entire class can join a conversation of the social world within which the engineered product can be assessed from the point of view of Material Ethics.


On one hand, engineers have an affinity for mathematics. A control systems engineer, for example, is constantly manipulating matrices of numbers in various sorts of vector/matrix equations. On the other hand, although the need for engineers to engage with some kind of engineering ethics is growing in the contemporary era, engineers tend to be disinclined toward the concerns of ethics. That does not mean that engineers are unethical. Rather they tend to get caught up in the exigencies of a given engineering project and have little time to spend on the ruminations of ethics. Leave that for the supervisors and managers to worry about. My contention is that if engineering ethics were presented in a mathematical framework it might have more appeal to the typical engineer.


Moriarty, G. (2006, June), The Ethics Engine: A Mathematical Approach For Motivating Engineering Ethics Discussion Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--280

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