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The Value of Ethics in Engineering: Hypotheses and Preliminary Data

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session 3

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Jonathan Beever University of Central Florida Orcid 16x16

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Jonathan Beever is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and faculty with the Texts & Technology Ph.D. Program at The University of Central Florida. Dr. Beever is the Division Chair of ASEE Engineering Ethics Division, the Secretary for the International Association for Environmental Philosophy, and the Environmental Bioethics Affinity Group leader for the American Society for Bioethics and the Humanities. Dr. Beever works and publishes at the intersection of environmental ethics and bioethics, focusing on questions of ethics, science, and representation. He teaches a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses on related topics.

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The Value of Ethics in Engineering: Hypotheses and Preliminary Data

What value do philosophical ethicists add to the practices of engineering ethics education? A substantial body of existing literature supports the intuitive hypothesis that topics in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts play important roles in engaging engineering students in professional and academic development. In the context of ethics, philosophers have regularly helped shape the theories, direction, and practices of engineering ethics education. One clear example is Michael Davis’ ongoing and thoughtful work since at least the early 1990’s that has helped engineers understand their own relationships to codes of ethics (1991), integrating ethics into engineering curricular space (2005), and the necessary role of non-engineers in defining and asking essential questions (2001).

Yet there is insufficient argument and little empirical work on the effectiveness and perceived value of these philosophical connections. In this paper, I develop the theoretical argument that engineering graduate students value ethics as an integral part of the practices of engineering, but mean by “ethics” something narrower and implicitly exclusive, focused on individual values and professional responsible conduct.

In support of this theoretical claim, initial empirical evidence was gathered from a unique pilot survey scale paralleling the PRESCOR scale for management (see Shafer 2006: 280 and Singhapakdi et al 1996) in its intent. This survey was administered to graduate engineering students, many of whom had responsible conduct training previously, and all of whom were enrolled in a single credit graduate seminar in engineering ethics. Evidence from that small survey sample suggests that engineering graduate students think that ethics is important to professional practice and that values play an important role in good science. However, it was unclear whether they also thought that professional ethicists played an important role in consideration of ethics within engineering: that is, engineers may value ethics but not ethicists. This distinction between ethics and the ethicist represents an expertise gap in engineering ethics. This question of the value of ethics and ethicists has been asked sparingly in other disciplines, from accounting (Ahadiat and Mackie 1993), to marketing (Singhapakdi et al 1995), to international management (Shafer et al 2006) yet has not been discussed within engineering or engineering education.

I conclude that this preliminary data encourages us to push for stronger empirical evidence whether or not philosophical ethicists do indeed add to the practices of engineering ethics education. Philosophers working in engineering education have work to do in further clarifying their roles and unique expertise. I propose that engineering ethics educators can overcome this expertise gap by focusing on collaborative partnerships between scientists and ethicists.

Davis 2005. Introduction to a Symposium Integrating Ethics into Engineering and Science Courses. Science and Engineering Ethics 11: 631-634.

Davis 2001. The Professional Approach to Engineering Ethics: Five Research Questions. Science and Engineering Ethics: Five Research Questions. Science and Engineering Ethics 7: 379-390.

Davis 1991. Thinking Like and Engineering: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession. Philosophy and Public Affairs 20(2): 150-167.

Ahadiat and Mackie. 1993. Ethics Education in Accounting: An Investigation of the Importance of Ethics as a Factor in the Recruiting Decisions of Public Accounting Firms. Journal of Accounting Education 11: 243-257.

Singhapakadi, Kraft, Vitell, and Rallapalli. 1995. The Perceived Importance of Ethics and Social Responsibility on Organizational Effectiveness: A Survey of Marketers. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 23(1): 49-56.

Singhapakadi, Vitell, Rallapalli, and Kraft. 1996. The Perceived Role of Ethics and Social Responsibility: A Scale Development. Journal of Business Ethics 15: 1131-1140.

Shafer, Fukukawa, and Lee. 2006. Values and the Perceived Importance of Ethics and Social Responsibility: The U.S. versus China. Journal of Business Ethics 70: 265-284.

Beever, J. (2018, June), The Value of Ethics in Engineering: Hypotheses and Preliminary Data Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31136

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