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Transformations: Ethics And Design

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.1067.1 - 6.1067.7



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Paper Authors

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Phillip McReynolds

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Andras Gordon

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Andrew Lau

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Richard Devon

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

Session 2525

Transformations: Ethics and Design Richard Devon, Andrew Lau, Philip McReynolds, and Andras Gordon Engineering Design & Graphics, Pennsylvania State University


This paper will focus on an ethics curriculum that has been developed for design projects. The rationale behind it is discussed and some preliminary feedback from students is reviewed. The curriculum for the design projects is distinctive in several fundamental ways. These departures from more traditional views of “engineering ethics” were not come by easily and they have taken many years to develop. 1) We view all design as necessarily ethical and the purpose of ethics curricula is not the addition of ethics but an enhancement of the ethical imagination. 2) While traditional ethics often focus on the individual, decisions in technology are made collectively – including, of course, people who are not engineers. So, our approach includes an emphasis on social ethics, i. e, the social arrangements for making decisions. 3) Technology represents transformations of society and of the environment. We encourage students to understand this and to look both upstream and downstream in the product or service life cycle from the design focal point. 4) Most technology involves transformations that are global in scope and this is embraced by the curriculum. 5) We stress design because most of the important decisions about technology are taken or mirrored there. 6) Finally, design affects everyone but not everyone affects design. We take this as the defining ethical tension in design.


Technology is human behavior that transforms society and transforms the environment.1 Design is the cornerstone of technology. Design is how we solve our problems, fulfill our needs, shape our world, change the future, and create new problems and new opportunities for present and ensuing generations of all species. It is quintessentially an ethical process. We always “design for,”2 such as designing for society, the environment, assembly, disassembly, manufacturability, profit, jobs, consumer satisfaction, national security, and so on. From extraction to disposal in the life cycle of a product, the design process is where we make, or reflects where others make, the most important decisions; the decisions that determine most of the final product cost,3 and the decisions that determine most of the ethical costs and benefits and to whom they accrue. It pays to do design well, but design is much bigger than our pursuit of profit, protection, or pleasure. It is revolutionary behavior that has become routinized and institutionalized. Whether in the Olympics, in the laboratory, or on the operating table, we can no longer even decide where human nature ends and technology begins. Every generation lives in a very new world with radically fewer natural species and many new technological species. Few, if any, areas of ethics are more important than design.

Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright  2001, American Society for Engineering Education

McReynolds, P., & Gordon, A., & Lau, A., & Devon, R. (2001, June), Transformations: Ethics And Design Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 10.18260/1-2--9916

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