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Understanding International Perspectives in Science and Engineering Ethics

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2016 ASEE International Forum


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 25, 2016

Start Date

June 25, 2016

End Date

June 25, 2016

Conference Session

Concurrent Paper Tracks Session II Skills Development

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International Forum

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Thomas M. Powers University of Delaware

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Thomas M. Powers is the founding director of the Center for Science, Ethics, and Public Policy (CSEPP) at the University of Delaware. He holds appointments as Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the School of Public Policy and Administration, and resident faculty at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. His research concerns ethics in science and engineering, the philosophy of technology, and environmental ethics, and his publications range from topics in artificial intelligence and robotic ethics to the ethical aspects of design. Powers received a B.A. in philosophy (College of William and Mary) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Texas at Austin) for a dissertation Immanuel Kant. He has been a DAAD-Fulbright dissertation-year fellow at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia, and a visiting researcher at the Laboratoire d'Informatique (LIP6) at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France.

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In 2014 an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Delaware began a 5-year project with the Online Ethics Center (OEC) to gather international perspectives on science and engineering ethics, broadly construed. We seek instructional and scholarly materials from international institutions and individual foreign scholars and teachers. This paper describes the rationale and outlines the theoretical foundation of this project. The central issue to be addressed here is: if there is indeed a benefit to the “internationalization” of science and engineering ethics, how can that benefit be understood from the more general standpoint of the purposes of science and engineering ethics per se?

It is now widely understood that contemporary science and engineering are increasingly international and collaborative. These complex practices are subject to difficulties introduced by differences in languages, cultures, social norms, education, religion, political systems, laws, resource and infrastructure availability, and other factors. Despite these variations, there is an important common factor in the production of scientific and engineering knowledge: it is not just descriptive, explanatory, and predictive, but also normative. This means that there are explicit and implicit rules and guidelines, regulations, and norms of practice and sanction regarding how one ought to behave as a scientist or engineer. This normative part concerns how to do research, but also how to orient one’s research to a world that expects to benefit from it.

Given this character of science and engineering as in part normative, a better appreciation of these norms worldwide will be necessary to understand actual practices, as well as to motivate critical appraisals of practice. I explain the rationale for collecting those views, and making them widely available for further study.

In the final part of the paper I discuss a “contractarian” theory of the good of publicizing differences in norms. This approach, which is inspired by the political philosophy of John Rawls, can be seen as an alternative to a “conventionalist” understanding of science and engineering ethics.

Powers, T. M. (2016, June), Understanding International Perspectives in Science and Engineering Ethics Paper presented at 2016 ASEE International Forum, New Orleans, Louisiana.

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