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Understanding Technological Failure: Ethics, Evil, And Finitude In Engineering Disasters

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Philosophy of Engineering Education: Epistemology and Ethics

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1312.1 - 13.1312.15



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Paper Authors

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Gayle Ermer Calvin College

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

Understanding Technological Failure: Ethics, Evil, and Finitude in Engineering Disasters


It is important to know why technological systems sometimes fail catastrophically. Not only does culpability need to be established justly after a disaster, but the success of new technology depends on accurately predicting how technology and the individuals and societies with which it interacts will behave. It is nearly always the case that disasters occur due to the contribution of multiple factors. Sorting these factors into categories can help to better understand the nature of the factors and to ensure that all of the necessary categories are considered carefully in the design process. This categorization can also help engineering educators to make certain that all of the different categories are studied in the engineering curriculum in appropriate places. In this paper, the categories of individual ethical responsibility, societal evil, and human finitude will be used to discuss the character and importance of various contributions to specific engineering disasters. The technological systems to which these categories will be applied include the Helios Flight 522 crash, the Bhopal chemical plant gas release, and the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near melt-down.

Causes related to personal ethics include the immoral actions of people that contribute to catastrophic failures. This type of cause is usually opposed in the engineering curriculum through the study of engineering codes of ethics and case studies to help students clarify the moral responsibilities inherent in their chosen career and to apply them faithfully. Causes related to societal evil include the political and economic contexts in which modern technology operates that contribute to engineering disasters. While some of these issues are dealt with in the context of engineering ethics, often they are better dealt with in liberal arts courses which intentionally raise the consciousness of students to their importance. Societal issues should also be brought into engineering technical courses as frames for design work. Causes related to human finitude include the limitations of our predictive models and the characteristics of modern technology that make catastrophic failures more likely. Engineering disasters cannot be avoided solely by training engineers to be more ethically responsible. Engineering instructors and students need to be aware that the nature of the technological systems in North American society and the means by which these systems are designed and controlled all contribute to the catastrophic potential for technological failures.

1. Introduction On August 1, 2007, evening rush hour traffic in Minneapolis was bumper-to-bumper on the I- 35W bridge over the Mississippi River. Shortly after 6:00 pm, a 500 foot long span suddenly collapsed, sending cars and debris into the river over 100 feet below. Thirteen people were killed


Ermer, G. (2008, June), Understanding Technological Failure: Ethics, Evil, And Finitude In Engineering Disasters Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4161

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