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Work in Progress: How Should We Decide? The Application of Ethical Reasoning to Decision Making in Difficult Cases

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Ethical Reasoning and Decision Making

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Natalie C.T. Van Tyne P.E. Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Natalie Van Tyne is an Associate Professor of Practice at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where she teaches first year engineering design as a foundation courses for Virginia Tech's undergraduate engineering degree programs. She holds bachelors and masters degrees from Rutgers University, Lehigh University and Colorado School of Mines, and studies best practices in pedagogy, reflective learning and critical thinking as aids to enhanced student learning.

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WIP: How Should We Decide? The Application of Ethical Reasoning to Decision Making in Difficult Cases

Awareness and application of professional responsibility form an increasingly common learning outcome in introductory engineering courses, often utilizing lessons in engineering ethics with case studies and in-class exercises involving real-world scenarios. The ability to analyze and resolve ill-structured problems is another common learning outcome that can be met, in part, through in-class as well as homework assignments implying professional responsibility through the application of engineering ethics. This study is a Work in Progress in which first year engineering students are introduced to four frameworks for ethical decision-making and then prompted to apply them to ethical dilemmas in the engineering workplace. The chosen frameworks are Deontology, Virtue Ethics, Consequentialism and Utilitarianism. Deontology is also known as Duty Ethics, and is often prescribed by laws or rules. Virtue Ethics is based on indications of character or virtue that have been recognized over the ages. Consequentialism deals with the concept that the ends justify the means, and Utilitarianism is the search for a solution that is perceived to be beneficial to everyone involved, and may involve compromise. Students may be surprised to learn that their decisions could differ among these frameworks. We chose these four frameworks because their application could lead to several different decisions, whereby our students would realize that ethical decisions often involve complex, ill-structured problems. Students would apply each of the four frameworks to a case study during class that includes various stakeholders. During the following weeks, they would complete a homework assignment to analyze a self-identified ethical dilemma arising from a previously identified societal problem, by applying each of the four frameworks and supporting their decisions with adequate evidence. Prior assignments to apply ethics to case studies have contained responses with hastily made judgements based only on Deontology, in which students have interpreted an engineering code of ethics as a law that was broken. This gap in knowledge and lack of acceptance of uncertainty indicates a need to re-design our approach to the instruction and practice of engineering ethics at the first year level to include the possibility that there could be more than one valid solution to an ethical dilemma, depending on the applied ethical framework. Participants’ responses will be coded for the amount and extent of available evidence to support an ethical decision under each framework, as well as the decision itself. Several rounds of coding, interrater reliability, and the recognition of biases, among other factors, would enhance the overall quality of the results, as would follow-up interviews. Initial trials in the application of different ethical frameworks have indicated that some students can apply each framework independently, while others cling to idiosyncratic views about what they believe to be “right”, regardless of framework. These idiosyncratic decisions may have arisen from emotional rather than rational responses, leading us to seek additional opportunities to encourage more dispassionate ethical decision making without discounting individuals’ deep-seated moral values.

Van Tyne, N. C. (2020, June), Work in Progress: How Should We Decide? The Application of Ethical Reasoning to Decision Making in Difficult Cases Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35643

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