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Yogi Meets Moses: Ethics, Progress, and the Grand Challenges for Engineering

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Ethical Perspectives on the Grand Challenges of Engineering

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1718.1 - 22.1718.5



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Paper Authors


Joseph R. Herkert Arizona State University

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Joseph Herkert, D.Sc., P.E., is Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology in the School of Letters and Sciences and the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He has taught engineering ethics and related courses for more than 20 years. His work on engineering ethics has appeared in engineering, law, social science, and applied ethics journals. Dr. Herkert is the past Editor of IEEE Technology & Society and a founding Associate Editor of Engineering Studies. He has recently served on the IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee and the Executive Board of the National Institute for Engineering Ethics.

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Yogi Meets Moses: Ethics, Progress and the Grand Challenges for Engineering The future ain't what it used to be. -Yogi BerraIn the summer of 1964, while on vacation with my father, I attended the 1964 New YorkWorld’s Fair, the creation of the city’s master builder Robert Moses. (During the same trip I alsosaw my boyhood heroes, The New York Yankees, play at Yankee Stadium under the leadershipof their new manager and former star, Yogi Berra.) The fair, whose various themes/mottos were“Peace Through Understanding,” “Man's Achievements in an Expanding Universe” and “AMillennium of Progress,” was a tribute to the world-changing potential of technology. Lookingback, attending the fair was probably a significant factor in my decision to study engineering incollege. Moses’ vision of a world made better through technological progress, though not anoriginal idea, has nonetheless endured through more than four decades of domestic and globalstruggles for human rights and environmental protection as well as numerous armed conflictsand alarming terrorist acts. Today Moses’ vision is manifest in many forms including theNational Academy of Engineering’s “Grand Challenges for Engineering” (GCE). Over time,however, as my professional focus has changed from engineering to engineering ethics, I havebecome far more skeptical of such visions.The overview essay for the GCE does not mention ethics (nor do all but one of the essays on thefourteen individual grand challenges). This in itself does not prove that the Grand Challengesare bereft of ethical substance. After all, most teachers of engineering ethics have reflected atone time or another on the barriers that the use of the “E-word” poses for capturing the attentionof engineering students and their academic advisers. A close reading of the overview essay(“Introduction to the Grand Challenges for Engineering”), however, reveals an underlyingphilosophy that Leo Marx has referred to as “the technocratic view of progress” that is either, atbest, indifferent to ethical considerations or, at worst, undermines engineering ethics.This paper examines the GCE and its implied view of progress from the point of view ofengineering ethics with particular emphasis on: • The equating in the GCE of technical progress and social progress • The limited range of human concern highlighted by the GCE (i.e., sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living) • The limited range of attributes ascribed to engineers in meeting the GCE (i.e., reason, science, art, creative imagination) • The focus of many of the GCE on large scale technological fixes (e.g. fusion, carbon sequestration) • The GCE’s imperative that people must adapt to technological change (and not the other way around) • The GCE’s oversimplified, binary description of social divides (e.g. wealth and poverty, health and sickness)The paper concludes with suggestions for formulating challenges for engineering thatincorporate the social and ethical responsibilities of engineers and the engineering profession.

Herkert, J. R. (2011, June), Yogi Meets Moses: Ethics, Progress, and the Grand Challenges for Engineering Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18813

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