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Can Engineering Ethics Be Taught?

Deborah G. Johnson—

In 2010, after a two-year inquiry, a judge concluded that Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney had acted inappropriately when he accepted large amounts of cash from a German Canadian arms lobbyist. The judge suggested that all public servants should get ethics training. Peter Worthington, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, responded to this suggestion in the following way: “A case can be made that ‘ethics’ are something that you either have, or you don’t have. Or, to put it slightly differently, ethics are a code you subscribe to or chose to ignore for reasons of personal interest. . . . All the training, teaching, studying, reading, or lectures in ‘ethics’ will not make a person more ethical if he or she does not have these core values to begin with.” 

Reading between the lines, we might think that Worthington believes people acquire their core moral values during their childhood. Once they reach a certain age, not much can be done. If a person was brought up to have ethics, great; if, on the other hand, someone didn’t have that kind of upbringing, forget it—the person will never change and never learn to become ethical. 

Worthington expresses a form of skepticism that is not uncommon when it comes to teaching ethics to undergraduate engineering students. For example, Karl Stephan, a professor of engineering, described the following encounter: “Some years ago I argued with a fellow professor about the issue of engineering ethics education at the college level. His point was along the lines of, ‘Hell, if eighteen-year-old kids don’t know right from wrong by the time we get ’em, they’re not going to learn it from us.’”

Despite such skepticism, many (if not most) undergraduate engineering programs in the United States, as well as in many other countries, require training in ethics as part of the curriculum. One reason they do so, is that ABET, the accreditation organization for undergraduate engineering programs in the United States, requires it. ABET specifies a list of outcomes that students must achieve by the time they graduate. These include “an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility” and acquiring “the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context.” Programs demonstrate their achievement of the outcome in a variety of ways, including semester-long courses on engineering ethics.

If the skeptics are right, ABET’s requirements about ethics are a waste of time. If ethics cannot be taught, there is no point in requiring that engineering programs teach it. So, the question whether ethics can be taught is important for engineering as well as more broadly.

The question is not a simple one, at least not as simple as the skeptics suggest, and in exploring it, we will necessarily go deeper into the goals of ethics education. We can, for a start, dismiss the idea that the goal of ethics education—in engineering as well as other fields—is to ensure that no one—not one single engineer—will ever do anything wrong. Skepticism is appropriate for this impossible goal. Yet there are more modest goals that, if achieved, would increase the likelihood of individuals behaving ethically. For example, in engineering one goal might be to inform engineering students about the codes of ethics promulgated by engineering professional societies. Ensuring that students know about these codes and that they are considered important by engineering professional organizations increases the likelihood that students will follow them.

From Engineering Ethics by Deborah G. Johnson. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with Permission.

Deborah G. Johnson is Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor Emerita in the Science, Technology and Society Program in the School of Engineering of the University of Virginia. She is the author of Computer Ethics, among many other publications.

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