Ibo van de Poel
Technical University Delft, School of Technology, Policy and Management, Section Philosophy
January, 21 2004.
DRAFT; please do not quote.
Engineering ethics is a relatively new field of education and research. It started off in the 1980s in the United States, merely as an educational effort (e.g. Baum, 1980). Most of the early approaches to engineering ethics focused on the idea that engineering is a profession, like medicine is a profession (Baum, 1980, Schaub et al., 1983). Engineering ethics was in the view of the early exponents concerned with “the actions and decisions made by persons, individually or collectively, who belong to the profession of engineering” (Baum, 1980, 1). So conceived engineering ethics is another branch of the ethics of professions tree. This also would imply that the moral standards in engineering could somehow be derived from the fact that engineering is a profession.
The attention to engineering ethics education in the United States has led to a number of textbooks. While earlier textbooks were often anthologies, also a number of original textbooks was produced. The two most used original textbooks are probably Ethics in Engineering by Martin and Schinzinger and Engineering Ethics, Concepts and Cases by Harris, Pritchard and Rabins. Both books reflect at least in part the professional approach to engineering ethics, not only in dealing with professional obligations of engineers as exemplified in for example codes of ethics of engineers but also in terms of the prototypical issues discussed like: the role of engineers versus managers, competence, honesty, whistle-blowing, concern for safety, conflicts of interest etcetera.
Nevertheless, we find also traces of other approaches in these textbooks. Both books also discuss the main theories in philosophical ethics, suggesting somehow that such theories can be fruitfully applied to moral issues in engineering. I will call such an approach an applied ethics approach and will contrast it below to the earlier mentioned professional ethics approach. Typical for what I call an applied ethics approach is that engineering ethics is merely seen as an application of the normative theories and methods of moral philosophy to a specific domain, i.e. engineering.
The aim of this paper is to describe both the professional and applied ethics approach to engineering ethics and to assess the merits and shortcomings of these approaches. For this assessment, an important issue is that any approach to engineering ethics should do justice to the special nature of engineering because it is this special nature that distinguishes engineering ethics from other forms of (applied) ethics like medical ethics or business ethics. Therefore, I start the paper with a discussion of the special nature of engineering. Next I will discuss the professional and the applied ethics approach to engineering ethics, and the merits and shortcomings of these approaches. Finally I will address some more recent developments in engineering ethics and discuss new desired directions for engineering ethics in the light of the possibilities and shortcomings of both the professional and the applied ethics approach to engineering ethics.
2. The special nature of engineering
There is no commonly accepted definition of technology or engineering (cf. Ferré, 1988). Still most people would agree that a core characteristic of engineering is the use, or application, of knowledge of the physical world in order to transform or use nature (the physical world) for human purposes. In addition to this general definition, a number of more specific features of engineering can be mentioned:
1. Engineering is specialized activity requiring sophisticated knowledge and skills. Some have expressed this by saying that engineering is a profession. I will discuss such ideas in more detail below. But whether one believes that engineering is a “true” profession or not, it is clear is that engineering involves the use of specialized knowledge and skills, usually requiring a long training. This puts engineers in a special position in the sense that they are better able to predict and influence the course of technological development than normal people. Moreover, it makes the rest of society somewhat dependent on engineers because lay people will lack the knowledge and skills of engineers. According to many this places special responsibilities on the shoulders of engineers.
2. Engineering has an experimental nature. Martin and Schinziger (1996) have characterized engineering as a form of social experimentation because engineering usually is carried out in partial ignorance of the final effects, especially in the social realm. This is partly due to the fact that the circumstances under which technology operates in practice not infrequently deviate from the circumstances created during test situations or the circumstances presumed to hold when calculating or doing simulations. Anyway, uncertainty and risks are inherent to engineering and any approach to the moral issues in engineering should take account of the uncertainty and partial ignorance that is characteristic of engineering.
3. Engineering transforms society. Engineering implies not only a transformation of the physical world but also of society. Today’s society is unthinkable without engineering or technology. What is – from a moral point of view – especially relevant is that engineering impacts on other people than engineers. Even if engineers are not in full control of technology and even if the social impact of technology depends not only on technological development but also on social developments, the society-transforming power of technology, combined with the fact that only a limited number of people is involved in technological development raises major moral issues.
4. Design is a core activity in engineering. Engineering involves many activities like research, testing, production, marketing, and use. Still design is a core activity in engineering because it is during he design phase that technical artifacts, systems and services get their shape and its this shape that largely influences how technologies will be used, what impacts they have and what ethical issues they raise.
5. Engineering is a diversified activity. In different branches of engineering different products, systems or services are designed. Engineers in different field need different knowledge and skills and have a different training. Also existing practices, technical codes and norms differ from one field of engineering to the other. Finally, the exemplary ethical issues that arise in different domains of engineering are different. Whereas privacy is a major issue in software engineering, it is not really a paramount ethical concern in chemical engineering. Whereas issues like toxicity – or more generally the health effects – of substances may be an important ethical concern in chemical engineering, it will not or far less so be in field like software engineering or even mechanical engineering or civil engineering.
6. Engineering is a collective effort. Engineering is usually not an individual activity, carried out by an individual engineer. Rather, it is a collective effort, often carried out in teams that are embedded in hierarchical organizations. Complex divisions of labor characterize most engineering projects. This has important ethical implications especially with respect to the allocation of (moral) responsibility. Someone’s moral responsibility is usually presumed to depend on the degree to which that person is able to influence certain state of affairs. The hierarchical relations and divisions of labor in engineering often imply that individual engineers have a limited freedom or power in this respect. This may a problem known as the problem of many hands (Thompson, 1980; Bovens, 1998). Even if engineering projects have major ethical ramifications, it is often unclear who is morally responsible for them. Beck (1992) even speaks of the organized irresponsibility with respect to technological development, with which he means that technological development is often so organized that nobody in particular is responsible for the negative (side-) effects of technology.
3. Engineering ethics as professional ethics
The central idea underlying the professional approach to engineering ethics is the idea that engineering is a profession. A profession is usually defined as an occupation with a number of specific features (Weare, 1988; Disco, 1990; Harris et al., 1995):
1. The use of specialized knowledge and skills that require long study.
2. The occupational group has a monopoly on the carrying out of the occupation: not everybody can call himself an engineer or do engineering work. This monopoly on exercising the occupation is usually connected to a legal protection of titles and of university or college degrees.
3. The assessment of whether the professional work is carried out in a competent way is done, and can only be done, by colleague professionals. Only they posses the knowledge and skills to know, and to be able to apply, the right standards of judgment.
Some authors have added two further characteristics two these three commonly mentioned features of a profession (Harris et al, 1995; Davis, 1998):
4. A profession provides society with products, services or values that are useful or worthwhile for society, and is characterized by an ideal of serving society. In case of engineering, one might think of such an ideal as providing society with safe and reliable products that promote human welfare, or as “good control over the artificial environment, where ‘good’ means safe, healthy and welfare promoting” (Airaksinen, 1994, 10; cited in Davis, 1997, 411).
5. Ethical standards, derived from or relating to the society serving ideal of the profession, regulate the daily practice of the professional work. In the case of engineering, one might think of ethical standards relating to safety, health, human welfare and environmental sustainability as laid down for example in engineering codes of ethics.
The final two features of a profession imply that saying that some occupation is a profession should be seen as a compliment, as something that is – morally - good or desirable. This means that for those authors who include the final two characteristics among the defining features of a profession, the term “profession” is not just a descriptive term, but also a normative one. For some occupation to be a profession, it has not only to meet some descriptive features – like requiring long training – but also certain normative ones. It is this normatively colored notion of profession that is characteristic for what I have called the professional approach to engineering ethics.
Given the idea that engineering is a profession in the normative sense explained above, one can still work out the details of such a professional approach in different ways. Below, I will focus on the way Michael Davis has worked out the professional approach to engineering ethics, because he offers one of the most elaborated versions of such an approach. Davis defines a profession as follows:
A profession is a number of individuals in the same occupation voluntarily organized to earn a living by openly serving a certain moral ideal in a morally-permissible way beyond what law, market, and morality would otherwise require. (Davis, 1997, 417)
One important feature of this definition is that being a profession is a voluntary choice a profession collectively can make. This idea marks an important distinction between Davis’ approach and what he calls the conceptualist approach to professions. One of the assumptions of a conceptualist approach is that a “profession is defined by its end. ….” (Davis, 1997, 410). To each end like health a profession like medicine correspondents. This end is internal to the practice of the profession. This means, first, that the corresponding profession can only define the end: medicine defines what health is. Second, it means that the profession itself cannot be understood without the end: doctors not serving health are no longer doctors, at least according to the conceptualist approach.
According to the conceptualist approach, engineering is not a profession. Even if engineering may be characterized by an ideal of serving society, this ideal is not internal to the practice of engineering. The reason for this is that engineering aims at serving the values and interests of clients or of society, for example by providing society with safe and reliable products that promote human welfare. This ideal is, however, not internal to engineering because it is not engineers who define human welfare, but the people themselves.
Davis rejects the conceptualist approach and maintains that engineering is a profession, or better could be a profession depending on whether engineers have formulated a moral ideal to serve. Have they? Where to look for such an ideal? For Davis one of the first places to look is engineering codes of ethics (Davis, 1998, 30 and 50). In fact, especially American engineering codes of ethics formulate such an ideal. All most all these codes contain a canon stating: “Engineers should hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public” (e.g. ABET-code). According to Davis, this ideal is not just a nice statement on paper, but in fact a living practice; he assumes that “engineers do in fact generally act in accordance with the ABET code (whether or not they know it exists)” (Davis, 1998, 54).
According to Davis then engineering is a profession and therefore engineers are subject to special moral standards to which other people are not subject. But why are these moral standards binding? According to Davis they are because being a member of a profession implies an implicit contract with your colleague professionals. This is so because a “profession is a group of persons who want to cooperate in serving the same ideal better than they could if they did not cooperate” (Davis, 1998, 50). By promising each other to follow certain moral rules and to serve a moral ideal, professionals create a level playing field so that they can pursue the moral ideal. Without the promise, each of them would be inclined not to follow the moral ideal, by making the promise they make it rational to pursue the ideal. It is this (implicit) promise that makes the moral ideal binding.
The professional approach to engineering ethics, as worked out by Davis, implies that engineers do not need to know moral theory in order to come to ethical judgments in their work. They can just follow their codes of ethics, and maybe some other more implicit standards.
Davis’ approach has recourse to moral theory only at two points. One is that moral theory is needed to know what may count as a moral ideal for a profession. This ideal has to be morally permissible and to know what is morally permissible we need moral theory (cf. Davis, 1997, 423). Second, for understanding why the ethical standards of a profession are binding we are to see them as promises, and moral theory may help us to understand why promises are binding.
4. Strong and weak points of the professional approach
In assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the professional approach, it is useful to look both at the approach more internally and in relation to the earlier mentioned characteristics of engineering.
I think that are good reasons to see Davis’ approach as an improvement on the conceptualist approach to professional ethics. This approach is rather Platonist in assuming that there are some ideals or goods that are given by nature and that for each of these goods or ideals there is just one profession serving them. Perhaps this sounds nice as an abstract philosophical ideal, but as a description of social reality – and professions are after all a part of social reality – it can hardly be adequate. Davis’ idea that it is an empirical question whether a certain occupation has formulated a moral ideal seems more sociologically promising than the idea that the moral ideals are conceptually internal to the profession. This idea, however, also creates all kinds of additional questions. On this idea, it might be case that engineering is a profession in one country, but not in another. In fact, the idea that engineering is a profession seems more predominant in the United States than for example in Europe (Van de Poel et al., 2001; Didier, 2000; Goujon & Hériard Dubreil, 2001). In fact, American engineering societies have formulated codes of ethics earlier than their counterparts in Europe and these codes are usually more elaborate. Moreover, even if there certainly is much overlap between codes of ethics of different engineering societies, there also seem to be differences. Environmental values, for example seem to play a far less prominent roles in American engineering codes of ethics than in for example Dutch, or more generally European ones. If we follow the professional approach to engineering ethics, this would mean that different ethical standards apply to engineering in different countries. This seems a somewhat problematic point of view, especially in a world in which engineering firms and companies operate increasingly on a global scale.
Davis distinguishes his approach not only from the conceptualist approach but also from the sociological one. For the sociological approach, the notion of profession is a descriptive one. This is clearly not enough for Davis’ goal; he needs a normative conception of profession in order to avoid committing a naturalistic fallacy. Davis in fact recognizes that his notion of a profession presupposes moral theory for deciding what may count as ideal that is both morally permissible and goes beyond ordinary morality. Still, one might wonder whether the professional approach is not too uncritical. After all, it seems to imply that what is morally permissible or desirable in engineering depends on what the professions happens to decide, even if these decisions have to meet certain moral constraints. This seems to neglect the fact that it might sometimes be morally desirable to go beyond the professional code of ethics (for a good example, see Beder, 1993). Moreover there seems to be many situations in engineering ethics in which codes of ethics at best provide some relevant moral considerations, but cannot be enough to come to a moral judgment, not in the last place because codes of ethics are often vague and potentially contradictory.
Finally, we may cast doubt on Davis’ explanation on why engineering codes of ethics are morally binding. His explanation that they are so because they are a contract among professionals is not widely shared in the literature on professions. An explanation that is more common sees ethical standards not as a contract among professionals, but as a contract between a profession and the rest of society (e.g. Harris et al., 1995). According to such an explanation, such a contract would be worthwhile for professionals because in exchange to serving a moral ideal, the profession gets such privileges as status, a monopoly on carrying the occupation and good salaries. In this explanantion, professionals are bound by moral standards not because they happen to decide so collectively, but (also) because of their relation to society. I think this is more adequate as an explanation because it is the relation of a professional to society that creates special professional obligations. This relation is in fact central in another explanation why codes are morally binding (ref.). According to this explanation, the dependence of society on engineering knowledge creates special responsibilities for engineers. These special responsibilities derive directly from the nature of responsibility - the more people depend on you the more you are responsible for them - and the relation between engineers and society – society (lay people) depend on engineers for certain things. Much more can be said on this explanation, but the important point here is that if engineers have special obligations or responsibilities they derive from their relation to society and not from the fact that they happen to have formulated a code of ethics as contract among themselves or with society. Codes of ethics may then be a way to express these responsibilities and obligations of engineers, but they do not create these obligations.
Apart from these considerations, which are in a sense more internal to the professional approach, one might assess the professional approach in terms of the earlier mentioned characteristics of engineering.
The professional approach clearly does a good job with respect to the first mentioned characteristic of engineering: Engineering as a specialized activity requiring sophisticated knowledge and skills. In fact, this characteristic is often seen as one of the defining features of a profession.
The following three characteristics – the experimental nature of engineering, the society transforming power of engineering and the core role of designing in engineering – are less well taken into account in the professional approach. Although codes of ethics occasionally pay attention to ethical issues in engineering springing from these characteristics, they only do so occasionally and to a limited degree. An important reason may be that engineering codes of ethics – especially in the USA - often seem to be modeled after codes of ethics of other professions, without fully taking into account all relevant features of engineering. Now, one might argue that the professional approach in principle might address these issues. Even if this is true, the professional approach hardly seems helpful in providing any clue how we could come to moral standards with respect to such issues. It only says that professional might formulate standards, but that is hardly illuminating with respect to what these standards might be or how they could be arrived at.
Something similar applies to the fifth mentioned characteristic of engineering: the diverse nature of engineering. Even if codes of ethics could, and do differ, from technical domain to technical domain, the differences in especially American engineering codes of ethics are less salient then one might expect on basis of the differences in technology. Again this may derive from the fact that engineering codes of ethics are often modeled on other professional codes of ethics, without taking into account the differences between different types of engineering; after all engineering need not be one profession. It is certainly true that Davis approach to professions might be better able to deal with the feature of engineering than the conceptualist approach, but still this feature seems to be addressed hardly in the professional approach at the moment.
The final characteristic of engineering that I distinguished earlier - engineering as a collective effort – seems to be recognized by the professional approach at least at first sight. An individual engineer does not make a profession; organizing engineering into a profession certainly is a collective, not an individual effort. Still, the professional approach seems to focus rather one-sidedly on one type of social organization in engineering and technology development. While, professional forms of social organization are important for engineering and technology (cf. Disco, 1990; Constant, 1987), they are not the only important one. Another important form of organization is the firm, or more generally the hierarchical organization. Hierarchical organizations are characterized by quite different relations between people and usually have quite different goals than professions. Most engineers nowadays work in private firms. Some have for such reason argued that engineering is not a true profession (ref). While this may be somewhat of an exaggeration – after all so-called true professions also depend on other forms of social organization like hierarchical organizations or the market – it is certainly true that the professional approach to engineering ethics tend to disregard other forms of social organization than the professional one.
5. Engineering ethics as applied ethics
Although the term “applied ethics” is used regularly, it is often not quite clear what is meant by it. The term suggests that some more fundamental knowledge is applied in a practical domain, as applied physics is the application of physical insights for some practical purpose. If this is so, we might – depending on the field of application - distinguish different forms of applied ethics. Medical ethics would then be the application of fundamental ethical insights and knowledge to the field of medicine, whereas engineering ethics would be the application of ethical knowledge to the field of engineering.
But what then is the ethical knowledge that is applied in engineering ethics? (For the moment, I am presupposing that something like ethical knowledge exists, even if there are quite some ethicists and others who would doubt that). I think it would be worthwhile to distinguish between three types of knowledge that might be applied in an applied ethics approach:
1. General normative standards. Depending on the ethical normative theory that is followed these may be formulated in terms of duties, obligations, rights, a utilitarian principle like the greatest good for the greatest number, etcetera.
2. Concepts from moral philosophy like autonomy, identity, freedom, justice, rights, and so on.
3. Methods in moral philosophy to come to or justify moral judgments. This might includes such methods as reflexive equilibrium (Rawls, 1999), casuistry (Jonsen & Toulmin, 1988)
In order to assess the possibilities and limitations of an applied ethics approach, I will first discuss what I will call the deductive approach to applied ethics. The deductive approach starts from the assumption that all normativity needed to arrive at moral judgments in an “application field” like engineering comes from general normative standards in moral theory. This is not to say that applied ethicists do not need knowledge of the field of application, but this knowledge only needs to be of a factual, not a normative nature. The deductive approach implies the application of at least item 1 of the list above; it moreover implies that general moral philosophy is the only relevant source of normativity.
So according to the deductive approach, moral reasoning in engineering ethics has the following deductive structure:
Normative standards or statement from moral philosophy
Conclusion: Normative judgment about a situation in engineering
One important question about the deductive approach is whether it can do right to the special nature of engineering as I discussed it earlier. In answering this question, the first thing to be noted is that according to the deductive approach the special nature of engineering can only be relevant in a factual sense. It cannot make a difference for the normative standards to be applied. This does, however, not necessarily mean that the deductive approach cannot do right to, for example, special obligations of engineers. This becomes clear if we look at the following argument:
People bear a moral responsibility for other people who depend on them (General normative statement from moral philosophy)
Lay people depend on engineers for reliable technical products (Factual statement about engineering)
So: Engineers bear a responsibility for providing lay people with reliable technical products (Normative statement about engineering)
This argument suggests that the deductive approach can do justice to special obligations or responsibilities of engineers even if it allows only factual statements about engineering to be taken into account in coming to moral judgments in or about engineering.
In fact the above argument suggests that the deductive approach can do right to the first characteristic of engineering that was discussed before: Engineering is specialized activity requiring sophisticated knowledge and skills. But does that also mean that it can do justice to the other five mentioned characteristics of engineering?
I doubt it. I do so because traditional ethical theories were developed in a social context that was quite different from the current one and engineering has been a major factor in changing that social context. One important development is that in the technological age, the span of action is much larger than before; we can even potentially destroy the whole of humankind. According to Jonas (1984), this potential to destroy the world and humankind places a special responsibility on our shoulders that did not exist before.
Whereas Jonas especially stresses the potential destructive power of technology, it may be two other features of technology that are mentioned but not really elaborated by him that are most important for understanding why the deductive model does not work. The first feature is the experimental nature of technology. Engineering is characterized by uncertainty and (partial) ignorance. Most traditional ethical theories, however, are not very good at dealing with these aspects (Hansson, 2002). Even if utilitarianism can cope with uncertainty – for example through the notion of expected utility - it has a hard time dealing with ignorance (cf. also Shrader-Frechette, 1991). Deontological and rights theories even if have more difficulties in dealing with issues of uncertainty and ignorance (Hansson, 2002). So there are good reasons for doubting whether traditional moral theory can deal with the experimental nature of engineering.
The second point is the society transforming power of engineering and technology. This feature is especially important because by transforming society, engineering also sometimes transforms the very conceptual basis of some ethical theories (cf. Jonas, 1984; Keulartz et al., 2001) Morally loaden concepts like identity, autonomy, relationship and so have changed meaning by technological developments in for example medicine and information and communication technology. In such situations, the deductive model is clearly not adequate any longer.
6. Alternatives to the deductive model
The deductive approach has also its critics within moral philosophy. It has been been criticized by quite different philosophers having quite different (meta)ethical beliefs.
Modern virtue ethicists like McIntyre have maintained that we can make normative judgments about practitioners, like engineers, on the basis of the practices in which they partake. According to McIntyre, a “practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes which currently and partially define the practice” (McIntyre, 1984, 190). I think that are good reasons to expect that engineering can be interpreted or reconstructed as a practice in this sense. In fact, a number of authors who have written on technological development have used concepts that come quite close to, even if they are not similar to, McIntyre’s concept of practice (Constant, 1980, Hård, 1992).
Another approach in moral philosophy that is critical to the deductive approach and might provide an alternative to it is casuistry. This method has been applied to engineering ethics by Harris et al. (1995; see also forthcoming). They describe the method as follows: “… paradigms of acceptable (or unacceptable) action are first identified. Then the salient ethical features of the paradigms are compared with those of the case under consideration. The casuist must then determine whether the case in question more closely resembles the paradigm of acceptable behavior, or the paradigm of unacceptable behavior” (Harris et al, forthcoming, 15). For casuistry to be a really alternative to the deductive model, casuistry has to maintain that at least some of the salient ethical features of a situation cannot be deduced from general moral principles or norms. As Van Willigenburg has said: “Casuists will have to acknowledge … that particular features can be morally relevant without this relevance being explicable by reference to uniformly valuable properties (enumerated by some rule). That is, casuists will allow for the sui generis moral relevance of case features: i.e. there are properties of cases that sometimes, but not always, create some moral presumption” (Van Willigenburg, 1998, 158).
I think that both a virtue ethics approach taking practice as a central concept and a casuist approach to engineering ethics may prove to be in some respects fruitful for engineering ethics. Both approaches have the advantage of being able to pay attention to norms and values embedded in current practices or that are situation-specific. Both therefore are in my view better able to deal with what I earlier called the diversified nature of engineering than the deductive approach. These approaches recognize that the diverse nature of engineering is not only relevant in factual sense – i.e. in the obvious sense that engineers in different fields of engineering do different things – but also in a moral sense, i.e. that in different fields of engineering or in different specific situations different ethical considerations are important.
Still I think that both sketched approaches share a common weakness. This weakness is that they tend to take norms, values and virtues that are embedded in the current situation (practice) as given. This is clear, I think, for the approach taken by McIntyre, it may be less clear for casuistry. But, I think, casuistry is essentially plagued by the same problem. If casuistry allows for the sui generis moral relevance of case features and moral considerations, as Van Willigenburg maintains, than there is a real danger I think to base these moral considerations on what the engineers involved happen to see as morally relevant. What they see as morally relevant will, however, be influenced by the norms and values embedded in their current activities.
The sketched weakness of a practice-oriented virtue ethics approach or a casuist approach essentially boils down to the danger hat these approaches are too uncritical to current practices. This is a problem, I think, in any field of applied ethics. However, it is even more of a problem in engineering ethics. The reason for that is what I earlier called the society transforming power of engineering and technology. One of the things that is specific about engineering is that it can drastically influence the life of people not involved in its shaping. I think this is one of the major moral issues in engineering and any ethical perspective on engineering that too much focuses on the norms and values embedded in current practices has a very real danger of overlooking this issue, because it will tend to neglect the norms and values of the people undergoing the effects of technology.
I therefore think that an adequate approach to engineering ethics can not solely rely on ethical considerations and norms and values embedded in current practices or that are derived from the specific situation. In addition to these, therefore, such an approach should have recourse general norms, values and principles. This is not a plea to restore the deductive model. Instead of seeing general norms, values and principles as conclusive in ethical issues, their role should be seen as more heuristic. They are to be seen as “prima facie duties” (Ross, 1930 and 1939) or intellectual instruments that are useful for ethically understanding certain situations without providing the final word (Dewey, 1998).
Reaching a moral judgment in engineering is then more a matter of reaching coherence between a number of moral considerations (norms and values embedded in current practices, general norms, values and principles, values of the public) than a matter of either relying on general principles (the deductive model) or on what engineers happen to believe that is acceptable as is done not only in the practice-oriented virtue ethics approach but in fact also in the earlier discussed professional approach. This idea is certainly not new; in fact such an approach comes very close that what is kown in moral philosophy as the method of reflexive equilibrium or wide reflexive equilibrium (Rawls, 1999; Daniels, 1979).
7. Challenges for the field of engineering ethics
Until now I have argued that both the professional and the applied ethics approach to engineering ethics have their shortcomings, even if both also have certain merits. I have suggested that it may be fruitful for the field of engineering ethics to apply certain methods from general moral philosophy. I have especially make a plea for the method of wide reflexive equilibrium. Before working out these proposals I a little more detail, I like to review some recent development in engineering ethics that might be promising from the perspective sketched in this paper.
Recent developments in engineering ethics
One important development in engineering ethics is that in the last ten years the attention for engineering ethics outside the USA has been growing (Zandvoort et al., 2000). Typically, especially in Europe most teachers and researchers have been less keen to follow the professional approach to engineering ethics (e.g. Goujon & Hériard Dubreil, 2001). One reason is probably is that historically the idea that engineering is a profession has been less prominent in (continental) Europe than in the United States (cf. e.g. Layton, 1971). Another reason might be that approaches to engineering ethics in Europe has been more influenced by continental “traditions” in the philosophy and ethics of technology (Heidegger, Habermas and more recently people like Jonas, Ropohl).
Another important development in the last decade has been a call for broadening the traditional scope of engineering ethics. Traditionally engineering ethics tended to focus on what has been called micro-ethical issues (Herkert, 2001), i.e. ethical issues within the profession of engineering confronting individual engineers. Whistle blowing is a typical example of such a micro-ethical issue, especially if the focus is on the question when it is ethically permissible or obliged to blow the whistle. In the last decade or so, a number of authors has urged for broadening this traditional scope of engineering ethics (Winner, 1990; Herkert, 2001; Zandvoort et al., 2000). This urge seems to derive from two concerns. One concern is that the traditional micro-ethical approach in engineering ethics tends to take the contexts in which engineers have to work for given, while major ethical issues pertain to how this context is “organized” (Zandvoort et al. 200; Van de Poel et al., 2001). It is one thing to deliberate whether an engineer should blow the whistle or not in specific situation, it is quite another thing to deliberate whether cases of whistle-blowing – which often have very negative consequences for the whistleblowers involved – could be largely avoided by better procedures, organizational structures and laws. Another concern is that the traditional micro-ethical focus tends to neglect issues relating to the impact of technology on society or relating to societal decisions about technology (Winner, 1990, Devon, 1999, Didier, 2000; Johnston et al., 2000, Van de Poel, 2001). Broadening the scope of engineering ethics would then, among others, imply more attention for such issues as sustainability and social justice.
A fairly recent development is a growing mutual interest between engineering ethics and the field of science and technology studies (STS). Traditionally, engineering ethics have tended to neglect the empirical research on technological development that is being done in the field of STS. Most STS researchers, on the other hand, have shown an allergy to anything that looks like a normative, let alone a moral, approach to engineering or technology. Recently, a number of people have shown interest in bridging this gap (Lynch & Kline, 2000; Goujon & Hériard Dubreil, 2001; Van de Poel, 2001).
The sketched recent developments in engineering ethics are promising, mainly because they are a reflection of a growing awareness in the field of the specific nature of engineering. The sketched broadening of the scope of engineering ethics is related to recognition of the society transforming power of engineering and the collective nature of engineering. The integration with insights from STS, which is only just starting, is promising in terms of doing more right to the design context of engineering and the diverse nature of engineering. This is so because STS might provide detailed insight in the work of engineers. A final promising development would be the integration with studies in the ethics of risks and questions of uncertainty. Recently quite some work has been done is this realm (e.g. Cranor, 1990; Shrader-Frechete, 1991; Hansson, 1999; Zandvoort et al., 2002)
Despite these promising developments, the field of engineering ethics is still lacking in research efforts and the development of theoretical perspectives. Efforts in this direction are still scarce and relatively unfocused (cf. Brumsen & Van de Poel, 2001). Here, a major challenge for the field as a whole lies ahead. To address this challenge, two things are essential. The first one is the necessity for research in engineering ethics to acquire more detailed knowledge of engineering practice. What is needed is not only knowledge of what engineers do, but also of the norms and values that are embedded in engineering practices. Here, engineering ethics could profit from insights and methods developed in the field of STS.
The other important issue related to addressing the moral questions in engineering. Here, engineering ethics could profit a lot from insights, concepts and methods from moral philosophy. Not to develop a form of engineering ethics along the lines of the deductive model, but to develop further and apply methods like wide reflexive equilibrium in the field of engineering ethics. Also in other respects, engineering ethics could learn a lot from moral philosophy, for example for the analysis of ethical concepts or issues like dealing with conflicting values in engineering. A moral study of engineering, on the other hand, may make once again make clear that moral philosophy cannot be about eternal ethical truths.
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