Framing engineering ethics education with pragmatism and care: A Proposal

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Conference Proceeding

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Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering


This paper considers the philosophical principles of pragmatism and the ethic of care as a broad framework for integrating ethics in undergraduate engineering. We propose an approach to integrate ethics into the teaching of engineering that accommodates the realities in which engineering operates and can bring up ethical considerations naturally. Increasingly engineering educators have been looking for ways to bring multiple affective perspectives smoothly into classroom and field practices of the student experience. Engineering is about working within external constraints and engineering practice is based on a way of thinking that is not applied science, but rather an evolving set of heuristics toward better design. Bulleit (2015) calls this the “engineering way of thinking” (EWT). A usable framework of engineering ethics should complement this, and include microethics, the engineer’s individual responsibility and macroethics, which deals with the collective responsibility of the profession (Herkert 2001). Schmidt (2013) proposed an ethical framework based on virtue ethics that addresses “what engineers do, how they do it, and why it matters”. Pantazidou and Nair (1999) articulated how the ethics of care fits naturally within the process of engineering design. Kardon (2015) examined how the legal definition of “standard of care” fits with engineering practice. Bulleit (2017) explored the similarities between engineering and pragmatism to show how pragmatism fits with the EWT. A combination of two American-born philosophical worldviews – Care and Pragmatism - provides flexibility and openness to address professional ethics realistically within the ethos and culture of engineering. Care and pragmatism are both systems for action and practice. They embed values into practice, promote reflective thinking, are cognizant of the context, and emphasize the need for thinking about the practical consequences of an action. Because of this, they are open in definition and are flexible, aspects that are hard to navigate in the current ways of teaching the issues in engineering ethics, based on traditional philosophical frameworks.

As engineered systems become more complex, determining whether a decision is ethical becomes problematic due to the extreme uncertainty about the future. Furthermore, the decisions being made affect the future, but so do other events out of the control of the designer, and some of those events may be produced by the system being built. Whether a decision is ethical is particularly problematic in the design of large-scale engineered systems, including complex and complex adaptive systems such as social-technological-natural systems like the earth.

This paper reviews recent work and asks how care and pragmatism can articulate and contribute to addressing thorny problems– simple and complex, local and global-- that engineers face. We review recent empirical work on the ethics of care and the role of empathy in engineering. Campbell (2013) asked how engineering “professors can teach students to care”. Other work (Walther et al. 2012; Hess et al. 2014) has begun to build a background of how we could begin this integration. We suggest that these approaches are more consonant with design approaches and hence familiar to engineering faculty. Engineering ethics can then integrate seamlessly into engineering education.

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Copyright American Society for Engineering Education, 2018. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition