Iteration and inquiry: Toward a meaningful model of ethical engagement for engineering and computing students

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Department of Humanities; Department of Computer Science


Establishing an appropriate foundation for teaching ethics in engineering and computing disciplines can be a profound challenge. The essence of these disciplines lies in building and doing, but how does one “build” or “do” ethics? Without a basis for putting ethical reasoning into practice, even well-intentioned curricular efforts can perpetuate a sense that ethics is somehow marginal to students' core discipline. We have used the Ethical Cycle, developed by philosophers van de Poel and Royakkers, as a way to address this problem. The Ethical Cycle is an operational model with well-defined stages: statement of the moral problem, analysis, identification of options for action, ethical evaluation, and reflection. We discuss similarities between components of the Ethical Cycle and corresponding practices in agile software development. These similarities can help students feel more confident and motivated to reason critically about ethical concerns. We also point out some risks of conflating the two: a reductionist perspective that equates ethics with functionality, an instrumentalist perspective that detaches responsibilities as software developers from larger ethical imperatives, and a misapprehension that ethical reasoning inevitably leads to a “solution”. We discuss our experiences adopting and adapting the Ethical Cycle for an engineering ethics course, along with supportive material from philosophy of technology and Science and Technology Studies.

Publication Title

2021 IEEE International Symposium on Ethics in Engineering, Science and Technology (ETHICS)