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Sci Eng Ethics (2011) 17:583–596

DOI 10.1007/s11948-010-9211-9

Should Engineering Ethics be Taught?

Charles J. Abaté

Received: 1 December 2009 / Accepted: 18 May 2010 / Published online: 4 June 2010
 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Abstract Should engineering ethics be taught? Despite the obvious truism that we
all want our students to be moral engineers who practice virtuous professional
behavior, I argue, in this article that the question itself obscures several ambiguities
that prompt preliminary resolution. Upon clarification of these ambiguities, and an
attempt to delineate key issues that make the question a philosophically interesting
one, I conclude that engineering ethics not only should not, but cannot, be taught if
we understand ‘‘teaching engineering ethics’’ to mean training engineers to be moral
individuals (as some advocates seem to have proposed). However, I also conclude
that there is a justification to teaching engineering ethics, insofar as we are able to
clearly identify the most desirable and efficacious pedagogical approach to the
subject area, which I propose to be a case study-based format that utilizes the
principle of human cognitive pattern recognition.

Keywords Engineering ethics  Engineering education  Case studies 


Paradigms  Pattern recognition

Introduction

For the past several decades, literature has been replete with attempts to address the
issue whether ethics can––or to frame the question in a more normatively apt form,
whether engineering ethics should––be taught to students in engineering curricula
(Vesilind 1988; Davis 1994). Some of this body of literature has addressed certain
pedagogically practical, but philosophically peripheral questions: ‘‘Is there enough
time or room in the curriculum to accommodate extra course material?’’ (Daniel

C. J. Abaté (&)
Electrical Engineering Technology Department, Onondaga Community College,
Syracuse, NY 13215, USA
e-mail: abatec@sunyocc.edu

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2007; Cruz et al. 2004), or ‘‘What are the practical guidelines and recommended
practices for teaching engineering ethics?’’ (Bucciarelli 2007; Kaufman 1998;
Whitbeck 2006; Davis 2006a). Other authors appear to beg the question by
presuming or ignoring some of the basic issues that lend philosophical importance
to the topic in the first place: we should––they argue––teach engineering ethics,
because (of course) we want our engineering professionals to be moral individuals
(Børsen Hansen 2005; Gorman 2001–2002; Pell 2001).
While I find the former type of discussion important to ask and relevant to the
issue at hand, I do not find it particularly interesting in a philosophical sense. The
latter approach, on the other hand, is philosophically relevant, but seems too
presumptuous to permit a meaningful answer to the central question it addresses.
In this article, I want to propose a slightly more fundamental approach to the
question whether engineering ethics should be taught. I shall suggest that we cannot
even provide a meaningful answer to the question until we first resolve several core
issues:
1) What are ‘‘engineering ethics,’’ and how are they distinguished from ethics
simpliciter?
2) What are the defensible criteria for ‘‘teaching’’ engineering ethics?
3) What is the ultimate aim of this proposed pedagogy?
I shall not, in the course of my discussion, attempt to resolve centuries of debate
among classical philosophers about some of the more controversial nuances of these
topics, preferring instead to pursue a more colloquial approach to some of the basic
concepts and syntax that usually frame discussion of these issues among technical
academics and engineering professionals. In this manner, I hope to shed light on
why I (as a professor of my own engineering ethics course) contend that we should
not, nor should we attempt to, ‘‘teach engineering ethics’’ in the typically held
commonplace sense, despite the rather obvious truism that we would like our
engineering students to be ‘‘moral individuals.’’

What are ‘‘Engineering Ethics’’?

Morality––the primary normative focus of ethics––is sometimes divided into three


convenient categories:
1) common morality––a body of ethical ideals shared by most members of a group
or culture;
2) personal morality––one’s own ethical principles which are typically acquired
from family or religious training, and which can be modified later in life by
personal reflection;
3) professional ethics––the set of ethical principles adopted by a particular
profession qua professionals, and usually instantiated into a body of ‘‘profes-
sional codes’’ (Harris et al. 2009).

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In this article, morality is to be understood in a positive sense, i.e., as a body of


‘‘rules’’ or guidelines––tacit or explicit––that constitutes a society’s or group’s
expectations of desired normative behavior within that group or society.1
Engineering ethics, of course, is considered a subset of professional ethics. But it
is important to recognize that the three categories enumerated above are, at least in
some critical sense, not necessarily mutually exclusive. It has been suggested by
Michael Davis that professional ethics differs from profession to profession and
therefore cannot be deduced from ordinary morality or philosophical theory (Davis
1994). Davis’ observation may, strictly speaking, be correct. It is not immediately
obvious how certain normative guidelines from the engineering ethics codes (such
as the principles governing conflicts of interest; client confidentiality; loyalty to
one’s employer; primary obligation to the safety, health and welfare of the public;
and so on) could be literally deduced from the general principles of common
morality. Nevertheless, one would appear remiss in denying that the professional
ethics codes have at least some sort of conceptual connection with the tenets of
basic common morality. Professor Davis suggests that:
Engineering ethics in fact includes standards of ordinary morality, e.g.,
honesty (don’t lie, cheat, or steal). Engineering ethics differs from ordinary
morality, insofar as it does differ, only in demanding more (a higher standard.
(Davis 2006b).
Clearly, ethical principles for engineers do not occur within a conceptual vacuum.
At minimum, the engineering ethics codes seem to reflect a logical compatibility
and consistency with certain principles of common morality, including exhortations
to respect others as moral agents and treat them as one wishes to be treated oneself,
to strive to avoid harm to individuals and the environment as much as possible, and
the like. What distinguishes the principles of engineering ethics is primarily their
expansion on the basic tenets of common and personal morality for the specific
circumstances of professional practice. In this context, one might appropriately
propose that the professional ethics codes are ‘‘inspired’’ by the general ideals of
common morality. The professional codes help to serve the ideals of ordinary
morality, and more (if not all) of the provisions of professional morality can be
better understood and justified in light of the principles of common morality.
It is within this general conceptual framework that we shall understand
engineering ethics to be one branch of what we have earlier called ‘‘professional
ethics.’’ Moreover, it seems quite evident that when scholars raise the question
whether ethics can, or should, be taught in the scientific and technical curricula, they
are referring to professional ethics (as opposed to common or personal morality). It
is, therefore, this category of ethics to which we shall restrict our attention in the
remainder of this article when considering the question of the feasibility of
‘‘teaching ethics’’ within the technical curricula.

1
I do not wish to propose this characterization of ‘‘morality’’ as a formally comprehensive definition of
the term. Nothing much of conceptual importance to the main thesis of this paper hangs on one’s
inclination to refine or elaborate on the suggested characterization.

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Criteria for ‘‘Teaching’’ Engineering Ethics

There seem to be at least three general pedagogical approaches that might be


characterized as ‘‘the teaching of ethics’’ to engineers:
a) an exposure to the history of philosophical debate over classic ethical issues;
b) an introduction to certain bodies of established rules of behavior (engineering
codes);
c) a training in systematic and thoughtful evaluation of applied normative issues;
or, perhaps, an amalgamation of the options listed above, such as is suggested by
Michael Davis (1993)—a proposal to which we shall return shortly.
Now, while (a) might prove a desirable and beneficial supplement to engineering
students’ academic curricula (arguably, even highly so, since an exposure to
classical philosophical argument can encourage students’ clarity of thought,
definition of key terms and strength of analytical evaluation), it is not without its
drawbacks as a pedagogical model for teaching engineering ethics.
First, there is the pragmatic problem that not many philosophers are sufficiently
grounded in the sorts of topics likely to constitute normative dilemmas for
professional engineers, and not many engineers have the appropriate academic
background to capably teach philosophical ethics (Stephan 2001–2002). Second,
and more importantly, the issues that compose classical ethical debate are––at least
in a practical sense––mostly divorced from the likely real-life dilemmas that are apt
to confront professional engineers. Thus, even engineers who have been exposed to
the writings of the classical ethical philosophers would still be obliged to deal with
their everyday ethical issues and dilemmas ‘‘from scratch,’’ or on a contextual case-
by-case basis. Finally, it seems rather clear that proponents of teaching engineering
ethics are advocating a subject matter intuitively different from that of classical
philosophical ethics, with a primary focus on applied, rather than purely conceptual,
issues. Such proponents seem far less interested in exposing students to the history
of ethical debate than they are in encouraging and (some hope) possibly producing
actually moral engineers. Thus the primary end of engineering ethics appears, for
many, to be the production, or at least the encouragement, of certain kinds of
attitudes and behavior, as opposed to ‘‘mere’’ knowledge (though it seems likely
that certain kinds of knowledge are necessary conditions for the production of the
desired attitudes and behavior in question).
As for (b), it can be argued that much of the credibility of such an approach relies
heavily on what is meant by ‘‘an introduction’’ to the engineering codes.
What is not very defensible is the position that an ‘‘introduction’’ to engineering
codes consists solely in the rote enumeration of the specific guidelines contained
within that body of codes (in the manner of one’s memorization of the Ten
Commandments or the 50 American states and capitals). Aside from its potential
pedagogical banality, such an approach would offer little hope of influencing
students’ attitudes and behavior in the manner presumably desired by (at least some)
engineering ethics educators. More promising is the position that students need to be
sufficiently acquainted with the specific engineering codes primarily to be able to
interpret and debate their meaning, normative justification and applicability to

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real-life professional circumstances. This type of analytic assessment of the


engineering codes possesses the virtues of allowing and encouraging the evaluation
and debate of professional moral guidelines; the clarification of key issues in the
application of those guidelines to specific cases; and the possible resolution of various
types of established or emerging moral dilemmas and conflicts of principle or interest.
But in this characterization, option (b) seems to represent merely one specific
facet of the more general approach advocated in option (c). The primary aim of
teaching engineering ethics, it would appear, is training in the systematic, analytic,
and thoughtful evaluation of applied normative issues for professional practices.
Michael Davis (1993) has defined teaching engineering ethics as having four
components: raising ethical sensitivity, enhancing ethical knowledge, improving
ethical judgment, and increasing ethical commitment. While I have no issue with
the appropriateness of any of these endeavors, I suspect that they do not all possess
the same level of conceptual primacy in the process of teaching engineering ethics.
Attempts to raise ethical sensitivity and to increase ethical commitment may be
necessary conditions for successful teaching of engineering ethics, but they are not
sufficient conditions. Students may be made aware that they will have to resolve
certain ethical problems as professional engineers, yet remain unequipped to
satisfactorily do so without the appropriate pedagogical training. Likewise,
engineers who are more likely to follow particular standards of conduct in the
company of other engineers rather than in isolation might also be inclined to
‘‘follow the herd’’ even in cases of controversial or debatable professional practices.
What makes both of these criteria plausible components of successful teaching of
engineering ethics is students’ actual ability to resolve the ethical problems they face
as engineers once they recognize the problems as such, and the ability to evaluate and
distinguish between justifiable and questionable group consensus for various ethical
issues. And this suggests a primacy of the other two components advocated by
Professor Davis: enhancing ethical knowledge and improving ethical judgment. To
the extent that the enhancing of one’s ethical knowledge lies in the analysis and
interpretation of standards, such as those presented in the engineering codes, this
component––as I have suggested earlier––represents one specific facet of the more
general endeavor of improving one’s ethical judgment. And this latter endeavor is
most clearly identifiable, or so it seems to me, as what I have previously described as
option (c)––a training in systematic and thoughtful evaluation of applied normative
issues. Whatever else we might wish for our engineering students, we would
presumably most desire them to possess and utilize the appropriate conceptual tools to
reason their way through such ethical issues and dilemmas as they are likely to face on
the job, and ideally, to intelligently decide on a morally appropriate course of action.
Given this type of training, the other components mentioned by Professor Davis are
likely (or at least more likely) to follow naturally.

What is the Ultimate Aim of Efforts to Teach Engineering Ethics?

If what I have suggested thus far is cogent, then an answer to the above question is
relatively straightforward: the ultimate aim of efforts to teach engineering ethics is

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not to produce moral engineers, but rather to instill careful clarity of insight and
cogent decision-making skills. As P. Aarne Vesilind succinctly observes, teaching
engineering ethics ‘‘is not teaching right or wrong, or good or bad, but rather
methods of making personal decisions about these qualities’’ (Vesilind 1988).
Common morality is ‘‘taught’’ primarily in the sense that it is inculcated in
(mostly young) individuals, and constitutes expected behavior by certain groups or
cultures. Adherence to the codes of professional ethics, on the other hand, must be
willfully adopted by individuals as they assume membership into their chosen
profession, and is subject to evaluation, analysis, debate, assessment, and revision.
For engineers to successfully and consistently carry out these conceptual activities
with respect to their professional ethical principles, they need to be exposed to the
techniques of philosophical analysis and the need for clarity of conceptual
evaluation. It is these tools, I contend, with which we need to arm our engineering
students in the hopes of enabling them to ‘‘think ethically.’’2 Those individuals who
learn to think ethically, of course, stand the greatest chance of being able to act
ethically in a variety of diverse or unpredictable circumstances.
It would be misleading, and perhaps a bit unfair, to allege that I am in
fundamental disagreement with those who advocate ‘‘teaching morality’’ to
engineering students. To the extent that students are normatively open-minded,
and therefore teachable, I have every expectation that they can be ‘‘taught’’ how to
be moral engineers. Even appeals to conform more closely to the ideals of common
morality may produce a distinctly favorable outcome with students having
‘‘borderline’’ personal ethical standards. Where I part ways with those whose
presumptions I have attempted to delineate and rebut thus far is in the nature of the
pedagogical activity that is required to achieve this result.
Certainly, we can hope, as educators, to achieve at least the following kinds of
outcomes in our engineering ethics courses:
Students can definitely achieve cognitive goals in knowledge and reasoning.
They can understand, interpret, and apply provisions in the code of ethics of
the National Society of Professional Engineers. They can distinguish between
copyrights and patents, and between bribes, gifts, and extortion. They can
analyze cases to identify moral issues. They can evaluate actions according to
moral criteria (Hashemian and Loui 2005).
This is the kind of education, I am convinced, which if sincerely and consistently
embraced by engineering students, can encourage and nurture the development of the sort
of enlightened moral individuals that we all desire to populate the engineering fields.

The Role of Case Studies in Engineering Ethics

But what kind of pedagogical ‘‘delivery system’’ is most efficacious and appropriate
to achieve the kind of successful teaching of engineering ethics as we have

2
Professor Vesilind suggests that students can be taught to ‘‘think ethically’’ in much the same way that
they can be taught to ‘‘think scientifically.’’

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described above? There is considerable agreement in the literature that the superior
method for teaching engineering ethics is through the use of case studies (Harris
et al. 1996; Richards and Gorman 2004; Lovrin and Vrcan 2009).
The proposed advantages of case studies for teaching engineering ethics are
numerous. Case studies have been credited with: introducing students to ‘‘the
complexities and ambiguities of real-world ethical problems in an effective and
memorable way’’ (Stephan 2001–2002); as well as ‘‘allowing engineers to explore
the nature of a problem and circumstances that affect a solution, to learn about
others’ viewpoints and how they may be taken into account, to define their priorities
and make their own decisions to solve the problem, and to predict outcomes and
consequences’’ (Lovrin and Vrcan 2009). Case studies are alleged to promote active
learning (Meyers and Jones 1993), the ‘‘development of philosophies, approaches,
and skills’’ (Shapiro 1984), and higher-level cognitive skills (Leake 1996; Kolodner
1993). Case studies are favored by many because they are thought to help develop
and promote skills in analysis, sound reasoning, and critical thinking (Richards and
Gorman 2004).
What has not been widely discussed in the literature, however, is the mechanism
by which the case study method is able to achieve its alleged superiority as a
pedagogical model. Although a few authors have hinted at such a mechanism, such
as Shapiro’s (1984) representation of the case study method as a model based on the
concepts of ‘‘metaphor and simulation,’’ I have not seen a systematic attempt to
flesh out and justify the mechanism in the area of engineering ethics. In this context,
my thesis shall be that the strength and superiority of the case study method for
teaching engineering ethics derives from its conceptual reliance on cognitive pattern
recognition.

Paradigm Cases and Pattern Recognition

Activities such as playing a game of chess or simplifying a digital Boolean function


by use of a Karnaugh map are enhanced by the development of pattern recognition
skills. Any activity that operates under a series of finite rules will generate
characteristic outcomes that fall into certain types of patterns (albeit some more
complex and numerous than others). When practitioners of the activity become
acquainted with enough paradigm patterns, they more easily adapt to an analogous
instance, and are more readily able to resolve that particular problem. In similar
fashion, I will allege, case studies encourage learning––and facilitate moral
behavioral decisions––by serving as paradigm cases for similar potential real-life
experiences.3 What makes this kind of parity of reasoning most powerful, I shall
suggest, is the human mind’s facility with what is commonly known as pattern
recognition. This feature of human reasoning, I shall claim, is what allows students
3
The notion of applying paradigm cases to the resolution of moral dilemmas is certainly not a novel idea.
Its application was revived, and its practicality defended, by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin some
20 years ago. While their defense of ‘‘casuistry’’ has not made significant impact among classical moral
philosophers, it has been rather positively received in the area of bioethics and, I believe, deserves serious
consideration in other areas of applied moral ethics as well.

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that are exposed to paradigm engineering ethics case studies to more capably
understand and resolve similar real-life ethical issues and dilemmas to which they
might be exposed on the job.
The general concept of pattern recognition is widely recognized and utilized in a
vast array of applications. For many decades, it has been touted as a requisite
criterion of expertise in the game of chess (Chase and Simon 1973; Gobet 2009);
explored as an exercise in computer programming and artificial intelligence (Frantz
2003); and studied as a critical evolutionary human property in psychology (Jain
and Duin 2004).
In common parlance, pattern recognition is generally understood as an ability to
recognize certain kinds of recurring similarities in two or more objects or events.
The specific nature of these similarities, of course, differs from one type of
environment to another. For example, pattern recognition in chess presumes a
player’s ability to recognize the similarity, and hence applicability, of a particular
sequence of moves from a previously played (or possibly even imagined) match to
one’s current game situation. Pattern recognition is also the subject of certain
psychological studies, involving the question how people are able to recognize
similarities in, e.g., particular human emotions (fear, sadness, hostility) expressed in
various human faces––or even in the recognition of faces themselves. Finally, in the
field of artificial intelligence, computer programmers employ the concept of pattern
recognition in the efforts to produce computer-recognized records of, e.g., human
fingerprints.
When students of digital electronics learn to simplify Boolean expressions by the
use of Karnaugh maps, they are usually introduced not only to some of the basic
rules of K-mapping, e.g., all 1s in the map must be a member of at least one
grouping; group sizes must be integer powers of 2: 1 cell (20), 2 cells (21), 4 cells
(22), and so on, but they are also typically exposed to some of the characteristic
patterns of K-map groupings. This is important because K-maps are drawn two-
dimensionally, but they are actually presumed to be spherical in form, which has
critical implications for the concept of adjacently grouped cells. Students would
probably struggle to envision and produce the optimal grouping patterns with only a
knowledge of the basic rules of K-mapping, but after having seen a variety of
K-map grouping patterns, they become significantly quicker and more accurate in
their ability to simplify similar K-maps––even maps that they have never previously
encountered.4
Additionally, many studies have been conducted on the issue of expertise in
chess––specifically, how chess masters can consistently make superior moves, even
under severe time constraints and significant limitations in computational capacities.
The research has found little, if any, correlation between chess masters’ expertise
and superior intelligence, memory, or ability to think ahead many moves. A
groundbreaking study by de Groot (1965) revealed that masters calculated no
further ahead than weaker players, and often examined fewer possible move
variations, yet consistently selected superior moves. And Chase and Simon (1973)

4
I have become persuaded of the truth of this conclusion after many years of anecdotal observations in
my own digital electronics courses.

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concluded that the superior ability of chess masters over weaker players was
explained by their superior skills in pattern recognition.
In the general context of human cognition, pattern recognition is a powerful and
effective tool for assessing the new and unfamiliar in terms of the already-
encountered and familiar (Gentner 2002). As noted by J. Corey Butler (2009), in the
context of chess playing:
there is no doubt that familiar patterns of information are processed much
more efficiently than unfamiliar ones…. If not for the power of pattern
recognition, humans would have no chance at all against the phenomenal
number crunching ability of computers. Computers can almost always out-
calculate humans in terms of the sheer number of moves to be analyzed, but
they do not always outplay us.
Despite the dearth of research into the role played by pattern recognition in the
specific domain of engineering ethics, there is a considerable body of research by
cognitive psychologists on the general topic of analogical reasoning in humans, and
the utilization (and efficacy) of analogy and similarities in the problem-solving
process––including the area of deontic relations such as permission and obligation
(Gentner 2002).
There is at least minimal research to date that supports the thesis that engineering
designers often employ an ‘‘associative system’’ of analogical reasoning in the
problem-solving phase of engineering design:
The associative, similarity-based reasoning system is where problems are
reasoned about through associations or similarities with other known
information (Daugherty and Mentzer 2008).
This similarity-based analogical reasoning system affords individuals ‘‘the ability to
pick out patterns, to identify recurrences of these patterns, despite variations in the
elements that compose them’’ (Holyoak et al. 2001).
Technology educators commonly rely on students’ cognitive facility with
analogical reasoning and their recognition of similarities in helping to clarify
otherwise unfamiliar concepts. Daugherty and Mentzer (2008) cite examples of how
technology instructors can use one model of multimeter to demonstrate basic meter
functions, while expecting students to subsequently apply their knowledge to
various other models of meters. Additionally, instructors may rely on students’
familiarity with automobile traffic on a highway to clarify the basic concept of
current flow in an electric circuit. In such cases, it seems evident that pattern
recognition, or the recognition of similarities between a paradigm case and some of
its related tokens, is a productive and effective means of transferring understanding
from a previous instance to newer, similar instances. Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986)
cited the ability to recognize new situations as similar to remembered situations as a
‘‘distinguishing mark of proficiency’’ in individuals.
Now, while such empirical evidence admittedly does not speak directly to the
specific issue of whether paradigm engineering ethics case studies can and do
facilitate the resolution of similar situations yet to be encountered, it would be
surprising––and even startling––if the human analogical skills that are demonstrably

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so prominent and effective in other areas of cognition, reasoning and problem-


solving were not equally prominent and efficacious in the resolution of professional
ethical dilemmas and conundrums. In the absence of reasons for thinking that
professional ethical deliberations are cognitively unique, and dissimilar from other
categories of human problem-solving, then we must, I believe, conclude that such
deliberations are carried out in much the same fashion (and with much the same
effectiveness) as the human brain utilizes for its other cognitive problem-solving
processes. Indeed, it would be the denial of such an assumption that would stand in
need of justification, empirical or otherwise. I conclude, therefore, that we have
good reason to believe that paradigm case studies can also facilitate (in terms of
both deliberation time required and soundness of reasoning) the resolution of real-
life moral situations in much the same manner, and for much the same reasons, as
the examples and evidence cited above.
It is perhaps worth noting that case studies for engineering ethics need not rely on
real events or situations (although many case studies do); it should be reasonably
clear that a case study could be completely fictional, yet just as instructive and
guiding as a real-life case. For example, the practice routines (katas) that are
performed in the martial arts are, essentially, combinations of fighting moves carried
out against a nonexistent opponent, that are intended to prepare martial arts students
to defend themselves in similar situations against real opponents. Likewise, fictional
videos are commonly used in the training of police officers to prepare them to
decide, under stressful and time-constrained conditions, whether and when to use
their firearms in similar real-life situations. In both of these cases, it is clear that the
fictitious status of the training in question in no way diminishes the value of the
training itself (and is in fact actually preferable by virtue of its greater safety than
training under real-life circumstances).
Thus, the primary goal of engineering ethics courses, or so I would maintain, is to
expose technical students to as many paradigm engineering ethics case studies as
possible, in hopes of inspiring and developing in them the philosophical and
rhetorical skills requisite to intelligently and thoughtfully resolve such similar real-
life ethical dilemmas as they might encounter in the course of their professional
careers.
This is not at all to say, of course, that students should not be exposed to the
professional engineering codes, along with discussions, debate, and guided
interpretation of the specific meanings of such codes. Nor is it implied by our
thesis that case studies can somehow be discussed and analyzed in conceptual
isolation from underlying moral theories; for without appeals to such underlying
moral theories, there could be no grounds for deciding why a particular ethical
action in a case study was right or wrong in the first place. It is granted that exposure
to the engineering codes is an important part of someone’s discovering and
interpreting exactly what is expected of the engineer as a professional, and
discussions of underlying moral theories supplement the requisite analytical tools by
means of which case studies are intelligently and coherently understood as
paradigms for yet to be experienced but possible real-life token situations. Such
topics are decidedly critical components of the more basic process of resolving
professional ethical issues by the use of pattern recognition and analogical thinking.

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But it is the case studies themselves, I believe, that must take center stage in one’s
introduction to the discipline of engineering ethics.

Criticisms of the Case Study Method

One criticism that has often been lodged against the case study approach is its
vulnerability to subjectivity in the analysis and resolution of analogous cases. And,
although I recognize and grant this potential shortcoming, I would also suggest that
subjectivity––in this negatively connoted sense––reflects a failure of clear thinking
and logical reasoning rather than any specific weakness in the case study method
itself. Subjectivity in deliberation finds no special niche in the case study approach
that could not also pervade any alternative method for resolving normative
dilemmas. On the contrary, the special emphasis on clarity and cogency that
characterizes the case study method––as I have defended it here––is likely to foster
a superior ability to analyze and resolve ethical dilemmas, in contrast with possible
rival pedagogical approaches.
Once we have become trained to recognize the features of a case study that
render it critically analogous to certain other cases, we can––I maintain––more
readily resolve a new, similar situation based on our analysis of its paradigm model.
In this context, one can readily imagine how appeals to, and analyses of, paradigm
cases involving issues such as conflict of interest, divergences between professional
and personal ethics, divided loyalties between employer and client, whistle blowing,
and the like could yield important general principles that one could apply to similar
situations in the future. Furthermore, it seems likely that the more thoroughly
analyzed a paradigm case is, the more sound will be one’s moral judgment in similar
circumstances.
That being said, I do not wish to underestimate the significance of the challenge
involved in attempting to identify and resolve critical similarities and differences
between two ethical scenarios. A determination of how two ethical situations might
be similar or dissimilar is, doubtless, an extremely complex task, involving many
more variables and factors than solving a Karnaugh map or even playing a game of
chess. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suppose that the use of paradigm case
studies, despite any acknowledged shortcomings, still proves more advantageous in
guiding normative actions or resolving ethical dilemmas than moral decisions made
in the absence of such ‘‘guiding models’’.
As a perhaps more serious caveat, however, I hasten to concede that choosing an
optimal presentation format (i.e., the case study method) might be a necessary
condition for good pedagogy regarding engineering ethics, but it is decidedly not a
sufficient condition. Even if it is granted that the case study approach is the most
favorable and efficacious format for teaching engineering ethics, such an approach
could fail miserably in practice if the course instructor lacks either the requisite
insight to identify relevant paradigms and applicable patterns, or the philosophical
tools for clear and rational deliberation, as we have discussed them here.

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Conclusion

Can engineering ethics be taught? As I have attempted to indicate in this paper, my


response to the question is qualified: it all depends on how one defines ‘‘teaching
engineering ethics,’’ and on one’s specific method of delivery. If we understand
‘‘teaching engineering ethics’’ to mean training engineers to be moral individuals, then I
fear that advocates of this endeavor have set for themselves an impossible task. As John
Dewey (1944) rightly observed, ‘‘while we can shut a man up in a penitentiary we
cannot make him penitent.’’ Morality, similarly to penitence, involves intentional
behavioral dispositions that may be encouraged, demanded or even behaviorally
conditioned, but it cannot be ‘‘taught,’’ at least not to adults, in an academic sense.
What we can hope for as educators, I believe, is to encourage cognition and
practice in a form of parity of reasoning through the use of paradigm illustrative
case studies involving various engineering ethics situations. In this light, it ought not
be claimed that we are teaching students to be moral individuals, but rather that we
are sensitizing them to what I have identified as paradigms and ‘‘pattern analogies.’’
So, should engineering ethics be taught? Based on the provisos I have
enumerated and discussed in this paper, I would answer this question with a
qualified ‘‘yes.’’ It is, no doubt, a self-evident truth that we prefer morally ‘‘good’’
engineers to those that are unscrupulous or dishonest. But we cannot wave a magic
wand and make engineering students instantly virtuous, any more than we could do
the same for society at large. In this vein, nor can we teach students to be moral
engineers even after a semester-long ‘‘training session.’’ What we can hope to
instill, at least in our morally open-minded students, is a recognition of how moral
dilemmas tend to cluster into certain types of analogous patterns, and that if we
recognize how to address and resolve paradigm cases within these pattern types, we
stand a much better probability of resolving similar real-life cases with which we
might be personally confronted. We can hope, through the use of case studies and
philosophical problem-solving techniques, to foster in our students the sorts of
conceptual tools needed to analyze––and carefully and intelligently resolve––their
own personal moral dilemmas.
It has been said that if we give a man a fish we feed him for a day, but if we teach
him to fish, we feed him for a lifetime. This adage offers a good deal of insight
toward efforts to teach engineering ethics. If we tell our students what is or is not
good in certain circumstances, then we (at best) educate them about those particular
circumstances. But if we train our students to analyze, to think critically, to soundly
evaluate, and to recognize normative patterns using the case study method, then we
educate them for a lifetime. Idealistic and optimistic educators could scarcely hope
for more––both for ourselves and our students.

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