Session II: Engineering, Ethics, and Society
The purpose of this session was to explore interfaces between engineering, ethics, and practice in circumstances of conflict, poverty, or emergency:
Do humanities and social sciences disciplines bear on problems for engineers and engineering professions in such circumstances? Has the field of engineering ethics drawn adequately from this scholarship or the real exigencies of engineering practice? Presenters were asked to “examine technical, political, historical, environmental, economic, and cultural constraints that shape outcomes.”
David Crocker, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park, moderated the session. The presenters were Ronald Kline, professor, Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University; Carl Mitcham, professor, Department of Philosophy, Colorado School of Mines; and Wesley Shrum, professor, Department of Sociology, Louisiana State University. Discussants were Priscilla Nelson, provost and vice president for academic affairs, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Donna Riley, professor, Picker Engineering Program, Smith College.
INTEGRATING MACRO-ETHICS AND MICRO-ETHICS
Ron Kline, Cornell University, kicked off the session with a talk on the use of case studies to teach engineering ethics and suggestions for how general social concerns about technology (often called “macroethics”) can be integrated into the agent-centered approach (“microethics”). He noted that the purpose of using case studies is to place students in decision-making roles that resemble those faced on the job.
Case studies can have many different characteristics, he said. They may be historical or hypothetical, provide positive or negative role models, provide a focus on everyday or rare events, or on individual or organizational actions. They may require prospective or retrospective analysis, describe problems of conflicting values or “where to draw the line,” be very sketchy or very intensively described, or focus on an issue of professional conduct or of technology and society. But very often they reduce complexity to an individual choice rather than requiring an analysis of “interactions between individual actions and organizational responsibilities,” including public policy. He noted that in the workplace engineers do the research on a case themselves and write their own case studies, of a sort, in the process of making decisions. Thus he suggested that engineering students might learn more by creating their own case studies as they may have to do eventually in their jobs.
He acknowledged that many case studies could be used to highlight issues of collective responsibility in major social systems, which necessarily include scientific and technological components, such as the classic case of the investigation into the crash of a DC-10 in Paris in 1974. Cases illustrating the involvement of international corporations, unions, airports, and government agencies would lead to more exploring of such issues, but most cases have been boiled down to individual decisions. An integrated approach that includes macro-ethics would also have examined actions of and interactions between engineering professional societies, legislative and executive government agencies, and corporations and unions, including designated engineering representatives nominated by manufacturers and trained by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Dr. Kline suggested that investigations of engineering design cases involving environmental issues naturally include widespread social concerns. He is currently looking into using the Lake Source Cooling Project at Cornell University (an environmentally friendly redesign of Cornell’s chilled water system, eliminating refrigeration and its associated energy use) as a teaching example.
Carl Mitcham, Department of Philosophy, Colorado School of Mines, began by noting that involvement of the humanities and social sciences in engineering ethics and practice has been attenuated, partly, he believes, because those disciplines do not yet have a significant body
of scholarship bridging theories and outcomes from which engineering can draw, though they do have things to contribute. Historically, he said, engineering as a profession has been influenced more by external rather than internal values. In 1828, English railway engineer and writer Thomas Tredgold said, “Engineering is the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” Today, the emphasis has changed from “use and convenience” to “public safety, health, and welfare,” but these are the definitions of non-engineers, he said.
Humanitarian engineering involves critical reflection on public safety, health, and welfare, and so engineering and humanitarianism have parallel histories and parallel interests. Their joint history can be traced back from nursing and the Red Cross in the mid-1800s, to engineering relief work during World War I, the many international institutions during World War II that have since incorporated engineering activities, and individual engineers with distinguished records of humanitarian work. A reflection of this progression is the establishment of Engineers Without Borders in the 1990s. In academia, Dr. Mitcham noted, courses in humanitarian engineering and engineering and sustainable community development were taught on his own campus and elsewhere.
“[T]he current code of professional conduct of most engineering societies emphasizes … public safety, health, and welfare. But what are public safety, health, and welfare? Engineers don’t study that.”
Carl Mitcham, Colorado School of Mines
Dr. Mitcham ended his presentation with challenges to engineers:
Engineering practice makes assumptions about the beneficence of engineering that deserve critical examination—to which the humanitarian movement can contribute.
Engineers can make crucial contributions to humanitarian relief efforts—especially if they are self-critical about what it means to be an engineer.
The humanitarian engineering possibility may be able to help address the pipeline problems.
Humanitarian engineering is simply one of many efforts to broaden and transform engineering.
He ended with a quote from The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century (National Academy of Engineering, 2004)1: “We aspire to a future where engineers are prepared to adapt to changes in global forces and trends and to ethically assist the world in creating a balance in the standards of living for developing and developed countries alike.”
REAL-WORLD ETHICAL DEBATES
Wesley Shrum, Louisiana State University, began by acknowledging that scholars in science and technology studies (STS) have been reluctant to engage in ethical debates except in hypothetical contexts. He paid tribute to the commitment of engineers to examining and analyzing the infrastructure failures during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, even as the rebuilding began. Five major teams, funded by a variety of sources, were actively involved, some collecting data and some reviewing records of the events.
Dr. Shrum himself was a member of a team, but he resigned to pursue his work in sociology from a more neutral position. His research— analyses of interviews with the engineers involved on the panels—is expected to take 10 years. He pointed out that the teams have become mired in controversy and accusations, for instance, of cover-ups or malfeasance; that teams have merged and separated; and that suspicions and tensions, charges and countercharges have arisen. In addition, each group has struggled to agree on what to say, when to say it, and to whom and by whom it should be said. These are the kinds of questions, he said, that STS should be addressing and that STS scholars should assist practitioners to address.
On another level, accusations of malfeasance against one team resulted in the establishment of a committee by the American Society of Civil Engineers to address issues related to the process, funding, communication to the public, and conflicts of interest related to engineering reviews. As secretary of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), Dr. Shrum believes that these issues too should be addressed by STS scholars. For example, 4S should take positions based on the results of research by its scholars on who should be members of technical committees and on when and how and what they should communicate to
the public; 4S should also address conflicts of interest on engineering review committees.
Priscilla Nelson, New Jersey Institute of Technology, drew on her own work in rapid-response engineering and on the development of linkages between the National Science Foundation Directorate for Engineering and the Directorate on Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. She argued that integrating engineering and social sciences is critical to the future of engineering. The profession must have the ethical right to learn from disasters and other rare but anticipated events, she said. With that ability, the engineering profession could move from a data-poor state to a data-rich state. It could plan for postmortems and develop the data resources necessary to validate simulations that are now limited to hypothetical and speculative results that are open to challenge. She argued that case-based learning should be integrated throughout the engineering curriculum to ensure that young engineers are sensitive to the problems entailed in mega-scale projects. She said students should be recruited with the expectation of becoming practitioners of “a profession of integrated solutions.”
Dr. Shrum interjected that risk is central to the future of engineering, which means that the role of insurance and cultural perceptions must also be integrated into engineering education.
The other discussant, Donna Riley of Smith College, addressed essential prerequisites for engineers working toward social justice. As an engineering educator, she said that students would have to let go of their “absolute faith in engineering analysis as objective truth” and pay much more attention to context. In a challenge to the audience, she asked that everyone consider whether sociologist Robert Zussman was correct in his belief that engineers were taught not to question the motives or incentives of others, but to accept them and proceed to calculate the means of achieving them. If this is so, Zussman concluded, engineering is not a profession.
“As educators I think we need to challenge students of engineering ethics at the level of problem definition; we need to challenge them to think critically about engineering as well as at the same time they think critically within engineering.”
Donna Riley, Smith College
Dr. Riley argued that for engineers to be professionals, and to be considered as such, they must exercise individual autonomy and collective responsibility in working for social justice. She acknowledged, however, that exercising that responsibility would be difficult because engineers are not autonomous. Instead, she said, they are in “social captivity” insofar as they work in non-executive capacities for large corporate or government institutions. For the work of engineers to advance social justice, she said, they must be aware of the particular circumstances of each project, including the historical context, negative impacts of globalization, racism, classism, and sexism.
Jonathan Herz, an architect in the U.S. General Services Administration, opened the discussion by restating that engineers have a responsibility for defining problems when environmental or human stakes are high and correcting the negative unintended consequences of past engineering mistakes. Aarne Vesilind, retired professor of civil engineering, Bucknell University, pointed out that “real life” requires engineers to extract significant information from obscure situations. However, he said, engineering students are not accustomed to, and sometimes even resent, being presented with problems that simulate such contexts. Providing information of varying degrees of relevance might improve engineers’ ability to identify or extract important or missing information in engineering analyses.
NAE member Alice Agogino and Dr. Riley then mentioned the role of feminist scholars who have raised questions about traditional power hierarchies, even in classrooms. Engineering students are not taught to consider that who poses a question (usually the more powerful party) may shape that question in a way that predisposes the answer to be most acceptable or helpful to the questioner. Feminist approaches to pedagogy bring these questions out into the open. Even the power of the teacher in the classroom has been questioned from this perspective. Dr. Nelson then suggested that power and setting agendas for engineering research, education, and practice might also be addressed in continuing professional education.
Dr. Shrum’s decision to leave the Katrina study team was questioned by a participant. He responded that his expertise is in documenting the underlying social and organizational conditions of conflicts and their role in engineering ethics, rather than in answering engineering ques-
tions. In addition, he had concluded that his effectiveness depended on his research subjects being confident of his neutrality.
CEES-AG member Caroline Whitbeck, retired professor in ethics, Case Western Reserve University, and founder of the Online Ethics Center, took issue with the argument that engineers are less self-directed than physicians. In response, Dr. Mitcham argued that, although he knew this idea was contentious, he thought everyone would agree that a good deal could be learned from the humanitarian tradition that would improve the engineering profession and engineering ethics.