Conceptualizing a Theory of Ethical Behavior in Engineering

Abstract

Traditional engineering courses typically approach teaching and problem solving by focusing on the physical dimensions of those problems without consideration of dynamic social and ethical dimensions. As such, projects can fail to consider human rights, community questions and concerns, broader impacts upon society, or otherwise result in inequitable outcomes. And, despite the fact that students in engineering receive training on the Professional Code of Ethics for Engineers, to which they are expected to adhere in practice, many students are unable to recognize and analyze real-life ethical challenges as they arise. Indeed, research has found that students are typically less engaged with ethics—defined as the sensitivity and judgment of microethics and macroethics, sensitivity to diversity, and interest in promoting organizational ethical culture—at the end of their engineering studies than they were at the beginning. As such, many studies have focused on developing and improving the curriculum surrounding ethics through, for instance, exposing students to ethics case studies. However, such ethics courses often present a narrow and simplified view of ethics that students may struggle to integrate with their broader experience as engineers. Thus, there is a critical need to unpack the complexity of ethical behavior amongst engineering students in order to determine how to better foster ethical judgment and behavior. Promoting ethical behavior among engineering students and developing a culture of ethical behavior within institutions have become goals of many engineering programs. Towards this goal, we would like to present an overview of the current scholarship of engineering ethics and propose a theoretical framework of ethical behavior using a review of articles related to engineering ethics from 1997-2020. The review engages in theories across disciplines including philosophy, education, and psychology. In this work-in-progress paper, we present a subset of initial results based on a review of the first 50 articles out of the systematically selected 409 articles from Springer, Engineering Village, and EBSCO-Education Full Text. Preliminary results identify two major kinds of drivers of ethical behavior, namely individual level ethical behavior drivers and institutional drivers. Our preliminary results indicate that a sensitivity to both microethics and macroethics as well as the implicit and explicit understanding of ethics are essential in promoting ethical behavior amongst students. Furthermore, while drivers of ethical behavior at the individual level is important, one should not ignore the roles of the drivers of ethical behavior at the institutional level in promoting a collective ethical culture within organizations. The review also points to a need to focus on increasing students’ macroethical sensitivity to topics such as sustainability and protection of human rights. This research thus addresses the need, driven by existing scholarship, 2 to identify a conceptual framework for explaining how ethical judgment and behavior in engineering can be further promoted.

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Kate Padgett Walsh
Iowa State University

References found in this work

Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education.Erin A. Cech - 2014 - Science, Technology, and Human Values 39 (1):42-72.
Engineering Practice and Engineering Ethics.Ronald Kline & William T. Lynch - 2000 - Science, Technology, and Human Values 25 (2):195-225.
The dilemma of ethics in engineering education.Byron Newberry - 2004 - Science and Engineering Ethics 10 (2):343-351.

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