Episode 12 — Ethics

What obligations do engineers have to others? Where do the lines of legality, morality, and ethics intersect? Chris and Jeff discuss engineering ethics in this episode.

  • Our guest is Karl Stephan, professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University.
  • Both Chris and Karl have enjoyed the BBQ at The Salt Lick, which Chris claims is the “world’s best.”
  • Karl was first inspired to consider the ethical aspects of engineering by J.P Moreland.
  • A leading voice for engineering ethics is the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
  • Surveys of engineering schools, conducted by Karl a number of years ago, revealed that ethics didn’t receive a lot of emphasis.
  • The subject of ethics concerns one’s professional obligations, a duty to follow codes of behavior that are deemed important for a particular field.
  • Texas A&M has offered a well-regarded engineering ethics course for a number of years.
  • Joseph Herkert, of Arizona State University, divides ethical issues into two categories: microethics and macroethics. Karl has a blog post about this catagorization.
  • Microethics involve local situations and dilemmas, while macroethics consider larger societal implications of technology. Most engineers have to deal with microethic issues.
  • “Hot button” issues for engineering ethics include implanted chips, energy policy, computers and communications, privacy, security, and military technologies.
  • New engineering grads face the ethical choice of selecting a company for whom they are going to work. Money is not the only issue to be considered.
  • Chris recalls a TED talk by Daniel Pink (that has since been animated), identifying that people are most motivated by the opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Daniel Pink’s book on the subject is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
  • A new type of legal entity that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems is called a B Corporation.
  • There are no “rules” for engineering ethics, just guidelines. Even great moral dilemmas, such as whether to go to war, have no rules, but rather a set of considerations related to the morality and justness of the cause.
  • Jeff recalls a recent Radiolab episode that discussed how people have trouble making color distinctions when there is no word available for that range of hues. He speculates that engineers may have trouble distinguishing ethics nuances unless they’ve discussed such issues.
  • As an example of the clarifying power of words, Karl references a book by Yves Simon that highlights the differences between “authority” and “authoritarianism.”
  • Engineering ethics usually only becomes a subject of public discussion when things go wrong.
  • “Near” failures are often a clue of impending “actual” disasters. The Challenger O-ring failure is such an example.
  • Risk assessment is related to the field of engineering ethics.
  • “Causes” of engineering failure may include organizational culture, societal emphasis, and external occurrences, as well as technical decisions.
  • Whistleblowers are almost always fired, and often lose professional contacts.
  • There is no guarantee that a society will continue to produce engineers.
  • The most common personality types for engineers, as determined by a Myers-Briggs test, are ISTJ for students, and INTJ for professors and consulting engineers.
  • Ethical situations don’t frequently arrive with a large warning sign. That’s why it’s important to think about such situations ahead of time, so you know what to do when a crisis arises.
  • Karl’s writings can be found on the Engineering Ethics Blog, and he can be reached by email.
  • More information can be found at the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research, the National Science Foundation’s Ethics Center, the Texas A&M ethics course, and the National Institute for Engineering Ethics.

Thanks to Suzanne Hamilton for the photo of a facepalming statue. Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

4 thoughts on “Episode 12 — Ethics”

  1. This show was totally absorbing, I’m listening to it over again just now.

    I’m a software / hardware engineer (“INTJ” according to the non-scientific online test I just took for fun 🙂 ) and I can definitely relate to the micro vs macro ethical questions mentioned by Mr Stephan in the show today. In particular the social difficulties involved in escalating problems up the corporate hierarchy one step at a time, were very familiar to me, as I often experience such things at work (either personally or as a “third person”).

    I was delighted by the mention of the idea of “thinking without words”, which is something that I often contemplate (generally without using words, or at least ones that are broadcastable on a podcast 🙂 ) after conversing with managers or salespersons. Frequently days go by and then I’ll come up with the PERFECT way to describe a feature or a limitation of a product only to realise that the moment is long-gone and there’s no hope of regaining the initiative.

    Other engineers (also usually “wordless” thinkers) tend to be on the same wavelength and can often just blurt out a salient keyword about some problem and suddenly several the other engineers nearby might immediately recognise the same though process and find the confidence to share their own thoughts on the matter at hand.

    Daily I am frustrated by my own lack of “on the fly” verbal skills which I think is a direct product of my tendency, as an engineer, to think with my brain in a non-verbal capacity first, and then a moment later to attempt to convert the low level into the high level which is more digestible by those who only think in “words”.

    A very enjoyable and cathartic episode. You guys are doing a great job with this podcast, please keep up the good work.


  2. As for the question about having a ethics class at school, no i did not. although it would have certainly been interesting, especially at the start of my education.

    As for a data point i am attending Høyskolen i Bergen, HiB.no.
    and no one here are getting a ethics class as part of your education, which is a shame as nearly all of my friends that had studied other fields like Law and Economics do have at least some classes on ethics.

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