Any engineering artifact—a bridge, software or something seemingly as simple as an electrical switch—can unintentionally cause harm. So engineering students need to think about the ethical aspects of what they do.
That’s the inspiration of Ethics Within Engineering: An Introduction (Bloomsbury Press), written by Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Wade Robison to help engineering students understand the ramifications of their work.
“I hope the students will come away with a realization they’re engaged in an ethical enterprise as well as a mechanical one,” said Robison, the Ezra A. Hale Professor in Applied Ethics at RIT. “Engineers think of themselves as being in a purely quantitative discipline – they do numbers. My point is that engineering requires enormous imagination, ingenuity and artistic ability in order to solve an engineering problem in a way that’s both elegant and safe.”
Robison taught in an engineering class for several years at RIT and wanted to make sure undergraduate engineering students realized they were engaging in “an ethical enterprise,” not just solving problems.
“What they are doing as engineers is finding out what the problems are and trying to solve them,” he said. “What was interesting to me was there was no part of understanding by the students that they were engaging in an ethical enterprise.”
For example, when something new is designed, that design may influence people to act a certain way with it, whether the design is faulty or something about the design will tell the user to improperly use it, he said.
“Most engineers automatically eschew the decisions that would lead to harmful consequences,” Robison said. “But whatever choice you make when designing something will cause harm or benefits.”
The book features several case studies in which design has resulted in unexpected consequences, including toaster design, the layout of burners and knobs on a stove and software responsible for a plane crash.
Robison said he hopes his book will be adopted in engineering classes as supplemental reading.
Robison has already received numerous positive reviews of his book.
“Unlike many engineering ethics courses and textbooks, Ethics Within Engineering focuses on the internal design choices, the value judgments which form the intellectual and creative soul of engineering,” said Eric Katz, professor of philosophy and Humanities Department chair at New Jersey Institute of Technology. “This book should be required reading for engineering students and instructors alike.”