A key scene in The film “Incident at Morales”
shows chemical engineer Fred Martinez sitting with his wife, an
environmental lawyer, on their living-room couch, the hum of a televised
basketball game in the background. Glancing down at a document,
he tells her that the byproducts from a chemical plant he is designing
compose a toxic “stew of nasty stuff.” His employer
is saving money by building the plant across the border in Mexico,
where environmental regulations aren’t as strict.
Should the engineer’s loyalty to his employer take precedence
over the public welfare? Should Martinez take the extra step of
lining the evaporation ponds where the byproduct is discharged?
If so, will he have to cut costs elsewhere? And do a manufacturer’s
obligations to the public stop at national borders?
These are just a few of the questions that “Incident at Morales”
was created to raise in the minds of its intended audience: engineering
undergraduates. Through films such as this and case studies, the
National Institute for Engineering Ethics (NIEE) aims to make students
ponder the moral dilemmas that will confront them in the workplace
as they grapple with matters ranging from quality control and conflicts
of interest to nondisclosure agreements and trade secrets.
Such ethical issues “are just beneath the surface in everyday
practices,” says Michael Loui, professor of electrical and
computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He was one of the executive producers of “Incident at Morales,”
which was commissioned by the NIEE. “In the film, nobody does
anything illegal. But being ethical is not just being compliant
with the law. If you see something unsafe, it’s your responsibility
to do something about it.”
Not immoral but sometimes ‘amoral’
Young engineers don’t always have the tools to appreciate
the ethical responsibilities of their professional lives, says Joe
Herkert, the Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Technology at Arizona
State. “One expression I use is ‘It’s not that
engineers are immoral, but sometimes in their approach they’re
amoral.’ When they enter the workplace, they think those decisions
are left to other people, that they’re just there to do their
Giving students the tools to recognize, understand and reach conclusions
about ethical issues teaches them professional responsibility, says
Loui, who has taught engineering ethics since the mid-’90s.
Put another way, students need to learn ethical competence just
as they need to learn technical competence. Accreditation guidelines
for engineering schools are in concurrence. The Accreditation Board
for Engineering and Technology (ABET) standards require universities
to demonstrate that students have a solid understanding of ethics
in the workplace. To meet this guideline, most professors integrate
the discussion and analysis of case studies into existing required
courses. They employ various sources such as documentary videos,
films like “Apollo 13” or “The Mosquito Coast,”
and websites such as onlineethics.org, the online ethics center
for engineering and science, which describes such disasters as the
Bhopal chemical leak and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
One way to review case studies is to introduce and dissect moral
theories, such as utilitarianism, to see if and how they might apply,
says Herkert. Another approach is to introduce the codes of ethics
of applicable engineering societies. Students then discuss how they
might use these tools in analyzing a case study. But they also discuss
the problems with such tools, adds Herkert, who acknowledges the
debate within the field as to the practicality of moral theories.
Yet, however an engineering course integrates ethics, it has to
include a great deal of discussion “if students are going
to come to grips with this stuff. It takes a lot of thought and
judgment and practice,” he says.
Facing real-life situations
Erica Messenger, a business development manager who took an ethics
class with Loui at Urbana-Champaign several years ago, believes
the examples of real-life case studies helped her when she entered
the corporate workplace. “I am confronted with decision-making
all the time for which I need to understand the implications, the
greater context and the ethics involved,” says Messenger.
“What I learned most in this class was how to write; how to
focus on the what, when, where, how and why; how to be explicit,
and how to provide just enough context.”
If ethical competence is not taught at the college level, engineering
students are placed at a disadvantage when they enter the professional
world, says Christopher N. George, a patent attorney with McAndrews,
Held & Malloy, Ltd. in Chicago, who also took ethics at Urbana-Champaign.
“As engineers gain in responsibility and decision-making,
it is critical for them to weigh ethical concerns along with technical
and budgetary ones. The easy technical answer is not always the
proper ethical one.”
Knowing the right questions
Under the ABET 2000 accreditation guidelines, programs not only
have to show that students are exposed to an ethics education; they
have to do outcome assessments, as well. As part of her graduate
work with Loui a few years back, Golli Hashemian compared feedback
from students who had and had not taken an ethics class at Urbana-Champaign.
“What students gained from ethics education was a greater
sense of comfort and confidence and the ability to assess a situation
to know the right questions and think about situations that may
be ethically questionable in a more objective way,” she says.
According to Hashemian, one of the most noticeable differences between
students who had and had not taken the ethics class was the way
in which they approached the questions. Students who had taken the
class asked more appropriate or relevant questions and took important
details into greater consideration. “[They] were much more
comfortable with the questions and more confident in their responses,”
she observes. “They were less likely to switch back and forth
or second-guess themselves, and they also responded more quickly
In spite of indicators that reveal the value of an ethics education,
few large universities require an ethics course. In an ideal world,
says Herkert, a student would take a dedicated engineering ethics
course and would also be exposed to ethics in a couple of other
courses each year. But even incorporating ethics into the curriculum
across the board creates problems because faculty members feel they
already have insufficient time to reach classroom goals. “We
don’t always have faculty support for it,” Herkert admits.
That’s where Michael Davis, a professor of philosophy and
a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Profession
at Illinois Institute of Technology, comes in. The author of Thinking
Like an Engineer, Davis has given National Science Foundation workshops
at nearly 100 schools, helping professors rewrite technology problems
to contain an ethical angle. It saves time, and “in reality,
it makes the problem more realistic,” says Davis. For instance,
students might be asked to calculate how many BTUs per hour are
necessary to heat a building in Chicago to between 0 and 20 degrees
Fahrenheit. Obviously, the numbers are off—such temperatures
would keep the building well below freezing. Yet Davis finds that
students often work through calculations without thinking about
what the numbers mean. And while this is an extreme example, Davis
says companies often set specifications that fall below standards
engineers could easily meet. “A good part of being a professional
engineer is only solving the right problem,” Davis says. “Just
because you are given a set of calculations, it might be the wrong
problem.” In class, the wrong problem gives professors an
opportunity to remind students that they need to think about the
implications of the numbers.
Having shadowed engineers for years, Davis says he was surprised
to find how much autonomy they enjoy. He recalls meeting an engineer
who had been out of college for five years and was working for Amoco,
where he “had the authority to write checks for $1 million
to replace equipment.” Davis points out that engineers are
in an unusual position. Other professions such as law or medicine
focus on the individual client or patient, but an engineer’s
primary concern is the public’s well-being. Davis believes
most engineering students are morally decent, in part because they
are drawn to a profession that serves the public. It’s a notion
that recalls the protagonist in “Incident at Morales.”
With some encouragement from his wife, Fred Martinez does choose
to serve the public good—he ensures that the evaporation ponds
are lined. But like most ethical issues, the decision isn’t
a simple one. He has to juggle costs elsewhere, using fewer expensive
controls and sensors.
More examples of how to integrate ethics into technology problems
are available at ethics.iit.edu.
Alice Daniel is a freelance writer and instructor in journalism
at California State University, Fresno.