Background Concepts for Teaching Engineering Responsibility for Societal and Environmental Consequences
Engineers affect well-being through technology. Technology effects human beings who are currently living and in close proximity. No one disputes that engineers have an obligation to take those effects into account. But the effects of technology are very often more far reaching than that. Technology can have an impact on future generations (on human beings not yet alive). It can have effects on people in distant or remote countries, on animals or on the environment. Does the engineer's obligation to consider the implications of their work extend to animals, the environment, future persons? The answer to this question depends, in part, on whether we consider animals, ecosystems, and future persons to have moral status or moral standing. Engineers ought to consider the good and harm to all morally significant beings which results from their work. This section offers pedagogical advice for teaching one of the most important questions in ethics: What beings should be given moral consideration? Or what beings have moral standing?
What to Stress:
The question is: What makes a being morally significant? The answer to this question requires coming up with a set of criteria that determines what has inherent value or moral standing. Beings that meet the criteria have moral standing and those that do not meet the criteria do not. When discussing the concept of moral standing, the following should be stressed:
- Not all beings have to be considered as having equal moral standing. For example, many people believe that animals should be accorded some moral standing, but not as much as human beings. One might argue for this claim by stating that human beings meet all the criteria necessary for having moral consideration but animals only meet some of the criteria; hence, animals are less valuable than human beings.
- Many theorists expand moral consideration beyond human beings and animals to include trees, rivers and ecosystems. But there is a difference between according something moral standing in its own right and considering the welfare of a being for prudential reasons. Some environmentalists argue that environmental effects should be considered because a bad environment is bad for people. Here we are thinking of the well being of ecosystems because of its affect on the well being of humans; so in this case, it is human beings who are accorded moral standing and not the ecosystem.
- The question about moral standing is closely related to discussions about rights. This is because beings that have moral standing are often said to have certain rights on the basis of having that standing. For example, it is sometimes claimed that animals have at least partial moral standing and hence, have at least a right to life.
- A distinction should be made between considering what the engineering profession as a whole is obligated to consider and what the student as an engineering professional is comfortable doing. So a student might hold that there is nothing wrong with engineering professionals using their expertise to design deadly weapons, but that personally he/she would not want to use his/her expertise in that way.
- Once we consider what beings have moral standing, we must determine what to do when the well-being of these various beings seems to conflict. For example, human well-being is partially tied to having a healthy economy. Some people argue that too much environmental regulation will have a negative impact on the economy and hence, on the well-being of people. There is, then, a conflict between the well-being of ecosystems or animals and the well-being of human beings-or so it seems.
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Some Criteria for Inclusion in the Moral Community:
The goal of this discussion is to get students to think about what criteria they think a being must have to be considered part of the moral community. It is obvious that adult human beings belong to the moral community. A good place to start a discussion is to ask students what it is about adult human beings that they believe makes them eligible to be included in the moral community. Here are some possible answers and their implications for the inclusion of other beings:
- Reciprocity: Some people believe that ethics is about making choices. Others might characterize ethics as the attempt to set standards to coordinate behavior so that people might live together well. If this is what ethics is, it is fitting that one might argue that the moral community must be comprised of beings that are capable of reciprocity. On this view, only beings that are able to act in a reciprocal matter or who are moral agents can have rights. This means that beings with moral standing must at least be rational and have the capacity for thought and language. Of course, this view would exclude most animals from being included in the moral community. It also excludes plants, trees, and ecosystems, as well as persons not yet alive. This view might also have problems justifying the claim that infants or the mentally ill have rights, since they are (often) not capable of reciprocity. One possible move here is to claim that infants and animals should be respected because doing so is good for adult human beings. However, this is not an argument to include infants and animals in the moral community. Rather, it is an argument that these beings have value solely as a means to an end. (See b above.)
- Subject of a Life: Another reason why we might consider adults as having moral standing or inherent value is that they are subjects of a life. We value the fact that these beings have experiences, hopes and fears. We value the fact that these beings have their own life to live. Tom Regan argues that because many animals are also subjects of a life, they should also be included in the moral community. Of course infants and the mentally ill are also subjects of a life and so could be considered to have moral standing under this criterion. On the other hand, trees and plants are not subjects of a life and so are excluded from being members of the moral community on this view. One problem with rights-based views like this one is that they often do not provide us with a way of mediating between conflicting rights and many people argue that creating such a sliding scale of preferential treatment is impossible. For example, does killing a human being and killing a rabbit have equal moral significance? If not, why not? What should the sliding scale be?
- Sentience: Another basis for moral standing is sentience: the ability to feel and experience pain and pleasure. Often grounded in utilitarianism (the view that actions are right insofar as they bring about they greatest good (happiness) for the greatest amount of people), this view acknowledges all sentient beings have an equal interest in avoiding suffering. Given our obligation to take others' interests into account when making choices, it is wrong to inflict suffering on any sentient beings without sufficient justification. The assumption here is that if a being can feel pain, then it has an interest in avoiding it. Peter Singer explains this view by analogy to discrimination. When we discriminate against a group of persons we give consideration to the interests of one group while ignoring the interests of the discriminated group. Most people believe this is wrong because we recognize an obligation to give equal consideration to equal interests, regardless of the group to which they belong. When we ignore the interests of women simply because they are women, we are sexist. Singer argues that this is no different for species membership; when we ignore the interests of animals simply because they are animals we are speciesists. Of course this view does not extend the moral community far enough to include plants and trees. Membership in the moral community, on this view, depends upon whether the being can feel pain. Furthermore it is often hard to determine whether a particular animal feels pain. While there might be evidence that a cat feels pain when we step on its tail, there are no clear visible signs of pain when we step on a roach. Moreoever, grounding this view in utilitarianism requires that we balance the pain and pleasure a given action has on the various beings likely to be affected. It is, however, hard to quantify pain; especially the pain of animals.
- Life as Sacred: This view seeks to extend the moral community to include all life by pointing to the idea that life (all life) is sacred. On this view, associated with Albert Schweitzer, human beings are seen as part of a natural system and have an obligation to live in harmony with nature. This is not to say that we cannot kill organisms (for good reasons, such as for food). But if we must kill an organism, we should do so with compassion and out of recognition of the inherent value of life. On this view, all living beings (including plants and trees) have inherent value and so are members of the moral community. It may seem that giving rights to trees is an odd idea. But Christopher Stone, in his influential paper, "Should Trees Have Standing," argues that if we give legal rights to entities like corporations, then giving legal rights to natural objects like trees shouldn't seem so odd. One problem with this view is that it seems to let beings into the moral community that intuitively might not seem reasonable. Viruses might be considered living beings. Should they be considered part of the moral community? As with the subjects of a life view, this view requires that we find a way to weigh the value of non-humans relative to humans when conflicts occur.
- The Value of Systems: One way to avoid this last problem of weighing the value of different beings against one another is to adopt a systems view. On this view, value is placed on the ecosystems within which we all live, rather than on any one being or aspect that comprises the system. As Caroline Whitbeck explains, an ecosystem "comprises a group of organisms that interact with each other and with their physical environment in ways that affect the population of those organisms." Systems can be natural or human-made. One example of a system is a car; it is comprised many parts that interact with one another. Removing one part of that system may cause the whole system to break down. The basic idea is that the traditional focus on individuals detracts from the essential fact that the world operates as a system. Advocates of this view suggest that the highest value should be placed on systems, which renders less value to be placed on the individuals that comprise that system. Individuals, then, might have to be sacrificed in order to maintain the system.
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Suggested Assignments or Projects:
Scenarios are good to use as a basis for a preliminary discussion about what beings have moral status. Several cases dealing with environmental and social concerns are listed below in the Web Resources section. Have students read a case and ask them what makes this a moral situation? What are the relevant moral facts? Such discussions can be used to show how complicated real moral situations can be. As the discussion proceeds, you may want to point out the assertions they make concerning the moral status of animals or the larger environment. You might also point out the conflicts between obligations or among rights that many of these scenarios depict. How these conflicts get resolved depends, in part, on how students think about the criteria for moral standing.
Modifications of the Case Based Discussion:
- Have students come up with a list of relevant questions about the scenario and ask them to interview some engineers. See Solving Problems in Science and Engineering Ethics for examples of this type of assignment.
- Have students act out the scenarios; assign each student a part to play and have them engage in a dialogue about the case. See Role Playing in an Engineering Ethics Class for more information about this type of assignment.
- Cutting Roadside Trees: A good place to begin discussion of this case by asking students to put in their own words what the moral problem is; for the way in which a problem is described clearly influences the possible solutions that present themselves. Listen closely to the way students describe the problem, as this will imply certain beliefs or assumptions they have about values and rights. If you read the commentaries of this case, you will see some of these assumptions. John Dilworth characterizes this case as being about the "development of social policy to achieve an acceptable balance between risks and benefits for people." Joseph Ellin writes that this is a problem of "balancing aesthetics and safety, a problem of values to which there's evidently no correct answer." Both commentators seem to imply that trees have value insofar as they bring benefits or happiness to people; not that they have inherent value. You may want to consider how this case looks if we consider trees to have inherent value. How might the problem be described differently if one adopts the systems approach to determining moral status? Does a different description of the problem cause you to think differently about the possible solutions? If you have students interview some engineers regarding this scenario, ask them to consider what assumptions those engineers make about the moral status of those beings involved.
- Exceeding Pollution Limits: This case is especially helpful for enabling students to see the complexity of many moral situations; especially cases that involve conflicts between various obligations/rights. Both commentators on this case refrain from claiming that the fish have any inherent right to life or to live in a clean and appropriate environment. Ask students to identify the rights and obligations they believe are part of this scenario. In this case, one might say that the employee has obligations to the law, to his employer, to the community, to the fish. How might these rights be argued for and weighed against each other?
- Military Projects in the Workplace: This scenario can be used to show students the distinction between obligations of the profession as a whole and what one is willing to do with their engineering talents on a personal level. What criteria might students use to determine their personal comfort level working on such a project? How far should employers go to accommodate the personal values of their employees?
- Active Learning in an Asynchronous Learning Environment: A Classroom Demonstration This exercise, an extension of the case-based discussion, discusses one important societal implication relevant to computer engineering: the easy access people have to websites with content that many people find objectionable. Keith Miller offers an interesting and worthwhile classroom exercise on this topic for a computer engineering course. This project helps students to get clear on their beliefs about Web censorship. The project takes place mostly in cyberspace, and so takes up little class time.
For more advice in using scenarios as a teaching tool, see Teaching Ethics to Scientists and Engineers: Moral Agents and Moral Problems, by Caroline Whitbeck, and Integrating Ethics and Engineering: A Graduate Option in Systems Engineering, Ethics, and Technology Studies, by Michael Gorman, Michael Hertz, Luna Magpili, Mark Mauss and Matthew Mehalik.
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Web Resources and Bibliography
- Ethics and the Environment.
- Stefan Sencerz (Texas A&M- Corpus Christi) offers a brief discussion on arguments for the moral standing of animals and the environment.
- Active Learning in an Asynchronous Learning Environment: A Classroom Demonstration
- One societal implication of the Web is the easy access people have to websites with content that many people find objectionable. Keith Miller offers an interesting and worthwhile classroom exercise on this topic for a computer engineering course. This project helps students to get clear on their beliefs about Web censorship. What would you do if your employer (in this case a University) tells you to block student access to certain websites (in this case, websites advocating terrorism)?
- Three Mile Island: Nuclear Accident
- This part of the site describes, explains and analyzes the accident at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979. What makes the TMI-2 accident such an interesting case study is the series of events which led up to the partial meltdown of the reactor core. It was a combination of human error, insufficient training, bad operating procedures and unforeseen equipment failure that culminated in a nuclear accident that could have easily been prevented.
- Disposing of Toxic Waste
- This case depicts an employee, Bryan, whose boss (Max) just told him to dump half of the used coolant down the drain. Bryan knew the coolant was toxic, and he mentioned this to Max. But Max was not swayed.
- Exceeding Pollution Limits
- In this scenario, Marvin has just prepared a report that indicates that the level of pollution in the plant's water discharges slightly exceeds the legal limitations. However, there is little reason to believe that this excessive amount poses any danger to people in the area; at worst, it will endanger a small number of fish. On the other hand, solving the problem will cost the plant more than $200,000.
- Cutting Roadside Trees
- For each of the past 7 years at least one person has suffered a fatal automobile accident by crashing into trees closely aligned along a 3 mile stretch of Forest Drive. Many other accidents have also occurred, causing serious injuries, wrecked cars, and damaged trees. Some of the trees are quite close to the pavement. Two law suits have been filed against the road commission for not maintaining sufficient road safety along this 3 three mile stretch. Both were dismissed because the drivers were going well in excess of the 45 mph speed limit. The road commission decides to resolve the problem by cutting down the trees. Environmentalists protest.
- Scenario: From Military Projects in the Workplace
- This scenario, by Francisco Juan Donez, depicts a worker of a commercial company who is asked to help design a component for a deadly military weapon. The worker is personally uncomfortable with the societal implications of designing such technology. In this project, Donez asked several engineers to read this scenario and then conducted phone interviews with them to ask their opinion about this scenario.
- Ethics in the Machine: A Student's Guide
- In this project, Eric Gravengaard examines an environmental implication of the engineering process; namely, the hazardous waste that machining can create. Gravengaard created a realistic scenario and then interviewed engineers to obtain their opinions on handling this environmental implication.
- Clean Air Standards and a Government Engineer
- This case, based on a real NSBE case, depicts an engineer who refuses to draw up a permit for a building she believes violates environmental standards. Several days later, she learns that her department issued a permit anyway. There are also links to the original case and BER judgment.
- Suspected Hazardous Waste
- This case, based on a real NSBE case, depicts a supervisor instructing a student engineer to withhold information from a client about the suspected nature of waste on the client's property to protect what the supervisor takes to be the client's interest. There are links to the original case and BER judgment.
Cite this page:
"Background Concepts for Teaching Engineering Responsibility for Societal and Environmental Consequences"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Saturday, May 25, 2013