Introduction and Summary

Ethics is widely perceived as something to be pursued separately from engineering itself, commonly manifested as an extra set of rules to follow and a certain group of behaviors to avoid. This mindset is grounded in the culturally dominant paradigm of technical rationality, which effectively treats all knowledge as procedural, stipulating a detailed series of steps to achieve an already specified outcome. However, the formulation of engineering problems and their solutions is inherently indeterminate, routinely involving the selection of a way forward from among multiple options when there is no one "right" answer.

Virtue ethics offers a more suitable approach, because it recognizes that sensitivity to context and practical judgment are indispensable in particular situations and therefore focuses on the person who acts, rather than the action itself. Beneficial character traits emerge within a given practice in light of the ends that are unique to it, resulting in a new framework for implementing ethics in a way that is fully integral to engineering itself. Combining its social aspect, proper purpose, societal role, internal goods, and moral and intellectual virtues yields a concise yet comprehensive description of the vital contribution that engineers make to human flourishing (top right).

Embracing this aspirational vision of what it means for engineers to demonstrate genuine integrity has the potential to improve the collective status of the profession and enable its members to assume a more prominent position of leadership in today's technologically advanced culture. It is still a work in progress, and I invite anyone interested in collaborating with me on refining and implementing it to join the Yahoo! Group, where I intend most of that effort to take place. Issues that need to be addressed include the following:

  • Confirming that the proper purpose of engineering is the material well-being of all people and defining what all this encompasses, or exploring possible alternatives.
  • Clarifying which specific definitions of risk represent what society relies on engineers to assess, manage, and communicate; and which specific definitions of responsibility pertain to them accordingly.
  • Establishing more precisely what it means for an engineer to achieve (or fail to achieve) safety, sustainability, and efficiency; to exhibit (or fail to exhibit) objectivity, care, and honesty; and to exercise (or fail to exercise) practical judgment.
  • Identifying any additional internal goods or virtues that are specific to the practice of engineering, and elaborating on the appropriate role of emotions.
  • Devising viable strategies for reform of engineering education to incorporate these concepts into the typical curriculum.
  • Developing concrete applications within the various disciplines of engineering, as well as in the diversity of industries that employ or retain engineers.
  • Determining whether and how Virtuous Engineers can and should lead and otherwise contribute to initiatives that seek to deal with major ethical and technological challenges, such as poverty and climate change.