The importance of meta-ethics in engineering education

Science and Engineering Ethics 10 (2):204-210 (2004)
Abstract
Our shared moral framework is negotiated as part of the social contract. Some elements of that framework are established (tell the truth under oath), but other elements lack an overlapping consensus (just when can an individual lie to protect his or her privacy?). The tidy bits of our accepted moral framework have been codified, becoming the subject of legal rather than ethical consideration. Those elements remaining in the realm of ethics seem fragmented and inconsistent. Yet, our engineering students will need to navigate the broken ground of this complex moral landscape. A minimalist approach would leave our students with formulated dogma—principles of right and wrong such as the National Society for Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics for Engineers—but without any insight into the genesis of these principles. A slightly deeper, micro-ethics approach would teach our students to solve ethical problems by applying heuristics—giving our students a rational process to manipulate ethical dilemmas using the same principles simply referenced a priori by dogma. A macro-ethics approach—helping students to inductively construct a posteriori principles from case studies—goes beyond the simple statement or manipulation of principles, but falls short of linking personal moral principles to the larger, social context. Ultimately, it is this social context that requires both the application of ethical principles, and the negotiation of moral values—from an understanding of meta-ethics.
Keywords engineering ethics  meta-ethics  ethical systems  theoretical ethics  applied ethics
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