Virtuous Engineers: Ethical Dimensions of Technical Decisions

Modern approaches to engineering ethics typically involve the systematic application of universal abstract principles, reflecting the culturally dominant paradigm of technical rationality (techne). By contrast, virtue ethics recognizes that sensitivity to context and practical judgment (phronesis) are indispensable in particular concrete situations, and therefore focuses on the person who acts, rather than the action itself. Virtues are identified within a specific social practice in accordance with its proper purpose, its societal role and associated responsibilities, and the internal goods that are unique to it. As a result, ethics is recognized as something integral to engineering, rather than supplemental to it. This is necessary and appropriate, since engineers are often the decision-makers in contexts where the potential beneficiaries and harm-bearers are not the same; even their routine technical choices have ethical ramifications. The reasoning process commonly employed by engineers is similar in structure to that of scientists as articulated by Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of philosophical pragmatism. As a "logic of ingenuity," it requires retroductively creating a diagrammatic model of a problem and its proposed solution, and then deductively working out the consequences, such that this serves as an adequate substitute for inductively evaluating the actual situation, which does not yet exist. As with ethical deliberation more generally, the key to success is having the ability to discern the significant aspects of reality and consistently capture them, before definitively selecting a way forward from among multiple viable options. This requires a carefully cultivated habit of imagining possibilities, assessing alternatives, and selecting one of them to bring about.
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