In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on Engineering Ethics
March 3, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 1

Can Engineering Ethics Be Taught?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Author: Deborah G. Johnson

This article is based on a chapter from my forthcoming book, Engineering Ethics: Contemporary Debates, to be published by Yale University Press.

In 2010, after a two-year inquiry, a judge concluded that Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had acted inappropriately when he accepted large amounts of cash from a German-Canadian arms lobbyist. The judge suggested that all public servants should get ethics training. Peter Worthington (2010), a columnist for the Toronto Sun, responded to this suggestion in the following way:

[A] case can be made that “ethics” are something that you either have, or you don’t have. Or, to put it slightly differently, ethics are a code you subscribe to or choose to ignore for reasons of personal interest.… All the training, teaching, studying, reading, or lectures in “ethics” will not make a person more ethical if he or she does not have these core values to begin with.

Worthington expresses a skepticism that is not uncommon when it comes to teaching ethics to undergraduate engineering students, as a professor of engineering observed (Stephan 2004, p. 5):

Some years ago I argued with a fellow professor about the issue of engineering ethics education at the college level. His point was along the lines of, “Hell, if eighteen-year-old kids don’t know right from wrong by the time we get ’em, they’re not going to learn it from us.”

Despite such skepticism, most undergraduate engineering programs in the United States (and in many other countries) require some type of training in ethics as part of the curriculum. This may be due in part to the fact that ABET requires it for program accreditation.

ABET specifies outcomes that engineering students must achieve by the time they graduate, and one of those outcomes is “an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility” (ABET 2014, p. 3). The agency leaves it up to individual programs to decide how they will achieve this, but during periodic ABET reviews each program is required to demonstrate how it achieves the outcome.

If the skeptics are right, the ABET requirement is a waste of time. The answer to the important question of whether ethics can be taught is far from simple and depends on what is meant by “ethics training” and what is meant by “ethical engineers.” The following discussions illustrate both.

Can Ethics Be Taught?

The question isn’t whether engineers make moral decisions (they do!), but whether and how ethical decision making can be taught. Skepticism about the possibility of teaching ethics takes multiple forms.

Ethics as Inborn Predisposition or Reasoning Skill?

Some skeptics believe that a predisposition to ethical or unethical behavior is inborn, others that such a predisposition is a function of early childhood training. Either way, skeptics tend to think that the predisposition cannot be changed by education or that it can be changed only by powerful experiences. Some think that, regardless of predisposition, an individual’s behavior can be brought in line by threats of punishment for unethical conduct. Implicitly, skeptics seem to believe that ethical behavior is not a matter of reasoning or reflection but something more primitive.

By contrast, the standard approach in ethics education is to focus on ethical reasoning and to try to provide students with information, ideas, and experiences that will develop their ethical reasoning skills. The idea is that improving such skills will inform moral behavior. With the goal of improving moral reasoning, many ethics courses focus on ethical theories such as utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics1 as tools or heuristics for improved ethical reasoning.

Moral Intuitions

The focus on ethical reasoning has been criticized as misconceiving how individuals make moral decisions. Critics claim that ethical decision making is based on moral intuitions, not reasoning. This constitutes another form of skepticism about teaching ethics because if individuals make moral decisions on the basis of intuitions, then teaching them how to reason about ethics may do no, or little, good.

Moral intuitionists (also called social intuitionists because they believe moral intuitions are interpersonal) claim that examination of how people actually make moral decisions reveals that intuitions play a much larger role than previously thought. Indeed, moral intuitionists argue that reasoning comes in only after intuitions, and that it is more like rationalization: used to explain and justify what one’s intuitions tell one to do. Jonathan Haidt (2001, p. 817) put it succinctly:

The central claim of the social intuitionist model is that moral judgment is caused by quick moral intuitions and is followed (when needed) by slow, ex post facto moral reasoning.

Moral intuitionists note that individuals are spontaneously repulsed by certain kinds of behavior. For example, without reasoning, individuals find incest or the torture of children abhorrent, and for some the thought of eating animals is viscerally repugnant.

Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning theorists argue that moral intuitions don’t come out of nowhere; reasoning comes into play as individuals form their moral intuitions through developmental processes that involve reason.

Another argument against moral intuitionism points to evidence of individuals reasoning about difficult situations, such as deciding whether to have an abortion or to join the military during a controversial war (Pizarro and Bloom 2003).

Moreover, there is evidence that reasoning can lead to a change in one’s moral intuitions. For example, through discussion and debate with a friend one might be convinced to become a vegetarian, or one might through reflection decide to refrain from telling jokes that perpetuate racial or gender stereotypes. Critics of moral intuitionism also note that individuals frequently encounter ethical dilemmas for which there are no already formed intuitions.

This is a thorny debate that goes to the heart of what is going on internally when a person makes a moral decision. The debate has deep historical roots in philosophy, going back to Plato. Is reason a slave to the passions? Or are the passions a slave to reason? Much of engineering ethics education tends to hedge this debate by addressing both moral reasoning and moral motivation.

These ideas about how people make moral decisions underlie and influence the most important questions in engineering ethics education: Given the nature of ethics, what can and should be the goals of engineering ethics education? How can they be achieved?

The Goals of Teaching Engineering Ethics

In the burgeoning literature on engineering ethics education (and professional ethics education more broadly) the focus is on what can and should be taught and how best to teach it. The following four goals guide most programs in one way or another:

  • Make students aware of what will be expected of them in their work as engineers.
  • Sensitize students to ethical issues that might arise in their professional practice.
  • Improve students’ overall ethical decision making and judgment.
  • Motivate and even inspire students to behave ethically.

Needless to say, these goals are not mutually exclusive.

Knowledge of Codes of Professional Conduct

Knowledge of the standards and expectations for practicing engineers cannot possibly be inborn, learned in early childhood, or intuitive, but such knowledge is critical to being an ethical engineer.

At a minimum, engineers need to know that there are professional codes of ethics and standards of conduct. If a new engineer doesn’t know what a conflict of interest is or that accepting gifts from contractors may lead to accusations of bribery and corruption, he is much more likely to slip into these forms of unethical behavior.

The challenge is to ensure that students not only are aware of codes of ethics and standards of behavior but know how to interpret and apply them. Some argue that simply knowing what codes of conduct say doesn’t help engineers in real-world situations because the statements in codes must be interpreted in each particular situation (Eriksson et al. 2007).

For example, many engineering codes of ethics specify that engineers should act faithfully on behalf of their clients. Imagine an engineer who discovers a safety problem while working on a client’s building. The safety problem could affect people who work in the building by, say, increasing the risk of exposure to toxins. Suppose the engineer tells her client and the client asks her to keep quiet about the safety issue because the client is planning to sell the building.

Although codes of ethics make it clear that engineers have a responsibility to their clients, they also specify that engineers should “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” In this situation, simply knowing that a code of ethics exists and knowing what it says is not sufficient to help the engineer figure out what to do. Even if she recognized that the safety of the public comes first, it is unclear what action she ought to take. Engineering educators therefore suggest that students be given opportunities and experience in interpreting codes of conduct and applying them to real-world situations. In this hypothetical example, had the engineer engaged in discussion and reflection about the meaning of fidelity to clients during her education, she might more readily come to the conclusion that she should go back to the client and explain why some action should be taken before the client sells the building or at least explain to the client the full consequences of not informing potential buyers about the problem.

Some argue that there is a danger in exposing students to codes of ethics without practice using them or grappling with their interpretation. The fear is that such exposure without practice will lead students to think legalistically. Law and ethics are not the same. Legalistic thinking may suggest that one should simply follow the rules without thinking about dimensions of engineering work that aren’t covered by law.

One answer to those who are skeptical about teaching engineering ethics is, then, that—whatever character student engineers already have—activities that (1) make them aware of codes of ethics and standards of behavior and (2) develop their skill at interpreting and applying the codes and standards increase the likelihood that they will respond more thoughtfully and in a professional manner to difficult situations they encounter in their practice.

Awareness and Ability to Identify Ethical Issues

Engineers can go wrong simply by not recognizing that a situation involves another person’s rights, undermines professional integrity, creates a conflict of interest, or engenders some other form of unethical behavior. Imagine an engineer not realizing that there is anything problematic about reviewing construction plans submitted by a close relative, or failing to see where a romantic relationship at work may lead.

Engineering ethics educators frequently use case studies to raise awareness of ethical issues and sharpen students’ ability to identify ethical issues. Exposure to case studies—whether real incidents or fictitious situations—increases the likelihood that a new engineer will identify an ethical issue quickly or early on before getting into too much trouble. Familiarity with case studies is effective because it draws on a basic human capacity for pattern recognition (Abaté 2011): students ascertain patterns that they can then recognize in their own real-world experiences.

Another approach teaches students moral frameworks and concepts such as integrity, loyalty, respect, and conflict of interest, so that they will be more likely to recognize situations in which these concepts are relevant. For example, when one understands the concept of never treating a person merely as a means, one is more likely to notice when someone is being treated that way. Ethical concepts and theories provide a language and a way of looking at the world that enable individuals to see what they might otherwise not have noticed.

Thus another answer to the skeptics is that, in order for engineers to behave ethically, they have to learn to identify ethical issues and to recognize that circumstances or situations in which they find themselves have ethical dimensions.

Moral Reasoning/Improved Decision Making

The ability to identify ethical issues is critically important, but what happens after one becomes aware of a situation calling for a moral decision? Depending on the situation, deciding whether to take action and what action to take can be enormously challenging. Hence, developing students’ ability to make ethical decisions is a central focus of engineering ethics education.

Engineering ethics educators are often asked to demonstrate that students’ ethical decision-making skills have improved after they have been exposed to a module or taken a course or had a particular experience. The need for evidence has led some social scientists to develop models to assess ethical decision making. James Rest (1986) is one of the most influential scholars in this area. His model suggests that ethical decision making involves four steps:

  1. recognize the moral issue,
  2. make a moral judgment,
  3. resolve to place moral concerns ahead of other concerns, and
  4. act on the moral concerns.

Step 1 was discussed in the previous section, and steps 3 and 4 are treated in the next section. The second step has received the most attention in discussions of engineering ethics education because many believe that moral reasoning and ethical decision making together are a skill that can and should be taught.

Without a doubt, engineers often face situations in which they have to make difficult moral decisions:

  • Should I blow the whistle on my employer?
  • Should I remove myself from this situation because I may be seen as having a conflict of interest even though I do not?
  • Should I let this design proceed to the next level of development even though I know it can’t be made safer?

The standard approach is to give students practice in ethical decision making by engaging them in case or scenario analysis and role playing with opportunities for discussion, feedback, and exposure to alternative perspectives. Students have an opportunity to experience ethical dilemmas and reflect on how to handle them.

Students can learn from reflecting on hypothetical situations calmly, carefully, and with others, before they experience real-world situations when they may be under great pressure and have less opportunity for discussion and reflection. In the classroom students learn, among other things, that the ethical dimensions of a situation can be brought to light through discussion and analysis, and alternative, more strategic responses can be teased out through reflection and discussion.

Ethical decision making is an important part of engineering ethics, and courses that give students the opportunity to consider, reflect upon, discuss, and even debate what to do in tough situations are believed to improve their ethical decision-making skills.


Importantly, being ethical involves more than making decisions. One has to resolve to act on those decisions—and then do so. Engineering ethics education seeks to inspire and motivate students to behave ethically.

Most people have had the experience of being inspired by a passionate speech, charismatic leader, or personal experience that changed the way they think. Engineering ethics educators therefore expose students to stories of engineers who have made great sacrifices to do the right thing, or taken on noble causes, or withstood pressure to engage in wrongdoing.

William LeMessurier is often put forward as this kind of inspiring figure. He was a distinguished structural engineer and a consultant in the development of an innovative building, the Citicorp Headquarters in New York. When he learned, after the building was completed (in 1977), that it did not meet the safety standards for buildings situated as it was, he acted promptly and responsibly (Pritchard 1998, p. 221):

He knew how to correct the problem, but only at the cost of a million dollars and at the risk of his career if he were to tell others about the problem. He promptly notified lawyers, insurers, the chief architect of the building, and Citicorp executives. Corrections were made, all parties were cooperative, and LeMessurier’s career was not adversely affected.

Engineering ethics educators have compiled other stories of heroic and exemplary engineers who are less well known than LeMessurier but equally impressive in the way they risked their own well-being to protect the public or a group of people (e.g., Huff and Barnard 2009; Madhav 2014; Pritchard 1998).

Another strategy to motivate students is to involve them in service projects such as building a much needed sanitation system in a small, poor, rural community. Students see the potential of their work to do good and see engineering as an endeavor that can make the world a better place. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is an organization devoted to providing students with international opportunities of this kind.

Rest’s last two steps—resolve to place moral concerns ahead of other concerns and act—might together be thought of as a form of “moral courage.” Moral courage is the ability to take action for moral reasons despite fear or likelihood of negative personal consequences. Engineers often find themselves in situations in which their work environment makes it difficult for them to express their ethical concerns about safety, negative impacts on vulnerable populations, or the legality of an endeavor. They need moral courage to stand up for and speak out about what they think is the right side of an issue.

For all these reasons inspiring students to want to be ethical engineers is an important part of engineering ethics education.


Can engineering ethics be taught? Skeptics seem to have oversimplistic notions of ethics and of human behavior. To suppose that individuals are born with or learn ethics in their childhood and never learn anything else is to suppose that ethics is simply a matter of learning a few rules and then adhering to them no matter what.

While learning a few basic moral principles early in life is probably a good thing, real-world situations are often complex and require more than simply following rules. For one thing rules need to be interpreted and applied to particular circumstances. For another, real-world situations often involve tradeoffs and prioritizing, and depend on the details of the situation.

Engineering ethics can be understood to involve the following components:

  • knowledge (of codes and standards),
  • skill (the ability to identify ethical issues),
  • reasoning (the ability to make moral decisions), and
  • motivation (the will to take action).

All of these can be taught—and thus so can engineering ethics. This does not mean that engineering ethics education can make so-called “bad” people good or ensure that all engineers will always do the right thing, but it increases the likelihood that engineering students will be better prepared to handle the ethical issues that arise in their professional lives.

Finally, it is important to note that the focus here has been on teaching individual engineers, but engineering ethics is not just a matter of individual behavior. Ethical engineering also requires the creation and maintenance of institutions, organizations, and environments that enable individuals to behave ethically and that promote and facilitate engineering endeavors that are good for humanity.


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Eriksson S, Helgesson G, Höglund AT. 2007. Being, doing, and knowing: Developing ethical competence in health care. Journal of Academic Ethics 5(2–4):207–216.

Haidt J. 2001. The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review 108(4):814–834.

Huff CW, Barnard L. 2009. Good computing: Life stories of moral exemplars in the computing profession. IEEE Technology and Society 28(3):47–54.

Madhav CB. 2014. Phronesis in defence engineering: A case study in the heroic actions of two defence engineers as they navigate their careers. PhD dissertation. Available at

Pizarro DA, Bloom P. 2003. The intelligence of the moral intuitions: A comment on Haidt (2001). Psychological Review 110(1):193–196.

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Worthington P. 2010. Ethics can’t be taught: They are a code you either subscribe to or choose to ignore. Toronto Sun, June 7. Available at


1 Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of choosing an action or policy. Deontology is the study of the nature of duty and obligation. Virtue ethics emphasizes moral character.

About the Author:Deborah G. Johnson is Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics Emeritus, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia.