Ethical approach to engineering studies

Despite of extensive discussion and strong agreement on the necessity of ethics courses in engineering curricula, practical results remain disappointing.

A fundamental problem of engineering ethics is the lack of ‘macro-technology‘ – or understanding of the future economic, environmental, and societal changes resulting from new technologies. Technology itself grows from grass-root needs (micro-technology) of individual people and institutions wealthy enough to pay the development costs. Their interests and benefits are supported by law allowing limited liability of harmful consequences and intellectual property rights to collect profits from the use and production of their technology.

It does not make sense to say technology is a creation of  ‘mankind’.  Actually, ‘mankind’ manifests itself as a playground of individual actors – people and institutions – with different interests, resources and future visions. Because there is no way to predict the future, the game grows from speculations, marketing efforts and investments in the direction supported by strong actors.

Ethics is a glorious name to the ideal moral rules of the game, but ethical declarations are often just a cover of aggressive business interests.  In any case those creating and using new technologies do not feel themselves responsible for the long term future harmful consequences to other people and environment  caused by  millions of people using this technology.

Only little can be done to control the progress of technology.  It is impossible to foresee the possible catastrophic consequences of some emerging new technology.  When these consequences start becoming visible, there is no international law or court system to stop the progress.

Ethics education should be a central part of all engineering curricula.  The ethics courses should give students effective conceptual tools to understand the  macroscopic human,  societal, and environmental changes caused by the massive and evolving use of technology.