1 An Ethics Primer

Key Themes & Ideas

  • Ethics and ethical decision making involve reasoning about values and principles
  • Engineering & Design Ethics and Technology Ethics are two closely related sub-fields of ethics
  • We should understand technology as encompassing any human designed tool or technique used to change or interact with the world

1. What is Ethics?

The most important thing is not life, but the good life – Plato (Crito 48b)

Watch the following two short (~5 minute) videos to get a sense of what ethics and ethical decision-making involves. You will also be introduced to a few key ethical concepts that will be explored in more detail later in this book. Give particular focus to the concepts of valuesprinciples, and purpose as well as the 4 key drivers of moral decision-making.

  1. What is Ethics?
  2. Ethical Decision Making

2. Engineering & Technology Ethics

Ethics, in general, is the study of how we ought to live. But this book is not about ethics in general. Rather, it focuses on two related subfields of ethics:

  • Engineering & Design Ethics: A subfield of professional ethics that focuses on the ethical conditions of successful engineering and design. Focuses on the purpose of engineering and design as well as the values and principles that should guide engineering and design.
  • Technology Ethics: A field of ethics focused on the ethical investigation of technology and its effects on society. Focuses on the purpose of technology in society as well as the values and principles that should guide the introduction and use of technology in society.

Put another way, Engineering & Design Ethics focuses on the question “how ought we act as professional engineers and how ought we design technology?” while Technology Ethics focuses on the question “how ought we integrate technology into society?” While these questions certainly do not exhaust the field of ethics, they are becoming increasingly central to the basic ethical question of how we ought to live for the following sorts of reasons:

  • Technology is increasingly the medium through which we act with & toward others
  • Technology increasingly shapes the social, political, economic, biological, psychological, & environmental conditions in which humans strive to flourish
  • Technology makes us more powerful as a species but more vulnerable and interdependent as individuals
  • Technological design and implementation decisions are concentrated in the hands of an increasingly elite few who do not embody the interests/needs/values of all
  • Technology in our global economy manifests an impersonal drive to efficiency, optimization, measurement, control, & other machine values, often at the expense of humane values such as justice, compassion, nobility, freedom, and leadership
  • Technological choices now have existential implications for future generations, for the survival/flourishing of humanity & others with whom we share the planet
  • For humanity to have a future worth wanting, the growing power of technology must be matched by growth in human wisdom & responsibility; our efforts must be rebalanced to fuel the latter kind of growth that is presently in neglect

For our purposes, the term technology refers to any human designed tool or technique through which humans change, transform, use, or engage with the environment. In a later chapter we will explore the concept of technology in more detail, but for now the key is to recognize that all fields of engineering are united in their creation of technology. This is in contrast to the narrow use of the term to refer specifically to electronic tools like computers (which we may group under something like “digital technologies”).

In the chapters that follow we will explore theoretical, conceptual, and practical issues in engineering and technology ethics. Throughout that process, our central aim will be to develop the skills and tools necessary to be an ethical engineer and technological designer as well as a more informed citizen, capable of engaging in social debates about technology and its place in society.

Check Your Understanding

After successfully completing this chapter, you should be able to answer all the following questions:

  • What is ethics? What question does it aim to help us answer?
  • What are values? How do they relate and differ from principles? And what role do both values and principles play in ethical decision-making?
  • What are the 4 key drivers of ethical decision-making?
  • What is engineering ethics about? How does it relate to technology ethics? What are some of the key questions each of these fields focuses on?
  • What is technology?


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The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.