This essay discusses background concepts for teaching engineering responsibility for societal and environmental consequences.
Engineers affect well-being through technology. Technology effects human beings who are currently living and in close proximity. No one disputes that engineers have an obligation to take those effects into account. But the effects of technology are very often more far reaching than that. Technology can have an impact on future generations (on human beings not yet alive). It can have effects on people in distant or remote countries, on animals or on the environment. Does the engineer's obligation to consider the implications of their work extend to animals, the environment, future persons? The answer to this question depends, in part, on whether we consider animals, ecosystems, and future persons to have moral status or moral standing. Engineers ought to consider the good and harm to all morally significant beings which results from their work. This section offers pedagogical advice for teaching one of the most important questions in ethics: What beings should be given moral consideration? Or what beings have moral standing?
The question is: What makes a being morally significant? The answer to this question requires coming up with a set of criteria that determines what has inherent value or moral standing. Beings that meet the criteria have moral standing and those that do not meet the criteria do not. When discussing the concept of moral standing, the following should be stressed:
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The goal of this discussion is to get students to think about what criteria they think a being must have to be considered part of the moral community. It is obvious that adult human beings belong to the moral community. A good place to start a discussion is to ask students what it is about adult human beings that they believe makes them eligible to be included in the moral community. Here are some possible answers and their implications for the inclusion of other beings:
Scenarios are good to use as a basis for a preliminary discussion about what beings have moral status. Several cases dealing with environmental and social concerns are listed below in the Web Resources section. Have students read a case and ask them what makes this a moral situation? What are the relevant moral facts? Such discussions can be used to show how complicated real moral situations can be. As the discussion proceeds, you may want to point out the assertions they make concerning the moral status of animals or the larger environment. You might also point out the conflicts between obligations or among rights that many of these scenarios depict. How these conflicts get resolved depends, in part, on how students think about the criteria for moral standing.
Modifications of the Case Based Discussion:
For more advice in using scenarios as a teaching tool, see Teaching Ethics to Scientists and Engineers: Moral Agents and Moral Problems, by Caroline Whitbeck, and Integrating Ethics and Engineering: A Graduate Option in Systems Engineering, Ethics, and Technology Studies, by Michael Gorman, Michael Hertz, Luna Magpili, Mark Mauss and Matthew Mehalik.