ENGRG 3600/STS 3601: Ethical Issues in Engineering Practices

Course Details

  • Spring 2009 Theme: Technology, Energy, Environment
  • Spring 2008 Theme: Knowledge, Technology, Society, Environment
  • Instructor: Park Doing, 396 Rhodes Hall, Cornell University
  • Tuesday, Thursday – 1:25-2:40, Hollister 306

Course Description

There are many calls, from different quarters, for an increased role for ethics in engineering and engineering education.  The first part of this course approaches this topic from the premise that these calls, and previous discussions of ethics in engineering, are based on simplistic models of engineering practice that do not account for how and why particular notions of engineering are promoted and used by engineers and engineering educators. If conceptions of engineering are seen as part of engineering practice, rather than as defining engineering practice, considerations of ethics can be seen in a new light and new kinds of questions arise.  What is the nature and role of ‘engineering judgment’?  How can this aspect of engineering practice be reconciled with the standard instrumental model of testing in engineering?  What does this mean for the concepts of accountability and responsibility in engineering?  What does this mean for considering culture, organization, and division of labor in engineering?  In order to engage this new approach, case studies from day to day engineering and laboratory practice will be considered along with well known episodes in engineering such as the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, Three Mile Island, and the Ford Pinto.  The second part of the course focuses on the consideration and uses of the products of engineering practice.  This part of the course will explore the role of technologies in society and will engage questions regarding gender relations, environmental sustainability, globalization and development, and ownership and privacy.  Is the engineer in a position of more or less responsibility with respect to these issues than the average citizen?  By engaging the complexity of engineering practice and the contingencies involved in the use of technologies, the course points the way to a philosophically grounded, technically adept, and socially aware conception of engineering ethics.

Course Lectures

  • Jan 22: Overview of Course; Introduction
    Questions about the Columbia/Engineering as Social Experiment
  • Jan 24: Why Do Good?  What is Good?

    • “Moral Reasoning,” in Ch. 2, of Mike Martin and Roland Schinzinger, Ethics in Engineering (New York: McGraw-Hill) 1989
  • Jan 29, 31, Feb 5: The Issue of Engineering Practice
    The lecture(s) will introduce the main point of the course that ethical considerations cannot be based on simplistic conceptions of technical practice.  Indeed, simplistic conceptions of technical practice are part of technical practice, they do not define technical practice.  This point about the performative aspect of accounts of technical practice is crucial to a new kind of understanding of ethics in engineering, and will animate the discussions of the readings, lectures, and assignments throughout the course.

    • “The Mystery of Perception and Order”, in Ch.1 of Harry Collins, Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice (London: Sage) 1985
  • Feb 7: No Class.
  • Feb 12, 14: Technical Knowledge All the Way Down
    Using the Space Shuttle Challenger as an in depth example, this section explores the contingency and regress inherent in the practice of testing further.  What is the nature and role of engineering judgment?  How can the contradiction between the standard instrumental model of testing and the accepted need for ‘judgment’ be reconciled?  What does it mean to do engineering?

    • “How Do We Treat Technical Uncertainty in Systems Failure? The Case of the Space Shuttle Challenger,” Trevor Pinch, in T. R. LaPorte, ed., Social Responses to Large Technical Systems (Amsterdam: Kluwar Academic Publishers) 1991
    • “Testing – One, 2, 3… Testing – Toward a Sociology of Testing,” Trevor Pinch, Science, Technology, and Human Values 18(1): 25-41
    • “The Fatal Flaw of Flight 51-L”  Bell and Esch, IEEE Spectrum
    • The Culture of Production,” Diane Vaughan. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA
  • Feb 19:  Paper #1 Draft Due
  • Feb 21: Agents and Agency
    This section addresses the different conceptions of agency at play in analyses of engineering.  Who really does engineering?  What freedom does an individual engineer have?  What kinds of institutions and organizations are involved in engineering?  What power do they have? What is the relationship between individual engineers and the organizations that support and employ them?  Again, a simplistic model of agency is challenged and accounts of engineering agency are seen as performances.

    • “Riding the Action/Structure Pendulum with Those Swinging Sociologists of Science,” Thomas Gieryn, in Sheila Jasanoff, ed., The Outlook for Science and Technology Studies (STS): Report on an STS Symposium and Workshop, Dept. of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University, 1992
    • “The Culture of Production,” in Ch. 6 of Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1996
    • Report on Loss of Shuttle Focuses on NASA Blunders and Issues Somber Warning,”  NY Times. Aug. 27, 2003
  • Feb 26: Paper 1 Due
  • Feb 28, March 4, 6: Labor, Hierarchy, and Knowledge
    This section explores the point that hierarchical issues of authority and control are implicated in conceptions of the nature of technical knowledge production.  Ideas about who can know what and how reinforce ideas about organization and work, about who should be in charge of whom, about who should be accountable to whom and in what manner.  For example, how is the distinction between ‘skill’ and ‘the application of knowledge’ enforced or resisted in technical settings?

    • “Lab Hands and The Scarlet O: The Epistemic Politics of (Scientific) Labor,” Park Doing, Cornell University
    • The Reasoning of the Strongest: The Polemics of Skill and Science in Medical Diagnosis,” Warwick Anderson, Social Studies of Science 22 (4), 1992, 653-684
    • “Scientific Management,” Harry Braverman, Ch. 4 in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century (New York: Monthly Review Press) 1974
    • “Sheepfarming After Chernobyl,” Brian Wynne, Environment
  • March 11:  Paper 2 Draft Due
  • March 13: Paper 2 Due
  • Spring Break
  • ENGRG 360 – Spring 2008, 2nd Half
    This section looks at ethical issues in engineering by exploring philosophical considerations of the agency of technology and the concept of engineering as a social experiment. What is the responsibility of the engineer in society with regard to the technologies that are used?  Environmental Issues will be especially considered.
  • March 24: Technology and Environment – Intro to Philosophy of Technology
    The Case of the Missing Pigeons
  • March 26 : Agency of Technology

    • Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts”
    • Langdon Winner, “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty”
    • Thomas Hughes, “The Evolution of Technological Systems”
  • April 1: Agency of Technology continued, Gender and Technology
    • Richard Sclove, “Spanish Waters, Amish Farming”
    • Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “More Work for Mother”
    • Claude Fischer, “The Telephone Company Discovers Sociability”
  • April 3 – Philosophy of Technology Conclusion
    • Paper 3 Assignment given
  • April 10 – Engineering as Social Experiment – Ford Pinto
    • “Engineering as a Social Experiment,” Martin and Schinzinger
    • “Pinto Madeness,” Mark Dowie, Mother Jones, September/October, 1977
    • “The Ford Pinto Case and the Development of Auto Safety Regulations, 1893-1978,” Matthew T. Lee, Business and Economic History, Winter 1998
    • “Warning an Auto Company about Unsafe Design,” Frank Camps, in Alan F. Westin, ed., Whistle Blowing: Loyalty and Dissent in The Corporation (New York: McGraw-Hill) 1981
  • April 15 – Sustainability
    Engineers for a Sustainable World, A Discussion
  • April 17 – Empire Green Seneca Lake Ethanol Project
    Paper 3 due
  • April 22 – Analyzing Global Climate Change
    Engineering, Energy, Environment, and Social and Economic Justice
  • April 24 – Corporate Responsibility/Enron
    • “The Fifty-Nine Story Circus,” Joe Morgenstern, The New Yorker, May 25, 1995
    • Engineering Real World Play
  • April 29 – Privacy
    Many engineering students use file-sharing programs as students and then sign the rights to any ideas they themselves might generate away to a corporation when they take their first job.  What is the role of ownership and credit with respect to ideas and products in our society?  What should it be?  Recent events have raised the issue of ownership and access to information regarding one’s identity.  What rights do people have to control information about their identities?

    • “How Safe Is Your E-Mail,” Michael Morisy, The Cornell Daily Sun, November 24, 2003
    • “Cornell Computer Worm: Crisis and Aftermath,” Eugene Spafford, ACM, Vol. 32, No. 6, June 1989
    • “Washington State Court: GPS Tracking of Suspects Requires Warrant,” Paul Queary, The Seattle Times, Sept 12, 2003
  • May 1 –    Conclusion
    • Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, “Suggested Guidelines for Use with the Fundamental Canons of Ethics.”
    • ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
    • Presentations of Final Research Papers


In this course you are graded on your grasp of philosophical concepts pertaining to the analysis of engineering ethics.  You will be expected to demonstrate that grasp in several writing assignments in the course analyzing author’s uses of those concepts and also a final research paper in which you analyze a current engineering topic of your choice in terms of engineering ethics.  You will be expected to give a 20 min. presentation of your final paper project to the class in a manner of your choosing.

  • Paper 1 – 20%
  • Paper 2 – 20%
  • Paper 3 – 20%
  • Final Paper Presentation – 5%
  • Final Paper – 30%
  • Participation in discussions and attendance – 5%