Engineering: Throwing our ethics into the trash (literally)
Recently, while walking through my engineering building early in the morning, I came across an intriguing sight: someone’s abandoned book entitled Ethics in Engineering resting on the lid of a trash can. Considering how little emphasis the engineering programs at UC Berkeley place on ethics, I found the sight startlingly ironic and grabbed the book.
That’s not to say the campus as a whole neglects ethics training. Scanning through Berkeley’s online course listings, I’m able to find ethics courses in Philosophy, International and Area Studies, Public Policy, Undergraduate Business Administration, Public Health, Anthropology, Journalism, Military Science, Naval Science, Political Science, and Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. But Berkeley’s College of Engineering (COE), which includes 10 departments, 2,870 undergraduate students, and 1,564 graduate students, offers only one course that focuses on the role of ethics in our discipline (“BIOE 100 – Ethics in Science and Engineering”, a requirement for bioengineering undergraduates). Ethics training for engineering graduate students is similarly minimal, coming mainly from online Graduate Student Instructor training or in the required 300-level courses on teaching. In other words: in a modern world rife with complex ethical issues; in an era of stem cells, cloning, and DNA sequencing; in an age of devastating natural disasters and international war – UC Berkeley engineers are barely being provided the most basic tools to be able to address the tough decisions that must be made in the real world. And then we simply throw those tools away.
Thumbing through Ethics in Engineering, written by Mike. W. Martin and Roland Schinzinger back in the 1980s, I came across a chapter titled “Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: The Need for Safe Exits.” One passage stood out to me in particular: “Frequently the supposedly corrective action taken by operators may make matters worse because they do not know what the problem is.” An example given in the book was the alarm-recording printers at Three Mile Island, which fell 2.5 hours behind real-time because the system was overloaded, causing operators to take ill-advised actions on the basis of outdated information. The passage, although it was written decades ago, reminded me of similar issues that arose very recently during the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In Fukushima, to prevent the nuclear rods from overheating when the water-cooling system failed, sea water was airlifted onto the plant, even though (as one of my materials science professors was quick to point out) the highly corrosive salt water was likely to make matters worse if an alternative cooling mechanism could not be established quickly. Both scenarios are examples of engineering and ethical dilemmas, and they show that in emergency situations with lives at stake, drawing from lessons learned from the past is critical to ensure that costly mistakes are not repeated.
Another chapter in the book discusses the Challenger disaster, which also happens to be a favorite topic of Thomas Budinger, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus and co-author of Ethics of Emerging Technologies: Scientific Facts and Moral Challenges, the textbook of choice for BIOE 100. Still more chapters discuss issues like whistleblowing, volunteerism, antidiscrimination laws, safety and risk in design, responsibility, and so on. All of these words of wisdom were sitting on a trash can, waiting to be rescued by a curious passerby or else trucked to a landfill. I found the metaphor uncanny: after all, the College of Engineering’s approach to ethics leaves the lessons of the past vulnerable to being neglected, or worse, forgotten.
UC Berkeley strives to educate future engineers and global leaders. I argue that proper ethical training could not be more relevant to the complex problems that our alums will encounter in their careers. Yet the COE would rather squeeze out ethics training to fit in one more required course on, say, materials processing. It’s a foolish choice that will ultimately have ripple effects throughout our local and global society. We need to do more to educating our students about ethics in engineering. So I say let’s get the books out of the trash can and ethics lessons into the classroom.