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Faculty Spotlight: Robert McGinn

The Ethical Engineer: Contemporary Concepts and Cases

Meet Robert McGinn, Professor (Teaching) of MS&E and of Science, Technology, and Society (STS).

McGinn specializes in the field of ethics in engineering, and after nearly 20 years of research recently released his book The Ethical Engineer: Contemporary Concepts and Cases. He reflects below on the book, his research, and the future of ethics in engineering.

How did you become interested in researching ethics in engineering?

From 1997 to 2001, I surveyed Stanford undergraduate engineering majors and practicing engineers about matters of ethics related to engineering. The responses revealed a significant "ethics gap" in contemporary engineering, one that still exists. While most engineering majors expected to encounter, and most practicing engineers did in fact encounter, ethical issues in their careers, few engineering majors and practicing engineers had explored such issues in their engineering education. Given the pressures on engineers from the major impacts and costs of many engineering projects, this gap was disturbing. I've taught E131 ("Ethical Issues in Engineering") for the last 25 years to provide a curricular space in which such issues could be explored by engineering students, to better prepare them for an important challenge they'll likely face in their careers. My research on ethical issues in engineering stemmed from a desire to develop new and interesting case studies as well as foundational ideas for E131, materials that would capture the interest of engineering students and enable them to probe the ethical dimension of such cases in fruitful ways.

What made you want to write The Ethical Engineer?

Having studied how engineering-related ethical issues were treated in the literature, I concluded that there was too much reliance on professional engineering society codes of ethics, too much energy devoted to understanding classical ethical theories, and too little emphasis on acquiring ideas and frameworks with which to unpack and ponder such issues. Most of the case studies used in existing books on ethics in engineering were short on technical detail and/or lacking in probing ethical analysis. Most of the available cases focused on decades-old episodes while few cases had been developed that addressed provocative developments in IT and bioengineering. Half of the cases explored in my book are new, while the rest are explored anew with concepts and frameworks developed in the book. My aim was to produce a work that would augment the intellectual resources available for analyzing and teaching about ethical issues in engineering.

Can you describe your writing process for the book?

I researched, developed, and published the book's new cases over a 15-20 year period, starting around 1995. Development of its foundational ideas and frameworks dates from 2002, when I was invited to lecture on ethics in engineering at the University of Nagoya in Japan. I road-tested the cases I developed in E131 and made presentations on a number of ethical issues they raised at various universities. A first draft of most of the book was written during my sabbatical in 2013. By late 2015, with a revised manuscript in hand, I thought I had essentially finished the book. However, in mid 2016, my editor at Princeton University Press urged me to develop several additional contemporary cases, especially in IT and bioengineering. I did so in late 2016 and early 2017, and polished and edited the entire manuscript in mid 2017.

What is the most pressing ethics issue that you see in the field today?

There are multiple ethics issues that are important in contemporary engineering practice. For example:

  • Is it ethically acceptable for an engineer, at the behest of their employer or client, to create, sign off on, or implement software that they know will covertly violate the privacy of civilians in order to enhance private economic gain?
  • Is it ever ethically acceptable for an engineer to allow political, economic, or marketing factors to play a decisive role in engineering decision-making?
  • Does an engineer-manager have an ethical responsibility to reshape engineering workplaces and their respective cultures so as to foster equality between female and minority engineers and their Caucasian male counterparts?
  • Does a software engineer working on a certain model of car have an ethical responsibility to refuse to design and to not acquiesce in the covert use of a software "defeat device" to enable the car to seem to meet pollution emissions limits?

There are many other contemporary engineering-related ethical issues that I believe are equally pressing, even if some are old ethical wine in new technological bottles.

Besides such fairly specific issues, a case could be made that one of the biggest ethical issues pertinent to contemporary engineering practice is a general, overarching one: Is it ethically responsible for universities, institutes of technology, and professional engineering societies to graduate engineering students and grant young engineers membership and professional licenses to practice without insuring that they have internalized a sound understanding of the fundamental ethical responsibilities of engineers? I don't believe it is.

Do you see the engineering field, broadly, as behaving ethically today? Do you have a vision of where you'd like the field to get to?

I doubt that discussion of whether the engineering field, broadly, is behaving ethically today would be fruitful. Given the tasks set for them by employers and clients, I believe most engineers do their best to fulfill their ethical responsibilities as they perceive them. The trouble is that engineers do not always recognize ethical issues that are present and are not always aware of the specific ethical responsibilities incumbent on them in concrete engineering situations. The situation is compounded by the fact that the social contexts in which contemporary engineers work often contain factors that press them to engage in some kind of problematic conduct. I am thinking of factors like intense inter-firm competition, huge financial stakes, temporal and budgetary pressures, cultural differences, and governmental regulatory requirements. Such factors sometimes induce engineers and/or their engineer-managers to act in ways that are not in accord with their fundamental ethical responsibilities. Familiarity with the fundamental ethical responsibilities of engineers and the ability to see how they apply in concrete situations can provide a counterweight to such pressures.

As to my vision for the field, the first sentence of my book's preface reads, "It is time for study of ethical issues in engineering to become an integral part of engineering education." I believe that every undergraduate engineering student should be required to take a course devoted to exploring ethical issues in engineering. Engineering students who graduate without having explored such issues are likely to adapt to the prevailing cultures of engineering workplaces, which, depending on the integrity values of management, can be problematic. Last year, during the School of Engineering "Futures" planning process, I proposed that our School adopt a requirement that all undergraduate engineering majors take a course on ethics in engineering. Doing so would send a potent and progressive message to other engineering schools. I should add that it would be a mistake of major proportions if, were such a requirement adopted, engineering students had to take an abstract philosophy-department ethics course containing nothing explicitly related to engineering.

What's next in the field of ethics in engineering?

Intellectually speaking, I don't know of any one "next big thing" about to emerge in the ethics in engineering field. The field needs more and better case studies, ones that encompass both technical and social—including political-economic, organizational, and cultural—factors, at both the micro and macro levels. It also needs rich case studies related to controversial developments in bioengineering, artificial intelligence, data science, and other burgeoning engineering areas.

More work is also needed to develop foundational frameworks that can enable engineering students and practicing engineers to recognize, unpack, and think critically about the ethical ramifications of engineering endeavors, both domestically and abroad. More generally, I would like to see the ethics in engineering field help realize the goal of making engineers regard serious upstream consideration of ethical issues as a standard element of responsible engineering practice, just as doctors regard such consideration as a standard element of responsible medical practice.

What's next for you?

After 47 years at Stanford, I am retiring from full-time employment in early January, 2019. I plan to teach E131 once a year as an emeritus professor. I'm still zealous about the subject matter and, happily, there seems to be burgeoning interest in ethics in engineering at Stanford, among both faculty and students.

Beyond Stanford, last fall I was appointed to the Ethics Committee of the new NSF Center for Cellular Construction at UCSF. The heads of the Center are genuinely interested in having their researchers learn about the ethical responsibilities incumbent upon them as they work in this new area. Through interacting with Center members, I've already learned several things that have enriched my understanding ethics in engineering.

On other fronts, I intend to devote more time to my long-standing interests in classical music, opera, and the visual arts, to traveling in western Europe, to becoming a better cook, and to getting involved with efforts to combat the degradation of the built environment.

Any concluding thoughts?

Since 1979, it has been my good fortune to teach and conduct research about ethics in engineering and about technology in society in the Stanford School of Engineering. The School's remarkable students and faculty members make it a wonderful place for someone with my intellectual interests to be located. I have fond memories of a number of outstanding engineering students whom I've had the pleasure to teach and advise over the years, as well as of a number of remarkable MS&E and other SoE colleagues whom I've been lucky to have as colleagues and friends.