Engineering ethics for PhD students

The Grand Challenges of the 21st century will fully reflect engineering. Professional engineers need to be well-equipped to recognize and analyze such ethical questions in their daily practice.

Dr. Ir. Behnam Taebi

Course description and sample thinking exercises

The Grand Challenges of the 21st century will fully reflect engineering. The world population is growing yet we continue to pursue higher levels of well-being. The increasing energy demands and the problems resulting from climate change are only two of the many major challenges humanity is facing in the 21st century. Other important challenges include cybersecurity, infrastructure and mobility, the wide use of artificial intelligence and robotics and the provision of clean water. Engineers have an essential role to play in meeting these grand challenges and in shaping our future societies. Whether they recognize it or not, in so doing they will encounter a whole range of ethical choices and dilemmas that they will have to deal with. This certainly applies to various existing technologies and engineering practices, but more and more it applies to new and emerging technologies as well. Professional engineers need to be well-equipped to recognize and analyze such ethical questions in their daily practice.

Course description

In this course, participants will get acquainted with the basic concepts and issues of engineering ethics.
The workshop has two purposes.

  • First, we will focus on the role of the engineer in an organization.The issues that will be discussed include responsibility in an organization, the responsibility of the engineering organizations toward the society (e.g. Corporate Social Responsibility), Codes of Conduct and conflicts of interest.

  • Second, we will focus on the practice of engineering.We aim to create awareness about the ethical dilemmas and problem that will rise in the practice of engineering; unlike the common belief that the engineering is a 'neutral' practice, many ethical choices are made - implicitly or explicitly - in the actual practice of engineering.

Case 1: Normative Ethics exercise - The Nuclear Case

Suppose you are the members of the Dutch Parliament (Lower House). A majority in the Parliament has already chosen to seriously expand nuclear power in the Netherlands and as political decision-makers you are expected to recommend one of the two main fuel cycles for the production of nuclear power. As you will read in the following pages, these fuel cycles seriously differ in terms of their consequences for the people belonging to different generations. The question is now what you would choose based on the provided explanation. In answering this question, you need to at least be aware of the following sub-questions.

  • How did you weight the interest of different generations?
  • Would you consider the (potential) future technological possibilities in your recommendation?
  • Which generation is benefiting most from your recommended fuel cycle?
  • How would you rank environmental, public health, security and economic issues?

The aim of this exercise is to gain an insight into the possibilities and limits of argumentation to reach agreement on ethical problems in technological issues. In principle a thesis should be defended by real enthusiasts. However, as a person who defends a thesis should in principle be aware of the counterarguments, we invite you to exercise with defending an opinion that is not necessarily yours.
“Assuming that nuclear energy is one of the future energy options, the closed fuel cycle should be applied rather than the open fuel cycle in the production of nuclear energy.”
The group will be split up as follows. One group (4-5 people) is formed by the enthusiasts of the thesis; a similar group will be the detractors. We aim at discussing the thesis by exchanging arguments that should be founded by technical information. There is also a group (4-5 people) of arbitrators that keep track of valid argumentation and fallacies. Here follows the set-up of the exercise:

  1. The pro- and con-group both get 5 minutes to explain and argue for their position with respect to the thesis; no interruptions.
  2. In a second round of twice 5 minutes, both parties get the chance to respond to the arguments of the other group; again no interruptions in this round.
  3. The group of arbitrators, who has been silent so far, state their observations. The discussion-parties should take those remarks into consideration in the openfloor discussion.
  4. After a coffee break, in the next round, the floor will be open for discussion. The arbitrators can now point out violations immediately. At this stage (20 minutes) the goal is to achieve agreement. Note that there is no guarantee that agreement about the whole issue will be reached. In case of remaining disagreement, isolate the points of disagreement and try to obtain agreement on your points of disagreement.
  5. The last quarter of will be an evaluation to reflect on the whole discussion and the rules of reasoning and argumentation. If points of disagreement remain (which is usually the case) then try to answer te question whether the remaining disagreement is due to a lack of time or other factors that in principle could be repaired; or whether the disagreement is of a more fundamental nature that might not even be resolved in an ideal situation. You can here also consider how relatively homogeneous your group is. E.g., do you expect the political decision making to substantially differ with your discussion?


Further reading: Taebi, B., & Kloosterman, J. L. (2008). To recycle or not to recycle? An intergenerational approach to nuclear fuel cycles. Science and Engineering Ethics14(2), 177-200.

Reading material

  • Taebi, B. 2017. “Bridging the Gap between Social Acceptance and Ethical Acceptability.” Risk Analysis 37 (10): 1817–27.
  • Van de Poel, I. 2016. “An Ethical Framework for Evaluating Experimental Technology.” Science and Engineering Ethics 22 (3): 667–86.
  • Stilgoe, Jack, Richard Owen, and Phil Macnaghten. 2013. “Developing a Framework for Responsible Innovation.” Research Policy 42 (9): 1568–80.
  • Di Nucci E and F. Santoni de Sio, Drones and Responsibility: Legal, Philosophical and Sociotechnical Perspectives on Remotely Controlled Weapons, Routledge, 2016.

Values at stake in nuclear energy production - Part 1

Lecture given by Prof. Behnam Taebi

Values at stake in nuclear energy production - Part 2

Lecture given by Prof. Behnam Taebi