Understanding Ethical Problems Term Paper

Pages: 6 (1837 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Business - Ethics

¶ … ethical problems involves the development of moral theories to apply to problems. Specifically for this report, an examination of various moral theories offers insights as to how to approach ethical problems for engineering applications. By understanding basic theory in ethics and morality, the door opens to exploring problem solving from a new angle, through the application of such moral theories. The paper begins with a statement of instructional objectives, followed by a review of Chapter 3 "Understanding Ethical Problems" in 'Engineering Ethics' by C. Fleddermann, 2008, in a section-by-section format. A summary is offered to highlight the main points of this paper and to synthesize the topics.

Instructional Objectives

After reading and summarizing Chapter 3 "Understanding Ethical Problems" the student will:

Discuss the history of ethical thought.

Describe how ethical theory can assist in decision making and problem solving.

List the main moral theories discussed in Chapter 3.

4. Compare at least two of those theories.

5. Analyze one moral theory presented in the book by applying it to an engineering problem.

Summary Review of Chapter Sections

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TOPIC: Term Paper on Understanding Ethical Problems Assignment

The ethics uses in application for engineering are Western in nature. The breadth of ethical theory is broad, and the moral theories presented in the reading are not exhaustive (Kligyte, et al., 2008). Beginning with Judaism, down through the Greeks and unto the present, ethical theory has been explored and applied across a variety of disciplines and issues. Jewish moral tradition arose out of the Old Testament of the Bible and the Torah. The Greeks derived much of their ethical writing from Socrates and Aristotle, chiefly with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. The Jewish and Greek foundations of ethics were adopted by the Christians and spread into the Roman Empire. Distillations of ethical theories over the ages have resulted in distinct theorists writing on moral theories, such as John Stuart Mill, Kant, Locke, and more (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 36).

These theorists presented the issue that moral principles are universal, and can be applied outside of religious settings. Moral principles have also been codified into written law, demonstrating that as regards engineering ethics, one can draw from religion, philosophy, law, and more. Palmer et al. (2007) state that ethics is one aspect of approaching the solution to a problem, and is both a useful and necessary one (Palmer, Smith, Willetts, & Mitchell, 2007). Of note is the issue that ethical conduct is more to do about concern for people, and less to do about religion or law (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 36).

Ethical Theories

Understanding ethical theory and different schools of thought offers an avenue in engineering ethics to draw from a wide variety of perspectives and apply them to solving a problem. Having many theories to draw from enriches the problem solving process, even if the end result from the application of different theories leads to the same answer (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 37). The key is to apply all the different moral theories, analyze them in light of the problem, and choose the best solution (Kligyte, et al., 2008).

Moral Theory

A moral theory defines terms and organizes ideas is a systematic and consistent manner. In engineering, scientific theories are utilized in the same way; they organize ideas, provide terminology to support the problem solving process. The four main theories discussed in Chapter 3 and relating to engineering ethics here are Utilitarianism, Duty Ethics, Rights Ethics, and Virtue Ethics (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 37).


Utilitarianism is a goal-oriented ontology; the ends justifies the means. This theory supports the collectivist approach, where a thing is right and good if it supports the collective good of people and not the individual good. Dams are one example where utilitarian ethics are involved, as the dam provides a drinking source and water supply for many people, yet in doing so may displace people from their homes or destroy the natural beauty of the area to achieve a greater benefit to society. The emphasis on choosing what is right or good hinges on the choice of what provides the greatest good for the greatest number.

Utilitarianism is useful in engineering in cost-benefit analyses and risk assessments, such as deciding on if or where to build a nuclear waste repository, or where to build an airport, for example. While some people again may experience some kind of harm from the building of the waste repository or the building of an airport (being displaced, enduring airport noise, etc.), the harm to the few is insignificant in relation to the benefit to the many (a safe place to store waste, an airport which brings travel, tourism, and business).

John Stuart Mill was a proponent of utilitarian theory. He supported 'act utilitarianism' which focuses on the actions of the individual (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 38). The flip side is rule utilitarianism, which focuses on moral rules. For Mill, breaking a rule is justified if it leads to a greater good (stealing bread to feed a starving family), where in rule utilitarianism, stealing bread to feed a starving family would always be wrong no matter if the family died, since stealing is wrong.

Duty Ethics and Rights Ethics

Both of these theories hold that an action is right or good if it respects the right of the individual (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 40). Immanuel Kant supported duty ethics. In this, a person has 'duties' such as not to harm others, to be honest, to not steal, and any actions that follow are morally correct since the duties are first followed.

John Locke supported rights ethics, which holds that people have inherent rights that others have a duty to respect (right to life, right to freedom, etc.). In duty and rights ethics, if the individual is respected, then the actions that flow from duties and rights beliefs are morally correct if the individual is respected.

Conflicts arise in determining or ascertaining whose rights have more validity in a claim or issue. In the instance of the dam building, does the displaced elderly person with no home to go to have equal rights as the entire society to which the benefits of the dam would flow? For Locke, one's property rights would be enough to stop the dam project, however the benefit to society is lost; hence applying duty or rights ethics in public works projects may necessarily involve a utilitarian application (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 41).

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics are concerned with individual moral goodness. A thing is right or good if it supports good character traits and bad if supports bad character traits (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 42). This moral theory is very personal and may not have much application in engineering ethics. However, it is possible that a project manager may have an internally held set of virtue ethics (do no harm to others) as part of their character makeup, and this may influence the manner in which they proceed on a project. The personal awareness of one's virtue ethics (honesty, trust, respect) are important in understanding how to approach a problem, rather than in the problem solving event itself.

Personal vs. Corporate Morality

This is an area where the ethical implications are less clear and in which questions of legality in defining the rights and duties of corporations come into play. A corporation is often an entity formed for profit and/or some purpose. The degree to which they are held liable and responsible in building projects or other engineering projects the company is often found to not be a moral agent and therefore not subject to moral applications. In engineering ethics, Fleddermann posits that corporations should be held to respect the rights of individuals and to uphold the virtues that people expect from each other (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 43).

Which Theory to Use?

Understanding the bases of the different moral theories provides a menu to the engineer to analyze a problem from different perspectives to see what the best outcome could be. Even though the theories are different, the end result of applying them to a problem may be the same. The usefulness is in seeing how the different theories do indeed apply, and this helps the problem solver understand the different points-of-view that could be taken in selecting or arriving at a solution to a problem (Fleddermann, 2008, p. 43).

Non-Western Ethical Thinking

Culture often plays into the application of ethics, yet ethical standards are the same throughout the world. Regardless of culture, one's personal ethics are not necessarily dictated by where they live on the earth.

Case Studies: Bhopal Disaster and the Aberdeen Three

The Union Carbide plant in India had developed a leak and poisoned the surrounding air of the plant with cyanide gas, killing 2000 people, many of them children. The leak in the tank was attributed to an accidental pouring of water into the tank. One accident, many deaths. The company had reduced plant maintenance and that contributed to the event. The company had also not prepared an emergency plan for such a contingency, though… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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