Professional Engineering Ethics and Christian Values: Overlapping Magisteria

By Ermer, Gayle E. | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Professional Engineering Ethics and Christian Values: Overlapping Magisteria


Ermer, Gayle E., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


Many faith-based colleges and universities with engineering programs find themselves trying to simultaneously satisfy two educational objectives: (1) meeting the requirements of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) to produce graduates who have "an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility" and (2) meeting the goals of their own institution for student spiritual formation and development of Christian moral values. This paper will describe and analyze several approaches to understanding the relationship between these two objectives and the implications of these approaches for engineering education.

It could be argued that the two goals mentioned above are mutually exclusive. Since professional ethical standards arise out of a secular context and by means of purely logical reasoning, they bear no relationship to personal religious commitments. The implication of this view would be that all engineers need to be taught the engineering code of ethics without regard to any commitments they might have to religiously determined moral absolutes. It could also be argued that the two goals mentioned above are one and the same. Each individual appropriates an all-encompassing system of values and this system is operative in all situations, including professional engineering work. The implication of this view would be that engineers do not need to know the engineering code as long as their parents, early school experiences, church, and devotional life had contributed to a strong moral conscience.

This paper will argue that while each of the two areas has its own distinctiveness, each overlaps the other in content and depends on the other for successful ethical decision-making and action. This argument will be based on the Reformed Christian philosophical perspectives expressed by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. The paper will conclude with some practical suggestions for emphasizing the relationship between both domains within the engineering curriculum. A method for integrating engineering ethics into the technical portion of the engineering curriculum within the context of a Christian worldview will also be presented.

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In 2002, I had the good fortune to be accepted into a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored workshop on Ethics Across the Curriculum in engineering and science. In the course of the workshop, I was introduced to several scholars interested in promoting engineering ethics among engineering practitioners and students. Their goals, and the methods promoted to achieve them, struck me as worthy initiatives. I came back to my home institution, Calvin College, and proceeded to implement many of the workshop's recommendations by designing our own Ethics Across the Curriculum program. But a niggling doubt about the effectiveness of this style of professional ethical analysis was generated by a comment made by the workshop instructor while addressing the issue of "freeloaders." The ethical theories and evaluation process discussed in the workshop assumed that professionals would adhere to their codes of ethics because logic dictated it was beneficial to do so (if everyone follows the code, the profession will be better able to achieve its humanitarian goals). But what about people who choose the profession primarily because of its financial or status rewards rather than to achieve the profession's goals? What would be their incentive to follow the rules rather than following their own self-interest? The workshop instructor seemed to indicate that the ethics principles we were discussing were inadequate to deal with someone who was not already willing to make sacrifices for the sake of professional goals (except to the extent that violation of the codes could be made to have serious consequences, which is not the case in engineering). The conversation at the workshop seemed to imply that religious faith or personal virtues were irrelevant to professional ethics.

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