Just Add Ethics

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the topics that comes up in my piece on why programmers shouldn’t be called “engineers” without an explicit commitment to the public interest: the accreditation of engineering degrees.

In the U.S., engineering accreditation is managed by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET. There’s a lot of angst these days about the necessity of bureaucratic assessment apparatuses in higher education, but accreditation is a good thing—especially for engineering.

That doesn’t mean that it is perfect, though.

ABET-accredited, four-year engineering degrees don’t offer some magical solution to the problems of long-term thinking in the culture and business of technology. For example, ABET also requires engineering ethics training in the programs it accredits. In some cases, such requirements are seen as nuisances, distractions that take time away from technical education. And given the rapid change in technical professions along with the overall increase in administrivia in the university, it’s understandable that educators feel overwhelmed. Unfortunately, as a result, ethics education is sometimes given short shrift. As a result, engineering education sometimes sends the message that matters of ethics is just an afterthought.

And with consequences, too. A philosopher friend of mine was once involved in a robotics research project. The researchers met to plan the work. Bob was in charge of the computer vision, Susan was on hydraulics, etc. Then the project leader looked at my friend. “And Doug. You’re doing the ethics.” As if ethics is like a subsystem you can just plug in to machinery.

Actually, there’s reason to believe that a single, disconnected course in ethics might make things worse. A 2013 study by the Rice University sociologist Erin Cech (who also holds an electrical engineering degree) suggested that engineering education might actually undermine students’ concerns with public policy and social issues. When ethics is considered a kind of add-on, a polish to apply to an already completed project, then it can’t really be considered ethics.