Religious Studies Faculty Publications

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Teaching Ethics


Imagine a code of ethics that advocated shady business practices and that the organization proposing the code came under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Imagine further, that the investigation came to trial and the stance taken by the organization was found to be illegal by the highest court of the land. Such a scenario, if true, would raise a host of questions about codes of professional ethics, not the least of which would be “What value, if any, do codes of ethics have for the teaching of ethics?”

Sadly, the above scenario is factual. However, I’m not referring to Enron but the National Society of Professional Engineers, and the document in question was its 1974 version of the Code of Ethics for Engineers. My purpose in this paper is to use engineering codes of ethics as a foil for showing that their impotence for coercing moral behavior can lead to a shift in the aspect under which we see the codes.

Consequently, I shall suggest four strategies for improving the way we use the codes to teach professional ethics. Specifically, I urge that codes be considered as covenants (with insiders, rather than as contracts with outsiders), as emblems of social identity (rather than as uniforms), and as proscriptive rather than prescriptive documents. Finally, I will apply to engineering the difference that Alasdair MacIntyre draws between professions and practices in order to make clear that what is missing from contemporary codes of ethics is a spelling out of those conditions under which engineering can flourish as a practice and in flourishing produce something akin to moral experts.

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Society for Ethics across the Curriculum





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