Ethics and Morals and Olin, oh my!

Let’s all agree on something: none of us want to do bad in the world with our engineering, and it would be nice if something good could come of it. This is not meant to be a politicised statement. Recently there have been conversations about the military’s influence at Olin. That is not the conversation we are having here. This is not an opinion piece. This is about 1) the apparent, measured disconnect between our desire to have discussions and/or education about ethics in engineering and the lack of such discussion in classes and 2) the misunderstanding that good and bad caused by engineering are always easy to intuit.

Survey –
Last week a survey went out about “ethics” and “morality” in engineering at Olin. The survey defined these terms, for ease of communication and consistent interpretation, respectively, as “concern over whether something is wrong” and “concern over the extent to which something generates a net positive effect.” Those two, separate notions are one way to frame this discussion, and how I will be framing it here.
I said, “apparent, measured disconnect between our desire to have discussions about ethics in engineering and the lack of such discussion in classes,” earlier because: 1) only 2 of the 57 (3.5%) respondents checked the box saying that there should be no discussion of ethics/morality in engineering at Olin, and 2) 2/3 of respondents have considered ethics and morals only on some or no projects.
The demographics of respondents featured a slight bias towards first-years and away from sophomores. 1/3 of respondents said they had not participated in a project that was morally fulfilling or meaningful to them. 1/2 of respondents said they never had an ethical question about a class project at Olin.

Why ethics isn’t “common sense”
Yes, some ethical questions are often regarded as more common sense than others. However, there are reasons for the existence of ethics education and discussion, such as 1) without learning about ethics, you may be generally less aware of ethical issues in your engineering projects, 2) there are also complex ethical issues to consider in engineering often, and 3) should you care to attempt to quantify, rather than qualify, well-being or harm resulting from something you engineer, the analytical process, social return on investment (SROI), is not necessarily intuitive; it requires practice, research, and education about the process.

Current state of ethics education at Olin
Currently, there is a 3-college collaboration course called, “Issues in Leadership and Ethics,” taught by the presidents of the BOW schools, however, only 8 Olin students can sign up, they have to be seniors, and… one more catch… it did not run this year. Based on an informal survey of about 30 people conducted by going around the dining hall, it seems that people are, at best, only vaguely aware of its existence, and most do not know it exists.
Prompted, surveyed students mentioned, by percentage, that ethics and morality were discussed in some classes, such as UOCD (39%), ADE (14%), Investigating Normal (11%), E4H, Design Nature, and PoE (5%), and SCOPE and Sustainable Design (3.5%). 21% said these topics were not discussed in any class.

Future state of ethics education at Olin
Respondents, by percentage, said that it would be a good idea to discuss ethics in: OIE (56%), an optional class, open to everyone, taught every year (51%), every class where projects are done (36.8%), a currently required first year class besides OIE (19%), a mandatory class (16%), some other venue (16%), and nowhere (3.5%).
Should we have more conversations? Where? What do you think we should do? How do you think about ethics? If you’re in the dining hall, talk to the people at your table! Talk to your roommate/suitemates! Talk to people on your current project teams at your next meetings! If you’re interested in these discussions, consider joining the ThinkTank (“Meta-discussions about Olin”) or Assumptions (“share thoughts, opinions, and media related to challenging assumptions that we as individuals, communities, cultures, and as a species make about ourselves and the world. it’s quite broad.”) mailing lists.

Quotes from the survey responses
“I don’t see ethicality/morality as being tied to projects [given the aforementioned definitions of these terms]”
“what is the point of this”
“Big problem that I think we should be more prepared to deal with than we are.”
“[This survey] seems kind of biased… Each question is totally priming.”
“Ethics/morality are intricately intertwined with engineering, and yet at Olin, we only seem to discuss them when a passionate individual takes charge.”
“[These discussions] … might not fit in a class structure.”
“It’d be nice to have a form field [in this survey] for us to talk about what we consider morals and ethics to be, and how we think they should be approached in classes in the community.”
“I think most of it is pretty obvious and common sense, like don’t make apps that objectify women or are mean to people”
“From [Olin’s mission statement:] ‘Olin College prepares students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.‘ Definitions of ‘good’ may differ wildly between individuals but we can’t seriously have a mission statement like that without also seriously delving into ethics and morals as an institution.”
“Would love more conversations about white-savior/privilege sorts of shit in ADE for sure though. Buuuut also this is super AHS stuff, so lots of people will just shit on it.”
“It’s very important to keep in mind that everyone’s view on what is ethical is very different, and we should not be trying to influence other people’s belief system because it doesn’t line up with our version of what is ethical. I do however, believe that a class dedicated to teaching you how to maintain the ethics you already have even in the face of outside pressure is important.”
“Not [talked about] enough at Olin, gets laughed at and shrugged off.”
“Frankly, it pisses me off that you want to say that my ethics aren’t good enough.” — ouch! : )

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