Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Preliminary Conceptual and Philosophical Issues


Taking these to be paradigm instances of profession:

  • Medicine
  • Dentistry
  • Veterinary Medicine
  • Law
  • Architecture
  • Accounting

Five features distinguish what we now call profession from other types of occupations.

  1. “Entrance into a professing typically requires an extensive period of training and this training is of an intellectual character.”
  2. “Professionals’ knowledge and skills are vital to the well-being of the larger society.”
  3. “Professionals usually have a monopoly or near monopoly on the provision of professional services.”
  4. “Professionals often have an unusual degree of autonomy in the work place.”
  5. “Professionals claim to be regulated by ethical standards, usually embodied in a code of ethics.”

The importance of ethics to profession: -

The early meaning of the term profession and its cognates referred to a free act of commitment to a way of life. The earliest meaning of the adjective professed referred to the activity of a person who had taken the monastic vows of a religious order. We might think of a person who had made a public promise to enter a distinct way of life with allegiance to high moral ideas. One ‘professed’ to be a certain type of person and to occupy a special social role, which carried with it stringent moral requirements. By the late seventeenth century, the word had become secularized to refer to anyone who professed to be duly qualified.

So, with regard to engineering, professionalism and ethics:

To think of yourself as a professional is to believe in the importance of your work to society at large, and to be committed to various standards which transcend your relationship with a particular employer or client, to high standards of quality in your work but also to high ethical standards.


Given the importance of engineering in all modern societies, it is reasonable to expect engineers to think of themselves as professionals, and the various professional societies increasingly stress the importance of engineering ethics.

Personal ethics, Common morality and Professional ethics:

  • Common Morality: “The set of moral standards shared by most members of a culture or society.”
  • Personal Ethics: “The set of one’s own ethical commitments.”
  • Professional Ethics: “The set of standards adopted by professionals insofar as they see themselves acting as professionals.”

Obviously these three kinds of standards sometimes conflict. Luckily, very few engineers will have to make truly momentous ethical decisions in the course of their careers, but, as this course will emphasize, more quotidian ethical decisions are called for in all engineer’s careers.

Ethics, Philosophy and Inquiry

Normative ethics, Meta-ethics and applied ethics (medical, business, engineering, legal ethics etc) are all branches of the discipline called ethics, which is in turn a branch of the discipline call philosophy.

“Philosophy” derives from the Greek words for love (philo) and wisdom (sophia). For the ancient Greeks, “philosophy” was love of wisdom. But while this might give us the beginning of an idea of what philosophers do today, we need to get more specific to really understand what modern philosophy is.

[Caveat: not all modern philosophers would agree with the following explanation of philosophy. Interestingly, the nature of philosophy is itself a controversial issue among philosophers.]

Philosophy is an area of inquiry.

Inquiry is an attempt to discover truths about the world.

In this way, philosophy is like the sciences, historical research, investigative journalism and detective work. But philosophy is different than these other areas of inquiry in that most of the truths it attempts to discover are more fundamental (i.e., more general and pervasive) than those pursued by other areas of inquiry. Philosophical questions involve concepts like God, knowledge, truth, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong. So philosophy is inquiry into some of the most important issues that face all human beings.

Philosophy is the area of inquiry that attempts to discover truths involving fundamental concepts, such as the concepts of God, knowledge, truth, reality, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong.

[Important: not all philosophers would agree with this definition of philosophy!]

Some of the central questions of philosophy are:

  • Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Is the existence of evil compatible with the existence of an all-caring, all-knowing, all-powerful God? Is belief in the existence of a personal God compatible with belief in evolution? Is the omniscience (all-knowingness) of God compatible with people’s free will? Do people have free will to begin with?
  • What is a person and what is it about an individual that makes him or her same person over time? Is an embryo a person? If not, at what point in a human’s development does he or she become a person?
  • What is the mind and what is the relationship between the mind and the brain?
  • What is knowledge and do we know anything to begin with? Are there things about the world that humans are inherently incapable of knowing?
  • What is it for an action or behavior to be morally good or bad? What is the morally best way for people to live? Does morality depend on God? Does it depend on society? Is abortion morally permissible? Human cloning? Homosexuality? Are there objective moral facts or is morality simply a matter of opinion?

Those last examples are within the field of ethics:

Ethics is the area of philosophy that attempts to answer questions involving concepts such as right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral etc.

So ethics (like other areas of philosophy) is not a mere attempt to articulate what you believe or feel about a given issue. Because it is an area of philosophy, it is an area of inquiry, which means that it is a search for truth.