Overview of Ethical Theories

(adapted from Dr. Torey Nalbone’s ENGR 1201
course materials)
Ethical Theories
(Adapted from Charles B. Fledderman, Engineering
Ethics, 2nd Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson
Prentice-Hall, 2004)
are good if they maximize human well-
Focus is the good of society rather than that of
particular individual.
construction of public works
Example: national nuclear-waste repository
of cost-benefit and risk-benefit analysis
Objections to utilitarianism:
the good for the many may be very detrimental
to some individuals
Depends upon knowledge of knowing what actions lead
to the greatest public good, but this often requires
educated guesswork.
Cost-benefit analysis
and costs (of a project, procedure, policy,
actions, etc.) are assessed, and only those projects with
the highest ratio of benefits to cost are implemented.
Assessment of costs may be relatively straightforward,
but assessment of benefits may not, especially when
the benefits come at the expense of something whose
value cannot be quantified.
cellular-telephone towers in scenic areas;
immigration laws; healthcare legislation
consider as well who reaps the benefits and who
pays the costs.
nuclear power plants sending electrical power over
long distances to cities; immigration laws; healthcare
Duty Ethics and Rights Ethics
are good if they respect the rights of the individual.
Benefits to society as a whole are not the only moral consideration.
ethics: advocated by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
actions are those that can be enumerated in a list of duties
that express respect for persons as individuals and as autonomous
moral agents:
Be honest
Do not cause suffering to others
Be fair
ethics: advocated by John Locke (1632-1704)
have fundamental, inherent rights that must be respected.
US Declaration of Independence contains a forthright statement of
rights ethics.
Duty Ethics and Rights Ethics
and rights ethics have difficulties that must be
of one group may conflict with those of another. How
are these to be prioritized?
Application of duty and rights ethics does not always lead to
the good for society as a whole.
decision by US Supreme Court in Kelo vs. New London
Restrictions on indoor smoking
Community restrictions on individuals’ use of their land or
Affordable Care Act
Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005)
involving the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private
owner to another to further economic development.
The case arose from the condemnation by New London, Connecticut, of
privately owned real property so that it could be used as part of a
comprehensive redevelopment plan which promised 3,169 new jobs and
$1.2 million a year in tax revenues.
The Court held in a 5–4 decision that the general benefits a community
enjoyed from economic growth qualified such redevelopment plans as a
permissible "public use" under the Takings Clause of the Fifth
The City eventually did agreed to at least move Kelo's house to a new
location and to pay substantial additional compensation to other
The redeveloper was unable to obtain financing and had to abandon the
redevelopment project, leaving the land as an empty lot. With no tax
revenue for the City.
Virtue Ethics
ethics is concerned with what kind of people we
should be.
Virtue ethics focuses on character:
Virtue Ethics
ethics may not appear at first to be particularly
applicable to business or professional decisions since
they deal with individual character traits.
Persons can be loyal and honest; can these be characteristics
of corporations? Can (or should) businesses and corporations
be moral agents?
have been cases in which persons who exhibited
personal virtue were implicated in evil corporate actions. It
appears that the presence of virtuous persons in an
organization does not guarantee that the actions of that
organization will be ethically defensible.
What theory(ies) should be applied?
a chemical plant near a city
discharging hazardous waste into groundwater.
May be unethical, since this may cause harm to the
community as a whole;
May be be ethical, since the benefits to the community
(employment, retail sales, tax base) outweigh the risks.
and rights ethics:
Unethical, since it is a duty not to harm others and
because others have a right to not be harmed
Unethical, because what kind of a person would knowingly
allow harm to others?
What theory(ies) should be applied?
a national nuclear waste repository
Ethical; the benefits to society of nuclear technology
(nuclear medicine, electrical power from nuclear sources)
justify constructing this repository.
and rights ethics:
Unethical (?); cannot put at risk those who live near routes
where nuclear wastes will be transported.
Must ask - Would I be a moral individual if I allow highlevel nuclear wastes generated for my benefit to be
transported through someone else’s community?
Codes of Ethics for Engineers
Example: NSPE Code of Ethics
Fundamental canons:
That Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional
duties, shall:
1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the
2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
3. Issue public statements only in an objective and
truthful manner.
4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents of
5. Avoid deceptive acts.
6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically,
and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation,
and usefulness of the profession.
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