Chinese Perspectives: Engineering Ethics

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Chinese Perspectives: ENGINEERING ETHICS

China has age-old traditions both in the practical sciences and technology and in ethics, but few studies link the two areas of endeavor. Traditional studies were limited to morality in the practice of medicine and doctrines that promoted harmony between humans and nature. From 1978, when China opened up to the outside world and began a program of reform, scholars in China started studying engineering ethics in the contemporary sense. In China, however, scholars more often talk of science and technology ethics and seldom use the term engineering ethics. Since 1978 research on ethics in science and technology has made considerable progress, going through three stages of development: the embryonic stage, the development stage, and the stage of a deepening appreciation of the issues involved.

The Embryonic Stage

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) ethics was a prohibited topic. Scholars started writing about ethics only after 1978, when China began liberalizing. First came the translation of such key works as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (in 1979), J. D. Bernal's The Social Function of Science (in 1982), and Donella H. Meadows and colleagues' The Limits to Growth. Such specialized volumes were complemented by more general works such as the reprinting of an important anthology of classic Western texts on ethics (Zhou Fucheng 1964) together with a critical biographical study of Western ethical philosophers (Zhou Fucheng 1987). During this period, Chinese scholars focused on the moral practices of Western scientists, using them in the construction of modern science and technology in China (see Xu Shaojin 1995).

Also about this time scholars began studying ethical issues related to specific technologies. One example is interest in environmental problems and ecological ethics, stimulated by the Carson and Meadows translations. As a forum for issues in the field of medical ethics, such as those involving test-tube babies and organ transplants, two new journals were created during the 1980s: Medicine and Philosophy (on the philosophy of medicine, published by the Chinese Academy of Medicine) and Chinese Medical Ethics (on medical ethics, published by Xinghua University). Relevant monographs include a book on the fundamental principles of medical ethics (Du Zhizheng 1985) that and another on bioethics (Qiu Renzong 1987).

Finally, some general works on ethics in science and technology also appeared: The Ethics of Science and Technology (Xu Shaojin 1989), Essentials of Science and Technology Ethics (Liu Fengrui 1989), and Technological Ethics (Huang and Chen 1989).

The Development Stage

New ethical problems brought about by modern science and technology gave rise to extensive scholarship in China, including frequent academic discussions and numerous publications. Among these was a debate, in the journal Study of the Dialectics of Nature, between two opposite views of the relation between humans and the ecosystem: anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. Many works concerned with environmental ethics appeared, among which were four books titled Ecological Ethics (Liu Xiangrong 1992, Li and Chen 1993, Ye Ping 1994, Yu Mochang 1999). Other books included Environmental Ethics (Li Peichao 1998), and The Progress of Environmental Ethics (Xu Songling 1999).

Issues in biomedical ethics also continued to be pursued. Zheng Zhenlu (1992) sought to unify medical and bioethics. Du Zhizheng (2000) undertook a more detailed criticism of the foundations of medical ethics alone.

The Stage of Deepening Appreciation

The beginning of the twenty-first century saw two notable trends in the area of science and technology ethics: Science and technology philosophers turned their attention toward ethics (for example Liu Dachun 2000, Zhou Changzhong 1999), and ethicists focused on science and technology. These two trends converged to form an intellectual climate in which scholars probed more deeply the theoretical and practical problems of science and technology ethics.

The greater attention that philosophers of science and technology gave to ethics aroused concern among scientists, technologists, and the general public about issues of ethical responsibility. Heated disputes about such basic questions as the ethics of human cloning made the study of science and technology ethics ever more important. The beginning of the century also witnessed an increase in exchanges and cooperation between Chinese and foreign scholars in science and technology ethics, especially in medical ethics and bioethics.

Between 2001 and 2003 many works appeared, including two books on general science and technology ethics (Fu Jing 2002, Li Qingzhen et al. 2003), one on engineering ethics (Xiao Ping 2001), a translation on information technology ethics (Spinello 2003), four books on medical ethics or bioethics (Chen and Qiu 2003, Li and Cai 2003, Li and Liu 2003, Qiu and Zhai 2003), and four works on ecological or environmental ethics (Lei Yi 2001, Fu Hua 2002, He Huaihong 2002a, 2002b).

In conclusion, although engineering ethics as such has not become a major theme in Chinese discussions, questions of the ethics of specific types of engineering—such as practiced in relation to the environment, medicine, or the Internet—have been increasingly discussed. In general engineering is seen as simply one aspect of science and technology, and analyzed accordingly. It is worth noting that Chinese perspectives on many of the issues mentioned here have also been increasingly considered in English-language studies, as is illustrated by Ole Döring (1999), Albert R. Jonsen (2000), and Lester
J. Pourciau (2003).


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics.


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