Engineering Design Ethics

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Engineering design ethics concerns issues that arise during the design of technological products, processes, systems, and services. This includes issues such as safety, sustainability, user autonomy, and privacy. Ethical concern with respect to technology has often focused on the user phase. Technologies, however, take their shape during the design phase. The engineering design process thus underlies many ethical issues in technology, even when the ethical challenge occurs in operation and use.

Engineering Design

Engineering design is the process by which certain goals or functions are translated into a blueprint for an artifact, process, system, or service that can fulfill these functions. The function of cutting bread, for example, can be translated into a knife. A car fulfills the function of transportation. Engineering design is different from other forms of design—such as fashion design or the design of policy—in that it results in artifacts and systems grounded in technical knowledge.

The character of the engineering design process has been much debated, but for present purposes it may be described as an iterative process divided into different phases. The following phrases are the simplest and most accepted (Pahl and Beitz 1996):

  • Problem analysis and definition, including the formulation of design requirements and the planning for the design and development of the product, process, system, or service.
  • Conceptual design, including the creation of alternative conceptual solutions to the design problem, and possible reformulation of the problem.
  • Embodiment design, in which a choice is made between different conceptual solutions, and this solution is then worked out in structural terms.
  • Detail design, leading to description that can function as a guide to the production process.

In each phase, engineering design is a systematic process in which use is made of technical and scientific knowledge. This process aims at developing a solution that best meets the design requirements. Nevertheless, the final design solution does not simply follow from the initially formulated function because design problems are usually ill-structured. Nigel Cross (1989) has argued that proposing solutions often helps clarify the design problem, so that any problem formulation turns out to be partly solution-dependent. It is impossible to make a complete or definite list of all possible alternative solutions to a problem. It is also extremely difficult to formulate any criterion or set of criteria with which alternatives can be ordered on a scale from "good" or "satisfactory" to "bad" or "unsatisfactory," even though any given feature of the design may be assessed in terms of some given criterion such as speed or efficiency.

Ethical Issues

Design choices influence how ethical issues are addressed in technology. Because such choices are differentially manifested in the different phases of the design process, ethical issues themselves take on distinctive forms in each case.

PROBLEM FORMULATION. Problem definition is of special importance because it establishes the framework and boundaries within which the design problem is solved. It can make quite a difference—including an ethical difference—from whose point of view a problem is formulated. The problem of designing an Internet search engine looks different from the perspective of a potential user concerned about privacy than from the perspective of a provider concerned about selling banner advertisements. The elderly or physically disabled will have different design requirements than the young or healthy.

An important ethical question in this phase concerns what design requirements to include in the problem definition. Usually design requirements will be based on the intended use of the artifact and on the desires of a client or user. In addition, legal requirements and technical codes and standards play a part. The latter may address, if only implicitly, ethical issues in relation to safety or environmental concerns. Nevertheless, some ethical concerns may not have been adequately translated into design requirements. Engineering codes of ethics, for example, require that engineers hold "paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public," an obligation that should be translated into design requirements.

The idea that morally relevant values should find their way into the design process has led to a number of new design approaches. An example is eco-design or sustainable design, aimed at developing sustainable products (Stitt 1999). Another example is value-sensitive design, an approach in information technology that accounts for values such as human well-being, human dignity, justice, welfare, and human rights throughout the design process (Friedman 1996).

Ethical issues may arise as well during the operationalization of design requirements. Take for example a design criterion such as minimizing global warming potential, which may arise from a moral concern about the greenhouse effect. The global warming potential of substances can be measured on different time scales potentially resulting in different rankings of these substances (Van de Poel 2001). The choice of different time scales is ethically relevant because it relates to the question of how far into the future the current generation's responsibility extends.

CONCEPTUAL DESIGN. Design is a creative process, especially during the conceptual phase. In this phase the designer or design team thinks out potential solutions to a design problem. Although creativity is not a moral virtue in itself, it is nevertheless important for good design, even ethically. Ethical concerns about a technology may on occasion be overcome or diminished by clever design.

One interesting example is the design of a storm surge barrier in the Eastern Scheldt estuary in the Netherlands (Van de Poel and Disco 1996). In the 1950s, the government decided to dam up the Eastern Scheldt for safety reasons after a huge storm had flooded the Netherlands in 1953, killing more than 1,800 people. In the 1970s, the construction plan led to protests because of the ecological value of the Eastern Scheldt estuary, which would be destroyed. Many felt that the ecological value of the estuary should be taken into account. Eventually, a group of engineering students devised a creative solution that would meet both safety and ecological concerns: a storm surge barrier that would be closed only in cases of storm floods. Eventually this solution was accepted as a creative, although more expensive, solution to the original design problem.

EMBODIMENT DESIGN. During embodiment design, one solution concept is selected and worked out. In this phase, important ethical questions pertain to the choice between different alternatives.

One issue is tradeoffs between various ethically relevant design requirements. While some design requirements may be formulated in such terms that they can be clearly met or not —for example, that an electric apparatus should be compatible with 220V—others may be formulated in terms of goals or values that can never be fully met. Safety is a good example. An absolutely safe car does not exist; cars can only be more or less safe. Such criteria as safety almost always conflict with other criteria such as cost, sustainability, and comfort. This raises a question about morally acceptable tradeoffs between these different design criteria. Is there a minimum level of safety each automobile should meet, or is it acceptable to design less safe cars if they are also cheaper?

Formal engineering methods—such as cost-benefit analysis and multiple criteria design analysis—exist to deal with design criteria tradeoffs. The question, however, is whether these methods result in morally acceptable tradeoffs. These methods often treat different design criteria and the moral values on which they are based as if they are commensurable, which may be problematic.

Alternative designs cannot only be compared in terms of the original design criteria, but also in terms of the risks they imply. In engineering, a host of methods exist to assess the risks of new technologies, and increasingly such methods also inform design choices. In general, one may prefer a design with minimal risks, but the acceptability of risks also depends on such issues as their distribution and the degree to which they are accepted voluntarily (Shrader-Frechette 1991). Free and informed consent can be an issue in engineering design, just as in the design of medical research experiments with human subjects.

Whereas an evaluation in terms of risks usually focuses on minimizing potential harm or justly distributing potential harm, other evaluations may focus on the possibility of doing good. An approach that may prove interesting in this respect focuses on the so-called "scripts" of technological artifacts. Authors such as Bruno Latour have used the notion of a script to describe the built-in use and moral presuppositions of an artifact (Latour 1992). The automatic or passive seat belt is a case in point. This artifact contains a script that forces the driver to use the seat belt before the car engine can be started, which raises an interesting ethical question. To what degree is it acceptable to limit user autonomy in order to achieve other moral goods such as safety? It is usually argued that a failure to use a seat belt will impose hardships and costs to others in the event of an accident.

DETAIL DESIGN. During detail design, a design solution is further developed, including the design of a production process. Examples of ethical issues addressed at this phase are related to the choice of materials: Different materials may have different environmental impacts or impose different health risks on workers and users. Choices with respect to maintainability, ability to be recycled, and the disposal of artifacts may have important impacts on the environment, health, or safety. The design of the production process may invoke ethical issues with respect to working conditions or whether or not to produce the design, or parts of it, in low-wage countries.

Design as a Social Process

Engineering design is usually not carried out by a single individual, but by design teams embedded in larger organizations. The design of an airplane includes hundreds of people working for several years. Organizing such design processes raises a number of ethical issues.

One is the allocation of responsibilities. What is the best way to allocate responsibility for safety in the design process? One option would be to make someone in particular responsible. A potential disadvantage of this solution is that others—whose design choices may be highly relevant—do not take safety into account. Another approach might be to make safety a common responsibility, with the danger that no one in particular feels responsible for safety and that safety does not get the concern it deserves.

A second issue is decision-making. During design, many morally relevant tradeoffs have to be made. Sometimes such decisions are made explicitly, but many times they occur implicitly and gradually, evolving from earlier decisions and commitments. Such patterned decision making may lead to negative results that never would have been chosen if the actors were not immersed in the problematic decision-making pattern (Vaughan 1996). This raises ethical issues about how to organize decision making in design because different arrangements for making decisions predispose different outcomes in ethical terms (Devon and van de Poel 2004).

A third issue is what actors to include. Engineering design usually affects many people with interests and moral values other than those of the designers. One way to do right to these interests and values is to give different groups, including users and other stakeholders, a role in the design and development process itself. Different approaches have been proposed to this issue, such as participatory design in information technology development (Schuler and Namioka 1993). Constructive technology assessment likewise aims to include stakeholders in the design and development process in order to improve social learning processes at both the technical and normative levels with respect to new technologies (Schot and Rip 1997).

As the heart of the process of technological development and future use, engineering design must likewise be at the core of ethical reflection on technology. Major ethical issues in engineering design include what requirements, values, and actors to include in the design process and how to trade off different requirements and values. Major issues also arise with respect to organizing the design process in such a way that moral responsibilities are adequately and fairly allocated.


SEE ALSO Design Ethics;Engineering Ethics.


Cross, Nigel. (1989). Engineering Design Methods. Chichester, UK: Wiley. Discusses engineering design in general and the ill-structured nature of design problems.

Devon, Richard, and Ibo van de Poel. (2004). "Design Ethics: The Social Ethics Paradigm." International Journal of Engineering Education. 20(3): 461–469. Discusses ethical issues related to design as a social process.

Friedman, Batya. (1996). "Value-Sensitive Design." Interactions 3: 17–23. An introduction to the value-sensitive design approach in information technology.

Latour, Bruno. (1992). "Where Are the Missing Masses?" In Shaping Technology/Building Society; Studies in Sociotechnical Change, ed. Wiebe Bijker and John Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Introduces the notion of script or built-in morality in artifacts.

Pahl, G., and W. Beitz. (1996). Engineering Design: A Systematic Approach, 2nd edition, trans. K. Wallace, L. Blessing, and F. Bauert. London: Springer-Verlag. A general work on engineering design and the phases of the design process.

Schot, Johan, and Arie Rip. (1997). "The Past and Future of Constructive Technology Assessment." Technological Forecasting and Social Change 54: 251–268. An introduction to the approach of constructive technology assessment.

Schuler, Douglas, and Aki Namioka, eds. (1993). Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin S. (1991). Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations for Populist Reform. Berkeley: University of California Press. Deals with ethical issues with respect to risk assessment and risk acceptance.

Stitt, Fred A., ed. (1999). Ecological Design Handbook: Sustainable Strategies for Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Interior Design, and Planning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Van de Poel, Ibo. (2001). "Investigating Ethical Issues in Engineering Design." Science and Engineering Ethics 7: 429–446. Overview and illustration of main ethical issues in engineering design.

Van de Poel, Ibo, and Cornelis Disco. (1996). "Influencing Technology: Design Worlds and Their Legitimacy." In The Role of Design in the Shaping of Technology, ed. Jacques Perrin and Dominique Vinck. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. On social controversies about engineering designs. Contains the Eastern Scheldt example.

Vaughan, Diane. (1996). The Challenger Launch Decision. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Detailed description of design and research decisions eventually leading to the Challenger disaster.