Ethics course explores risk and responsibility in engineering

By Molly Sharlach
January 08, 2019

This article is from the Winter 2019 issue of EQuad News magazine.

The precept session was just getting underway when Jay Benziger started raising questions.

“Should engineers always make a product failure-proof?” (“Impossible,” one student said.)

“Is an engineer who makes a financial tool responsible for an economic collapse?”

“What is the engineer’s responsibility?” asked Benziger, a professor of chemical and biological engineering. That was the central question, one that Benziger would return to repeatedly in his course “Ethics and Technology: Engineering in the Real World.”

In his lab, Benziger delves into chemicals, formulating new processes to make organic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or membranes for fuel cells. Since the 1990s, he has also taught the ethics of engineering to Princeton undergraduates. Unlike the certainty of bench science, questions of ethics often lack precise answers.

“My objective is to make students aware of the ethical impact of technology they may develop. Not that I have any solutions for them, but they need to think about it,” said Benziger.

In partnership with ethics and philosophy scholars, he first developed summer lessons for a National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials. This training evolved into a semester-long course that now includes more than 50 students.

In fall 2018, Benziger co-taught the course with Blake Francis, a postdoctoral research associate in ethics and climate change with the Climate Futures Initiative, an interdisciplinary research program sponsored by the Princeton Environmental Institute and the University Center for Human Values.

“We have a set of tools and a rich history of knowledge on how to deal with the hardest problems that come up for a society,” said Francis. He hopes to show students that “it isn’t the end of the line when you come across a hard decision. That’s actually when the philosophical thinking starts. And we can make a lot of progress in figuring out what we
should do.”

Francis, whose research focuses on questions of national responsibility for the consequences of climate change, introduced new readings on environmental ethics. Other key topics in the course include consumer vehicle safety, planned obsolescence, and unintended consequences of technology. Students discuss issues raised in essays, case studies, and films, such as the documentary “The Day After Trinity,” which portrays the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s regrets about his contributions to developing the atomic bomb.

“Becoming an engineer is a big choice, because they’re not always the ones who get all the credit” for advancements that help society move forward, said Marcus Norkaitis, a junior majoring in chemical and biological engineering. In this course, he said, “I’m enjoying not only learning that it’s the right decision, but also thinking about the potential of that decision.”