Ethics are a very important part of engineering. The reason it is so important is because engineers make technology that has never existed before. They push technology to a point that has never been reached in history. Because of these constant unprecedented situations, engineers need to have a solid sense of ethics. They need to have a code of ethics that can guide them through their careers where they may have to make difficult decisions about the technology that they encounter.
In our small group ethics discussion, we studied the Space Shuttle Columbia. We analyzed the ethical dilemma that NASA faced in its development of the Columbia. The reason the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy occurred was because of something called “safety waivers”. Safety waivers are essentially a known safety problem or specification deviation. Some members of our group argued that these risks are just a part of the job. They argued that the astronauts knew what they were getting themselves into. I agreed that there is always some risk involved with something like space travel. However, I didn’t agree that the issue was as simple as that. The study we read discussed a concept about determining the risk of the safety waivers. I think that the threshold for acceptable risk was too low for the Columbia. The article didn’t discuss what NASA could have been done better, but my group decided that there should be more accountability and inspection of the waivers. We thought that multiple people should have to sign off on these exceptions to the rules.
The three Virtues of Ethics that relate most to the Space Shuttle Columbia incident are integrity, charity, and responsibility. Integrity is essentially a moral compass. NASA engineers needed to have integrity because they had to make tough ethical decisions for the safety waivers. Charity played a major part too. The NASA engineers gave their lives for the betterment of mankind. NASA as a whole gives a lot to the world. Finally, the responsibility that the engineers at NASA have is very large. Each and every engineer that worked on the shuttle had the responsibility of making sure their components were well tested and safe. If something was wrong then they were responsible for communicating their concerns up the chain. The other virtues aren’t necessarily irrelevant; these virtues were just the most relevant. As far as I could tell, there weren’t issues pertaining to fidelity or self-discipline in the case study. Realistically, though, all of the virtues probably came in to play in the events that we discussed. One additional virtue that might have been relevant to this case study may have been prudence. It’s defined as being thoughtful of the future. This would be important because NASA does things every day that will affect the future.
In situations where I have to make an ethical decision, there are a few different things I take in to account. To start, I try to consider any and all factors that might affect the outcome of the situation. This is important because one small thing can affect the outcome in a very large. This was the case in the study we discussed at our small group meeting. One small defect in the shuttle caused a devastating tragedy. I also consider who the decision affects, specifically who it benefits as well as affects negatively. This point of view is helpful because I’m no longer taking into account just the performance or cost benefits, but also the affects it might have on others. Another thing I do when making ethical decisions is identify whether it is an issue purely of good versus evil or rather a more difficult issue of the lesser of two evils. The latter could be a much more difficult decision to make and therefore could require more research and thought.