Some of you may get the opportunity this term to take a course with Dr. Robert Irish, a professor in the Engineering Communication Program. Last year Dr. Irish was awarded the honour to give a talk on engineering ethics that kicked off the University’s Fred Kan Distinguished Lecture Series. Engineers study ethics because an engineer’s work matters. It can impact people’s lives in substantial ways. A quick review of even the last few years shows us that just as these impacts can bring tremendous benefits, they can also cause harm: Facebook and misinformation, Volkswagon’s emissions scandal, Boeing’s avoidable crashes. Were these cases of ethical failings?
In the midst of social upheaval brought forth by the COVID 19 pandemic it is perhaps more crucial than ever that engineers are diligent about their ethical decision making. But charting the right course through an ethical dilemma is easier said than done. As engineering students will begin this term facing an entirely different learning environment we might reflect on how best to support students in developing the skills and mindset required for complex ethical decisions in a professional context. Dr. Irish proposes that we step back from traditional didactic approaches and do more to empower students to develop these skills themselves.
Though the engineering profession is governed by a Code of Ethics, ethical decision making also involves one’s individual moral perspective. Professor Irish suggests that the personal element in ethics makes an ideal place for students to begin thinking about professional ethics.
In his talk, Professor Irish focused on the concept of “worldview”: “Understanding one’s worldview is a valuable and important exercise and it’s a piece of what allows us to step into the world and behave in a way that is consistent with ourselves, with our personhood. And that is going to be a foundation for ethical behaviour. ”
But how does one go about understanding one’s worldview with the kind of depth and rigour necessary to apply it to ethical dilemmas in the workplace? In Professor Irish’s courses, students work on a series of assignments that facilitate this process. One is a “worldview paper” where students analyze their worldview and how it predisposes them to act in the world. Prof Irish says that this assignment was a success with his students: “A number of students have said to me that that paper represents the most important document they’ve ever written.” An assignment on “positionality,” a similar concept to worldview, has also been met with praise from students. One student reported, “I wanted this position statement to represent how much I have learned about myself when forced to really explore and write it down.”
The second student’s comment gives us a clue as to why these assignments are so important. Self-understanding appears to deepen when we articulate or communicate it. A carefully written position provides a record or an object to reflect on. The act of writing it down tests us to face and formulate our worldview in a way that makes sense and might be defensible.
Ethical dilemmas confronted in the workplace will require discussion, debate, asking questions, listening, and reflecting–in short, critical elements of the communication circuit. Writing and reflecting on some of the principles Dr. Irish discussed will help prepare you for the complex discussions and negotiations that support ethical decision making in industry and large organizations.