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Christelle Didier, University of Lille, France
A few years after I had given up engineering education to embrace social work and education, a question made me become a researcher « Why are there code of ethics written by engineers for engineers in the USA and not in France?». This first question, that I asked as a Master degree student in education led me to three paths. Along the first, I went from: “How did the first codes of ethics came to exist in the USA?”, to “How is the engineering profession organised there?”, “How is it organised in my country?” and “Why did finally the French engineers decide to publish a code?”. This part of the journey made me understand that the way engineers put words on their care for ethics is deeply context-dependent. The second path started with: “How can I find traces of an engineering ethics in a country where there are no codes of ethics for engineers?”. Studying the activities of an engineers’ trade union and an engineering students association dedicated to international solidarity (Engineering without Borders) I found out a lot of signs of ethics, but no codes and almost never the world “ethics”. Along the third path, despite the absence among engineers of an explicit ethical discourse and of a feeling of belonging to a “profession”, I found out through survey that French engineers were the carriers of common values, like ecoskepticism.
In the next step of my journey, I looked for a means to deal with engineering ethics without the support of the professional paradigm, isolated some specificities of engineering as an activity, identified ethical issues and I found out some aspects worth discussing with practitioners or students. With time, I come to realize that engineers were not only wondering “What should I do?” but also “How to do what I know I should do?” and “How to aware of what I know”. I called “duty of curiosity” the obligation for engineers to worry about the final use of their smart mind’s contribution to their employers’ business. Career choice became a new focus, more than decision making in extraordinary situations and whistleblowing issues. I wondered why some engineers were working, for instance, in small size environmental or social businesses, what had made them leave the mainstream, and got interested in their early and student socialisation.
Following Robert Baum, who wondered about ethics teaching to engineering students selected on their little ability to deal with such questions, I came to question the selection and orientation process. Aware of the deterministic factors that make a white upper-middle class white young male deserve by his personal “merit” (and talent for maths) to become an engineering student, and realizing that so many French engineering students did not really want to become engineers, I became sceptical towards teaching engineering ethics to young people with so little vocation. From “What is engineering ethics?” to “What and how to teach engineering ethics?” I wondered “Why teaching engineering ethics?” and “What is engineering education for?”, reaching then the border of a new continent of questions to explore: “What about the ethics of the engineering education system as a whole?”.