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Authors: Neelke Doorn, Lavinia Marin, Sabine Roeser, Taylor Stone, Janna van Grunsven

That engineering comes with a high burden of moral responsibility may for many people appear as a truism explicitly acknowledged by most professional engineering organizations and engineering curriculum accreditation committees. Translating this burden into educational practices is no simple matter. For over twenty years, the Ethics/Philosophy of Technology Section at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) has been at the forefront of engineering ethics education, offering ethics education to a wide range of engineering and design students. In this presentation, we will provide a retrospective and prospective sketch of our approach to engineering ethics education. 

The approach developed at TU Delft, deeply informed by our research, centers around Responsible Research and Innovation [RRI], Design for Values [DfV] and Risk-ethics. RRI and DfV are premised on the notion that technologies are inherently value-laden, and as such contain the possibility of fostering or hindering moral values. Risk-ethics, furthermore, emphasizes the intrinsically normative nature of the notions risk and safety. Each of these theoretical approaches encourages students to take a proactive attitude with respect to their projects and profession, thinking creatively about – and taking responsibility for – how to both prevent harm and do good via the technologies they help develop. This proactive approach to the engineer and designer’s individual responsibility aligns well with the engineer’s creative problem-solving frame of mind. We consider these approaches the ‘signature’ of ethics education at TU Delft. 

While we have worked with stand-alone ethics courses for more than 20 years, over the last five years we have also started to develop new approaches such as the so-called ethics learning lines at various bachelor programs. One of the main reasons for this transition is that we wanted to do full justice to the idea that ethics is inherent to engineering and thus should initially – at the Bachelor level – be an integral part of the overall engineering education curriculum as opposed to taught in one seemingly isolated stand-alone course. The ethics learning lines aim at fostering basic competencies in engineering ethics. This is done by embedding ethics into the standard curriculum, connecting context-relevant cases with existing courses and cooperating with engineering lecturers in the respective programs. In the master programs, students can deepen their engagement with ethics through thematic stand-alone courses, open to students from any master-level engineering program. This set-up allows students to work together on problems from different angles, in interdisciplinary ways. Examples of these thematic courses are climate ethics, water ethics, ethics of healthcare technologies, etc. 

We are currently also exploring new pedagogical approaches, because traditional teaching and assessment approaches in philosophy seem predominantly focused on language-based skills, and not all engineering students are verbally articulate and might fare better by using other modes of reflection and deliberation. Examples include incorporating art-projects in our education and serious gaming in our educational activities. With these innovations, we hope to continue developing an engineering ethics education that is based on the idea that ethics is not something ‘out there’ but rather a core element of engineering practice.

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