Articles  |    |  November 15, 2013

Engineering Ethics: From Preventive Ethics to Aspirational Ethics

Article by Charles E. Harris Jr.
Book chapter in Philosophy and Engineering: Reflections on Practice, Principles and Process.
Edited by Diane P. Michelfelder, et al. Published by Springer.


An important distinction in engineering ethics is between preventive ethics, which consists of guidelines for preventing harm to the public, and aspirational ethics, which consists of guidelines and motivating considerations for using one’s professional expertise to promote human well-being. Preventive ethics is stated in rules and is considered mandatory for all members of a profession. Aspirational ethics allows the professional more discretion in determining what it involves and when and how it is implemented. While preventive ethics must continue to be an important part of professional ethics in engineering, aspirational ethics should be given a more prominent place.

Four types of action falling in the category of aspirational ethics can be distinguished, based on their increasingly direct focus on promoting human well-being.

  • Acts Exhibiting Exemplary Professional Excellence
  • Supererogatory Preventive Acts
  • Good Works
  • Altruistic Engineering Acts

Four virtues can be identified as having special importance in motivating and guiding aspirational ethics:

  • Aspiration to professional excellence
  • Respect for nature
  • Techno-social sensitivity
  • Benevolence