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Figure 5.2 Adaptation of
Kohlberg's stages of moral
development to the ethical
expectations and growth in the
engineering profession.
From D. A. Vallero, Biomedical Ethics
for Engineers: Ethics and Decision
Making in Biosystem and Biomedical
Engineering , Academic Press, San
Diego, CA, 2007.
Postconventional Level:
Concern for wider society;
Universal ethical principles
Macroethical Concerns:
Future generations
Distant peopled
Contingent impacts (critical paths)
Advancing state-of- the-science
Conventional Level:
Concern about peers;
Concern about community
Mesoethical Concerns:
Company and stockholder interests; other
important stakeholders include customers,
suppliers, and employees
Preconventional Level:
Avoid punishment
Microethical Concerns:
Legal constraints;
Personal ethical considerations
Educational psychologists argue that moral development takes a predictable and
stepwise progression. The development is the result of social interactions over
time. For example, Kohlberg 3 identified six stages in three levels, wherein ev-
ery person must pass through the preceding step before advancing to the next.
Thus, a person first behaves according to authority (stages 1 and 2), then accord-
ing to approval (stages 3 and 4), before finally maturing to the point where
they are genuinely interested in the welfare of others. Our experience has
been gratifying in that most colleagues and engineering students enrolled in
our courses have indicated moral development well within the postconventional
We can apply the Kohlberg model directly to the engineering profession
(see Fig. 5.2). The most basic (bottom tier) actions are preconditional. That is,
engineering decisions are made solely to stay out of trouble. While proscriptions
against unethical behavior at this level are effective, the training, mentorship, and
other opportunities for professional growth push the engineer to higher ethical
expectations. This is the normative aspect of professionalism. In other words, with
experience as guided by observing and emulating ethical role models, the engineer
moves to conventional stages. The engineering practice is the convention, as
articulated in our codes of ethics. This is why it is so important when the
professional code of ethics is revised, such as when the American society of civil
Engineers added a sustainability clause some years ago.
Above the conventional stages, the truly ethical engineer makes decisions based
on the greater good of society, even at personal costs. In fact, the “payoff” for
the engineer in these cases is usually for people he or she will never meet and
may occur in a future that he or she will not share personally. The payoff does
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