Hydraulic Fracturing: The Project

As I have been hinting, I’m currently caught up in a collaborative project on engineering, ethics and policy related to hydraulic fracturing.

The idea for the project began to take shape in conversations I was having with my colleague, Chloé Arson, who is over in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. We were exploring opportunities for new directions in engineering ethics education.

I cannot now say which of them emerged first, but there are twin intuitions at the heart of our discussion:

  1. Most interesting problems in engineering – and for ethics and policy related to engineering – involve not only risk but also uncertainty, because the underlying dynamics of the problem situation are poorly or only partially understood; and
  2. We should aim to prepare engineers-in-training to engage in ethical inquiry and policy inquiry at the same time they are engaging in empirical inquiry and in design.

I joked at the time that the second intuition goes both ways: we need engineers who can think like ethicists and ethicists who can think like engineers. Continue reading

Everyday Things

In my post of Tuesday afternoon, I made brief mention of an exercise in my environmental ethics class involving a pencil:

In my environmental ethics class, I gave each of six groups a single no. 2 pencil – a classic yellow Ticonderoga, as it happens – and asked them first to write down everything they already knew about no. 2 pencils or could find out from physically examining and using the object itself. Then I told them to go to the ‘net to find out what else they could learn.

I should put this exercise in context.

The fearful truth of the matter is that I am inventing the idea for my environmental ethics course as I teach it. Continue reading


Today, for the second time, some officers of the NYPD turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio when he spoke at the funeral of a fallen comrade. They were protesting what they perceived as the Mayor’s failure to support rank-and-file police officers during a turbulent fall.

This strikes me as an especially delicate matter on which to comment, and one that is particularly complex. Was this a rightful protest by people with a legitimate grievance? Did it show disrespect to the fallen? Did it dishonor the uniform? All of the above?

I don’t have any settled view on this, but there’s one aspect of the situation worth paying attention to: it’s as much or more a matter of the relationship among offices as it is a relationship among people. Continue reading

Object Lessons

My post about the cyclotron case – “The Other End of the Beam” – has made me wonder whether I could build a course in practical ethics, or perhaps just the introductory segment of a course, around a single, physical object.

I’d come across a brief account of the idea of an object lesson, which is attributed to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century educational theorist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in a recent overview of the philosophy of education by Nel Noddings.

I’ll need to go back and look at her account, and I’ll need to dig into the history of it, but the basic idea is to allow students to learn from interacting directly with a particular object. Especially notable is that the technique was often used for moral instruction, often in a religious context.

That original meaning of the term, object lesson, has been obscured: in common usage, it refers generally to an experience from which someone learns something.

I’d like to restore the core idea of interacting with an object, in imagination if not in direct experience, to give students practical experience using one or another skill of ethical inquiry. Continue reading

The Other End of the Beam

This past semester I presented students in my engineering ethics course with an especially messy problem situation involving the development of a cyclotron for use in proton therapy, an unreliable fellow engineer, a boss playing favorites, the spectacular failure of a control system during a preliminary test, the relative merits of hardware versus software, and a lot of time pressure.

Proton therapy is a relatively recent development in the treatment of cancer; a new facility for proton therapy is under construction only a few blocks from campus.

Students worked on this situation in groups over a period of several weeks. I asked them to analyze the situation, do whatever background research they needed to do, develop at least three options, and offer up a careful, even-handed consideration of the ethical implications of each option in terms of basic values.

The results were mixed. Continue reading