Philosophy PL 2336—Spring, 2011 Syllabus
Foundational Ethics for Engineers

Dr. Robert Boyd Skipper 

St. Mary's
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   PL 2336 Ethics for Engineers
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  • Whatever Happened to Good and Evil, by Russ Shafer-Landau (G&E)
  • Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle (NE) (Penguin Classic edition)

Office: 508 Chaminade Tower

Teaching Hours:

Spring, 2011

PL 2336 A: 8:20AM-9:35AM (TTh)
PL 2310 A: 9:45AM-11:00AM (TTh)
PL 2336 LA: 12:50PM-1:50PM (T)
PL 2336 LB: 12:40PM-1:40PM(M)

Office Hours:

Monday and Wednesday 10:00AM - 11:00AM
Tuesday and Thursday 11:00AM-Noon
or by appointment (or just drop by when I'm not teaching).

Preferred E-mail:
Alternate e-mail (in case the first one fails):
Office Phone:
(210) 431-6857 (or extension 6857)
Home Phone: (512) 847-7659 (Friday through Sunday)
Cell Phone: (512) 923-0749 (Monday through Thursday)
AIM: DoktorSkip

I live 70 miles away in Wimberley, Texas. I drive in Sunday night and drive home on Thursday afternoon. My place in San Antonio does not have a land line or an Internet connection. Your best bet on contacting me, if I'm not in my office, is by e-mail.

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About the Course

The main objective of this course is to help you "appropriate yourselves" as moral agents, that is, to come to grips with the role you play and the responsibilities you have as a person in both your professional and nonprofessional lives. Whether you think about it or not, you make moral choices every day. So it's best to be thinking about it. In this course, you will be consciously and critically exploring the ways you make such choices. By explicitly addressing the ways you make these choices, and by thinking critically about the bases upon which you act, you take charge of those decisions for which the world already holds you accountable. As engineers, besides the common issues that all professionals face on a daily basis, you will encounter certain special issues in your work. The same basic principles apply to you as apply to all others, but the cases we will study should help you see with greater clarity how they do. Therefore, you will cover four areas of your duties and rights: (1) as a person, (2) as a citizen, (3) as a professional, and (4) as an engineer.

By the end of the semester, you should be able to:

I hope to help you achieve these goals by (1) Having you read and discuss one great work of ethics that has shaped our modern moral sense; (2) Taking you through the decisionmaking process as presented in about ten cases; (3) Having you read and discuss an extended argument about moral skepticism; and (4) Supplementing the texts with further explanation and discussion about how the process works. Lectures and discussion will introduce key comcepts from professional ethics in general and from engineering ethics in particular. Class participation is extremely important, and therefore will not be optional. You will have exams to test your comprehension of the readings and information brought out in class. You will write several case reports, in which you work out the relevant features and principles and reach a conclusion. For a term project, you will write a term paper. The mid-term and final will be objective, multiple-choice, and content-based.

One notable feature of this course will be the seminar sessions. At least one day of each week (Tuesday) will be devoted to a seminar on the reading for that week. The seminar is a collective and collaborative effort on the part of all of us to grapple with and understand these important philosophical concpets and issues. I will engage in this effort with you, as facilitator, and an equal partner, not as a lecturer. We want to understand what we are reading, but also to challenge it and learn from it. The major purposes of this seminar are to get you to think on your own, trust your own ability to think, and to defend your thoughts. Seminars will have three ground-rules. (1) Every person's view must be heard. Discussion must not be dominated by any one person, and that includes me. (2) No unsupported opinions are allowed. When you offer an interpretation or an opinion, be prepared to back it up with evidence, and be prepared to defend it against challenges or objections. (3) Rule 2 implies that in the seminar, no authority about the meaning of a text is permitted outside of the text itself. Neither I nor the editors nor any other teacher nor the Cliff's Notes nor the Encyclopedia of Philosophy nor Webster's nor any other source of authority may be quoted in order to settle a question. The only authority acceptable in the seminar is reason itself. This implies Rule (4): Seminar discussions will be limited to the text itself. I will discourage you from bringing in outside materials with which only some members of class may be familiar.

Your grade will be based on the following:

These numbers are approximate. They are meant only as guidelines both for me and for you. If it is clear to me by the end of the semester that you are totally clueless, you won't pass, even if you did somehow manage to score technically passing grades. If it is clear to me that you have a much better grasp of what's going on than your grades would indicate, your course grade will reflect that fact. One major indicator of cluelessness is cheating. Anyone who cheats, in any manner, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, automatically fails the course!!! This may seem drastic to you, but cheating in an ethics course is the strongest possible prima facie evidence that you missed something crucial and would benefit from taking the course again.

Organization of class. Class will be structured along two separate lines. At times, I will lecture, and at other times, we will have a seminar-style discussion. Lectures will cover supplementary issues, as needed or demanded. Seminars will cover the material in the assigned readings. Particiaption in a seminar discussion is simply impossible if you have not read the assigned material. So the reading assignments (i.e., the blogs) are mandatory and due at the beginning of each class. Anyone who has not read the assigned chapters is invited to spend the class period in the library completing the assignment.

Reading blogs. I will set you up with your own blog on Blackboard. For each reading, you will need to post a reflective blog entry before the seminar in which the reading is discussed. You will also need to post two replies to the blogs of others within one week of the seminar in which it is discussed. (Of course, you may also post replies before the seminar.) I will not accept late submissions, since the purpose of the blog is for you to reflect on the reading before we discuss it in class. The blog entry is not a book report or summary. It is your own reflections on the issues raised in the chapter. This can include questions, challenges, observations (either supportive or contrary), emotional reactions, or whatever else will reveal your active engagement with the text. I will look for the following six characteristics of your blog entries:

  1. Basic comprehension (Do you understand the author's main theses?);
  2. Deep comprehension (Do you understand the reasons the author presents for those theses?);
  3. Insight (Have you made connections between the author's claims and your own life or with something else, like movies, news, or literature?);
  4. Curiosity (Do you actively seek answers to puzzles or questions you have about the claims made by the author?);
  5. Critical thinking (Have you raised interesting challenges for the author to meet--say, in the form of counterexamples or logical inconsistencies?);
  6. Truth-seeking (Have you made an effort to respond to the objections you raised to the author as the author might respond, and then tried to reach a balanced judgment that takes all relevant issues into account?).

Participation. Class participation is extremely important, and therefore will not be optional. Not everyone will get to speak every week, but everyone must be prepared to participate every seminar.

Exams. The mid-term and final will be objective, multiple-choice tests that consist of content questions over the reading.

Term paper. Details in handout. But the gist of it will be to write a Aristotelian analytical description of your vision of the perfect engineer in terms of virtues and vices.

Your Responsibilities

Calendar for Spring, 2011

G&E = Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?
NE = Nicomachean Ethics

All blogs for readings from G&E and from NE will be due by the start of class on the day in which the reading will be discussed.
Lab reports will be announced during the semester, as appropriate.
Date Required Readings

Special Events

No reading
  You, me, and this course.
Moral arguments.
G&E pp. 3-12
G&E pp. 15-37


Against Moral Skepticism
G&E pp. 38-54

No reading

Blog-grading exercise  
G&E pp. 57-74
  Moral Objectivity

G&E pp. 75-90

G&E pp. 91-117
  Moral Knowledge
G&E pp. 118-136
No reading
2/11: Test over G&E  
NE Introduction, pp. ix-xxv only
Plato, Aristotle, and philosophy as a way of life
NE Book I
  The Object of Life
NE Book II
  Moral Goodness
  Moral Responsibility: Two Virtues
NE Book IV
  Other Moral Virtues
NE Book V
Outline of term paper due
NE Book VI
  Intellectual Virtues
3/15 & 3/17


NE Book VII:
  Continence and Incontinence: The Nature of Pleasure
No reading
  Lecture and discussion about utilitarianism
The Kinds of Friendship
NE Book IX:
  The Grounds of Friendship
No reading
Term Paper due Continued discussion of friendship
NE Book X:   Pleasure and the Life of Happiness
No reading   Lecture and discussion about Kant
NE Introduction:The Ethics and Moral Philosophy (pp. xxv-xli)   Looking back, critquing Aristotle, and relating him to modern philosophy
4/19 & 4/21
In-class movie: To be announced
Class meets both days in the Blume Library basement, in the Media Viewing Room
I will announce the material the final exam will cover
4/26 & 4/28
Course evaluations and in-class review for Final exam
1:00pm-2:45pm: Final Exam