Graeff, Erhardt. 2023 (April 20). Using Civic Professionalism to Frame Ethical and Social Responsibility in Engineering. 2023 Forum on Philosophy, Engineering, & Technology (fPET 2023), TU Delft, Delft, The Netherlands. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p17wdt2GriQ.
In recent years, professional societies, scholars and educators, and corporations within the fields of engineering and computer science have been grasping for better principles and frameworks for the ethical and social responsibility that engineers, computer scientists, and technologists should embody. Many professional societies (e.g. NSPE, IEEE, ACM) have revised their codes of ethics. Scholars and educators have launched numerous research projects and educational experiments to determine the values and ethical competencies professionals should learn and apply. Corporations have publicized their ethical commitments and formed consortia to govern ethical approaches to research and development areas like artificial intelligence.
We know there are fundamental problems. In 2014, Erin Cech identified a “culture of disengagement” in engineering that weakens engineering students’ commitments to public welfare during their undergraduate years. She argued that ideologies of 1) depoliticization, 2) technical/social dualism, and 3) meritocracy were key pillars of engineering’s disengaged culture. These ideologies undermine engineers’ social responsibility by positioning technical expertise as supremely relevant and perceiving existing social, economic, and political structures as fair and just. In subsequent studies, Cech and co-authors call for engineering education and epistemologies of engineering that repoliticize the profession and its work. I believe civic professionalism answers that call.
Based on Harry Boyte’s concept of “citizen professionalism” and Albert Dzur’s concept of “democratic professionalism,” civic professionalism is both a professional identity, anchored by civic attitudes and related values, and a set of normative professional practices that rely on civic knowledge, skills, and habits, which augment specialized technical competencies. In contrast to typical outside experts, Boyte argues citizen professionals see their role as co-creators and facilitators of problem-solving. They acknowledge that they too are citizens alongside many other stakeholders and should share power over decisions. They acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and expertise in different contexts and embrace local knowledge. Their work serves the common good by solving technical problems while also building and strengthening relationships.
Similar to Boyte’s description, Dzur’s democratic professionals resist the technocratic urge to flatten complex problems into challenges well-suited to professional methods beyond the lay public’s reach, and instead create space for deliberation and collective action regarding social and political issues beyond the borders of their own professional domains. Dzur specifically offers democratic professionalism as a middle ground between a “social trustee” model of professional and its radical critique, which would seek to deprofessionalize expertise and recover all such power for the public. Dzur argues that professionals and laypeople both have a stake in professional decisions and should share oversight of professional ethics democratically.
This is where engineering and computer science should head—framing social and ethical responsibility in terms of a broader civic and democratic responsibility. Although civic professionalism does not have a monopoly on these tenets, which we can locate in other popular ethical engineering frameworks, it does provide a compelling emphasis on epistemic humility, politics, and the common good with clear pedagogical opportunities as this paper will show.