Should We Teach Science and Engineering as Practices?

by Mark Bourgeois, University of Notre Dame

What do engineers and scientists need to know? At least in the U.S., our educational system seems to demonstrate that, beyond technical competence, the answer is: surprisingly little. There are two common classes of exceptions. For undergraduates, most institutions still maintain general-education requirements. And for advanced graduate students, there is sponsor-mandated ethics training (such as the Protecting Human Research Participants training required by the NIH) and in most cases limited professional skills development (such as public speaking or grant writing).

But as specialization and technical complexity grow, science and engineering undergraduates find less and less space in their schedule to take, for example, humanities courses. Worse, such diversification is too often seen as a diversion, a token sacrifice for the sake of becoming a more “well rounded” person outside of work. This limited focus continues in graduate ethics training, which consists of a series of rule-based exhortations and, mostly, prohibitions: conduct your research with integrity; do not fabricate; do not take credit for the ideas of others; obtain informed consent; avoid conflicts of interest. Ethics becomes little more than the rules of the road.

Intended or not, the clear message implicit in this arrangement is that scientists and engineers need only concern themselves with the technical execution of their work. They should leave it to others to worry about what to do with, and about, the results. As specialization increases, we see this attitude in many other professional programs, as well. Indeed, in some sense we see this throughout the University: in the call for Return on Investment (ROI), in the quantification of learning goals, and in the idea that the purpose of higher education is job training. All of these trends share a focus on market demands, quantified rewards, and skills oriented specialization.

Why does this matter? What is wrong with a predominantly technical education for technical students? There are myriad related issues with this. First, and most obviously, scientists and engineers know the most about the science and technology they work on and what it may lead to. In an era increasingly shaped by the progress of these fields, if the workers closest to these innovations cannot help shape the research and its product towards ethical, socially productive ends then we may lose the best opportunity to do so. Second, when we arm them only with technical skills, we risk creating professionals who are merely mercenaries to the market. To the degree that this occurs, compromised ethical conduct is likely to follow, and the professions themselves may become rudderless. Finally, on the most general level, democratic societies need social leaders and invested, engaged citizens. Technical training alone does not promote these attitudes or the skills necessary for their exercise—skills such as empathy, discernment and communication. In short, we need professionals who take the social dimensions into account in their work; we need well-rounded, autonomous professionals who
respond to more than just market demands; and we also need citizens who can actively engage the moral issues of the day. How can we possibly hope to achieve all of this?

One promising option is to re-characterize these professions as social practices, in the virtue ethics sense described by Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue (hereafter abbreviated AV) and elsewhere. Indeed, to do this is to recapture at least some of the original sense of the “professions” as independent socially-oriented vocations, distinct from mere jobs. What is a practice? In short, a practice is “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized” (AV 187).

The distinguishing property of a practice is that each has its own set of internal goods which help to constitute it—goods unique to the practice as experienced by the practitioners, and unavailable in any other way. For example, at the most general level, uncovering an eternal truth of nature is an internal good of the practice of science, while creating something of lasting utility is an internal good of engineering. Crucially, the internal goods and their standards are not only what organize the practice but are a subject of ongoing clarification and refinement within the practice itself. A practice does inherently involve the development and deployment of highly specialized and refined technical skills. Yet a practice is “never just a set of technical skills” (AV 193).

Instead, a practice is a site for the development of virtues. Indeed, virtues just are those traits which enable the successful pursuit of the internal goods at stake in the practice. We see virtues at work on several levels in a practice. To begin with there are what might be called (though MacIntyre himself does not use these labels) “initiation level” virtues, those personal traits without which one cannot begin to engage the practice as it exists. These include justice, courage, and honesty, all of which enable us to subject ourselves in good faith to tutelage in a practice (AV 191).

Next, there are specific “practice level” virtues, which enable the attainment of the goods unique to a given practice. Examples include creativity, innovative thinking, and valuing elegance and efficiency in design. Each of these will have specific flavors and interpretations in distinct practices—the elegance of an algorithm will be somewhat different from that of a scientific theory. The appreciation and pursuit of each form helps to define the respective practice.

Finally, expanding somewhat on MacIntyre’s schema, there are what might be called the “aspirational virtues” of a practice—traits that promote goods enjoyed not just by the practitioner and the practice but by the larger society in which the practice is undertaken. For science and engineering this may include the drive to discover cures for disease or to develop new tools to address social and environmental problems. Part of the role of a practice is to continually decide which of these traits is to be absorbed into the practice-level virtues, and thus incorporated as a foundational motivation for the work.

All of these internal goods are shared goods and thus unlimited. One individual’s attainment of these goods does not take away from any others’; rather, it adds to the sum total. Moreover, each of these has profound communal dimensions. Only together and in dialogue can practitioners seek and refine these goods.

This brief summary, of course, cannot begin to do full justice to the idea of a practice, or to their associated virtues. But it should suffice to highlight what is so valuable in this concept and perhaps worth embracing as an antidote to narrow technical specialization. When an occupation is conceived of as a practice, training in it takes on an entirely different and inherently broader character. In short, there is not simply requisite technical skills accompanied by optional (and personal) virtues. There is instead a complex of skills, including the technical, ethical, and social unified under a distinct and shared sense of virtue.

This concept of technical professions as practices clearly holds profound implications for how scientists and engineers should be trained. This perspective unites ostensibly exclusive “humanities” and “STEM” domains at a fundamental level. Indeed, they are seen merely as different but complementary skill sets, both entirely necessary to the ultimate good which is being sought. This means that in order to properly train for their practice, technical students need far more than just technical skills.

They need, for example, a sense of the history of their profession, its role in society, the conflicts which have formed it and continue to challenge it. They also need a sense of the personal virtues that being a practitioner requires and entails, such as perseverance, compassion, and humility. And they also need a keen sense of the good life which is constituted by the practice—the sense of accomplishment at an elegant design or experiment, the satisfaction in providing society new powers or knowledge, the intense engagement of mastering a new technical skill.

None of these internal goods are directly connected to the external, extrinsic goods attached to the practice: notably money, social status, and power. None of these goods are themselves about ‘getting a good job’ or achieving a high status. Rather, they are intrinsic to the worth of the work. Of course, the external goods may and should follow to some degree from the attainment of these internal goods. The engineer who takes pleasure in an effective and efficient design can expect to earn a good salary precisely for the ability to achieve these results. But there is a great difference in priority and ethical orientation between one end or the other—the intrinsic internal goods or the contingent external rewards—being the immediate goal, the point of the exercise — indeed, the point of the life itself. It is currently the external, instrumental ends which seem to implicitly hold sway in how training in these professions is presented to students today.

Of course, none of this is to say that rigorous technical training does not remain at the heart of what makes a scientist a scientist or an engineer an engineer. Rather, it is to position training that extends beyond the technical as something fully integral to professional preparation and not ancillary to it.

We cannot continue to train scientists and engineers as technicians, and simply dose them with the occasional inoculation against misconduct in the form of a few ethics cases supplemented by a bit of professional development; nor can we expect a few outside courses in the humanities to hold relevance for how undergraduates will pursue their careers. To produce socially engaged, conscientious scientists and engineers we need to provide students with a fundamentally new perspective on what it means to be a scientist or an engineer, and why they should want to be one.

Ultimately, the question comes down to whether we aim to train technicians or citizens. Positioning professional education as technical skills training, however sophisticated, deprives us of active, invested citizens who are up to the task of shaping their profession and the vital role it plays in our society. Indeed, as this holds for scientists and engineers, in principle it also holds for nearly all professions.

Such a conception is, frankly, countercultural to today’s “market” orientation, where even philosophy departments are expected to demonstrate ROI. Given this reality, approaching science and engineering as true practices may seem almost deliberately naïve. But it is perhaps only in such a way that we can continue to maintain a recognizable moral culture distinguishable from a market—not just in education but in society at large.

For further reading:

  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Third edition, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007 (First edition 1981).
  • Daniel J. Hicks and Thomas A. Stapleford, “The Virtues of Scientific Practice: MacIntyre, Virtue
    Ethics, and the Historiography of Science,” Isis, v.107, no. 43, pp. 449-472.
  • Langdon Winner, Engineering Ethics and Political Imagination in Broad and Narrow
    Interpretations of Philosophy of Technology, Volume 7 of the series Philosophy and
    Technology, pp. 53-64
  • Shannon Vallor, Technologies and the Virtues, Oxford University Press, 2016