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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

“A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” in Problem Definition & Project Selection

Rafael Guerrero

The goal of engineering design is to address physical needs using practical, analytical, and technical skills to develop robust, efficient, and appropriate solutions. Unlike many of the calculations that engineers do, there can be many different design solutions to these problems-- and while a solution may seem appropriate to the designer, it may not necessarily be the solution that best fits the requirements and expectations of the people for whom the design is intended for. This is because engineering design is fundamentally a people-centered process, where in addition to addressing physical needs, good design effectively addresses concerns regarding safety, cost, simplicity, and resilience of technology with respect to the people the design will serve.

What is the Senior Design Project?

The senior design project provides a thorough and challenging first-hand experience with the engineering design process. In producing a physical design solution, Santa Clara University engineering students must apply their skills and learning to develop a project that culminates their undergraduate education-- and coincides with the SCU School of Engineering’s mission of advancing a “more just, humane, and sustainable world”[1].

Figure 1: The Frugal Clay Press for Nicaragua 2017-2018 senior design team.

Figure 1: The Frugal Clay Press for Nicaragua 2017-2018 senior design team.


One thing that students may find difficult is the process of choosing a senior design project. Some will find themselves choosing a project and then finding teammates to suit the project needs. Others may form a team with classmates and/or friends and then decide upon a project. Or a student might be unable to find a team or project to join, and will be assigned to a project and team for the remainder of the senior design process.

Regardless of how you become involved in a project, ethical considerations will be involved in the choosing and completion of a senior design project. This culmination of your undergraduate education in engineering will not only ask your team to apply the technical knowledge that you have gained since your freshman year, but will also challenge your team to incorporate ethical decision-making skills to tackle design dilemmas that professional engineers encounter in their careers. The goal of this document is to assist Santa Clara engineering students in realizing these ethical considerations throughout the senior design process, and to provide suggestions on how to address them.

What role does ethics play in choosing a design project?

The ethical considerations behind each design project will vary in their depth and relevance to the customer needs and requirements that are to be met. Beginning your brainstorming process by looking at world problems and applying ethical thinking will narrow your project choices and help determine the capstone project that you and your team will design.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics offers “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” as a tool to guide critical thinking in addressing ethical dilemmas [2]. This Framework enumerates five approaches that your team should consider in navigating ethical issues throughout the senior design process: the Utilitarian Approach, the Rights Approach, the Justice & Fairness Approach, the Virtue Approach, and the Common Good Approach. While the approaches may seem distinct in some ways and overlapping in others, you will find that the beginning of the design process will rely on a combination of some or all of these approaches. You may also come to find that an approach would better address the dilemmas present in one specific stage of the design process over another. This section will look at each of the five approaches from both the ethics and engineering perspectives-- and give you and your team tools to use to develop the best design idea for your capstone project.

The Utilitarian Approach to Engineering Design

As defined in “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making”, Utilitarianism is a method of ethical decision-making that emphasizes action that “produces the greatest good and does the least harm for all who are affected”[2]. A utilitarian approach to ethical engineering design varies with perspective. Where creating good for oneself or one’s community is a positive outcome, it is also important to acknowledge who might experience the harms, or negative outcomes, associated with the design solution you choose to implement. While a Utilitarian Approach is not concerned with perfection, it focuses on recognizing and weighing all the relevant benefits and harms associated with design decisions and prompts engineers to choose accordingly.

The group of people affected by choices, called stakeholders, is made up of the entrepreneurs/designers, the customers/product users, and every person who experiences the positive or negative effects as a result of the fabrication, testing, and implementation of the design. Because different stakeholders will have different needs and expectations, Utilitarianism in design can be difficult to implement, as many times the engineer will have to reconcile what is “good”  with what is feasible within design constraints. Nevertheless, it is always important to seek to maximize the good and income from the product while ensuring that cost and harms produced are as low as possible.

Examples of using the Utilitarian Approach to identify real-world problems and find engineering design solutions:

  • Inefficiency:
    • Humans use technology to make their lives easier and work more efficient. The extent to which technology is useful to us, however, is based on efficiency, or how much good we can get from technology while limiting the harms or inconveniences associated with using it. What products or processes currently exist that are too inefficient, costly, or time consuming in completing their jobs in certain communities? How can they be improved? (e.g., slash and burn, deforestation for wood, manual clay tile making, pasteurization methods).
  • Inconvenience, suffering, & mistreatment of people, animals, or the environment:
    • While technology may be useful to us, we must also be aware of the harms that the manufacturing, use, and disposal of technology may bring to our environment. What existing technology is doing more harm than good to surrounding people, animals, and the environment? What are ways that these problems can be minimized or eliminated through engineering design? (e.g., treatment of factory waste, alternatives to fracking).
  • User privacy/safety:
    • Technology may also require users to divulge personal information for the purposes of “user security” or digital accountability. What existing technology is completing a certain job for customers, but at the expense of compromising their identities, personal and financial information, or location? How can these services/devices be designed to better protect user privacy? (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, On-Star navigation, PayPal).
    • Technology is not always inherently designed to be safe-- construction tools, vehicles, and even kitchen appliances carry with them the potential for users to accidentally harm themselves or others. What existing technology is used to complete certain tasks, but presents an inherent risk in owning or operating the product? What are ways that these products can be made more safe? (e.g., rock climbing harnesses, HAZMAT suits, guns, contact sports equipment).  
  • Community infrastructure:
    • The costs of an engineering project may be justified by understanding the potential good for one’s community that could come with it. What buildings, bridges, power grids, and other infrastructure do not exist within a certain community? How can the construction of these facilities offer significant benefits and have minimal costs and harms to the community? (e.g., vertical farming facilities in urban areas, rural power grids, mental health facilities).
    • Another prominent consideration of technology is that the goods produced for the community may pale in comparison to the harms or inconveniences that come with it. What facilities currently exist that could be producing more harm than good? How can these facilities be adapted to better protect and respect the community? (e.g., the harmful smoke from Sriracha factories, smell pollution of manure fields, oil pipelines).     
  • Use of resources:
    • As helpful as technology may be, engineers must also consider how the good produced by their design justifies the consumption of natural resources. What existing technology requires a sizeable amount of depletion of natural resources? How might that technology be modified to reduce the use of these resources? (e.g., biodegradable materials cook stoves, low-water use toilets, inefficient irrigation systems)

The Rights Approach to Engineering Design

Another model enumerated in A Framework for Ethical Decision Making is the Rights Approach. This model emphasizes that engineers should act on the belief that “humans have a dignity based on their human nature per se or on their ability to choose freely what to do with their lives” [2]. This dignity gives each human certain rights, which are defined as “a justified claim on others” that is “dependent on some standard acknowledged and accepted not just by the claimant, but also by society in general.” (Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, & Meyer, 1990) [3]. Engineering with this approach in mind is about realizing where the rights of others are impinged upon in society, and considering how technology could be used to allow people to better enjoy these rights.

In 1948, the United Nations agreed upon and enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) a list of thirty fundamental human rights that act as “a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations” to be universally protected [4]. A Rights Approach seeks to define what problems exist for people throughout the world that limit their ability to experience these rights. These problems can be as small as the need for an elevator in a multi-story building, or as complex as designing affordable laptops for children in rural communities. Ideation therefore is based on ways that these limitations can be lessened or eliminated for people-- without disrespecting or impinging upon the rights of others.

Examples of using the Rights Approach to identify real-world problems and find engineering solutions:

  • Rights to community/individual autonomy:
    • What difficulties does a community or individual have that requires them to seek outside help for daily needs? How can technology be used to grant them the ability to do these tasks/fulfill these needs by themselves? (e.g., water jugs with wheels, rainwater harvesting, home lighting in rural areas).  
    • How can technology be used to help the elderly and persons with disabilities with daily needs? (e.g. transportation, cooking, opening doors, reading, writing, self-care).
  • Rights to privacy:
    • What are ways that personal privacy is compromised in communities around the world? How can technology be developed to protect and extend a person’s/community’s right to privacy? (e.g., computer firewalls, cheap insulated home walls, anonymous whistleblowing mediums).
  • Rights to play & relaxation :
    • How do children and adults spend leisure time? What are ways that technology can be used to safely enhance the ways that people relax or entertain themselves? (e.g., handheld video games, football nets composed of sustainable materials, energy storage for powering television/radio in rural areas, “PlayPump” roundabout that doubles as a borehole pump).
  • Rights to education:
    • How is access to higher literacy, tutoring, classes, and learning tools (calculators, dictionaries, writing utensils) limited in communities around the world? What are ways that technology can be developed to make these more accessible to residents of these communities? (e.g., Khan Academy, The “One Laptop Per Child” program, waterproof backpacks, rechargeable night light for studying).
    • How can technology be developed to better extend educational opportunities/tools to people with disabilities? (e.g., text-to-speech for people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ramps for disabled persons in lecture halls, electronic braille keyboards, interactive online classrooms).   

The Fairness or Justice Approach to Engineering Design

The fourth approach described in the Markkula Center resource “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” is what is known as the Fairness or Justice Approach [2]. This approach in decision making acknowledges larger communal and societal inequities, and seeks to implement decisions to “ensure that benefits and burdens are distributed among society’s members in ways that are fair and just” (Velasquez et. al, 1990) [5]. The way decisions are implemented to be considered “fair and just” is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. Instead, the goal of societal decisions should be to “treat all human beings equally-- or if unequally, then fairly based on some standard that is defensible”[2]. This defensible standard for treating certain members of society differently than others (for example, criminals, the elderly, government officials, or children) is the basis of what is known as “equity”. The difference between what is “equal” and what is “equitable” treatment in society is a core aspect of understanding fairness and justice in decision making.

Often times, engineers are tasked to design technology that promotes equity across society. Bike lanes, wheelchair ramps, vaccines, and even security cameras are designs that are implemented to contribute to a more equitable experience for certain members of a community/society. It is also important to acknowledge that some technological tools (such as handcuffs, Air Force One, maximum security prison systems, or women’s birth control devices) do treat people unequally because they are not designed to be applied to all members of society. Identifying areas where equality and equity in the treatment of members in society can be improved through technological development is another avenue that you and your team can explore in your senior design project.

Examples of using the Fairness or Justice Approach to identify real-world problems and find engineering design solutions are:

  • Detection/prevention of criminal activity:
    • A Justice Approach considers how people who disturb the peace should be treated differently, and the role that technology can play in that process. How can technology be used to address problems of personal safety, theft, online misconduct, etc. to make societal interactions more safe and equitable for people? (e.g., pepper spray, machine learning algorithms to detect harmful language in chat rooms).
    • In what ways might technology be used to investigate, predict, prevent, and stop criminal actions? How would this technology be considered fair, or defensible by equitable standards?  (e.g. identity theft firewalls, design of higher precision forensics devices, metal detectors).
  • Access to legal rights/information:
    • Fairness and Justice requires that people have access to legal protections within society. How can finding legal counsel, protections, defense, and correct information on existing laws and regulations be made more accessible to a diverse community/society using technology? (e.g., legal document translation applications for smartphone, secure cloud storage for legal documents).
  • Educational systems/technology:
    • Fair access to education and higher learning resources can also be improved through engineering design. What are tools that are not affordable or present in educational institutions in a community? How can your team design educational tools that best fit the needs of this community while bettering the quality of education? (e.g., cheap flooring for rural classrooms, iTunes U).
  • Competition and monopolization:
    • Fairness also applies to how businesses have equal opportunity for competition in the world market. What products/processes/services exist that are dominating certain markets? How can a competitive product/process/service be made cheaper, lighter, less resource exhaustive, faster, and altogether more accessible to the people?
    • What technological solutions could cheaply and effectively expedite the productivity/throughput of smaller businesses, communities, and non-profit organizations? (e.g., frugal clay mixer, rice harvesting devices).
    • Is there already an existing device that does what you intend your design to do? If so, how is your design solution competitive and unique while respecting existing patents?

The Common Good Approach to Engineering Design

Engineering design may not always be serving a direct customer, but may be inspired by goals to contribute to the “common good”. In this approach, engineers consider that “interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning” (Velasquez et. al, 1992) [6]. Design decisions that address the common good are sensitive to the dynamics of society and recognize that the effects of deploying technology will propagate across different communities and demographics. This approach also ensures that design solutions enhance the “common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone”-- such as healthcare, water resources, fire safety, or GPS navigational systems. Moreover, it asks to what degree engineers are to be held accountable for educating the public on the benefits, detriments, and risks regarding their design solutions. Considerations using this approach place emphasis on the longer term and wider-reaching benefits of implementing certain design decisions.

Common Good Approach in design looks to understand how the benefits from implementing certain engineering solutions may be enjoyed by society as a whole. These goods do not always have to be the technology itself-- as clean water, paved roads, and smaller carbon emissions are benefits of technology that contribute to the benefit of entire communities. While decisions that respect this are quite difficult for engineers serving a pluralistic society, it is necessary for you and your design team to determine how your potential project “consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people.”[6].

Examples of using the Common Good Approach to identify real-world problems and find engineering design solutions:

  • Recreation:
    • Do individuals in a community have facilities to socialize, relax, and play? What facilities/technology can be developed to provide people of all ages with safe, accessible, and affordable means of recreation? (e.g., PlayPumps water pump systems, rural recreational centers, frugal materials for guitar strings).
  • Agriculture:
    • What are devices, chemicals, and other forms of technology that can make the growth, maintenance, and harvesting of agricultural products faster, cheaper, and safer on the environment? (e.g., crop-watering drones, fertilizing soils, frugal irrigation systems).
  • Waste treatment/recycling/hazardous materials disposal:
    • Another aspect of design for the common good is eliminating harms that are experienced on a societal scale, such as pollution. How is waste treated or disposed of in a community? How can technology be developed to treat or dispose of waste safely and in a more sanitary way? (e.g., frugal piping/sewage systems, protection of wells and water reserves from runoff).
    • What are common single use items in a community that can be made reusable, recyclable, repurposed, or biodegradable? (e.g., plastic bags, potable water into greywater, cooking oil).
  • Infrastructure (roads, bridges, oil pipelines):
    • How is transportation hampered by a lack of developed infrastructure in a community? Will construction of a technological solution disrupt or harm a community more than it would benefit the community from having this infrastructure installed? (e.g., re-paving a major highway, traffic sensors & metering systems, deforestation to add new travel routes, undersea oil pipelines with the risk of leakage).
  • Healthcare:
    • What medicine or treatment options are too expensive or otherwise inaccessible to certain communities? How can these technologies be improved and/or made accessible to a larger number of people? (e.g, “Da Vinci” remote surgical device, portable vaccine/medication refrigeration systems).
    • How can existing medical technology be made more robust for implementation in different environments? (e.g, malaria nets, portable water purifiers, mosquito repellant, all-terrain stretchers/gurneys).

The Virtue Approach to Engineering Design

The last approach enumerated in the Markkula Center’s “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” is the Virtue Approach [2]. Professional engineers in each engineering discipline are held to a code of ethics that defines the ethical design standards they must abide by in order to be validated and respected in their practice. While the Codes of Ethics prescribed by different engineering disciplines may vary, it is generally considered important for all engineers to act “according to the highest potential of [their] character”[2]. The Virtue Approach to ethics places emphasis on the personal beliefs and values of the engineer with regard to decision making. The virtue-minded engineer makes design decisions that act “on behalf of values like… honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence.”[2].

The Virtue Approach in ethics is a more personal approach in engineering design. Because of this, it is important for you and your team, as student engineers, to consistently flag the ethical considerations that you individually see in design. Working within a team allows you to not only be held accountable by your teammates in taking actions that align with your values, but also to be reminded of values in design that you might not have considered by yourself.

Examples of using the Virtue Approach to identify real-world problems and find engineering design solutions:

  • Humanitarian causes/projects (Virtues of compassion/generosity/fairness/human integrity):
    • Humanitarian projects such as those offered through the Santa Clara University Frugal Innovation Hub extol the virtues of compassion, generosity, fairness, and respect for human integrity. What humanitarian causes are you and your teammates most passionate about? How can technology be developed to assist these causes and the people that are impacted by them? (e.g., mobile showers for the homeless, apps to locate domestic violence shelters, marine life observation and aid robots).
  • Environmental causes/projects (Virtues of stewardship):
    • The virtue of stewardship is prominent in the design for sustainable technology. What areas of environmental sustainability are you and your teammates most passionate about? How can existing technology be modified, improved, or replaced to better protect the environment and key ecosystems? (e.g., air pollution treatment, wastewater treatment, use of zero waste materials for food package & storage).  
  • Renewable energy projects (Virtues of prudence):
    • Energy conservation and increasing efficiency of existing technology extols prudence in engineering design. How can existing products or processes be adapted to run on solar/wind/hydroelectric power? (e.g., regenerative braking on motorcycles, solar cookers).
  • Humane research/design for animals (Virtues of compassion):
    • Compassion for animals is prominent in designs for humane research, agriculture, bioengineering, and veterinary technology. What are ways in which existing technology and research methods are mistreating animals? How can technology be used to provide a more humane alternative to current solutions? (e.g., vaccine testing, cancer research, containment for livestock).

Personal Link

In the summer of 2017, I had already assembled my team of four mechanical engineering seniors to pursue a design project. Our brainstorming phase yielded a wide variety of different project directions, each of which called upon different ethical considerations as well as fields in mechanical engineering.

  • “Cool Stove” (Utilitarian Approach): An early idea that a teammate of mine posed was for a device that could harness the thermal energy from cookstoves in rural areas to power home refrigerators. Because cooking in rural communities can be a long process, the thermal energy dissipated by cook fires could potentially allow homes to have refrigerated goods in areas where there is little to no access to electricity.
  • Gyroscopic correction systems for people with cerebral palsy (Rights Approach): Because people with cerebral palsy can struggle to move without significant difficulty, we thought a good idea would be to design wearable technology that would keep patients with cerebral palsy upright and stable when on their feet. This would have allowed them to move a lot more safely and have more autonomy in being able to go to and from places without help.
  • Exoskeleton for industrial workers (Fairness and Justice Approach): One teammate realized that there are many dangerous jobs that have falling hazards, such as power line technicians, stunt men, and high-rise construction workers. If they did fall, however, there is very little that could protect workers. A mechanical exoskeleton for these workers could be developed to protect employees and guarantee on-site safety when working in higher areas.
  • Ocean cleanup robotics (Common Good Approach): An original concept to pursue a robotics based project was meant to address global pollution issues. We felt that designing a deployable robot to locate and collect trash would improve aquatic ecosystems.
  • Intimate care item dispenser (Virtue Approach): While this was a more controversial idea, the guiding principle for this was that our team wanted to find a way that sexual health items could be made more accessible to people in order to promote sexual health. We realized that one barrier to this was that people are uncomfortable purchasing items for intimate care, and we thought of a vending machine that could discreetly dispense and package these items so that these items could be picked up with minimal social stigma.


[1] “Mission and Goals.” SCU School of Engineering, Santa Clara University,

[2] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1 Aug. 2015.

[3] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “Rights.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 8 Aug. 2014.

[4] “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations,

[5] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “Justice and Fairness.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1 Aug. 2014.

[6] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “Common Good.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 2 Aug. 2014.

Jun 29, 2018