In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy and Ethics of Engineering

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Engineering Contributions and Sources
  • Technical Knowledge and Modeling
  • Risk and Engineering
  • Engineering Ethics
  • Sustainability within Engineering

Philosophy Philosophy and Ethics of Engineering
Pieter E. Vermaas, Ibo Van de Poel, Rafaela Hillerbrand
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0195


The field of philosophy and ethics of engineering is a relatively new one. It has its predecessors within philosophy of technology and is developing into a field of its own in part because of a continuing effort to do philosophy with a strong focus on the practices of engineering. Carl Mitcham anticipated this development in his grand overview of philosophy of technology (Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) by discerning an engineering tradition and a humanities tradition in philosophy of technology and by observing that the engineering tradition, attentive to the actual practices of engineering, did not get fair attention. In a similar vein Peter Kroes and Anthonie Meijers (eds. The Empirical Turn in the Philosophy of Technology. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: JAI, 2000) argued for an empirical turn in philosophy of technology, announcing the field of philosophy of engineering as aimed at grounding philosophical and ethical analyses of technology on detailed studies of specific technologies, of design practices and methods, and of case studies of historical engineering projects, accidents, and technological disasters. This new field, however, inherited a similar and sometimes problematic interplay between traditions: where in philosophy of technology the engineering and humanities perspectives on technology are competing or complementing each other (see Philosophy of Technology for an overview), the interplay in philosophy and ethics of engineering is between studies by philosophers and analyses of engineering by the practitioners themselves. Today, philosophy of engineering is a rapidly developing field focusing on conceptual, ontological, epistemic, ethical, and social issues based on detailed philosophical, sociological, and reflective studies on engineering practices. Conceptual issues include key technical terms like “technical function” and “risk.” Ontological issues include the status and structure of artifacts as manmade objects. Epistemic issues comprise the peculiarities of technical knowledge and modeling in engineering. Ethical research focuses on the moral issues that arise in engineering, ranging from the professional obligations engineers have toward society to specific ethical concerns associated with challenging technological developments and innovations. Three topics are recurrent in all of these efforts: the analysis and characterization of design as a practice specific to engineering and technology, the demarcation of engineering as opposed to science, and the academic and societal emancipation of engineering as a separate profession.

General Overviews

Philosophy and ethics of engineering has its predecessors in philosophy of technology, and descriptions of these historical roots are covered, among others, in Mitcham 1994 and Olsen, et al. 2009. The empirical turn toward philosophy and ethics of engineering is described in Kroes and Meijers 2000. A good first overview of philosophy of engineering itself is given by Franssen, et al. 2013. The contributions in the handbooks by Meijers 2009 provide more detailed insights into the ontological, epistemic, methodological, and ethical aspects of engineering practice and are mainly aimed at philosophers, while the Royal Society of Engineers 2010 proceedings provide also good introductory texts for engineers. Van de Poel and Goldberg 2010 for a first time systematically brings together philosophers and engineering practitioners to set the agenda of philosophical and ethical analyses of engineering.

  • Franssen, Maarten, Gert-Jan Lokhorst, and Ibo Van de Poel. “Philosophy of Technology.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2013.

    The authors focus on what they refer to as analytic philosophy of technology and here on the methodological, epistemological, and metaphysical aspects. They conceive of the philosophy of engineering as part of an analytic philosophy of technology. As the contribution gives also an overview of historical and social aspects of engineering, it provides a good first introduction for philosophers.

  • Kroes, Peter, and Anthonie Meijers, eds. The Empirical Turn in the Philosophy of Technology. Amsterdam: JAI, 2000.

    A volume containing contributions discussing an empirical turn in philosophy of technology, aimed at philosophical work on technology and engineering that is based on or informed by detailed analyses of case studies and the different practices in engineering.

  • Meijers, Anthonie, ed. Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2009.

    This edited volume provides a good and comprehensive reference book of contemporary discussions within an analytic philosophy of engineering. Covered topics range from ontology, epistemology, and ethics to philosophy of specific engineering disciplines.

  • Mitcham, Carl. Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    An excellent book to get an overview on various traditions of critical analysis of technology and the questions engineering and technology pose for philosophical reasoning. A good basis for a (introductory or advanced) class on philosophy of engineering, both for philosophers and engineers.

  • Mitcham, Carl, ed. The Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005.

    This edited volume with more than two thousand pages covers the academic research on ethics of science and technology and ethical, environmental, and political issues that are raised by technologies. Particularly the eight introductory essays give a good first overview over the field. Individual contributions are very helpful for engineering and philosophy students. Also see Engineering Ethics.

  • Olsen, Jan Kyrre Berg, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent K. Hendricks, eds. A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    Another reference book that provides an overview not only on philosophy of technology but also on flanking fields such as history of technology.

  • Rapp, Friedrich, ed. Contributions to a Philosophy of Technology. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Reidel, 1974.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-010-2182-1

    An early edited volume that is of particular interest regarding the discussion of the relation between science and engineering. Some of the contributors depict technology as applied science, a view that today seems somewhat outdated. Nonetheless the articles remain of interest for today’s readers, mainly philosophers.

  • Royal Society of Engineers. Philosophy of Engineering: Proceedings of a Series of Seminars Held at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Vol. 1. London: Royal Society of Engineers, 2010.

    A good online resource that gives an introduction to various topics within philosophy of engineering. Volume 2 is also available online. The articles emerged from a lecture series primarily aimed at engineers and gives a first introduction into specific questions within the field. While the first part of this volume tackles some philosophical issues on which engineering has a bearing (like the nature of mind, language, and knowledge), the second part highlights the close connection between ethics and (responsible) engineering. The focus is on environmental issues like climate change.

  • Van de Poel, Ibo, and David E. Goldberg, eds. Philosophy and Engineering: An Emerging Agenda. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2010.

    A volume that brings together philosophers and engineers, articulates the disciplinary differences between the two, and sets the agenda for a philosophy of engineering. Topics addressed include questions about what engineering is, ethical responsibilities in engineering, and reflections by engineering practitioners on their discipline. Also see Engineering Contributions and Sources.

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