A Dialogical Approach When Learning Engineering Ethics in a Virtual Education Frame

Montse Serra and Josep M. Basart


Classroom analysis of ethically relevant professional engineering dilemmas (cases) is one of the most useful strategies to explore this kind of professional ethics in engineering schools. Cases are important because they stimulate the moral imagination of students (what alternatives are possible and what are the consequences for each choice); they show that divergences and disagreement are frequent in practical complex situations; they are contingent and context-bound and, finally, they help students to develop the analytical resources required to cope with realistic problems.

Dialogue and debate are two quite different approaches to the analysis and evaluation of these cases. The first modern precedents of this distinction can be found, from different points of view, in the works of David J. Bohm, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paulo Freire, Jürgen Habermas and Peter Senge, among other scholars. In fact, the border between dialogue and debate is not always clear enough; moreover, a conversation can mix both, phases of dialogue and phases of debate. Finally, what has started as a dialogue may end up in a debate (while the contrary is very unusual). Taking into account these difficulties, we introduce here a set of seven distinctive features that show why dialogue instead of debate should be promoted among students, especially when this learning appears in a virtual education context. Furthermore, this choice implies also the acceptance and application of the principles guiding dialogical ethics; this is an ethical perspective quite different from substantive ethics theories such as deontology, consequentialism or principlism, whereas some works claim that virtue ethics does not seem to be incompatible with dialogical ethics.

First, an historical distinction. Etymologically, dialogue (from Greek dialogos) refers to words like “talk” or “meaning”, whereas debate (from Latin battuere) refers to the idea of “beating” or “blowing”. Thus, dialogue seems to point to construction and comprehension, whereas debate would point to confrontation and division. This focusing is capital when trying to establish a significant contrast between them. The final thing constructed in a dialogue is open (undefined) at the beginning; it will be shaped while advancing all together, piece by piece. In a debate, the confrontation appears precisely because there are two, or more, much defined ideas of what has to be constructed.

Second. In all the dialogues, there is an increasing enrichment, or clarity, through the contributions of the other sides. Dialogue creates an openness to change. In a debate, arguments divergent from mine appear as obstacles or nuisances to be removed. Debate values the wearisome insistence of closed minds.

Third. A dialogue can be kept open easily, because what is looked for is an agreement, a consensus, a better understanding or new findings. A debate tries to close the discussion as soon as possible by convincing the other parts. In a dialogue, we are interested in listening to other voices, we need them, whereas in a debate to hear them is enough, because we are just waiting for our turn.

Fourth. In a dialogue, there are neither winners nor losers. It gravitates over arguments, ideas or proposals. In a debate, we seek for a single winner. It gravitates mainly over persons, groups or teams.

Fifth. Dialogue promotes tolerance actively towards what is different as one of the main ways of showing respect to others. A dialogue with intolerance is a contradiction. Debate can bear passively what is different or what is opposed to my own position. But in it difference is never a value, because any substantial difference is just an error.

Sixth. Dialogue valuates pauses and silence. Debate tries to take advantage of these breaks.

Seventh. Finally, the dialogue is an important aspect of the art of living together in harmony; so, it is an end in itself. In a dialogue you may, and often need to, reevaluate yourself. Debate appears as a technique that requires some skills; it is just a means. When debating you persist in trying to get all the credit.

Dialogue and dialogical ethics appear as a very suitable approach to students learning engineering ethics. Even more, whenever they are integrated in a virtual education frame. In this case, cultural diversity calls for a flexible, well-balanced and powerful device to integrate them advantageously in the deliberations generated by the analysis of cases. This treatment of cases and stories rejects, at the beginning, the use of abstract procedures and formalisms. In addition, it avoids the introduction of dogmatic values or principles to analyze them. The features of dialogue considered above help the students to feel the essential empathy required during negotiation and critical discussion of choices, necessities and consequences. Through dialogue, they learn to postpone initial judgments, to modulate their own position, to ask questions, and to be sensitive to other feelings, ideas, perspectives and interpretations.