Interview with Michael Davis



The day Notre Dame Cathedral was burning (April 15, 2019) was the day we sat down with Michael Davis, Senior Fellow of the Ethics Center who is becoming an emeritus professor in May of 2019. We spent a few minutes after the interview looking through photos of the damage. We, of course, discussed what ethical considerations would need to be examined in its rebuilding. The event was unexpectedly the culmination of an easygoing conversation with one of the leaders of engineering ethics and engineering ethics education.

In this interview Michael Davis shares advice for engineers, advice for engineering ethics teachers, and his hopes for engineering ethics in the future. We also talked about what brought him to where he is today.

In response to our question, “What advice do you have for engineers today?” Davis replied, “As soon as things look really good, look around for trouble, especially ethical trouble. Ethical issues seem to sneak up on people.” As a previous student of Davis’ engineering ethics class, I found this is a familiar thought. As a student, just when you think you have thought through all of the scenarios and checked all of the ethical boxes, Davis would present yet another ethical problem that you had not considered. This was an integral element of Davis’ teaching strategy. Davis’ advice for engineering ethics teachers today reflects this approach, “I think the thing I stressed all along is that you need a procedure for carrying on a discussion…you want to slow your students so they think through the issues. So I have my 7 step method, some people have 4 steps or 5 steps. It doesn’t matter which you use, but you really have to stop and think…”

Davis’ knowledge of the field of engineering ethics and engineering ethics education is extensive. However, Davis noted that this was, of course, not always the case. There was a time when he was new to the field. Davis’ background was in legal ethics before he began work in engineering ethics. His transition into engineering ethics was not without some trepidation. Considering this, we asked “What does it take to be an engineering ethics teacher?” Davis replied, “I think the most important thing is to get used to engineers and engineering. I’m assuming if you’re a philosopher you have the training that goes along with being a philosopher but turning that into something that’s useful to engineers requires something that philosophers in general don’t have, a knowledge of engineers.”

The field of engineering ethics has developed extensively during Davis’ career and we asked where he would like to see engineering ethics go. Davis replied that the greatest need is for a graduate programs in engineering ethics to generate more engineering ethics instructors: “The first thing I would like to see is a philosophy department in the United States establish a graduate program in engineering ethics.” Ideally, the program would include something like, “Two semesters that involve more individual research, getting cases; engineering ethics as an applied field is not that different from other applied fields of philosophy.”

We talked about the immense documentation of the Challenger disaster and its impact on engineering ethics education. “Some good lines came from that case,” Davis says, "like the well-known ‘take off your engineering hat’ ".  We discussed the "privatization" of engineering ethics cases today such as the Challenger produced. "Today there is a need for science journalists to document cases for the public and for use in the classroom."

When asked, “What would you say is your biggest contribution to the field of engineering ethics?” Davis modestly replied that his biggest contribution was probably providing a definition for the profession useful for studying engineers.  Davis was candid about how large a part luck played in his academic history. Had he not come to Illinois Tech, he probably would not have taken an interest in engineers. Had his wife not been a successful lawyer, he could not have afforded to stay at Illinois Tech.

After over 50 years of teaching philosophy, starting as a graduate assistant at the University of Michigan in 1966, Davis is retiring. "If my body were not giving out, I would teach forever."

Thank you Michael for taking the time to chat with us and enjoy your new journey!

Written by Monika Sziron

Interview conducted by Monika Sziron and Lina Wei