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Be Prepared to Learn Something New about Ethics from the Engineers

Philosophers do not know everything about ethics. Our technical colleagues have a long history of engaging with ethical challenges, from the nuclear physicists and engineers who confronted the moral challenge of atomic weapons in World War II and the petro-chemical engineers who knew a lot about the environmental consequences of a hydrocarbon-based energy economy long before liberal environmentalists awoke to the problem, to the programmers, systems analysts, and computer engineers at Google whose recent open revolt led to the company withdrawing from the competition for the Department of Defense’s new Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure 0EDI) initiative. Not all of those people made commendable moral choices, but that they were confronting serious moral questions was clear to most. In some cases they evinced exemplary moral leadership, as when, in the Spring of 1945, many of the staff at the Manhattan Project’s “Metallurgical Lab” at the University of Chicago drafted what is now known as the “Franck Report.” In this report they advanced powerful arguments against the use of the atomic bomb in a surprise attack on a civilian target and clearly asserted the principle that their specialist technical expertise entailed a responsibility to act politically and morally, as opposed to confining their actions to merely technical aspects of nuclear weapons (Franck and Rabinowitch 1945; Mian 2015).

Understand that Engineers are Cultural Optimists

Most of us misremember the core message in C. P. Snow’s classic 1959 Rede lecture, “The Two Cultures.” Yes, Snow was concerned with the obstacles to communication between humanists, on the one hand, and scientists and engineers, on the other. But he was equally, or, on my reading, more concerned about making a very different point, which is that the engineer is a cultural optimist while the humanist is a cultural pessimist. The humanist is so overwhelmed by the tragic nature of the human condition as to be rendered clueless and powerless in the face of moral challenges. If we are all fallen beings and the human condition is, essentially, a tragic one, then, try as we might, the struggle will only end in failure and still greater suffering.

The engineer, by contrast, just wants to solve the problem and make things better. Both are naive. The humanist discounts the evidence of moral progress. The engineer, according to Snow, discounts the obstacles to progress. Still, the fact remains that the engineer just wants to make things better and is willing to risk moral failure as the price to be paid for trying to make the world a better place. That this was the point that Snow mainly wanted to stress is made more clear in the follow-on essay, “A Second Look,” included in the second edition of The Two Cultures (Snow 1963). Here he voiced the worry that the West might well lose the Cold War, because it undervalued and underfunded technical training; meanwhile, the Soviet Union was flooding the developing world with thousands of young engineers who, fired with moral and political determination, were building schools, hospitals, water and sewer systems, highways, railways, airports, shipyards, communications infrastructure, factories, and modern farms. Snow misunderstood the trajectory that the Cold War was following, but his emphasis on the place of the engineer in international development assistance was another expression of his view that the distinguishing feature of both the temperament and the social role of the engineer was the commitment to putting engineering skills to use in the betterment of the human condition.

Appreciate the Moral Impulse Inherent in the Work of All Engineers

My work with engineers confirms Snow’s point about the engineering temperament: the engineer wants to make things better and believes that, with effort and will, progress is achievable. The philosopher, seeking to collaborate with the engineer, must recognize and affirm that sentiment. This might be derided by the philosopher as a simple-minded, blind faith in technology’s ability to solve any problems, even those of its own making. That might be right, up to a point, and more so for some individuals than others. But it is also well to remember that the engineer’s training teaches one what things cannot do, as well as what they can. Failure analysis is a central part of an engineer’s training. Lots of engineers are keenly aware of the limits on their ability to solve problems.

This moral impulse at the heart of the engineering profession is demonstrated by the existence of Canadian and US engineering honor societies built around the engineer’s moral obligations to self, to the profession, and to the larger community affected by the engineer’s work (Wedel 2012). In Canada, the Corporation of the Seven Wardens was established in 1925 by prominent engineers associated with the Engineering Institute of Canada, who believed that something was needed to make a firmer commitment to ethics and the moral responsibilities of the engineer. Organized in 26 “Camps” or branches, with which all Canadian universities that grant engineering degrees are affiliated, the Corporation requires those being inducted to take an oath called “The Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer.” The corresponding US society, the Order of the Engineer, was established in 1970, in direct response to the environmental crisis, but also to the campus uproar around the role of scientists and engineers doing weapons research and development at the time of the Vietnam War. Its members also swear an oath, called the “Obligation of the Order of the Engineer.” Members of both the Canadian and US societies receive a plain ring as a reminder of the oath. Originally, in Canada, the ring was made of iron from a bridge that collapsed during construction causing many fatalities and injuries. Today the ring is made of stainless steel.

Remember that Ethics Is Not Just a Matter of Saying "No"

Do not make the mistake of reinforcing the worry encountered among many engineers that ethics is just a way of telling the engineer what he or she may not do. Ethics should be as much about opening up new and productive lines of research and development as it is about foreclosing ethically problematic lines of investigation. As philosophers, we have been conditioned to think that technology, per se, is a problem and that, by extension, the engineers who develop new technologies are the agents of the harm wrought by technological innovation. The history of the field of inquiry called the “philosophy of technology” goes back to the anti-technology critiques of Martin Heidegger, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jacques Ellul, among others, and, to this very day, that history shapes the dominant orientation of scholarship on technology ethics (Howard forthcoming). But history is not fate, and, as philosophers, we have the critical and analytical skills necessary to help us overcome that legacy—if only we become self-aware as the descendants of an intellectual tradition of technology critique that overemphasizes the baleful effects of technology, and undervalues technology’s emancipatory potential when pursued in an appropriately reflective and critical spirit. Market forces, institutional pressures, and intellectual inertia make that a more daunting challenge. But why would one think that putting our intellectual skills to work in the service of enhancing human flourishing would be easy, rather than hard? Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Let the Problems Be One's Guide

A final piece of advice is that collaboration with our engineering colleagues works best when it arises out of a shared engagement with a specific problematic agenda (Howard 2016). As with all substantive interdisciplinary work, collaboration with engineers should not originate out of some Platonic commitment to trans-, cross-, or interdisciplinarity. The way it should work is that I find myself interested in and dedicated to thinking about geo-engineering, or human enhancement, or the exploitation of social media for hacking an election. I read everything that I can find. I realize there are technical issues that I do not really understand. I reach out to science and engineering colleagues who care about the same issues but who have command of a technical skill set that I lack. I find that they see themselves as lacking philosophical frameworks and skills of analysis and persuasion crucial for constructing social and political solutions to what are not merely technical problems. We decide to collaborate. We learn from one another. If all turns out well, we make, together, a modest contribution to the betterment of the human condition. We become friends.

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