Evolving Engineering Culture and Morality

[tl;dr: While engineering does have a background of moral criticism of the profession, it is stuck in the early 20th century. It needs to quickly expand the context of engineering moral discourse to match the crises facing the planet.]

I’ve had this idea for a while. I’m going to try to flesh it out in a few posts. Bear with me here, and please weigh in your thoughts in the comments section!

Why Moral Philosophy is Important

I’m of the school of thought that the philosophical underpinnings of any person or community is fantastically important to the well-being and functioning of that community. Few people besides perhaps philosophy professors are critically aware of their philosophical perspectives on a daily basis (“What shall I do this afternoon? Hmmm… let me consult my ethical theory…”), but people’s daily actions are guided by moral principles whether they realize it or not.

These moral principles don’t come out of a vacuum: they come from philosophers, moral leaders, cultural icons. They flow from the intellectual work of thousands of humans throughout history, perpetuating themselves in written work, mythologies, memes, cliche phrases, etc.

Being unaware of one’s specific moral perspective doesn’t mean your actions aren’t guided by a moral perspective. It means your actions are guided by a moral perspective that you are unaware of. It could be a contradictory mash-up of any number of mutually inconsistent ethical philosophies, although if you grew up in the Western world in the past hundred years or so, Kant probably has a lot to do with it. Think a clashy youtube remix video except with moral ideas.

With this in mind, the choice that individuals and communities face is this:

  • Be aware of, reflect upon, discuss, and critically engage moral philosophy in order to act in congruence with one’s moral perspective.
  • Or, be unaware of any particular moral philosophy, or at least refrain from critical engagement; soak up “moral feeling” via osmosis from the cultural environment; and act in accordance with this vague, unreflective moral feeling.

Of those two choices, the engineering community has clearly and unsurprisingly chosen the former. An amazon.com search for “engineering ethics” results in 2,697 hits. Most of the things engineers design and build can kill people. We build cars, bridges, buildings, dams, sanitation infrastructure, fresh water infrastructure, the basic technological systems that allow civilization to flourish, and the software systems to control all of the above. Failure, or even misapplication, of any of these systems can have an enormous impact on the welfare of the public these systems are intended to serve.

The canon on engineering ethics is large and established. The incredible drive and commitment to the safety of the public on the part of the engineering community has been vastly successful in the West. We now build buildings that ride out earthquakes that used to flatten entire regions. Our vehicles are incredibly safe, considering that they are steel-and-glass cages being hurtled along roads at breakneck speeds and are operated by an uncomfortably large number of pituitary stressed-out basket cases with a minimum of training. We almost never get sick due to contaminated water supplies any more (by “we”, I of course am referring to that privileged class of people who live in the first world).

Engineering professionals have by no means been negligent or lackadaisical in their approach to upholding the safety, health, and welfare of the public. In fact, they’ve overall been stunning.


I think that there are moral considerations of the engineer’s work that as of yet have not received proper critical engagement. I’m talking about the moral context of global climate destabilization; freshwater availability; rainforest destruction; peak oil/soil/phosphorous/everything; ecologically catastrophic resource extraction; biotic collapse; socially unjust development projects; and the infrastructures that are intimately entwined with and enable global economic and social inequity. The projects engineers work on directly impact all of the above.

If we can foster a clear discussion about the moral obligation of engineers to these issues and understand that they are no less relevant than e.g. seismic safety, we can unleash our profession’s abilities to tackle these issues head on. It’s time for us to step up and courageously engage every dimension of these problems in the fulfillment of our professional obligation to the public.

The State of Engineering Ethics

Some work is being done on these broader issues – the elephant in the room is being exploratively poked at – but not enough work, not fast enough, not critically enough. Most of the ethical discourse doesn’t appear to have changed significantly since the middle of the 20th century. Some texts attempt to lump a few of these issues into a chapter titled “Environmental Issues”, which is a fundamental failure right off the bat.

One of the signs of ethical discourse in the rank-and-file of engineering is in the ethical verbiage that is codified in various professional engineering oaths, statements, and declarations.

As an example, this is an Oath that engineers inducted into the Order of the Engineer must swear to:

I am an engineer, in my profession I take deep pride.

To it I owe solemn obligations.

Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.

Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.

Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.

Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experience, my efforts would be feeble.

As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.

As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.

When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.

In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.

~The Obligation of the Engineer

How strictly relevant an Oath drafted in the ’70’s is to the modern state of engineering ethics is is questionable, but I think it’s an at least interesting reflection of what the moral/philosophical position on engineering was and, to a certain extent, is.

Public Welfare: Engineering’s Prime Directive

The following statement in one form or another is found in the ethical canon of professional engineering societies the world over:

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
~National Society of Professional Engineers

The paramount obligation of the engineer is to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Nothing trumps this. Not profit, competitive edge, technological exuberance, patriotic ideals, ideology — if an action is contrary to the welfare of the public, it is against the engineer’s moral obligation. No engineer will contest this.

(Quick note: in this context, “welfare” has nothing to do with charity or handouts. It has to do with well-being, proper functioning, wellness, etc.)

Don’t Hurt People, Make Stuff Better

There are two morally relevant ways to interact with the safety, health, and welfare of the public. The first and most obvious mode of interaction is to directly cause harm the public, either through negligence, error, or malevolence. An unsafe bridge that falls down, or a sewer system that fails and spews cholera into the water supply are ways that engineering projects might actively harm the safety and health of the public. It is said that the engineer has a moral obligation to not harm the public.

The second mode of interaction is to create systems that actively increase the welfare of the public over the status quo. Designs that make people’s lives better than they were before. Like how washer machines made domestic labor less taxing, prosthetics make amputee’s lives better, wheelchairs and ADA-compliant buildings make handicapped folk’s lives better, borax processing makes glass safer in buildings and vehicles, etc.

Designs that increase the welfare of the public aren’t an obligation. It’s great if you make something that makes the status quo better, but no one is going to call you immoral for making some trivial doo-dad. Besides, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between trivial doo-dads and artifacts that actually positively impact society (ahem, Twitter).

However, this aspirational and idealistic approach to engineering, this desire to make the world a better place, often gets shorted when it comes to ethical discussions (or, even, discussions in general). A lot of time is focused on disaster cases and failures. The popular narrative of the engineer using her skills to make the world better is weaker than it should be.

So the first mode is a required negative act (don’t harm people) while the second is an optional positive act (increase the quality of life of people). Don’t hurt people, make stuff better.

Easy, right?

It’s Not That Simple

My contention is that the concept of public welfare clearly isn’t being understood broadly or critically enough, in terms of the obligation to not hurt people. The majority of ethical discourse in engineering revolves around the standard topics: bridges, buildings, and other structures failing and killing people; machines blowing up and killing people; engineered systems failures that kill people or make them sick. The rest of the issues discussed are things like corruption, whisteblowing vs. responsibility to the employer, intellectual property, etc.

But the threats to public welfare are becoming increasingly complex and wide-ranging. We know more things about the relationship between human constructed systems and the public welfare than we used to. There is now, in 2012, a large and increasing body of critical work discovering the relationships between our artifactual civilization and the well-being of communities. Hazard is abundant in our world, and the relationships between cause and hazardous effect, while oftentimes not as obviously clear as a faulty truss design leading to a fatal bridge collapse, are no less real or morally relevant.

It’s not enough anymore to merely consider whether the bridge will fall down and kill people. There are more questions that must be asked:

Where does the steel for the bridge come from? How much carbon is being dumped into the atmosphere by the processing and transportation of the steel to the construction site? How many mountaintops were blown into oblivion to mine the coal required to manufacture the materials?

Even more telling, what is the purpose of the bridge? Is its primary function to provide a way for commuters to more easily move between a new sprawling suburban tract development and their distant places of work? Is it just another piece of infrastructure of an insane development system that is poisoning the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the stability of the planet on which we live while isolating us as individuals, weakening community, and further commodifying humanity?

If the bridge is part of a fundamentally doomed and destructive form of “progress” that is doing real, measurable damage to the well-being and flourishing of human communities, what can we say about it in relation to the engineer’s obligation to the public’s welfare?

Seventh Generation Engineering

It is also no longer enough to consider the immediate, obvious, and intended effects of engineering projects. The welfare of the public has a new temporal dimension that has never in the history of Western industrial civilization been considered: the generational dimension. Sure, a bridge might improve the lifestyles of an exclave of upper-middle class debt-ridden white-collar workers right now. But what about the lifestyles of all of the laborers scattered over the globe required to bring those materials into that bridge? What about the quality of life of future generations who will pay the consequences of a world with a catastrophically unstable climate system that the bridge helped cause?

We know that mountaintop removal devastates swaths of ecosystems and turns gorgeous country into a hellscape. We know that outdoor air pollution causes ~3,500 deaths a day. We know that carbon emissions are pushing our climate off a cliff from which there is no return. We know that offshore oil rigs will fail and effect massive destruction. We know nuclear plants kill people when they fail. We know agribusiness is destroying our topsoil and making us unhealthy and poor. We know our buildings are full of carcinogens and toxins. We know our development strategies destroy vibrant communities and oppress those least able to defend themselves.

All of these things directly and adversely impact the safety, health, and welfare of the public. And we know it. And yet it’s almost all we’re doing.

I’m not trying to be preachy, or wag my finger and moralize at people. I’m not saying we need to do xyz because it’s the “right” thing to do. (Besides being an incredibly presumptuous stance to take, it never works anyways. Ever.) I’m saying that the language of moral reflection may offer a useful conceptual lens with which to engage in and discuss these issues, with the hopeful outcome of effecting change in engineering culture.

We need to talk about this, openly, everywhere. We need calls to actions. We need new ethical codes, new Oaths (well, maybe), new standards by which to judge our actions, new memes and cultural modes.

We need to stop making things that hurt people.

And we need a more robust vision of how to Make Stuff Better, and then we need to do it.

More to come on this topic soon….



Big ups to my brother, Tim Disney, for kickass feedback on a first draft.

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