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Engineering Ethics

  1. Feb 22, 2008 #1
    Not just the mundane business type ethics.

    As I'm nearing my B.S. in Mech/Aero engineering I have become very aware that its entierly possible I will be working in a defense type job building/fixing/improving war time machines. It really hit me when I recently went for an interview for a federal job in a section titled "lethality analysis".

    Has anyone out there also struggled with personal ethical issues arising from building things whose sole purpose is, shall we say, "counter-productive"?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 22, 2008 #2
    Defense is necessary of this country and that is mainly accomplished through technology. You will be building things that help protect this country.
  4. Feb 22, 2008 #3
    When my first engineering instructor told our class his proudest accomplishment was designing missles as a defense contractor I asked myself the same question.

    If we don't have missles, bombs, fighter jets or aircraft carriers someone who does will jack us up. Possessing an atomic bomb to prevent others from attacking us is entirely different than using the atomic bomb. If you design a lethal weapon you are responsible for creating something, so that our government leadership can say "hey if you want to mess with us, look at all these missles we can unleash on you."

    You are not at all responsible for it's use, that falls on the senators and president.

    And if you don't want to make bombs, senators and presidents will find someone who does, even if it means contracting it to India. Either way the bomb will be made.
  5. Feb 22, 2008 #4


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    Absolutely. I live in an area that has a lot of defense contractors - there are a lot of jobs in that field that pay better than what I make. But I made up my mind a long time ago that I wouldn't work in that field. Good for you for knowing yourself well enough to ask these questions.

    Yes, I understand the arguments that the person who builds a weapon isn't directly responsible for its use, and that if I don't build the weapon someone else will. Those rationalizations work for some people. But if you recoil at the thought of doing a "lethality analysis," follow your gut feeling.

    I work in a field that's far, far from making machines that kill people. When I get to the end of my career, I won't have a big bank account but my conscience will be clear.
  6. Feb 22, 2008 #5
    People are stupid. Feel free to help the evolution!

  7. Feb 22, 2008 #6


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    If you pay taxes you are buying the weapons - how is this different from building them?
  8. Feb 22, 2008 #7


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    Because I don't have a choice to pay taxes.

    Do you think that the only way to contribute to society is to work in defense (which, btw, is closer to offense due to the preemptive strike policy)?

    Are people who choose to work in defense are more patriotic than the rest of us?

    How about if I don't work in defense but I have, like, 15 yellow ribbons on the back of my car, does that make up for it?
  9. Feb 22, 2008 #8
    Following your 'gut feeling' is absolutely correct. If you really feel that it is morally wrong to engineer lethal weapons then don't do it. I understand the arguments and don't have any problems with the line of thought. I felt the same thing for a few months after my Engineering instructor announced the pride he had in designing missles. In fact, I was kind of appalled that someone could be proud of that kind of work.

    But then I read this book called "Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists" which discussed the developement of the atomic bomb. It tells of the scientists as they developed the first atomic bombs, and most notably, their strong opposition toward it's use in war. The government pretended to agree with them, insisting that the atomic bomb was required for preventative measures, to get them to continue working on the bomb, and when the bomb was eventually dropped on Japan all the scientists felt duped.

    Yes, they did construct an atomic bomb, but under deceptive circumstances. In this case, they can't be accused of moral wrong doing.

    After I read that I realized we need weapons for preventiative measures and if they get used, very little blame can come back to the scientist. But it just might be enough blame to avoid the work of weapon engineering altogether. Its a huge dilemma.
  10. Feb 22, 2008 #9
    The most important thin is to follow your gut as other's have mentioned.
    My views disagree with those mentioned on here, it is my opinion, and I have told myself I won't ever work for a job where I may in reality be aiding the production of guns or missiles and the like.
  11. Feb 22, 2008 #10
    It's ridiculous to be against the construction of weapons in the first place. Seriously, how do we defend ourselves? Would you be opposed to creating projectile weapons and their ammunition for law enforcement agencies?
  12. Feb 22, 2008 #11
    I think it was http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6248509" [Broken] NPR radio story that interviewed a guy whose responsibility during the recent Iraq war was to calculate casualty and lethality estimates, both military and civilian, for the Pentagon. If it's the thing I remember, he was not very complimentary about their attention to accuracy and realism.

    Maybe you'd have an opportunity to improve that; I wouldn't say that just taking the job itself is an endorsement of everything the military might do.

    In http://imdb.com/media/rm3684342016/tt0310793" [Broken] Michael Moore commented on the presence of the defense industry in the Columbine area. Of course, he was probably trying to imply some stronger connection between the defense industry and the shootings, as he usually does. But alot of it was simply juxtaposing people in the community saying, “This violence is insane and incomprehensible!” and then going to work and building missiles.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  13. Feb 22, 2008 #12
    Yes, I worked many years as a biomechanical engineer and constantly wrestled with the same question with regards to building equipment which would ultimately be used in a way that sacrificed animals. I handled it by thoroughly investigating each proposed project to see how it was necessary, how it was humanely handled, and how it would benefit people. I don't know what I would have done had there been an experiment where that was not the case, but I always found enough justification.

    But, continue to follow your own star. At the end of the day, that's what you'll have to live with.
  14. Feb 23, 2008 #13
    Actually you do have a choice

    Paying taxes to the US government is 100% optional. You simply move to another country.
    I'm not sure that making the US slightly more or slightly less competent in war has any effect on policy. Spending is a function of the pork barrel, so saving your salary does not affect overall decence budget.
    Also, it's worth pointing out that almost all technology has military applications. Computers, metallurgy, radio, construction, medicine, even developments in clothing and catering all get used. Oh yes, "green" technology like solar cells is loved by the military for powering isolated sensors in deserts or space.
  15. Feb 23, 2008 #14
    Good point about how all kinds of things benefit the military. And that might be a way to deal with the conscience issue. If you're doing a "heads-up" display for fighter pilots, that can be a different level of feeling from doing a new gun platform. It sort of depends on how each person holds that.
  16. Feb 23, 2008 #15
    Who knows how many the Applebee's Death By Chocolate Fudgetopia has really killed?

    And http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unmanned_aerial_vehicle" [Broken] are widely used. But I'm certainly no expert on UAVs or solar cells.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  17. Feb 23, 2008 #16
    Wow, I didn't know that anybody from North Korea posted here!
  18. Feb 23, 2008 #17
    What ever happened to Civil Disobedience and all that? You don't have to pay taxes.
  19. Feb 23, 2008 #18


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    completely legitimate question that, as an electrical engineer who does math and signal processing for a living, i had also wrestled with. the defense industry is also very interested in solutions to parameter estimation and signal processing, also, but we envision completely different means even if one to were assume the goals (a peaceful world) are the same.

    it's one reason i never joined IEEE, joined the Audio Engineering Society instead, and went into audio/music processing and synthesis.

    that's a value statement that completely ignores the concern that the OP brought. i wouldn't be so confident with it.
  20. Feb 23, 2008 #19
    Its statements like this which you usually use when talking about cold war and countries like north korea or iran. "Defense" (commonly refered to buying all possible guns, missiles, tanks avalible) is necessary for a country to gain power.
    Dont get me wrong though. I have nothing against engineers designing new weapons aslong as there are limits and I am more than happy to see people helping the evolution to take place.

  21. Feb 23, 2008 #20
    even if your designing nuclear weapons there are justifications.

    For instance if you look at the cold war, how many people would have been killed had that beome a hot war?

    and believe me thats what would have hapenned had there not been a MAD policy with nuclear weapons. in the end nuclear weapons have kept the peace between the major powers of the world for the past 60 years.
  22. Feb 23, 2008 #21
    I look forward to working in the defense industry.
  23. Feb 23, 2008 #22
    There are many unpleasant jobs in the world that nevertheless make my life more pleasant.

    For example, I like the occasional steak, but I'm quite happy that I don't have to work in a slaughterhouse.

    I sort of feel that way about the military and defense contractors. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And for the most part, I'm grateful that there are people around to do this work. However, I'm equally grateful that I'm not one of them.
  24. Feb 23, 2008 #23
    You can have two very drastic views on this issue.

    The first would be that you deplore weapons and you do not wish to take any part in taking away another life.

    Or secondly, you can conclude that these weapons will be made regardless if you do it or some else does it, so you could at least try to make the more accurate so less civilians deaths occur and/or less of your countries troops die.

    I don't know anyone in defense that builds weapons for the love of making weapons. Although, there may be ones. I think for the most part, the people that do it, feel there is a need to build these things, and it's their job to make work as efficiently as possible, but also as safe.

    If you don't have this desire, then don't resort to defense. You CAN find other jobs.

    Side note, Shackle, it ISN'T ridiculous to be against weapons. I think all of us, to some degree or another wish there wasn't a need and if given the choice between having them or living in peace, I would hope all of us would pick the latter. It may be a something a nation needs, but the ethics question comes in, when is to much? Take a look at the cold war, when did too many nukes happen? Once you make enough bombs to destroy the world, You obviously went to far.
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2008
  25. Feb 23, 2008 #24
    If you're really interested in learning how the military-industrial complex has entanged it's tentacles in america and how it has affected our society, I highly recommend "Why We Fight". It also talks about the potential danger to the republic that militarism and endless war have. Definately an eye opener.
  26. Feb 24, 2008 #25
    WOW! Thanks for all the great responses. I knew this could potentially be a hot button issue so I'm pleased (but not shocked in a community such as this) that it has remained so civilized and objective.

    In response I'd like to mention that my original post was not the first time that I have put my personal ethics questions into words for reflection against my peers and professors views. I feel that after a certain amount if introspective iteration there comes a point that comparing my conclusions to others is useful/enlightening/confirming. This, no doubt, comes from my educational background and personal relationships with the scientifically minded (meaning people who understand the importance and purpose of the scientific method).

    At this point I am settling on the trivial and obvious solution that everyone must find their own comfort level.

    Furthermore, I have also made the conclusion that there is no hiding from the guilt/karma/whatever that comes from war. Much as DominicConnor mentioned, almost all technology is either directly formed from, or will eventually be implemented into, acts of war and other things I would personal wish that they were not.

    From this, I view the situation as a cosmic Rube Goldberg ("butterfly effect" if you will but I feel the outcome can be determined with 100% certainty). I put myself in the position of an executioner. Would I feel less guilty, or have less shame, if I swung the blade myself versus pulling a string to release it? How many pullies and ropes until the machine begins to share some guilt? The answer for me, and I would hope most self aware beings, is infinity.

    Please continue to discuss your own views, but mention why and how you reached your conclusion.

    Keep it civil and respect others views.
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