In This Issue
Radioactive Waste Disposal
September 1, 2003 Volume 33 Issue 3

Machines, Modifications of Nature, and Engineering Ethics

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

Engineers face complex moral issues that cannot be resolved by codes of professional behavior.

Ethics, to use the felicitous words Lord Bank uttered three-quarters of a century ago, can be called the "observance of the unenforceable." Ethics falls in the middle of the spectrum, with laws, norms, and codes at one extreme and good manners at the other. In Lawrence Durrel’s Justine, Balthazar says, "morality is nothing if it is merely a form of good behavior." These two definitions provide as good a preamble as any to a discussion of engineering ethics. The enormously complex moral issues that confront engineers cannot be resolved simply by codes of good professional behavior (engineer to engineer and engineer to employer), important as they are. Engineers must also have a sense of the profound implications those issues have for our society, and for our species. Without that understanding, engineers risk floundering in a sea of moral dilemmas and ambiguities that can distort the immense power humans have achieved through engineering.

Engineering is a process of creating and using artifacts, that is, machines, that extend our biological capabilities; these include dams, engines, radios, and computers, to name but a few. The ethics of engineering is the ethics of that process. Any machine is, in effect, a modification of nature - the creation of something that did not exist before, something that would not exist without human intervention. Thus, the ethics of engineering is also the ethics of the modification of nature. Humans, of course, are not the only organisms that modify nature, but they are the only ones that do it through a reasoned set of skills. Neither is engineering the only human activity that modifies nature; agriculture, interventional aspects of medicine, and genetic engineering (as its name implies) are some of the others. Every biological organism, which is itself a part of nature, affects its environment by its very existence. Engineering artifacts magnify that impact by extending the reach and power and enhancing the drives of humans to such an extent that sometimes new global phenomena are created, on the surface of the earth, in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and in space.

The modification of nature through artifacts, whether tangible or intangible, is as ambitious a task as understanding nature, which is the goal of science. Although the two are intertwined and an understanding of nature, including ourselves, is essential to reasoned modifications of nature, the ethical problems of science and engineering are different. In science, they revolve largely around epistemological issues, such as how we go about knowing nature. The greatest ethical lapse in science is misconduct in research, the falsification of data or results that betrays the integrity of the search for truth. In engineering, the ethical problems are more nebulous because of the myriad purposes, methods, and consequences involved in modifications of nature and the creation of machines. Probably, the most glaring ethical lapses are in giving a false sense of security about the performance of a machine or overlooking potentially dangerous consequences and side effects. Examples range from exposing workers to machines that create a damaging level of noise to promulgating, endorsing, or applying a code or design the engineer knows to have dangerous limitations but lacks the courage to disclose (as happened on October 9, 1953, when Vajont Dam in the Alps gave way and, in a few seconds, wiped out an entire town of 2,000 people). Beyond the traditional issues of good professional behavior, most ethical questions in engineering can be grouped into four areas: modifications of nature; cui bonum (i.e., who benefits); methods and designs; and control of technology.

Modifications of Nature
After some four million years of nature-modifying human activities, we are still debating why we modify nature and whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. The impulse to modify nature through the creation of artifacts is as fundamental a human trait as the curiosity that underlies science. Other living organisms modify nature instinctively. We do it consciously, using engineering, medicine, and agriculture, following an impulse that is at the core of our identity. There is no a priori reason why, as a species, we should not become extinct like other species. In fact, the evolutionary process is a graveyard of biological designs. But our ability to understand nature through science and to modify it through engineering and purposeful design might, if we use them wisely, save us from that fate. In other words, our ability to modify nature might enable us to escape the strictures of purely biological evolution. Thus, the essential issue is not whether we should continue to modify nature, but how far we should go. This is a question of both science (our knowledge of nature) and engineering (our prowess in creating machines). But it is first and foremost a question of ethics, a search for guiding principles.

Some of the questions related to the modification of nature are not immediately associated with the realm of professional engineering, but they are fundamental to the practice of engineering. And engineers are situated to perceive them from a distinctive vantage point because engineers are uniquely qualified to clarify the essence of machines - nature-modifying artifacts - and the ethical issues associated with them. This challenge has traditionally stymied philosophical inquiry, but the questions have become more urgent, particularly as more and more advanced machines are designed with characteristics akin to those of biological organisms, such as machines that can reproduce or replicate themselves and machines that have a kind of self-awareness. Engineers must become participants in ongoing discussions of these issues with scientists, philosophers, social analysts, historians, and urban planners.

Every machine brings with it the possibility of an unforeseen catastrophic event, either internal or external. The history of engineering disasters provides myriad examples, from the collapse of Roman bridges designed with piers too thick to accommodate exceptional floods to the explosion of TWA flight 800 to the tragedy of September 11. As we increasingly modify nature through machines that have not been tested in the crucible of evolution, we are placing ourselves further and further out on our evolutionary limb. How does one deal with the ethical issue of unfathomed or unfathomable consequences? These consequences are associated not only with machines designed for extreme environments, such as submarines, the space station, and pacemakers. Unforeseen consequences are also, and often more importantly, associated with simpler mass-produced machines, such as automobiles and televisions. Clearly, decisions about popular consumer products and major government systems both involve more than engineering; they also involve ethical, sociopolitical, and economic considerations.

Engineers have a responsibility to make their views heard in the public debate, something they have been reluctant to do. Engineers often choose to operate exclusively within the framework of engineer and employer or engineer and other engineers. Today, however, engineers are at a crossroads, and they must recognize the broad, ethical implications of their actions.


The impact of machines on the environment and, ultimately, on the sustainability of the planet, touch on the entire spectrum of issues facing engineers. Increasingly powerful and numerous machines have exponentially increased the impact of human activity on the environment. Engineers, as part of the larger sociopolitical community, must decide how to proceed when the impact cannot be fully understood or predicted. Engineers should participate in discussions of how the immediate, burgeoning needs for housing, water, energy, transportation, and other necessities can be addressed without causing environmental alterations that will affect future generations and the future of the Earth.


Cui Bonum
Engineers must be aware of who will benefit from a particular modification, a particular design. Before the Challenger tragedy, some of the engineers had argued that the flight should not go forward, but the interests of supervisory management prevailed. What is the duty of engineers in such situations? Cui bonum questions confronting engineers go beyond intergenerational ethics, beyond the alterations of nature at the cost of long-term sustainability. The piercing, ear-damaging noise emitted by an ambulance helps speed patients to the hospital but is not good for bystanders. Similarly, the noise of an airplane speeding passengers to a destination can be injurious to people living under the flight path. Should engineers do their utmost to mitigate these effects? Should mitigation prevail over other considerations?


These issues have been addressed by legislators and economists, but they are also ethical issues for engineers. Legislative measures, although necessary, are not sufficient to resolve them. Should engineering firms build projects in countries suspected of harboring terrorists? If these projects strengthen potential adversaries, is it ethical for engineers to build them? Enduring ethical questions also relate to the building of weapons, particularly weapons that can cause uncontrollable collateral damage or that have widespread global impacts. These are pressing questions for engineers of all nations.


The traditional human-centric belief at the heart of the engineering enterprise is that humans have a right to modify nature. But we must also consider the impacts of engineering on other species. Who benefits? We are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of other organisms to our own long-term survival, but is this the only reason we should preserve other species? Beyond utilitarian motives, do we have a responsibility to other living organisms? Montaigne addressed this question more than four centuries ago, "We poorly argue the honor and duty of an action from its utility and we commit fallacy in thinking that everyone is obliged to perform, that it is honorable for everyone to perform, an action merely because it is useful."

The impacts of engineering affect many populations, from individuals to nations, the natural world, the climate, and the entire planet. In doing right by one group, we may do damage to other groups. Engineers must begin to debate their ethical responsibility to improve the conditions of populations up and down the scale. A host of technologies, from water purification to radio, have benefited the entire world and helped preserve other species. Engineers should ask themselves if they have an ethical responsibility to help eradicate the endemic scourges of poverty and disease.


Methods and Designs
Beyond questions about the purpose and extent of modifications loom ethical questions associated with the methodology of modifications - with engineering design. Methodology has become so complex that it sometimes interferes with a clear understanding of purpose. Machines extend the reach of humans, and, if they are well designed, their performance, unlike the performance of humans, should be fully predictable. However, we are beginning to create machines of such complexity, such as computer programs, that they are not fully testable. Under what conditions is it ethical to design machines with unpredictable behavior? Is it ethical to rush machines to market that have not been fully tested or that we know (or suspect) have defects in performance? These questions touch on often subtle conflicts between reducing costs and creating better or safer machines.

Control of Technology
The question of whether and how to control the creation and use of technology raises ethical issues of great concern to society. The issues for science and engineering have many parallels. Should science be pursued for its own sake? Is it ethical to control access to knowledge? In engineering, the issues include technological determinism and runaway technology - the "if it can be built, it will be built, no matter what" of Robert Moses’ late period. They also encompass questions of access to engineering education for women and minorities and who controls standards and codes.

Not all questions involving the modification of nature are in the unenforceable domain of ethics. Many have been addressed through legislation, which is based on ethical principles of right and wrong. But laws reach only so far. Some actions that are legal may be unethical in the context of the special problems facing a profession or the action of an individual. Cases identified as professional misconduct, which may be patently unethical, may or may not fall within the domain of the law. Ethics are needed to provide the brake that law may be unable to provide. In a recent legal ruling, for instance, a court ruled that knowledge of unsafe conditions was not enough to prove liability; but the ethical question remains.

Systems of checks and balances, both formal and informal, have been established, and governments at all levels, professional societies, and the media have endeavored to address these issues. But these mechanisms cannot be sufficient in all circumstances. We need ethical guidance that harkens back to the fundamental questions of why and how far we should modify nature and to whose advantage. A recent example of the insufficiency of formal mechanisms and the need for this guidance was encountered in the evacuation of the World Trade Center towers on September 11. The difficulties were apparently exacerbated by a building code set by the owners that called for narrower stairways.


Engineering Ethics for the Future
Ethics was originally in the domain of religion. In the West, beginning with the Greeks, it was also a subject of philosophical inquiry. Eventually, new views of the world were shaped, largely thanks to scientific thinking and discoveries, and with them came new ethical questions. Today engineering, as the motive force of technology, has raised pressing new ethical issues - especially as engineering begins to focus inward on the body. Artificial organs, tissue engineering, and genetic engineering have blurred the boundary between machines and biological organisms, raising a host of new ethical questions.

Developing a coherent engineering ethics out of the enormously complex, intertwined ethical questions facing engineers today will be extremely difficult. To be true to the great responsibility of extending our biological capabilities, ethics of engineering must go beyond broad generalities and codes of professional good conduct modeled after the Hippocratic oath. Ethics of engineering for the twenty-first century must also endeavor to address intelligent modifications of nature, technological determinism, access to the profession, conflicts and inequities of technology, the balance between global risk and safety, global sustainability, and engineering designs of machines with unpredictable performance. And they must address the responsibility of engineers to participate actively in debates about the human condition and the future of our species.

No doubt we have come a long way from the limited idea of ethics reflected in older engineering codes. If one considers the tens of millions of people who were killed in the last century by weapons designed by engineers, we have also come a long way from the naive definition of engineering as the application of science for the benefit of humankind. At this moment, we have no simple, overarching principle, no simple definition of the "good" to guide us through the maze of complex technologies. A coherent, comprehensive engineering ethic will have to be built patiently, stone by stone, case by case, and then continuously tested and reexamined in the context of very rapid technological and social change. This is an enormous and urgent challenge.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is chancellor of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, New York, and an NAE member.