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Nolan Poe

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Is an engineer morally responsible for harm caused by their creations?

I am currently on the path to become a mechanical engineer. I don't have exact numbers, but I'd estimate that about a half of all engineering work goes into weapons. This is based on anecdotal evidence I have gathered in my home town and is most certainly up for debate. If I am correct, though, I will probably end up designing instruments of death and destruction at one point in my life. If I work on a gun that kills an innocent man, woman or child, I don't know that I could sleep soundly ever again. I don't know that I could explain to the victim's mother why I made something so lethal. My worst nightmare is sitting on my deathbed thinking of nothing but those I helped kill. As Peter van Uhm explains, they can also be instruments of peace, I find that less than consoling considering the potential for misuse. I would appreciate thoughtful responses. It's easy to answer "no" but please consider the emotional aspects as well.

Topics: engineering war

Closing Statement from Nolan Poe

This question had a variety of answers. Most agreed that weapons and weapons development were necessary. Some urged me to stick to what I feel is best, regardless of what the world and its nations want. A few suggested that I had already decided, which isn't true per se. The default scenario is for me to go about my career with little regard as to what my work will be used for. The reason I asked the question is because I was uneasy with this and curious about how others had rationalized it, if at all. I'd like to thank everyone for responding and helping me figure out what to do with my life.

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    • Feb 7 2012: Thank you, very insightful. Regarding not playing the world's game, you have to understand that Engineers must follow the money. It's not greed, it's just how the supply and demand of labor works.
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        • Feb 7 2012: I'd like to believe what you're saying is false, but it's true. I don't want anyone to give me permission as much as I want them to explain how they rationalize it, but that's a technicality. I'm not the first to be faced with this dilemma and I won't be the last, so it was just an appeal to those older than me for insight into this decision.
      • Feb 7 2012: There may be reasonable compromises but there is no "must" about following the money. Drawing a line not to be crossed is part of what morality is about.
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        Feb 8 2012: You are only faced with a dilemma because you make it one. On one hand you want the money, on the other, you know what you will do for a job will be wrong. If you followed what you know to be the right path, there would be no dilemma. In fact, the only dilemma you really have is 'how do I make myself feel better about this?'
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    Feb 3 2012: An engineer is only responsible for his own intent. The user is responsible for his/her own intent. Why did he invent what he invented? To what purpose? Is the inventor of a brick responsible for it being used as a weapon? The user of the brick is. The inventor of a spear is responsible for his intent - was it to kill his neighbor or to bring home dinner....
    • Feb 3 2012: Fair enough, but don't compare a gun to a brick. You can't build a building out of guns (I would actually love to see this disproven). ;)
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        Feb 3 2012: I think the point John was making is, A brick is used as a weapon, not that a brick is used as a gun.
        • Feb 3 2012: yeah, but a brick has many uses that don't involve destruction. like building something. A gun's only redeeming quality is that some of the people it kills could be quite evil and removing them can make the world a better place.
    • Feb 4 2012: Not quite. An engineer is responsible for taking reasonable precautions that his work is in the public interest. That may be better put in the double negative. An engineer is responsible for taking reasonable precautions that his work will not result in harm to the public. In the case of weapons, that means the assessment should be that the overall good will exceed the overall harm.

      Although the amount of work that goes into weapons is large I would be very surprised if it was anywhere near half of all engineering work. That would, in my opinion, be a very strong argument against van Uhm. Nevertheless, it is not black and white and you need to form your own opinion. Compromises always have to be made but lines also have to be drawn to remain self honest.
      • Feb 7 2012: I agree with your first point. In a reply to edward long, I mentioned that increasing the precision of modern weapons systems is a worthy goal. It lets you reduce collateral damage among other things. I would judge this to be morally good.

        And one need only look at the breakdown of the US National budget to see how much our country contributes to the weapons industry.
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    Feb 2 2012: Whether weapons are used rightly or wrongly is not the business of those who design, build, and use them. When a person, or a nation, has something of value, whether it be their gold or their freedom, there will always be those who will try to take it from them. Capable, superior even, weapons are the means of defending against tyranny and oppression. Like all things Man is capable of misusing weapons, but that does not change the fact that miltary might is essential to the freedom of a nation. Bob Dylan is free to sing Masters of War anywhere in America thanks to the designers, builders and users of weapons. Here's a design tip from an old-school design engineer, whatever you design, Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). Best wishes Mr. Poe.
    • Feb 2 2012: Thank you. As much as I would like to say it's not my business, I have trouble being that callous. Time will tell, I suppose, but I would like to have some knowledge of how my work will affect others. As much as I would love to work on things that do not destroy, I have a hard time believing that I'll be able to consistently find work without working for a defense contractor. As I think about it more and more, I'm starting to understand more about modern warfare. Waging war today is all about being precise and minimizing collateral damage, because collateral damage increases the strength of the foe you face. For every civilian you kill, a bunch of his or her buddies become hostile. I can deal with that. I think that making weapons more precise is a worth goal, and one I am more than willing to contribute to.
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        Feb 2 2012: I hope we agree weapons are necessary Nolan. It is OK for you to avoid being a weapons designer if you consider it morally dubious. But I urge you not to think less of weapons designers. Many of us see it as meaningful service to our country, kind of like military service with good pay. Also, when I say "not your business" I mean you have nothing to say about where, why, or when those weapons are put to use. That's not callous, that's acceptance of your chosen role.
        • Feb 3 2012: True, all true. I think time will help me come to terms with this. And I agree they are necessary in many cases. That's why this is even up for debate. Peter van Uhm's talk opened my eyes in that regard. And I agree that weapons engineering, especially when design criteria include precision and low collateral damage, is necessary if not noble work.
        • Feb 5 2012: @edward long

          It is very much the business of those who design and build whether they are wrongly or rightly used. It is reasonable to believe that many weapons designers do not consider the morality of their business or their employer and do it for money. He does have a say, limited though its effect may be, but he might be crucified for making a moral stand and your comments are not helpful in that regard. Weapons design and building is a morally dubious industry even if some have a justifiable moral stand.
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    jag . 50+

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    Feb 5 2012: Great question, I'm a civil engineer and I have asked myself the same question. Luckily I have found my passion, and it is to do with working in developing countries and reducing poverty through engineering.

    You could check out EWB (Engineers Without Borders) http://www.ewb-uk.org/

    WEDC http://wedc.lboro.ac.uk/

    Redr http://www.redr.org.uk/

    Feel free to contact me if you want more info :)
    • Feb 7 2012: I think I will contact you at some point. I've been looking at EWB ever since I graduated high school, and it would be good to ask questions to somebody who actually does it!

      Unrelated: Civil Engineers don't have to deal with the moral stuff as much, because you know.... Mechanical engineers build weapons, civil engineers build targets. ;)
  • Feb 5 2012: .
    > I will probably end up designing instruments of death and destruction
    unless you decide not to.

    Peter Van Uhm's opinion, is just the opinion of a person who chose a gun.

    Are you responsible? is the inventor of the solar panel responsible for lowering pollution? I think so, the most of the responsibility belongs to the people that choose that technology, but that guy's got his merit. You'll have your small part of responsibility for the good and the bad outcomes. Designing weapons, you do the math.

    There is no way back, more powerful weapons will be developed with or without your contribution, but seems to me that you don't really want to get involved, and I agree. So why not to focus on the other half of the jobs?
    • Feb 7 2012: Very true, but I don't want to be blind to the relatively large portion of weapons work that reduces loss of life--especially in urban combat scenarios like the ones The United States seems to be enjoying right now. Like I would absolutely love to be a part of a project that allows for better detection of IEDs. I would feel great about myself every morning. But if the project were to create IEDs that are better able to avoid detection, I don't think I would feel very good about myself at all.
  • Feb 2 2012: Depends on your intent when you design. Are you designing a nuclear bomb, or nuclear power. Are you designing ovens for biscuits or people? Anti-virus may become destructive virus as conditions and controls change. Many things designed can have a multiple purpose outcomes. Good, bad and ugly. We are dependent upon your just intentions, and you are dependent upon ours when we get our greasy hands on your inventions.
    • Feb 3 2012: I like this! Concise, too. Thanks! :)
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      Feb 3 2012: Mr. Allyn, I disagree that nuke designers did a bad thing. Equal force is a proven tactic of self-defense, whether in a dark, back alley, or a global stand-off. America needed WMD because our potential assailants had them. Such weapons do cause massive collateral damage (Hiroshima, Nagasaki). The engineers and scientists who contributed to America's arsenal of nukes ought not be looked-down upon for their efforts. Had we not had "mutual destruction capability" our enemy might well have defeated us. Participating in the creation of nuclear bombs was no less honorable than any other weapon design task.
      • Feb 3 2012: but many of them regretted it afterwards, claiming that they wish they had not contributed to the project. We can debate whether the blood of so many are on their hands, but many of them thought so. it's dubious at best. Many of them didn't know what the actual yield would be until the tests were carried out. after seeing the tests, i'm sure many of them had second thoughts.
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          Feb 3 2012: I cannot disprove your premise about eventual regret, you may be right. My point is limited to the idea of weapons design not being labeled as immoral or evil. Thanks Nolan. By the way, give some thought to specializing in urban infrastructure. Cities are in dire straits and if peace ever breaks out the big jobs will be power, water, sewage, communications, mass transit, etc.
        • Feb 7 2012: Many books and articles argue this point endlessly. Hindsight is indeed 20/20. When the Manhattan project was begun the biggest fear was that Nazi Germany would develop and use an atomic bomb first. There is some anecdotal evidence that Heisenberg was able to subtly sabotage the project to prevent its fruition. Norway's shipments of heavy water south were known.

          The Japanese effort was not nearly as far along.

          Oppenheimer wanted the post war world to have ready access, so as to eliminate any "arms race" that would ultimately develop if one nation had the "secret" and the others wanted that same secret.

          Be that as it may, unfortunately most of the world's most prominent advances is technology, science and medicine are usually linked to major conflicts. Reconstructive surgery is a premier example in the field of medicine.

          Also be aware that no matter what the engineer's intent in his/her creation is, it can always be modified by others to make an extremely efficient weapon to some degree.

          Maxim invented the machine gun hoping that such a horrible weapon would reduce the number of conflicts that would require its use. He did not succeed.
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        Feb 5 2012: Let me ask you this. IF each person working on the A bomb, had known it would have been lobbed at the Japanese, and if each person working on the project had sat down to dinner one time in life with a Japanese family, would they have been willing to make the bomb? No. Many possibly all, would have refused. Does their ignorance absolve them?A designer does carry a responsiblity to understand how his/her designs will be utelised.

        Actually David Montgomery, as weird and crazy as this sounds, every house in the vicinity of my house IS a gun free home. Where I live, it is a foregone conclusion to all my neighbours, even the shady ones, that my home is a gun free home. Guess what? I sleep real well at night, and I even answer my door at ten pm without fear. You have just illustrated my point perfectly. When people create a violent society, when they think they depend on weapons, they are never really safe ever again. Your system must be rotten to the core, that you think you need guns just to feel safe.
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          Feb 5 2012: American military leaders estimated the toll --in American lives only-- of an invasion of mainland Japan to be 1,000,000. It is a good thing we had those two bombs. The Japanese people would never have surrendered and we would have had to use conventional weapons to demolish the entire country. Millions of lives were saved because we had the bombs and the President with the courage to use them. We didn't start the war with Japan, we ended it. The men who designed those bombs freely chose to aid the Allies in stopping Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. They were not ignorant and they do not need absolution. Enjoy your freedom to disparage the men who contributed greatly to preserving them for you Ms. Donovan.
        • Feb 5 2012: You need to study history...not the bull crap you learned in the Liberal Universities.
          Germany was on the threshold of developing the Bomb. And, there was a submarine carrying those developments to Japan. If Germany had completed the development and Japan had built the Bomb do you not believe that they would have used it against us?
          If we do not develop, test, and build ever increasingly effective weapons the other side will.
          But, to answer your question...the developers and builders knew exactly who the Bombs were to be used against.
          "Those who beat their guns into plows will plow for those that did not." Thomas Jefferson.
          "I own a gun not because I want kill...I have it because I want to live."
          If you really feel so strong about weapons, place a sign in you front window, or on your front lawn, that reads: "This is a gun-free home." I dare you.
        • Feb 6 2012: The link I've pasted in below is relevant to this particular aspect of the conversation. Many of the scientists and technicians who worked on the development of the atomic bomb signed a petition to the President urging that it not be used against the Japanese population until its power had been demonstrated to them. The petition was suppressed and delayed by the military.


          If the link doesn't work, just search for "Manhattan Project" "The Scientists' Petition".
        • Feb 7 2012: The comments are nested too deep for me to reply to the comments I'm going to respond to.

          @David Montgomery
          Seriously??? "the Liberal Universities"? First of all, I go to one of the most conservative universities on the planet. Second, I really do not believe you are adding to the conversation, so unless you have something free of ad hominem attacks, I would like to politely ask you to leave. As a side note, look at edward long's comments to see how to correctly argue the viewpoint in your comment without seeming condescending and unintelligent.

          @Avenir, I doubt very many people but the top scientists knew what was going on until they actually tested the bombs. They were extremely careful about intel leaks.
      • Feb 7 2012: Hi Edward Long.

        As far as WWII goes, the nuclear bombs used by the U.S. would not fit your definition of equal force. Excessive force - yes. Did it save U.S. / Allies lives? Most Likely. Have its unintended consequences balanced its intent. Doubtful? The creation and use of the technology has led to a massive use of resources (material and brain power) that would have, could have been put to better use, with more peaceful and socially beneficial goals, both foreign and domestic. Furthermore, the use of the technology basically crippled if not destroyed generations of people from 'peripheral' nations in central and south America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia as the Nuke threat between the Soviets and U.S. was played out. The non-peaceful use of the technology has shown the technology to be the single worse invention the planet has seen. Unless of course the 'collateral' effects were intended by the inventors.
        I do hope Mr. Poe' engineering career works to undo what engineers have previously done.
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          Feb 7 2012: At Pearl Harbor our enemy demonstrated massive military might the full extent of which we did not know. We responded with force of which we did not know the full extent. I call that equal.Millions of axis and allied lives saved swings the scale heavily to the justifiable side.The cold war was debilitating. Had we not had equal force it would have been far ,far worse.History seems to be supporting a non-nuclear world. The designers cannot be blamed for that. Peace loving people need sabers to rattle when the bad guys threaten.
  • Feb 2 2012: With the principals of design crossing over so many sectors, it is impossible to take responsibility for the full scope of possibility that an invention can be utilized, or applied.

    Imagine if you created a new way to detect heat, for the advancement of medicine, and it became a component of a missile. Would you be at fault?

    Or, you work on a project that allows a vehicle manufacturer to produce a automobile that can scale the highest mountains for rescue and exploration missions, and that technology becomes part of a new tank clone? Would you be at fault?

    In both cases, I'd say no.

    Actually, I hope people like you DO work on more weaponry, and defense systems, because you appreciate life to the fullest, and you'll always balance ethics in your design, and will instill that into your design. Good luck to you!
    • Feb 2 2012: Interesting. My concern is based on the sentiments of many extremely successful scientists. Alfred Nobel and the scientists working in the Manhattan project are probably the most well-known, but I'm sure others regretted their work because of the death toll. Of course, I do not expect to become this successful, but that doesn't mean I won't be successful enough to make a meaningful contribution and later regret it.
  • Feb 2 2012: Yes, of course you have a responsibility for what your creation causes, specially when it's specifically made for harming. If the damage was caused, say, for a malfunction in the solar concentrators David Hamilton mentioned, you do have a responsibility, but it wasn't your intention at all, so I'd say that's okay. But a gun is especifically designed to harm someone. If you didn't have any other choice, you could say that you had to eat, and it would be less bad, so to speak (you still had the choice not to do it), but you do have choices. again, the solar concentrators sound very good.
    The thing is that the responsibility is so diluted, it doesn't feel like it. But you have to analize it like this: if you don´t do it, perhaps not much would happen (someone would work extra hours to do what you would be doing); but, if people, as you, don't work on designing them, then the change would be obvious. It's the categorical imperative, i guess. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
    I used to be an engineer, and worked in places where my job didn't make people's life easy. I provided information to decide if people should be fired, and how many. I made production faster, leaner, but people were laid off. I couldn't handle it, because, even when I was doing an excellent job, and I wasn't firing anyone, my input resulted in harming people, so I made up my mind and, eventually, started studying biology.
    I do think that the results of your work have a moral weight, however far you can see it. That's why you have to analyze what you do and decide if it harms people, and if you can avoid it. In your case, I think it's simple, given that the harm is so obvious. More specifically, call David Hamilton.
    • Feb 2 2012: This is more or less what I had thought of before seeing the talk by Peter van Uhm, minus the Kant philosophy. Unfortunately, I think, we need weapons. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a neo-con. I don't think that America should be policing the world with superior firepower, but I think that giving every village elder an assault rifle may be a very good solution to genocide in 3rd world countries. Watch the talk. I'm really interested to hear your response, because you manage to put into words what I was thinking a few weeks ago.
      • Feb 2 2012: It perhaps could help to give every villager an assault rifle, but I believe that violence generates violence, in short or long term. What you should be doing is educating people. Instead of giving people guns to protect, educate people to help each other, to find ways to live together. I don't think you should just send teachers, in some places, they would just be ignored, killed, or whatever. But really invest in educating people. What would happen if, as a part of your defense investment, you had a real contribution in education? Everybody wants results today, but sometimes you have to invest today to see results in 20, 30 years. But you have to think in the long term, unfortunately. That's how you make sure what you do sticks, so to speak.
        • Feb 3 2012: Very true. Peter van Uhm discusses that in his talk. His opinion is that we have not reached the time when we are all civilized enough for education to have a meaningful impact. I mean, if you grow up seeing people murdered for the color of their skin or the deity they worship, I doubt any amount of education will remove the imprint of violence on your mind. To make education truly effective, the violence should be reduced to 1st world levels everywhere. So I guess it's a chicken and egg problem of sorts...
  • Feb 7 2012: Hi Ed,
    Massive military might? Massive military surprise on their side and a massive intelligence, survelance (sp) and planning failure on the part of the U.S. History shows that the Allies had already swung the tables on the Japanese by the time we nuked them. The Nazis were also near defeat or defeated (I don't have my dates). And we were working with the Soviets (they were on our side).

    Blame and responsibility are tough verbs to throw around. Blame and responsibility would go to the President and advisors. Perhaps the designers would just get the responsibility tag. Forgive me for what I have done, because I know not what I've done....some sort of religious proverb?
  • Feb 7 2012: On a personal and comunity level death of a human is terrible thing. On a global level human life is the least precious of all comoditties. People are always wondering how they can become more green and lower their carbon footprint. Well the geenest thing you can do is , not breed. And if you want to be really green kill as many people as possible without harming the enviroment. We don't need peace we need mass kulling of humans. Better weapons for more intelligent people.
  • Feb 6 2012: Here's a link that is related to this topic. It notes that Roger Boisjoly just died. He was one of several engineers who urged their managers to ask that the launch of the space shuttle Challenger be postponed. The engineers were concerned that the cold weather might cause the seals in the solid rocket boosters to fail, resulting in the loss of the space shuttle and its crew. The engineers were overruled by their managers, and NASA was told to proceed with the launch. The engineers were right. The cold did cause the seals to fail, and the shuttle blew up killing the entire crew of seven. But rather than being rewarded for trying to do the right thing, Roger Boisjoly was punished for speaking out. Sometimes an engineer has to choose what is morally right, not what will make him popular in his company.

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    Feb 4 2012: What was the INTENT in inventing the gun? Was it to bring home the bacon or to kill one's neighbor? It is taking personal responsibility that matters. It is in the INTENT of the user that matters - not the inventor.
  • Feb 3 2012: No need for guilt; my guilt only surfaced when I was required to watch classified film of the effects of atomic, biological and chemical weapons on humans and animals.

    Always liked Lennon's remark- "What if they gave a war- and nobody came?"
  • Feb 2 2012: Simple- nobody is forcing you to design military equipment. I worked for MOD in the UK for 15 years, until transferred to nuclear submarine work; I left, migrated and took up civil/structural design. My troubled conscience was absolved and my income trebled- nice bonus!
    • Feb 3 2012: good point. I'd like to fully understand the moral consequences of both civil and military work no matter what I choose, though... Thanks for your input.
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    • Feb 3 2012: I just realized I didn't reply to this. Sorry, I had something written a few hours ago but I closed my browser. The biblical analogy is interesting and insightful. Thanks for your input! :)
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    Feb 2 2012: Hey... You live in CA. I'll teach you how to build solar concentrators and we'll save the world : )

    • Feb 2 2012: fresnel lenses are cheaper! :D
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    Feb 7 2012: Edward Long, I have a great deal of respect for you but not this comment, or the ideology behind it. 'American military leaders estimate...greatly to preserving them for you'. Neither my freedom nor yours was engineered by any war quite the opposite, that sentiment is oxymoronish. The lie of your statement was given in the first line, 'American military leaders estimate...' of course these people have to do a great deal to persuade themselves and others that their work is in the common good. Every violent organisation has to spend a measure of effort on propaganda, how much depends on how many people are still free to act on their conscience in their community.

    I say, each person who has designed a weapon, is partly responsible for every single death that weapon has caused, and I commend your sentiments Nolan, to be concerned about that. I agree with you. We all make choices in life. If you follow the commitment to peace, you cannot let the warmongers dissuade you.
    • Feb 7 2012: I don't think that edward long is a warmonger. If you read his other comments and watch the peter van uhm talk, you might see a different side of violence and weapons. It's fallacious to say that having bigger guns is the best way to promote peace, but there are merits to having superior firepower. As van uhm, says, it's just a government monopoly on violence.

      Regarding the death tolls on the Japanese invasion, I agree that there are many other ways to solve the situation without so much death. What about dropping leaflets explaining the destructive power of the bomb over the cities about 2-3 days before the bomb drop. Needless to say, you would need to have fighter escorts and that might require an additional airplane for in-flight refueling of the short-range fighters, but that's a small price to pay for even a couple thousand civilians saved. Worst case, you cut the death toll in half. Nobody believes us in hiroshima, but they get the idea in nagasaki. Best case, the Japanese actually believe us and you only kill maybe 100-1000 civilians. Let's be adults here, the Japanese have a culture of pride and honor, but do you really think that what we did was necessary to convince them to surrender?

      Edit: I think this is off-topic. It has also been fully debated elsewhere and you can look up the points on both sides if you wish to investigate further.
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        Feb 8 2012: I dont need to watch a talk to know right from wrong. I am not someone who requires an education on this issue. Human bloodshed is, in my opinion, a crime. Its a crime whatever flowery reason someone makes up in order to assuage their conscience or create justifiable cause.

        No one who calls himself or herself a christian could ever justify designing or selling weaponry, without committing an act of total hypocrisy.

        I do not call Edward Long a warmonger, I do not know him at all really, I was refering to the military and govt personelle who produce the pro war propaganda.

        We are a civilisation that has evolved through the destructive effects of war. We are used to them, the most stupid of us, believe we depend on them. We do not. We have many other options open to us today, and in fact we always did have.

        War is not only a crime against the victim but the the people swinging the bombs also pay a price. Sometimes its a very high price.

        If the people lobbing the bombs at Japan, had really wanted a peaceful solution they could have found one. One suggestion: throw the bomb at a place where there are no people. Give them an evacuation warning. You seem to be very creative when it comes to your designs, but not so creative when it comes to a path that pursues peace, why is that? Dont yout hink it is too important? Is it better really to be the 'winner'?

        I get the feeling you have made up your mind up about this already. Why bother to put up the question then, to make yourself feel better about a choice you have already made? To arrange a little justification for yourself? Personally I prefer my adverseries to meet me head on, not pretend to be something they are not.
        • Feb 9 2012: Please do not attack me like this without reading other comments I have written. I addressed every single point you brought up very thoroughly elsewhere. Go read them if you wish. Quite honestly, I'm insulted.

          Responding to your point about all human bloodshed being a crime, I think that is naive at best. Imagine you were approximately 300m outside a village that was being raided. You also have a sniper rifle. Not wanting to be caught off-guard, you watch through the telescopic sights on the rifle. You see a man rounding up all of the woman and children in the village and begin to rape and kill them one by one. Are you honestly telling me it is a crime to put a shot through this man's brain? This stuff happens. Are you so naive as to think that reducing the total loss of life is wrong if it means killing a man about to kill 50 people? Don't get me wrong, this isn't about choosing if you should execute him or take him captive, but whether you should kill him outside of the legal system or let innocents die.

          I'm a pacifist, by the way, but I accept that in emergency situations, laws are replaced by the duty and responsibility of everyone to protect everyone.

          EDIT: 300m is pretty far for the average TEDster. Let's say you're 100m out but really well hidden.
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    Feb 4 2012: I take your point. There are some inventions that are hard to justify such as the Gatling gun, the Norden bomb sight or the atomic bomb. In all those cases, the INTENT was to create something so terrible that it would bring war(s) to a quick end. History shows us that that intention never seems to work and only exacerbates the situation for a short time until counter measures are created.
    Biological Engineering is an area that needs intense scrutiny. It would be too easy to create some apocalyptic entity either by malevolent intent or accident (valuable intention). Rest assured that, like meteorites & earthquakes, it will happen.
    In the end, only time can tell whether any of it is valuable or not. There are always two sides to every coin. Positives arise out of every cataclysm. Death to dinosaurs and the rise of mammals for instance. What happens, happens. We give it all a meaning/intent, either good or bad, which will change over time. Like mammals destroying the planet?
    • Feb 5 2012: Again, not quite. Almost anything can be misused, inadvertently or intentionally. Besides ensuring it can be used for the intended purpose an engineer must take into account how something may be wrongly used. It could be designing a part so that it cannot be placed in an assembly the wrong way. It could be 'over' designing something that it does not dangerously disintegrate if misused or poorly built. Its intended use is not sufficient consideration.

      In addition, the owner of the product becomes relevant if the product can be used against the public good.

      Of course, not every situation can be envisaged and we have to be reasonable. Time is not the only arbiter. Many things are reasonably predictable. When it comes to weapons it is a very fine line.
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        Feb 5 2012: re:@edward long-- Is ladder design a "morally dubious" activity? Ladders are used to rescue helpless victims and to commit burglaries.
        • Feb 5 2012: @edward long

          You replied in the wrong thread (but that is why my reply is here).

          You may not have intended it but your argument does include the specifics of a situation. Having simply identified that designing and building arms can justified is insufficient to morally justify it is generally to all situation.

          Simple scenario ...
          Interviewer: "You knew your employer was selling the weapons to criminals on the black market."
          Designer: "Yes"
          Interviewer: " But you continued to design them to operate efficiently and did nothing else"
          Designer: "Yes"
          Interviewer: "Why"
          Designer: "That was my job".

          I acknowledge that life is generally more complicated but that is the strength of your argument and it is a cop out.

          Ladders are a much simpler practical consideration and ladder design and manufacture is not morally dubious because we generally understand and accept the realities of misuse. The same cannot be said of said of weapons design and manufacture which can reasonably be concluded as involving much more secrecy, subterfuge and plane lack of morality.
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        Feb 6 2012: It's OK to disagree with my opinion without disparaging me by saying my opinion is a "cop out". You think weapons designers do a disservice to the world by working in an immoral industry. I understand that is your opinion and I have neither the motivation nor the ability to persuade you otherwise, or to denigrate you or your opinion. This is an exchange of opinions, not a contest of persuasive skills. Thank you Mr. Nota. PS "the wrong thread" is often the only way to reply on TED Conversations.)
        • Feb 6 2012: @edward long

          “I was ordered to do it” can in circumstances be a reasonable defence. As a moral principle it is no defence and to my understanding has long been discredited as such. To my mind your position was an analogous “cop out” for the reasons I put.

          “You think weapons designers do a disservice to the world by working in an immoral industry.” While I do think that the industry is morally dubious I did not say that. I could respect a weapons designer or many weapons designers based on their various specific situations.

          I have no reason to believe you intended to put your opinion any less strongly than myself and your indignation is misplaced.
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        Feb 8 2012: Please dont use the bricks and kitchen knives kill too argument, so does a plastic bag and an inch of water in the right hands. This line of debate sinks so low, it represents a moral defeat, on the grounds, you have nothing left.
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        Feb 8 2012: How about taking some personal responsibility instead of going the "American Way" and blaming others and pushing the responsibility on others. The only thing that can be controlled in this world is our own selves. We cannot control others. If we could, killing would be unnecessary!
        • Feb 8 2012: I have not been blaming others. I have only been indicating that engineers need to take into account reasonably predicable outcomes (and not just engineers).

          Consider Murphy's Law and the potential catastrophic outcome of putting a simple part the wrong way into a complicated machine (e.g. Airbus A380). The part was never intended to go in the wrong way but if it is simple to put it in the wrong way it is likely to happen.

          I am guessing Joanne Donovan made a similar assumption to you.
    • Feb 5 2012: I disagree that designing more terrible weapons never works to prevent war. I think there would have been a third world war between the Soviets and the US/Western Europe in the absence of a nuclear deterrent. Nuclear weapons may also have prevented a war between India and Pakistan.
    • Feb 7 2012: The Norden bombsight was meant to tighten up the bomb patterns. It lets you take out a factory without accidentally hitting houses. Still, the bomb's blast radius might destroy some houses, but overall you are saving lives. The atomic bomb was a cool "what if" that almost all of the researchers regretted. The gatling gun... yeah. Pretty sick, no matter how you look at it. But what about the shift towards smaller caliber ammunition? If you put a big hole in a guy, you kill him. If you put a small hole in a guy, you injure him and 2 of his companions try to get him out of there. Either you shoot the people carrying him, which is pretty disgusting, or you let them leave. Either way, you just took out 3 guys and reduced the loss of life. Pretty awesome, right?
  • Feb 3 2012: Perhaps you should consider what one school of Japanese swordmanship teaches. "Consider not what you kill when you use your blade, but rather what you allow to live."

    There will always be those who view violence as the easiest solution. That the views of "others" are not acceptable, and that there is no middle ground upon which to build the bridge between" them" and "us." This is where most engineers have come to stand - that they are perserving peace, stopping further violence, preventing war by having no one willing to face what comes from it.

    No one seeks to avoid war more than the soldier, for he has to carry it out. He knows the horror, and he knows the costs. Perhaps war can best be prevented not by screaming "Peace, Peace" but rather teaching everyone just exactly what war entails, what it looks like, smells like, feels like in the heart and bone.