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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 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...

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