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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: 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.

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