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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
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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 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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