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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 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?

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