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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 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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