Products Have No Souls

May 21, 2003
Can it be ethical to help produce evil?

With the news full of stories about chemical and biological weapons, dangerous drugs, and evil impacts of products of all types, the conscientious engineer might be concerned about the moral implications of his work. If you devote your time to helping make immoral products, are you immoral?

Ethicists have spent some time considering the question: Can products be morally good or morally bad? Some say morality is based on free will, choice, intention, and prior knowledge, and products have none of those qualities (guns dont kill people, people kill people). Others point out that some products are so destructive, and so undermine the preservation of humankind, that they have been created only for immoral use, and their production is therefore immoral.

Is making a product considered evil based on who is supplied? Is producing alcohol and tobacco immoral? Some would say absolutely, while others would say not as long as they dont go to children.

Is the production of a product considered good or bad based on its intended use? Lets consider weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, and nuclear, for examples. Certainly the intent of use may be aggression, coercion, undermining the balance of power, and/or genocide. But it can also be deterrence, protection, preserving power, and enhancing stability.

Consequentialists believe you can determine whether an action is good or bad based on its consequences: If it turns out well, your actions were good, and if it doesnt, your actions were bad. We cant predict all the uses and all the consequences of our products,should fertilizer companies have anticipated the Oklahoma City bombing?

Engineers take natural resources and make something that works and is in the service of humanity. They are constantly asking the question, "What is this good for, and how can we apply this to practical use?" Engineers look at a design and assess whether it will do the job it is supposed to do. They look at whether it will be safe and cost-effective.

Does the engineers role and responsibility go beyond that? Engineering projects have a great impact on the world. Do engineers have a responsibility and an obligation to be aware of the possible uses of their products--the immoral uses of products?

Noted engineer and writer Samuel Florman does not believe engineers have the responsibility or the right to establish goals for society. In his book, The Civilized Engineer, he says engineers have an obligation to serve, which frees them to work on projects that can be inconsistent with their own personal values, the same as a defense attorney who defends guilty clients.

Florman believes any decision regarding environmental and safety standards or acceptability of risks should be determined by the public through governmental laws and regulations. We know there is a demand for higher control and safety standards that have already affected how things are done today, and many changes in industry have occurred due to these.

The problem is that laws are reactive. Laws are established after there has been some serious negative effect. Most legislatures dont have the education and technical training to understand the consequences of engineers work. Should engineers ignore known problems when there are no regulations? Engineers are responsible to protect society even when it doesnt recognize a potential for problems. They have an obligation to see the larger implications of the work they perform because they can.

Once engineers are aware of the immoral use of a product, do they have a responsibility to change their involvement? Can we say producing something is separate from implementing it? Do we draw the line, and if so, where? How does an engineer protect himself? Individually, engineers must decide what is OK and whats not.

As mentioned earlier, most products have multiple uses. Few have solely immoral uses and those that do, we can choose to not participate in and walk away. But many products start out with good intentions and evolve into questionable uses. We even know there are some products that can be used immorally, but can have some positive effects on society. Engineers cant control how someone takes their product and puts it to use, other than by eliminating its production--if they can. Even then, it would be after the fact.

It can be difficult for engineers to be truly creative and walk that fine line. There will always be someone willing to produce anything, and there will always be a way to take something good and turn it into something bad. That cant be a reason to stick our heads in the sand. I guess the true test to determine if youre involved in something questionable is how well you sleep at night. Theres nothing like your conscience to guide you, and no amount of rationalization will save you.

Bettyann Lichtenstein is a licensed clinical therapist.

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