Monday, November 08, 2010

Engineering Ethics and Natural Law

As anybody who has read this blog for a while knows, I do not view engineering ethics as a narrow, specialized field where only experts can render the right opinions. I believe anyone who has enough moral sense to graduate with an engineering degree has the ability to think ethically, and with a little help and advice can make good ethical judgments about a wide variety of professional concerns. Today I will explain why I think this is true.


If a person can think clearly enough to do engineering, he or she has what I will term a “deep knowledge” of right and wrong. This knowledge is not the same as what we conventionally call “conscience”: it is more like the fundamental principles on which everyone’s conscience is based. Some examples of this deep knowledge are things like:


Being fair is better than being unfair.


Betraying a friend is wrong.


Marital infidelity is wrong.


Evidence for this deep knowledge is to be found on every children’s playground and in the legends, literature, and law of every culture. It is simply an empirical fact that normal human beings have an inborn knowledge of right and wrong at a deep level.


This is not to say that everyone in every culture agrees on every detail of every ethical question. This deep knowledge combines with cultural norms, life experiences, training, and other factors to produce a conscience of which we are consciously aware. Some people manage to suppress their deep knowledge so that even their conscience does not bother them as they go about committing serial murders or turn themselves into suicide bombers. But rest assured the knowledge is there; it has simply been suppressed by other influences. The idea that this deep knowledge of right and wrong exists at some level in every human being is called “natural law.”


A person who has mastered the technical material of an engineering discipline has the intellectual capacity to understand and imagine the ethical consequences of engineering activity. Whether or not they apply their minds to this question is a matter of training and discipline. Up to the twentieth century, most people (including a good many who benefited from college educations) belonged to a religious tradition which encouraged acceptance of the principles of natural law, and legal codes were largely in conformance both with religious tradition and natural law as well. But with the advent of various totalitarian governments and a broad rejection of religion as a serious matter in higher education and elite classes, things changed.


Today you will find little support for the idea that everyone has a deep built-in knowledge of right and wrong which simply needs to be elucidated to become effective. Colleges and universities either avoid the subject altogether or teach ethics in a way that would never work for mathematics or physics. Imagine in your first physics class if the instructor got up and said something like, “There are many physics traditions: some people believe F = ma, while others believe F = m + a and still others believe F = m/a. We will not insist on any one of these, and simply want to tolerate everyone’s opinions on the subject while thinking how to apply these principles to practical situations.” It sounds absurd, and yet many instructors of professional ethics take what amounts to that position with regard to ethical principles. And if you go to experts who base their ethics on elaborately wrought philosophical structures, you can find someone who will justify anything from drug testing using people hired off the streets, to infanticide (the famous Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has said that killing newborns is not the same thing as killing a person).


As natural-law philosopher J. Budziszewski has said, our deep knowledge of right and wrong is still there, but factors such as the atrophy of tradition, the cult of the expert, and the disabling of shock and shame have made it harder for us to connect with that deep knowledge and act on it. Thus it can be that trying to do ethics in accordance with certain complex philosophical approaches can take you to a conclusion that makes logical sense, given your philosophical assumptions, and yet feels wrong. I am here to say that in such a case, you probably ought to go with your feelings.


But not always: “going with your feelings” is one more factor that has landed us in more trouble with regard to natural law. A moment’s thought will reveal how wrong it is to say that one’s feelings must always be followed as a guide to action. Yet for people who have no belief in the deep knowledge of right and wrong, and base their moral decisions on examples from popular culture where following your feelings is a bedrock principle, there may be nothing better to turn to. Feelings are real, and paying attention to your feelings is important, but unless you are some kind of saint, obeying your feelings is not going to lead to the right decision all the time (and even the saints admitted to having wrong feelings from time to time).


But not always: “going with your feelings” is one more factor that has landed us in more trouble with regard to natural law. A moment’s thought will reveal how wrong it is to say that one’s feelings must always be followed as a guide to action. Yet for people who have no belief in the deep knowledge of right and wrong, and base their moral decisions on examples from popular culture where following your feelings is a bedrock principle, there may be nothing better to turn to. Feelings are real, and paying attention to your feelings is important, but unless you are some kind of saint, obeying your feelings is not going to lead to the right decision all the time (and even the saints admitted to having wrong feelings from time to time).


If I had room, I could explore the reasons for believing in this deep knowledge, which ultimately lead back to the idea of a Creator who designed them into us in conformance with the way the world is. But the nice thing about natural law is that even if a person doesn’t believe in God, the deep knowledge is there, and if you can help bring it to the surface, their conscience will guide them to the right decision regardless.


This is why I believe engineering ethics is not just a field for experts. Everyone can do it, but it requires thought as well as feelings, will as well as intelligence, and reliance on something that is ultimately not of our own making.


Sources: I relied on J. Budziszewski’s book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2003) for the basic ideas in this blog. It is highly recommended as a readable yet sophisticated and thorough treatment of applied natural law. I last mentioned natural law in my blog of Nov. 23, 2009 (“Ethics: Evolved or Given?”).

1 comment:

  1. Your explanation of "deep knowledge" is intriguing.

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