Monday, October 05, 2009

Microethics, Macroethics, and the Working Engineer

Normally, we don't deal much with ethical theory in this blog, but every so often it's worthwhile to look at the underpinnings of why we think about engineering ethics, and ways to think about it. A distinction that you may find helpful in sorting through engineering ethics questions is the difference between so-called "microethics" and "macroethics."

You may have encountered the micro-macro distinction first in an introductory economics course. Microethics, you were told, deals with the individual decisions of householders or business owners with regard to pricing, buying, and selling things and services. Macroethics, on the other hand, deals in the large-scale economies of industries, nations, or the globe as a whole. While it would be nice if microeconomists could ignore macroeconomics and vice-versa, I recently read an article saying that if everyone in the recent economic downturn had acted in a way that was sensible and rational on an individual basis, we would pretty much be in the mess we're in already. That is, sensible and even ethical individual decisions can sometimes lead to large-scale disasters nonetheless.

The same can happen in engineering, which is why Joseph R. Herkert, among others, has been writing about the microethics-macroethics distinction for close to a decade now. Joe (as I know him) is Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology at the School of Applied Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University. He points out that for most of the history of engineering ethics, the decisions of individual engineers were taken to be the meat and potatoes of the subject. While this was good in the sense that no one had studied the matter as a formal academic topic before, the approach tended to brush aside larger issues affecting entire industries or countries.

For example, in the days before extensive environmental regulations were passed in the 1970s, it was still possible for companies to install expensive antipollution equipment (assuming it was available), and to be good environmental citizens. But if an individual engineer at a highly polluting chemical plant in, say, 1955, made a unilateral decision to spend millions of dollars reducing pollution, it would have affected the firm's bottom line adversely. In an industry where no one else was spending such amounts, the engineer's company would have been put at a disadvantage, and might even have gone out of business, even if the engineer didn't get fired first for making what would have been viewed as a money-wasting decision. So while we today might view that engineer as a farsighted pioneer whose actions were a good example for others to follow in later decades, in the context of the 1950s such a decision would have run afoul of a macroethical regulatory and economic environment that was dead-set opposed to the idea.

Macroethics in engineering simply takes into account the fact that even if everyone makes good microethical decisions, you can have systems and legal frameworks and large-scale institutions in place which nevertheless cause harm, and need to be addressed from an ethical point of view. Since macroethics matters cannot generally be changed at will by an individual engineer, you may wonder why we should even bother to think about them. After all, what can one engineer do to change an entire industry or nation?

More than you think. There are politically active engineers, but not that many. In a democracy, voting is one way an individual can influence policies at the macroethics level. Also, by explaining technical matters to the public and educating the general population about the technical realities and limitations of a macroethical matter, engineers can perform a great and much-needed service. Most people have no idea how any of the technical marvels they use every day are brought into being, and so they have even less of an idea that there are limits of any kind. There is a persistent rumor that the major automotive companies have had a long-range electric car hidden in their back rooms for decades, but suppress it because it would threaten their current business. Anyone who knows a little technically about how battery-powered cars work and the current state of the art of battery technology can figure out why this isn't the case (unless the companies have done a very good job of hiding some unimaginable physics and engineering!). While engineers have to be careful in public speaking, not talking down to or insulting their listeners, a careful, clear explanation of basic technology can go far to alleviate what an engineer might think of as irrational fears or beliefs.

But one lesson it took me a long time to learn is that even irrational beliefs influence behavior. The U. S. nuclear-power industry once led the world in the development of advanced nuclear reactors for generating electricity on a large scale. But a series of public-relations disasters and one real disaster that was largely harmless to human life (Three Mile Island) turned the U. S. public against nuclear power. Instead of acknowledging this attitude and trying to deal with it, advocates of nuclear energy largely dismissed it as "irrational," and the industry is now trying to undo thirty years of neglect and wandering in the wilderness.

Even individual engineers need to think about macroethical issues from time to time, even if you don't deal with them on a day-to-day basis. By taking an engineering job, you implicitly endorse the firm, the industry, and the nation that claims you. So in that sense at least, macroethics matters to every individual engineer.

Sources: The first article on microethics and macroethics applied to engineering appears to be J. R. Herkert, "Future Directions in Engineering Ethics Research: Microethics, Macroethics and the Role of Professional Societies," Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 7, pp. 403-414 (2001).

1 comment:

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