Business and Professional Practices
Full Session with Abstracts
Engineering requires decisions under uncertainty. Uncertainty, which can be thought of as an inability to know what will happen in the future, is a function of ignorance, inherent variability, and complexity. When deciding whether a decision is ethical or not, uncertainty causes further difficulties. This paper will examine the effects of uncertainty on deciding whether a decision is made in an ethical way and consider a broader view of engineering, called the Engineering Way of Thinking (EWT), that may help in making ethical decisions under uncertainty.
At the 2013 annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering, Mitch Daniels, the past governor of Indiana, and the president of Purdue University, said about the possibility of educating too many engineers: “But even if we were to somehow outrun the market’s need for engineering talent, we will be a far stronger country if the engineering mentality takes a more prominent place in our national conversation.” I will consider the idea of the ‘engineering mentality’ in a broader way, the EWT.
Hardy Cross understood the EWT in the early 20th century. “Engineers are not, however, primarily scientists. If they must be classified, they may be considered more humanists than scientists. Those who devote their life to engineering are likely to find themselves in contact with almost every phase of human activity.” The EWT may allow us to bring engineering approaches into the broader culture, including ethics.
With apologies to the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, the EWT is a means to approach design, in the broadest possible sense of the term, using heuristics, in the broadest possible sense of the term, to develop artifacts, in the broadest possible sense of the term. In the broad sense, artifacts are anything that humans make, and if we make something, there should be a design for it before it is made. It is the concept of designing and making artifacts under significant uncertainty using heuristics that makes the EWT an approach that has broad application across the culture.
Determining whether a decision is ethical becomes problematic when there is extreme uncertainty about the future and the decisions being made affect the future, but so do other events out of the control of the designer, and some of those events may be produced by the artifact itself. Thus, an apparently ethical decision made today may prove to no longer be considered ethical sometime in the future, and the reason it appears unethical may be due to the earlier ethical decision. Whether a decision is ethical is particularly problematic in the design of large-scale engineered systems, including complex and complex adaptive systems such as social-technological-natural systems like the earth.
Engineering, viewed broadly as the EWT, allows us to use existing engineering heuristics, and develop new ones, to address significant issues related to the common good, including, but not limited to, ethics.