Moral engineering

Moral engineering

Do you have any moral issues about your work?

I have, off and on. I consider myself a pacifist, and yet I’ve found myself working through the years for projects that were funded by the Department of Defense. About a decade ago, I would’ve said it would never happened…but things change.

The first project didn’t strike me as anything to be concerned about: we were studying magnetic fields originating in the ionosphere. While the defense wing we were working with needed this information, it was fundamental science that could be used for a lot of things.

Lately, a lot of the work I’ve done has involved sensors or communication devices. While I initially worried that working on these items was hypocritical, I have realized that it isn’t. Much of what we work on is also being developed for commercial markets. Maybe working on RFID, for example, enables item tracking for the military, but it also works for the shipping, trucking, inventory, etc. of commercial businesses. If the work I’m doing can be used by the average person to their benefit, I’m not so sure that there is a moral quandry. One might argue that it is simply because of where the money originates, but that isn’t always straightforward, either. Is a device to help burn victims regrow skin inherently bad because the military is funding it?

On the other hand, I talked to someone who was concerned his company may be contracting directly with a munitions manufacturer. That is a considerably more difficult situation to be in.

So do you have any moral limitations on the work you would do? Has that ever changed? What if it came to a choice between keeping and losing your job?


Morals; those pesky things. I have various views on the issue. The first view comes from having participated and continued to participate in aid work. I have visited several slums and projects where living standards are abhorrent. Do I feel guilty that I was able to return to my lifestyle fed by the sweat shops? I used to. Do I have problems relating how I fell to other with what I experienced? Oh yeah. So in that context moral implications in my professional life have relatively little meaning because I am already starting from such a low level (it’s a hard concept to get across that last line).
With specific regard to professional life I always find managers who do not know the equipment that the person will work on, to be on shaky ground. After all they are the people responsible to get the worker trained but if they cannot assess the training (or the equipment), then they cannot take responsibility for safety. I have seen this time and again whereby equipment issues are overlooked as something simple in deference to producing the result. This typically happens in research companies/arms thereof companies and academia. Promoting a very good scientist to a managerial role is not always the correct decision especially if said person never had to consider difficult safety considerations like say the validity of a Hazop. Generally in industry a separate safety team is a requirement for a production plant to operate so the need for the direct manager ti be fully versed is not required. However in a production environment, relatively few scenarios are present whereas in a research environment, many scenarios are present and the manager or safety team may not be able to understand them all (in time).
See also

When I was in university I really disliked the oil and gas industry, thinking that they are the guys sucking our planet dry. Now I myself is in the gas industry. Shrug, I guess people do change.

I think if you’re developing weapons for Kim Jong-il, that’s immoral, but see nothing wrong with doing it for a free democracy. In my eyes, giving our troops tools to protect their lives is a good thing. Pacifism is great in theory but not practical in the real world, and there is a strong argument to the case (at least in terms of the major powers) that increased warfare technology decreases the likelihood of war.

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