Creating a New Moral Imagination for Engineering

From lifesaving vaccines to weapons of mass destruction, engineers seem willing to enable any enterprise for the right price. How might engineering become better aligned with sustainability, justice, peace, and human rights?

Engineers are responsible for some of the awesome achievements of our era, such as the electrical grid, vitamin A-enriched “Golden Rice,” getting astronauts to the Moon and back, and innumerable others. They are also complicit in degrading things—unwarranted surveillance, for example, and even monstrous projects like the atom bomb. These contrasts are even more paradoxical when we realize that abundant engineering energy and talent are devoted to efficiency, however destructive, in the exploitation of natural resources; to superiority, however lethal, in the arms race between powerful states; and to dominance, however polarizing, in the market of online attention. Engineers sometimes seem so interested in answering questions of technical feasibility that they may overlook questions of purpose or ulterior motive. This tendency raises the question: Does engineering have a moral compass? I contend it can, but only insofar as the profession commits explicitly and publicly to values widely accepted by a free and open society—like those of sustainability, justice, peace, and human rights.  

As things stand, though, it is not fully evident how engineering can live up to such a commitment, since at the heart of the engineering enterprise lies contradiction. Engineers in Texas figure out how to extract ever-harder-to-reach fossil fuels, while engineers in Florida develop urban adaptations to rising sea levels caused by global warming. Engineers for gun manufacturers refine assault weapons, while other engineers devise medical instruments to treat gunshot wounds. Engineers design addictive social media apps, while others design apps to manage that addiction.  

One can acknowledge the arguments that fossil fuels create immense value, that social media use is voluntary, and that militaries are necessary for stability. But what these contradictions reveal is that, except for obvious cases, it is not easy to map, one-to-one, engineering endeavors onto moral dichotomies of right and wrong, good and bad. In fact, moral questions often get more complicated as new engineering projects, trying to undo the problems of older ones, themselves bring about harm or injustice in their wake—in this way, engineering can create a moral morass. Despite this reality, we can insist on an engineering enterprise that is self-conscious of its process and its outcomes. 

Codes of ethics seek to give direction and set constraints for practitioners and have long been adopted by associations such as the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. These codes dispense good advice, but they are far clearer about not breaking the law, falsifying data, or deceiving those who put faith in engineers than they are about the social purpose of engineering or the kind of work that engineers must eschew. The lack of attention given to moral dilemmas in engineering and the values that undergird engineering itself can allow engineers to disclaim responsibility for the uses of their inventions. One degree removed from the polluters, the shooters, and the social media trolls who make use of engineering innovations, engineers can shield themselves behind plausible deniability.  

It is not easy to map, one-to-one, engineering endeavors onto moral dichotomies of right and wrong, good and bad.

But experience from established programs such as the Community Engineering Corps, which taps into a volunteer network of 200,000 practicing engineers, shows that many engineers want to do work that is socially responsible in new ways—they want to be of direct service in solving pressing needs. What’s more, recent research provides a snapshot of the desire of engineers and scientists to engage in work that is personally meaningful to them. These examples show that engineers and scientists across all age groups and employment sectors are willing to use their technical skills to work on causes within their local communities and beyond. More programs designed to build rapport between engineers and underserved communities, address knowledge and cultural gaps, help engineers understand how communities benefit from their skills, and demonstrate the social and professional value of such work can energize a new direction for engineering work.  

To turn this interest into an action-based and ongoing commitment that redefines the profession, engineering requires a new moral imagination that goes far beyond codes of ethics. A call for such change, if it is to be anything more than a platitude, must contemplate the incentives, practices, institutions, and narratives that regulate engineering work. In the following sections, I present some sketches of modest but realistic ways to promote an engineering profession ready to interrogate its own assumptions and methods, and ready to act to change itself.   

Looking beyond engineering students 

Calls to strengthen investments to secure the future of engineering in the United States have almost exclusively focused on engineering education and the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pipeline. While important, these calls overlook the fact that most engineers are not in college; they are in the workforce. While there are approximately 760,000 undergraduate and graduate engineering students in US colleges and universities, there are approximately 2 million engineers and 4.1 million computational professionals in the workforce, making decisions today that will have long-term impacts. Yet little is known about how this diverse group understands its role in society and what social challenges motivate and inspire them. One cannot assume that the priorities, ethics, and politics of engineers stay the same as their lives unfold. The descriptive statistics of employer type and terminal degree from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators provide the barest of insight into engineers’ concerns and attitudes; far more needs to be learned about the ethos of practicing engineers. 

To give practicing engineers opportunities to deploy their skills and experience in more direct service of their communities and society at large, professional development and continuing education programs at engineering schools can help their alumni develop new perspectives on engineering and public values, as well as inspiring new approaches for engineers to advance sustainability, justice, peace, and human rights. Such programs could also promote important translational work to take theoretical and conceptual advances in academic research—for example, work on technology for environmental justice—and apply them to real-world engineering contexts.  

Moving beyond pro bono and volunteerism 

Engineers’ desire to contribute to society in broader ways currently manifests in volunteerism or efforts above and beyond their day jobs. Over the last decade, programs like the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s On-call Scientists and American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange have engaged engineers and scientists across the country in dozens of projects addressing natural hazards, climate change mitigation, environmental justice, and human rights challenges. Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally helps increase local civic engagement of STEM professionals. Community Engineering Corps provides pro bono services for underserved communities to address water, energy, and structural engineering challenges. These programs have facilitated important projects to deploy new drinking water infrastructure for rural American communities, set up air pollution monitoring networks around industrial facilities, create night sky-friendly lighting, and detect chemical weapons use in Syria. 

The lack of attention given to moral dilemmas in engineering and the values that undergird engineering itself can allow engineers to disclaim responsibility for the uses of their inventions.

While these programs are immensely important, visions of a new moral imagination for engineering that rely only on volunteerism, pro bono efforts, and the goodwill of engineers and scientists will likely not engage them at the scale necessary to address the macro-social challenges of our times. These macro-social challenges are more often than not collections of hundreds of almost identical problems deemed “local.” It is not, for example, just one US urban community that is concerned about lead in drinking water; hundreds are. It is not just one agricultural community that is looking for ways to build a more climate-resilient future; hundreds are.  

Thus, efforts to assess the monetary value of services provided by professionals engaged in the programs mentioned above, to quantitatively and qualitatively evaluate their social impact, and to understand the transferability of knowledge and products created along the way can help articulate new value propositions for such work. The cost of replicating projects will likely go down as more of them are executed, particularly those that focus on design and planning. If that is the case, local governments and communities with fewer resources may be able to both access and afford critically needed engineering and scientific services. The possibility of such a virtuous cycle needs to be explored. It can be seeded by federal and philanthropic support that funds the creation of organizations experimenting with new business models to make such work financially sustainable. Practical insights can be drawn here from the years of successes and failures of social entrepreneurship businesses, revolving funds, and open-source communities and foundations, among other approaches. 

Creating spaces for debate and reflection 

Another way to nurture and expand engineers’ desire for social engagement is to expand the discourse within the profession that can lead to action. The recent reckoning with race and gender issues in the workplace and the emergence of frameworks like activist engineering—which seeks to have engineers reflect in new ways on the problems they’re addressing and their proposed solutions—create new opportunities to institute policies and programs to support and foster debate about engineering and public values. 

This sort of debate became visible activism in 2018, when Google employees questioned the company’s involvement in an artificial intelligence pilot program for the Department of Defense called Project Maven. The goal of this project was to use drone technology and machine learning to improve the military’s ability to track and target objects of interest. More than 4,000 employees—among them many engineers—signed a petition condemning Google’s participation in the “business of war” and urged CEO Sundar Pichai to cancel Google’s participation in Project Maven and renounce contracts for “warfare technology.”  

Google employees largely succeeded in that protest. Even as Google left the door open to work with the military, it did abandon the design or deployment of “weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people,” as Pichai wrote in a blog post. 

While such stories of activist engineering are rare, self-reflection and debate among engineers organized across small and large companies, government, academia, and nonprofits can bring purpose and impact to the center of engineering debates.  

Extending the gaze of United States-centric engineering 

A contemplative turn for engineering can also extend the profession’s critical gaze beyond US borders. Almost all engineering projects and products are now integrated in global supply chains. Consider lithium-ion batteries, used in consumer electronics and especially important for expanding the electric vehicle market. The largest known natural reserves of cobalt, an element used in those batteries to increase their energy density, are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where growing demand for the metal has triggered a vicious political battle over control of and rights to this extremely valuable resource. Consequently, consumer demand for batteries—which engineers stoke with ever more ingenious products—has significant repercussions in the DRC, with the exploitation of workers and displacement of communities from their ancestral land.  

Visions of a new moral imagination for engineering that rely only on volunteerism, pro bono efforts, and the goodwill of engineers and scientists will likely not engage them at the scale necessary to address the macro-social challenges of our times. 

This is a story that repeats itself with every new natural resource in high demand. Yet engineers seem to not bring this history to bear, remaining largely unconcerned about harm in which they might be complicit. Engineers can help build a new moral imagination for their profession by advocating for technology and knowledge transfer to countries in need, increased data transparency, and prohibitions on the import of unethically or illegally sourced goods and resources. 

In his book Engineers for Change, historian Matthew Wisnioski observed that questioning the goals and motives of engineering has been suppressed by companies and professional societies. It is therefore not surprising that the very same questions engineers raised in the past—about who engineering is for and to whom it is accountable—remain largely ignored today. But a new moral imagination for engineering can be made real through the innovative leadership of social entrepreneurs, activist engineers, and new fora for critical reflection, action, and organizational development. I believe engineers of all disciplines and ages can confront persistent questions about what engineering is for by committing themselves to the service of public values such as sustainability, justice, peace, and human rights. In doing so, engineers themselves will profoundly reshape science and technology policy for the next 75 years. 

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Cite this Article

Karwat, Darshan. “Creating a New Moral Imagination for Engineering.” Issues in Science and Technology (June 2, 2022).