A European Textbook on Engineering Ethics: Second draft for an epilogue
The European Ethics Network was founded in order to develop a practical ethics for and with professionals. This network has already been endorsed by more than 100 academic institutions and schools of higher education, especially engineering schools. It was started with the help of the most important existing networks and associations: the European Business Ethics Network, the European Association of Centers for Medical Ethics and the Societas Ethica. The Network has held the first meeting of Engineering Ethics specialists in Europe.
The European Ethics Network has fostered the formation of an editorial team to produce a textbook in Engineering Ethics. This committee has selected about thirty specialists from eleven European Countries to summarize the ethics of their discipline in readable terms for engineering students. The book methodologically separates three levels of analysis:
- Chapter 1 focuses on engineers' problems within their technical institutions.
- Chapter 2 sketches the mezzo level where technical systems compete.
- Chapter 3 presents technical developments as a society issue.
All chapters have the same structure: social scientists describe engineering practice, then professional engineers show problematic examples and philosophers reflect on those materials.
As coordinator of the editorial committee, Bertrand Hèriard Dubreuil presents the second draft of the epilogue that sketches the different problems covered and the advances made. The first draft has been written with Philippe Goujon, Jean Marie Lhùte and Michel Veys from the Centre d'Èthique Contemporaine de l'Universitè Catholique de Lille and submitted to the international editorial committee.
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A Problematic Situation
Throughout its successes Technique has accumulated so much power and assumed such proportions that many regard it as the reconstitution among us of ancient tragedy. For Heidegger, for instance, Technique is the fate that relentlessly drags along man in a process of total rationalization in which modernity is accomplished and annihilated. The Greeks feared that human power would provoke the anger of the gods if it exceeded a certain limit: Prometheus was punished for stealing their fire; the transgression of the standard unleashes divine vengeance. As such, modernity seemed to have shattered all boundaries: nothing opposes to the unlimited growth of human competence. Consequently, there is a growing anxiety in our conscience with regard to the means Technique places at our disposal. For reasons that appear to be more mythical than real, this anxiety has crystallized out into, among others, nuclear energy, conferring an increased responsibility to the actors in the techno-scientific universe: individuals, persons and subjects having to assume responsibility for decisions that entail grave human, economic and social consequences. These decisions are all the more difficult to take since the same actors find themselves at the border-line of various spheres (existential and institutional, economical and political, administrative or juridical) which most often impose constraints and pressures. The anxiety comes from the particularity of those actors who are endowed with conscience and confronted with the monumental challenges of modern technique. The construction of the textbook underlines their difficulties and the proposed examples illustrate a painful complexity.
This painful complexity strains the European culture itself. The latter carries out a radical suspicion which, in the history of thought and in the history of humanity, weighs upon the modern program and upon the belief that reason is the positive agent in the management of the city as in the command over nature. The beginning of the XXth century finally presents the sad privilege of a double worldwide confrontation of societies with a sophisticated modernity and with the bringing about of totalitarianisms, the relentless character of which is precisely linked to the rational mechanisms of a technical management.
From those difficult experiences came out a crisis of modernity where reign derision - sometimes Nihilism -, quoting and pastiche of the preceding styles, multiplicity of 'dogmas' which establishes and separates, flight to and refuge in the past as unlimited reservoir of pseudo references. This movement which is sometimes referred to as 'postmodernism', carries the doubting of the concepts of rationality and the questioning of the beneficiary powers of Technique. Eventually, the Western claim to universality relatives every experience and all cultures, and may wipe out the conscience of a new world which will derive its significance from the unlimited extension of liberties.
In a world that questions everything, Technique becomes - or tends to become - the supreme reference for a pragmatic truth, in spite of the suspicions that weigh upon it, in spite of the criticism that is addressed to it. Technique, not Science, because the latter remains imprecise, whereas the former imposes itself concretely and orientates the sciences towards remunerative and spectacular applications. The totality of the production apparatus pulls the sciences towards efficiency; the sciences end up coinciding with technology, in the Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word, hence the decline of the question of truth in the name of an immediate and superficial efficiency.
The teaching of technology does not even transmit the values entailed by the teaching of sciences. It only carries out an act of faith in the advent of new techniques: this indicates a double blinding if technological innovation is tied up with the blind process that animates market economy, and even further, technoscientific knowledge cultivates the oblivion of meanings and of its capacities. Technology is an assembly of means and intentions, which surpasses each of its constituents: it is a way of thinking, of acting, of transforming the world, and therefore technology cannot be dissociated from a vision of society. The question posed from that philosophical analysis which has a European background - is to know whether technology will, by definition, due to its proper growth which cannot possibly be regulated, become a factor of dehumanization, in the same way that, even though it may be the extension of nature, it has become a factor of denaturization.
Technology has acquired so much power in our modern society that it may give the impression of being fully autonomous. It has become indispensable for many of our contemporaries. It is courted by the political and the economic world to such an extent that it mobilizes considerable sums. In our culture, it has become a full-fledged variable, which lead men and women to look for technological solutions to political, economic and social problems, so that all aspects of social life may be instrumentalized one after the other.
In one word, technology may become a drug as it penetrates our body and soul. That is why it poses problems in the heart of every society, of every institution, of every reflection. It poses moral problems, political problems and problems with respect to society, none of which can be ignored any longer by the actors of the technological world, by the engineers and particularly by the future engineers. Hence the importance of an ethical manual for today's engineers and their teachers, but which will be equally to the advantage of all those who reflect on the problems that are posed by technological development.
Without pretending to supply answers, this book tries to make ethical reflection possible by putting the technological actor, his conscience and his position in the middle of things together with the proceedings, the localities, the levels and the difficulties involved in decision-making. The objective is not to provide rules or dogmas, less even to determine moral answers. Ethics is never to be found within the answers but in the dynamic movement of debate and inquiry before the real action, and on the frontier which separates our subjective existence from the constraining exteriority. From the pedagogical point of view, engineering ethics cannot conform to a supposedly objective knowledge, particularly because - to resume one of Wittgenstein's thoughts - 'ethics can only be transcendental'.
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This textbook inherits from the European philosophical traditions, which have analyzed the influence of modern Technique on contemporary culture. But since its contributors try to enlighten moral dilemmas that face engineers, they have to go into the complexity of technological actions. This is why the editorial committee has asked social scientists to summarize the ethical issues foreseen from their discipline and professional engineers to provide problematic examples. By doing so, this textbook tries to specify some of the mediations between the moral agent and the consequences of the technological system that s/he is operating in. Since technological systems are social systems, people maintain them. Since the systems compete with each other, they allow people to choose between them, even if the scale of any technological system generates consequences of considerable significance.
Let us start by the macroscopic problems that are caused by the evolution of sciences and technologies. The third chapter in this book has summarized a large field of research. Will industries ever be able to assume all ecological constraints? Is a lasting development possible? Are scientific and technical developments arbitrary ones and can they be submitted to democratic regulations? Is the ideology of engineering definitely tied up with the ideology of progress, or can engineers broaden their culture by means of other criteria?
On the other hand, if people maintain technological systems, it is very important to start by knowing those people, listening to them, and situating them globally; the first chapter of this book presents this first field of research. Who are these engineers, educated to construct, to manage technical institutions? What are their history and their identity? To what degree are they free? What are their values and their moral problems? To what extent do those moral dilemmas translate or not larger societal problems? How much wisdom do they display to solve them? What is the strength of this wisdom, what are its limits?
Technological institutions compete with each other: all kinds of business undertakings, forms of government, engineering societies. What kind of logic dominates the mezzo level? The economic logic of business undertakings? The political logic of territories, in terms of monopoly, market share or the right to enter the technological systems? Or the simple logic of the systems themselves that are programmed with a view to their own growth? Those are the main questions of the second chapter.
But the three chapters are deeply interconnected. The exponential growth of human competence, the large division of technical labor and the consequent difficulties to foresee global responsibilities confront humanity with questions it has never yet dared to face. Let us present some of them to show both the difference and the interconnection of our three levels of analysis.
Must we use all means that the techno-scientific complex puts at our disposal? Is everything permitted when and if it is possible? Who make the decisions and on which foundations? Can they still profess the neutrality of Science and the pragmatism of technology, which leads to a reliance on external determinism (social demands, market forces or political strategies)? These are the ethical and moral questions one may put to institutional actors, but equally to people and to societies when our very civilization is at stake.
But how then to consider the role of intermediary bodies? How can they regulate the technological evolution? Does the competition between them give rise to liberty or to a flight forward? Generally speaking, can one assign a moral authority to technological institutions in the same way one has granted them a juristic personality? How to differentiate between the concept of moral responsibility and the concept of civil responsibility?
The way in which these problems are settled on the intermediary level has a direct influence on the macro level. The superior level itself, however, is taken care of by giant institutions: multinationals whose budget is superior to that of certain states; international pressure groups manipulating public opinion; disproportionate worldwide technological systems, which specifically assure the transport of information, of goods and of services; international law protecting industrial properties and respect for the prevailing standards. On a world scale, technological systems are getting themselves organized in a much faster and efficient way than the political world.
The democratic systems that tend to be the norms in politics try to be so in economy. It still has to learn to get out of the technical fatality, and first of all, it has to foster understanding that the technical destiny is situated within and not outside us. Societies, technical institutions and their actors must impose on themselves the limits that the technological transgression may entail: to prefer peace to violence, conviviality to anonymity, ecological equilibrium to display of power... In other words, to choose the technical means that are adapted to the ethical goals they pursue and, for that, to explore at each level their own room for liberty.
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Room for Liberty Within the Heart of a Conviction
For the individuals who maintain or depend on technological systems, they create a fallacious impression of autonomy. This book tries to refute it in three ways:
Out of realism
This book has aimed at presenting the mechanisms of technological developments, in order to show that they are always many - competing with each other as well as interdependent - that they are technical as well as social, and that room for liberty must be discovered or created within this tangled web.
Realism should not forget that every practice is founded on principles - consciously or unconsciously - otherwise one runs the risk of restricting ethics to a categorical field and of sacrificing existence and its tensions. Every experience, whether ethical or sociopolitical, can only be lived in the present, as if it were a presence. A constant of this 'truth of presence' consists of a relationship with the world as a whole. Meaning opens up to us to the extent in which we act or in which we know that practice has to be founded; realism requires the engineer to be present in the world, discovering spaces of liberty as well as restrictions of his liberty.
Out of conviction
Even if technology were to become autonomous, it would have to find the means to become self-regulatory; it would have to find public spaces in which technicians could discuss the social problems they encounter; it would have to find the political means to make sure that power would be divided and counterbalanced; it would have to find the means for economic regulation in order to put its goods and its services at everyone's disposal; finally, it would have to find the means not to exhaust the resources of the planet.
Realism evokes an ethics of responsibility; to the latter also - and perhaps above all one has to add an ethics of conviction, as ethics must not let itself be resolved into economy or sociology, nor reduced to a self-justification. The fundamental thesis which runs through this book consists in maintaining that technical development is far too important to be confided to the sole technicians; at least, they have to worry about humanity as a whole and to assume responsibility as human beings, which means that they have to choose between those possibilities that constitute the horizons of the world.
Out of educational concern
Technologies cannot exist without technicians; technical workers often profess it openly, but hide their personal responsibility behind that of the institution where they work. Even engineers feel constrained by the internal development of technical means and their ignorance of economic and social forces. They do not realize their own power.
This book has been written with a very define aim: to provide an education for the exercise of technological power. Engineers first of all have to become conscious of their power, of its strengths and of its limits. Then they have to become conscious of the fact that they have been confided this power in the name of a technological expertise. Finally they have to enlarge the notion of expertise to include the political, the economic and the cultural fields which are intimately intermingled.
This companion of European contributions would like to stir up in its readers a consciousness by assuring them that in spite of pressure and determinism there is, and there always will be, room for liberty. Throughout the descriptions, the examples and their philosophical analyses, the idea gets reinforced that to use this available liberty means taking a decision of conscience.
The three levels that give structure to this work - micro, mezzo, macro tend to lead the engineers or the future engineers to shake off their neutralist conception of sciences and their pragmatic view of technologies. In the same movement these actors are invited to establish a possible correlation between accepted or dominant norms and their own human activity for which these norms should serve as a regulating device. Practice must dedicate itself to being understood as an existential way of life of a human being belonging to the world and open to the construction of meaning.
Technologies cannot but limit themselves to the game that is played with their rules - if they develop freely. Beyond this, the game causes vertigo. Being fully conscious of this fact, the technological actors can maintain a relation of responsibility with their experience, they can pass from knowledge to conscience, from awakening to a life open to the world of meaning. To play with the tension between norm and experience, between responsibility, conviction and reality, is much more liberating than to rid oneself of norms that are guided by a totaling illusionary truth.
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Toward New Social Contracts.
Can one claim that a work of this kind suffices to get a clear conscience and to believe that the difficulties will be overcome before long? Of course not, but it can be of assistance in getting out of the confusion. Such a confusion was expressed in all innocence by the organizers of a prestigious conference organized in the spring of 1999 by the National Council of Engineers and Scientists of France (Conseil National des Ingènieurs et Scientifiques de France) and the Society of Civil Engineers of France (Sociètè des Ingènieurs Civils de France) on the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the latter. The themes of the activities reveal the contradiction in which engineers find themselves at the end of this millennium.
- First theme: "How to master the dynamism of progress in order to offer the best possible service to the consumer and the citizen?"
- Second theme: "The industrial imperative of France."
The program does not offer a synthesis and the organizers are perfectly right: it would be a vain as well as a purely academic exercise. How to draw up a synthesis between the mastering of a dynamism and the imperatives of the growth of that same dynamism? Between a service to be rendered and a competition to be won? Between attention for the other and a cultivated aggressiveness? Between prudence and recklessness?
Nevertheless, one has to observe that not so long ago the first term of the contradiction would not even have been expressed; the evolution of our wits is a sure thing even if the imperatives of growth still impose their laws. This companion participates in this growing consciousness. Today it introduces the reflections of engineers, social scientists and philosophers when humanity finds itself confronted with troubling situations like genetic manipulations, nuclear energy or unforeseen capers of the international stock exchange. Up to now engineers saw themselves working rather in the margin of these great interrogations, leaving it to the doctors, the researchers and the financiers to deal with the vertigo involved. Many were satisfied to function as serving-hatches, at best being more preoccupied with their social responsibilities within the company than with the effects induced by their ever so reassuring technical competence.
Is it possible that a serving-hatch begins to think? Since some forty-odd years this somewhat preposterous idea seems to emerge. Since technologies imply all its actors, a serving-hatch that starts to think runs the risk of causing great amazement. Does one clearly calculate all the consequences?
Doubtlessly the answers history will give to these questions will in no way be those one would expect. This work may be read by future generations with the same incredulous curiosity with which they may read moral treatises of the XVII century. This is not essential. In those domains in which thought tries to understand the world to find its liberty, the important things are not that much the derision it raise, but the space that discussions open and the social contracts that our 'post-modernity' is looking for.
Lille, le 25 /02 /1999
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A collective work is not necessarily read following the chronological order of the chapters, and the reader may even be tempted to begin at the end hoping to discover the essential in a quick reading. In another way than the preface these last pages would like to comply with this desire by leaving room for reflection. This is the ambition of the CREI in response to the international editorial Committee, which trusted it with the care of writing the epilogue for this companion. What it comes down to is to show the magnitude of the field of activity opened up by this book, in terms of research into the ties between science, technology and societies, in terms of engineers taking care of these ties in their professional life, in terms of abilities to be conveyed by those who educate them.
Cite this page:
"A European Textbook on Engineering Ethics: Second draft for an epilogue"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Saturday, May 25, 2013