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Introduction[edit | edit source]

  • This Course is based mainly on "Nonkilling, Professional Ethics, and Engineering the Public Good", chapter prepared by Professor David Haws (Boise State University) for Toward a Nonkilling Paradigm (Honolulu: Center for Global Nonkilling, 2009). The Course is part of the Interdisciplinary Program on Nonkilling Studies at the School of Nonkilling Studies.

Taking illness to a physician, only a few centuries ago, was likely to result in the unnecessary loss of blood, if not premature death. The source of illness was occult, treatments were dangerous, and so more conservative physicians simply focused on methods that, if ineffective, were at least something less than immediately fatal. Physicians had physical contact with their patients, witnessed their suffering, and felt their loss. The concerned practitioner might draw a little blood, in a variety of ways, and thereby safely demonstrated both erudition and industry—encouraging the patient toward silence, if not health.

But because of the potential for harm, and because of their familial concern for the individual, ancient physicians chose the professional caveat: Primum Non Nocere. The potential for harm was, indeed, obvious, as well as morally compelling. And although germ theory gave physicians an important influence on society, doctors have retained the Hippocratic Oath in deference to their continued focus on the individual.

Engineers, similarly empowered with Baconian methods, address the community need for infrastructure, rather than healthy individuals. As a consequence, engineers primarily consider the potential for harm on a communal scale, and our professional constraint is to hold paramount the public safety, health, and welfare. Unfortunately, a lot of individuals can and will suffer before the public safety, health, and welfare even breaks a sweat. Further, because engineers deal primarily with an abstract social structure, rather than with individuals, engineers don’t often see the anguished faces of those they impact. Historically, engineering developed as a branch of the military, and has no explicit professional constraint against doing individual harm (killing, being the extreme manifestation).

“Civilian” engineers acknowledge a professional duty to serve the public good, but we, arguably, have an even deeper, personal duty to respect individual life. After all, the public good is not defined by consensus, and even if it were, majority rule is practically, rather than morally compelling. Most governments consist of leaders making decisions (some of which, engineers are expected to carry out) on behalf of the governed. But while even a tyrant might choose to define a public good that allows individual, human flourishing, the “public” is a social construct that doesn’t bleed. When the public good tramples on individual life—even for the greater, actual good of collective individuals—diminished life compels us to respect a remainder obligation toward those suffering a socially imposed burden. While it might be comforting, engineers can’t simply shunt the administration of social justice onto someone else: we are morally obliged by the remainder obligations generated through our work.

The line between killing and letting die is fuzzy at best, and engineers need to reexamine their willingness to let individuals suffer for the greater good generated through engineering projects. Deaths, causally associated with a particular project, might be human or nonhuman; intentional or accidental; foreseeable or unforeseeable; immediate, proximal or distal. But when an individual’s death is attributable, at least in part, to an engineering project, that individual bears a kind of ultimate, social burden that can’t be distributed back and relieved by the society in general. Increasing the balance of good overall simply isn’t enough—our engineering projects need to avoid, mitigate, or at least respectfully consider the disproportionate burden born by those who suffer and die in the aftermath.

While ahimsa (nonkilling) has seldom been the focus of engineering, even with benign projects such as the delivery of clean drinking water, this deficiency is a moral failure resulting from a paternalistic sense of professional duty that “treats” the beneficiary, and, too often, ignores the collateral individual. This doesn’t make our engineering designs bad, it simply makes them incomplete. It would be wrong for us to knowingly put forth an incomplete design; or to ignorantly put forth a design that we considered “complete” as an exercise in wishful thinking. On the other hand, if we unknowingly allow an incomplete design to progress through to realization, then we have committed an error of omission. While our motivation remains untainted, we are nevertheless obliged to correct mistakes as they come to our attention, and relieve inappropriately assigned burdens.

For example, the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937, was a stunning engineering achievement, which must have been personally gratifying for the engineers involved. Realizing a greater good for thousands, the Bridge was an aesthetic, economic, and moral exemplar. The elegant lines, austere setting, and extreme attenuation (its 4200 feet was the world’s longest clear span at the time of completion) make the Bridge a globally identifiable symbol of built beauty. While the Bridge was actually constructed under budget by $1.3 million, its exquisitely optimized main cables compare tellingly with the grossly over-designed structure of its contemporary, the record-setting Empire State Building (the main cables were so finely tuned as to thwart subsequent attempts to add the second traffic deck, common on less sleekly-spectacular Bay bridges.) Finally, as has been frequently noted, Bridge construction pioneered the use of safety nets to protect exposed workers—saving 19 from assumed-fatal falls, and reducing the number of construction deaths to less than a third of what might have been expected by rule of thumb.

Yet, any engineering project interacting with individuals—even drawing nothing but awe and respect from most of us—is liable to entail some moral obligations. For this analysis, I would like to examine the Bridge, and consider those moral obligations that accrue subject to the potential for loss of life. With regard to human life, we need to consider:

  • Accidental death during construction, and in traffic (on the Bridge itself, but also due to increased regional traffic generation)
  • Intentional death through suicide, and from armed attack (on the Bridge, as a military or symbolic target of opportunity)
  • Increased mortality from economic adjustment (among economic pilgrims, as well as the marginalized and excluded)

Additionally, I think we need to consider the death of animals: e:

  • Directly as road-kill, and indirectly through displaced habitat, attributable to the increased number of vehicles, roads, and communities enabled in the North Bay counties by the Bridge’s construction)

In each of these instances, Bridge engineers missed an opportunity to lessen the potential for loss of life, failing to commit adequate resources to understand incipient problems and realize effective solutions. If there is a failure here—with the stunning engineering success of the Bridge, and by inference, perhaps, with our more yeoman engineering designs—I feel that it might be justifiably laid at the foot of our professional ethic, which avoids an explicit reference to the individual.

Accidental Loss of Human Life[edit | edit source]

Compared with the past, we seem less willing to simply accept the untimely death of a distal other. This is equally true of intentional, unintentional, and accidental death. In terms of intentional death, at least some responsible actors in our (US) government believe this, or they would not feel compelled to obscure the level of carnage now taking place in the Middle East (no one similarly placed was concerned enough to conceal our level of troop loss, an order of magnitude greater, 40 years earlier in Vietnam). As for unintentional death, the epidemic of puerperal fever recognized in Vienna by Ignaz Semmelweis, might today generate outrage, rather than a 19th Century blend of ignorant denial and helpless acceptance. Finally, the expanding scope of current safety features indicates less complacency with accidental death, if not an increased willingness to relieve the suffering of victims (still distributing relief primarily on the basis of insurance).

I can remember working construction projects where safety equipment was minimal to nonexistent, by current standards. I also remember a lot of old carpenters with missing digits, and was more-or-less amazed to discover that they lost fingers, like Civil War saw-bones, through haste and a well-sharpened hand tool, rather than the introduction of unfamiliar and obviously dangerous power equipment. The greatest dangers are often concealed—sometimes behind over-reliance on safety devices—but individual accidents derive as much from human attitudes as innately perilous operations. Danger accrues to an industry as a function of process, rather than the ultimate industrial product.

Historically, the risks of a dangerous profession were naively assumed to be inevitable, and the subject of informed consent. Dangerous jobs often entailed higher wages, and the idea was that greater compensation—compensation for risk—was also an adequate compensation for the burden of accidental loss. Payment for risk is fine, but the idea that there can be a just, monetary compensation for accidental death is ludicrous. No one, in the absence of insanity, terminal illness, unbearable pain, or the duress of an impossible situation, would volunteer to surrender a limb, let alone end his or her life, purely for the sake of monetary compensation.

Yet in the recent past, industrial accidents were considered an act of God (or a random act of chance) rather than ultimately preventable occurrences, statistically skewed to particular industries by ignorance, greed, and neglect. Workers were given the economic status of a raw material—to be used up, or replaced by raw material from another source, if prices became too dear. (If you believe this practice to occur strictly in the past, try hiring your neighbor to raise, slaughter, and clean the chicken you want to cook for dinner.) Injured long-term workers were typically dismissed with some minimal package of benefits, while short-term workers and the families of industry fatalities were left to the spotty care of external charities.

In a similar way, traffic fatalities were accepted as the simple inevitability of hurling people around at 70 MPH, surrounded by a ton of glass and metal, and oozing a few gallons of accelerant. The car I’ve owned for the last 18 years (a 1964 Plymouth Belvedere, which has never had seat belts) was built and originally purchased in 1963, the first year US traffic fatalities topped 40,000. By way of comparison, annual traffic fatalities always exceeded our troop losses in Vietnam (by more than a factor of 3, even during the year of the Tet Offensive). While traffic fatalities reached an apex of nearly 55,000 in 1972, the increasing emphasis on “safe” vehicles has reduced US traffic fatalities to mid-1960s levels. But historically, so many people died before their time, subject to accidents, infections, treatable or preventable disease, as collateral damage in wars, or subject to the vagaries of food production and famine—we just stoically accepted the fact that our life would be touched, at various points, by premature death.

We seem more active today, looking for culpability in accidental death and assigning damages. I suppose it is tempting to play a utilitarian analysis with human life. Perhaps we imagine a minimum market value in terms of some abstract utile, like dollars (e.g., how many waking hours might a relatively alert human expect to live, and how much would the reasonably competent require, as compensation, to relinquish one hour). Market force estimations, after all, form the basis of how we value a (nonpet) animal life (so much per mature pork-belly, delivered to the abattoir, depending on timely supply and the instantaneous, global yen for bacon). And, of course, market forces were also used by slave-owners, to place a value on “available” African-Americans before our Civil War. But the assignment of damages, too often, is a post hoc measure of retributive, rather than distributive justice. Since a lost human life is irredeemable, unless, possibly, in exchange for some “equivalent” human life, justice after the fact is an illusion. Engineers should do their best to design useful projects, which enhance life—not to avoid damages, but because moral behavior is morally compelling. If fatalities occur, we need to correct the immediate and responsible causes, insure that the fatality is not simply accepted as the cost of doing business, and ease the burdens of those who, in Whitman’s terms, remain, and suffer. But justice is temporally beyond our grasp. Justice demands our attention before dangers become de facto.

The Golden Gate Bridge and post-war automobile safety requirements are rightly cited as the beginning of a gentler, more responsible attitude toward the victims of fatal accidents. Innovators like Joseph Strauss and Preston Tucker were obviously unsettled by the existing, callous attitude toward accidental loss of life—and in their own ways, are at least partially responsible for leading our society away from its complacency. But Strauss and Tucker’s innovations addressed familiar accidents, and made no real attempt to consider safety problems beyond the expected (e.g., failing to account for gondolas crashing through safety nets, or lead poisoning from automobile exhaust emissions). Since many engineered works outlive their designers, we need to devote a significant portion of the design effort to considering just how each project might encounter an adjunct failure in unexpected and catastrophic ways (perhaps writing, disseminating, and critiquing imaginative reports). With the collective imagination of the engineering profession, I don’t see why we would be unable to anticipate at least some of the new forms of accidents, which inevitably follow in the wake of new technologies.

One might argue that the extreme boundaries of killing (intentional) and letting-die (accidental) encompass a well-distributed continuum of possibilities. While no single contribution to an accidental death may be necessary or sufficient, there is perhaps some culpability by simple contiguity (this seems to be the direction taken in US civil suits, assigning minimal, potential liability to caterers, for construction deaths at the sites they service). This being the case, there is a fractional aspect of killing associated with accidental death that makes our professional concern morally imperative. Perhaps accidental deaths are simply unintentional killing, as with the ignorant introduction of bacteria during childbirth in 19th Century Vienna.

Intentional Loss of Human Life[edit | edit source]

There are probably two types of intentional death one might associate with the Golden Gate Bridge—suicide, which has occurred (often) and should reasonably have been anticipate; and politically-motivated attack—blowing up the Bridge as a military objective, or as a symbol of something else, hateful, yet beyond weapon’s range. While both types of deaths are, or would be killing (you can’t really argue Secondary Effect here—that someone might want to blow up the Bridge, without intending to kill the people driving across it in their cars), they otherwise seem to be quiet different.

Suicide is certainly a killing, but the ill of a suicide’s death seems to be a function of motivation; we don’t consider willing, self-sacrificial death to be suicide or killing—even if the sacrifice achieves nothing concrete. For example, the unsuccessful hero might use his body in a vain attempt to save someone else. Comparatively, a suicide might choose to die because he thinks it would be better for his family. Both deaths are untimely, but we hold the suicide particularly culpable because we consider him inadequately informed, and think that he ought to have known better. We are less judgmental of the thwarted hero, and consider the world a better place, because of the occasional human willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt—even if unsuccessful—to save the other. But if the suicide can’t know the state of the world in his absence, then neither can we. Further, if the culpability of accidental death exists somewhere on a continuum between killing and letting die, then, perhaps, suicide itself might not be an absolutely culpable form of killing (might retain a residual element of the accidental).

If a particular suicide were considered morally acceptable—for example, by controlling the manner, rather than the time of death, thereby avoiding a death that could be considered significantly premature—then jumping from the Bridge under the proper circumstances (no witness, no family or musing comrades left behind to wonder, and an out-going tide) might avoid censure. Under the right circumstances, the suicide would mitigate the physical aspects of a messy aftermath; and we know that the “well-tested” probability of success would be 98% (greater, if the suicide could control the angle of impact).

But if there were a morally acceptable suicide, it would be difficult to differentiate ahead of time. And for the purpose of this analysis, I will assume (along with Kant) that there is a perfect moral imperative against suicide—that suicide is a killing similar to the killing of someone other than yourself. This being the case, the engineers who designed the Golden Gate Bridge should have considered features to deter all potential suicide.

Of course, as originally configured with a pedestrian lane, the Bridge might be considered “suicide friendly.” Does the aesthetic Bay view, seen from the walkway (admittedly stunning) offset the “attractive nuisance” appeal for potential suicides? On the other hand, lazy, or less-ambulatory suicides have certainly been willing to abandon cars on the roadway. More to the point, since suicides were jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge long before the Golden Gate Bridge was envisioned, the Bridge’s popularity with West Coast suicides shouldn’t have really surprised anyone.

As of 2005 (68 years of operation) more than 1200 Golden Gate Bridge suicides have been documented (currently compiling at about one every two weeks). Importantly, there has been a continuing effort to reduce suicide attempts—through signage, alert officials (many potential suicides being thwarted by the California Highway Patrol) and with the introduction of sensors and strategically placed suicide nets. Perhaps there are additional post hoc palliatives (e.g., handing out anti-depressants at the pedestrian turn-stile), but suicide-prevention should have been incorporated into the original design. Again, as with accidental death, most people will eventually recognize a problem and potential solutions, but engineers are particularly well-trained to consider technical problems in the abstract. And a brainstorming of unimagined, destructive applications should be a part of every engineering preliminary design. If this had been accomplished in the 1930s, perhaps the Bridge suicide toll would be less.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I’m sure that there must be engineers somewhere considering the possibilities of a hostile impact loading on the Golden Gate Bridge. Because of its exposure to wind and seismic forces, the Bridge is probably well designed against the kind of lateral loads that might come from a bomb blast sufficiently small, or at some adequate remove. As a consequence, the problem might become one of keeping potential bombs far enough away from critical structural components (the two towers, the main cables, the two anchorages, the auxiliary cables, and the bridge girders, probably in that order). A military attack might provide enough warning to close the bridge and initiate countermeasures, but a stealth attack by land could use the Bridge roadway to access vulnerable features. Further, since the Bridge is an aerial, sight-seeing destination, attack from a private plane might not offer as much warning-time as a more standard, military sortie.

Without trying to second-guess terrorists in a morbid way, the Bridge’s principal weakness is probably in the material properties of the main cables—steel being particularly susceptible to heat and corrosion. While the ganged cables are statically determinant (enabling catastrophic failure at a single point) the redundant connections to the anchorage would require more points of attack, but correspondingly smaller explosions, and not all of the redundant connections would have to fail simultaneously (this type of failure analysis could be done by any of my upper-division engineering students). If engineers responsible for the Bridge are not currently thinking through potential attack scenarios, they obviously should be—in consultation with military engineers, who spend much more of their time trying to figure out how to efficiently blow things up, and how to patch battle damage.

For example, if a private plane loaded with jellied gasoline were to wrap itself around a cable support at the top of one tower, how much warning time would motorists have to vacate the Bridge? Should Highway Officials have a mechanism in place (do they?) to more-or-less instantaneously shut down the approaches (and how far away should vehicles be held)? How could fire-retardants be efficiently placed at the site of combustion, or how might the heat of combustion be safely dissipated? If the ends of the Bridge were simultaneously blocked, could we safely evacuate motorists by static lines or gondola to the respective shores? Assuming that someone with a grudge will eventually want to attack an American landmark on the west coast, should we “mis-direct” them by heavily defending the Bridge (e.g., studding the bridge with anti-aircraft drones), while posting minimal defenses, and advertising the “cultural significance” of some other, attractive target (perhaps San Simeon, from the perspective of historic continuity)? The point is that a military attack on the Golden Gate Bridge was not part of the original design, although it probably should have been (Orson Welles and military planners were certainly considering the possibility of an attack on US soil). Today, there is no excuse for ignoring military/terrorist threats. In fact, since the Oklahoma City bombing, Federal buildings are now being designed to withstand internal blast loading (fairly simple, although perhaps counter-intuitive for someone habituated to thinking in terms of gravity loads).

As a profession, we have made progress in limiting the potential for our designs to further intentional killing. Although such killing is admittedly a bad thing, a determined killing is difficult to prevent. In the end, perhaps the current moral obligation of engineers is to prevent the easy deaths, while playing for time—enlarging the window for a timely response to developing threats. However, not all projects (the Golden Gate Bridge is a notable exception) retain the attention of engineers after their completion, so an exploration of dire contingencies needs to be a significant part of the project’s initial conception.

Economic Displacement and the Loss of Human Life[edit | edit source]

In a finite world, the attraction of resources to one area will preclude their use in another. In the extreme, this polarizes wealth, and leaves behind pockets of marginalized humanity, incapable of realizing the life they desire. Such poverty is often accompanied by the loss of life—killing and otherwise—and the differential of wealth drives migration, taxing the typically minimal services available for new arrivals, and further decreasing the capacity of an abandoned homeland. In addition, indigenous inhabitants or early immigrants, if able to exercise sufficient power, will have an advantage over newcomers, and often use their advantage to exact privilege. In such an environment, the frustration of competing against unwarranted privilege might also motivate conflict resulting in the loss of life.

The history of California is rife with economic struggles between peoples and regions, and the Golden Gate Bridge was rightly seen as an economic stimulus to the North Bay counties (including Sonoma County, which is where I grew up). Under Anglo development, the location of San Francisco benefited from natural port facilities, an existing presidio/mission with support infrastructure, and access along El Camino Real to the lush, surrounding farmlands to the south, and southeast. But originally located as a potential redoubt at the end of a narrow, highly defensible peninsula, San Francisco was separated from the counties to the immediate north by the Golden Gate. As a consequence, commerce to the north was traditionally limited by the availability of ferry traffic within the Bay. North Bay counties were therefore more isolated, agrarian, and economically limited. The Golden Gate Bridge improved access, drew capital as well as wealthier inhabitants, and contributed to the gentrification of the locals (or their exodus farther inland, to less pricey chunks of real estate).

Prosperity in the North Bay counties—augmented by the Bridge—fostered an unwillingness on the part of local inhabitants to do the nasty, or toilsome bits of work. For example, while I was growing up in Santa Rosa (the early 1960s) the public schools didn’t start until the end of September. Ostensibly, this was to allow school children to aid in the harvest of local prunes and to a lesser extent, English walnuts (both of which involved retrieving product from the ground). Yet, by the time I was there, few locals availed themselves of this opportunity (I certainly didn’t, although I did work construction jobs during the summer).

Mechanized farm labor is perhaps the most traditionally dangerous, nonbelligerent occupation, and if accompanied by inadequate wages, is understandably rejected by people with other options. However, migrant farm labor (drawn from regions low on options) had been fairly well established by the time of the Great Depression. While the end of the 1960s saw a few locals—otherwise stretching time between meals on communes, such as Lou Gottlieb’s Morningstar Ranch—embark on farm labor, the region’s less desirable, agricultural jobs (as now, throughout much of the West) were typically taken by “part-year” transients from Latin America. This wasn’t a new phenomenon, and the 19th Century saw waves of Asian emigration—some, such as the Chinese, being met with extreme violence (more than one Chinese was simply killed at the end of the harvest, to avoid the cost of a meager wage). The point is that from a global perspective, the North Bay counties were already extremely wealthy. The Golden Gate Bridge enhanced this, and so is reasonably seen to contribute—admittedly, in a limited way—to the initial misery of the attracted poor.

Globally, corporations concentrate wealth and exploit the unprotected—particularly where they can operate off the radar of the obliviously empowered. If Malaysian children are working in clandestine, sweat-shop conditions to fabricate sneakers, it is at least partially because some North Bay residents—from a position of relative affluence enhanced in a small way by the Bridge—choose to buy cheap footwear. Effort placed in the Third World producing export goods for the First World, gives the rank-and-file little of value, and detracts from the labor required to produce the food they need to eat, and the other goods that might stay and enhance the local quality of life. I don’t know of an Irish Potato Famine in the works anywhere, but the potential mechanism is well understood. The Third World needs fewer “Hard Rock Café” T-shirts, and a larger percentage of its own resources—to develop local culture, and a more satisfying lifestyle. “Trickle-down” failed to work in our own (US) democracy, and it certainly won’t work where the receptacles of poverty are so much more ubiquitous and overwhelming.

The problem for engineers is that most of their projects require capital—ready capital being primarily available in the First World. Engineering projects generate economic growth, and so the rich get richer (and, in a zero-sum world, the poor get poorer). If there is a possible solution here, it might be in the kind of engineering pro bono work demonstrated by groups like Engineers Without Borders. It would be helpful if such groups received better funding, maybe by levying a surcharge on all engineering projects in the First World. This isn’t the enormous “great leap forward” it might first appear to be, since some countries (like Japan) levy a similar engineering surcharge to support things like research and development.

The contributions of the Golden Gate Bridge are admittedly minimal, in terms of global economic impact, but we aren’t justified in assuming they pass unfelt. While the motivation for economic enhancement in the First World is not death in the Third World, the lack of intention, or even ignorance of negative impact, does not absolve us of moral responsibility. Death, attributable to economic disparity is at least partially a form of killing, as opposed to letting-die. If the culpability for economic suffering is widely distributed, then the zero-sum impact of regional economic enhancement should be considered as part of the engineering analysis, at least for large, First World projects like the Golden Gate Bridge. I know of no significant attempt to account for the economic disparity associated with engineering projects, and this certainly wasn’t included in the analysis for the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Accidental Loss of Animal Life[edit | edit source]

I suppose the intentional killing of animals on the Bridge is at least possible (as unimaginable as it is, there are probably individuals who find sport in squishing small animals into the pavement). But the economic growth fostered by the Golden Gate Bridge also meant more space dedicated to human activities, with a correspondingly smaller habitat available for indigenous species. With the encroachment of humans, some species were displaced by others (wild oats, and Eucalyptus trees, for example, while alien, have done quite well in northern California). And according to a replacement utilitarian theory, 100 happy dogs are equivalent to 100 happy coyotes (although the coyotes might not agree).

Perhaps, from a moral perspective, the most significant problem generated from loss of animal life is the increase in road-kill. For the most part, people who die in traffic accidents make the decision (perhaps ill-informed) to get into a car. While it may go unspoken, it seems reasonable that drivers and passengers, who contribute to the problem of vehicles with a dangerous amount of momentum, implicitly assume a proportionate risk. Don’t we always feel worse about a pedestrian or bicyclist hit by a car, as opposed to someone similarly mutilated when two or more cars collide? However, with regard to animals, they seem simply caught in the headlights. Some die instantly, and some linger, just as with human traffic casualties—but in the absence of an implicitly accepted risk.

The prevailing attitude, with nonfarm animals, had always been that those near a road would either develop car-savvy, or would be killed. In the case of feral species, populations would normally diminish (as they might, subject to the sudden introduction of thousands of hungry predators) and the scope of suffering would naturally lessen. On the other hand, sufficiently prolific species like squirrels might simply continue at culled numbers equal to the available food supply. In either case, large, less prolific, nonscavenging populations could easily dwindle and become genetically unviable.

In the case of pets, road-kill was easy enough to replace from the roaming excess of un-neutered animals, and the new pets, if unfamiliar with the perils of traffic, were given a similarly small window to come to grips with the presence of speeding vehicles. While pet road-kill continues, I seem to see fewer mangled pets now, than in my youth. Possibly, there are fewer free-range specimens among the un-neutered, but (although this evidence is just anecdotal) perhaps we’ve become better about taking care of our most-cherished animals.

While I am currently living in a rural, mountainous part of the Great Basin, I see a lot of feral road-kill, ranging from moose, elk, and mule deer; to the magpies squished into the moose, elk, or mule deer they were feeding on. In the 25 years that I’ve been in this area, I’ve had two vehicular encounters with mule deer (one became flustered and bolted head-first into the side of my parked car; and the other was head-to-head at 65 MPH, totaling my car as well as the deer).

The point is that when I moved to this area in 1985, I was told to watch for deer when their mountain feed became depleted (November through March), and the intent of the warning was to allow me to protect my vehicle rather than migrating deer. Hunters might bemoan the occasional road-kill with a nice rack—I’ve even seen the ignoble taking of coup (like elk eye-teeth) from an otherwise mangled carcass. But, even with the massive, post-War addition of rurally-placed, “National Defense” highways, no one was taking measures to limit the time a feral animal might spend in harm’s way.

When I first arrived in the area, there were still range cattle, and a number of “cattle-crossing” signs on lightly-used state roads—although one typically saw many more deer on the road than cows. But after I’d been living in Utah for a decade or so, a newly completed section of I-40 near Jordanelle Dam was actually engineered for a deer-crossing, using cobbled terrain and fencing to channel the deer migration to a specific, well marked, and highly visible section of roadway. Such a limited application may or may not have saved any actual deer (there are still plenty of opportunities to be run down on I-80, a few miles away) but it demonstrates the inkling of an admirable attitude.

The point is that while most humans are less concerned with animal life than human life, we need to recognize that engineering projects, like the Golden Gate Bridge contribute to the death of a variety of living things—and that to a certain extent, living things—as moral patients—have a claim on us a moral agents. As engineers, we should recognize this problem, and provide proactive solutions (like engineered deer-crossings). Deer who lose their footing and fall off a cliff, may succumb to accidental death; and deer shot by hunters may be killed; but deer who crumple to the side of a road, do it from an insufficiently acknowledged, engineering neglect.

Conclusions[edit | edit source]

Death is not the problem; we are all born owing the debt of death. The problem is meaningless death, and the aspect of killing (intentional, unintentional, or partially accidental) implies that someone knowingly or ignorantly dropped the ball—denying the value of life and the meaning of death. Death is supposed to be a natural end, at least aesthetically required by our natural beginning, the declining efficiency of our biological containment, as a semi-closed system, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But nonkilling is still a significant goal for the engineering profession, and except for the possible, indirect killing related to opportunity cost (born by the Third World for engineering projects designed to economically enhance the First World) engineering as a profession has contributed to a progressive attitude respectful of life. Even with the evils of economic disparity, Engineers Without Borders, as a 21st Century organization, should certainly be seen as a positive step in the right direction. The problem is that we need to be careful to couch the requirements of nonkilling in an enabling way.

Elizabeth Anscombe (1981) made an interesting comment about pacifism between the two world wars. She held that a typical belief—professed by militant governments—was that pacifism, while noble, was beyond the reasonable expectation of existing regimes. While this categorical denial of a lofty goal is a little self-defeating (like denying hunger because there is no food in your mouth), Anscombe goes on to say that governments, thus self-absolved from nonkilling on practical grounds, took the “in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound” attitude. Since they could not be “noble” they felt no compunction to be “decent” (hence, neither side refrained from the indiscriminant bombing of civilian targets).

If engineers claim nonkilling as an absolute, professional goal, and if nonkilling is not within our zone of proximal development (to use Lev Vygotski’s term) then the goal of nonkilling might simply be dismissed as unobtainable. “Ought implies can;” and if the profession can’t achieve the nobility of nonkilling, at least some might feel absolved from the responsibility of maintaining a decent respect for life. To be absolved at one point, might be construed as a license to totally ignore one’s moral responsibility (certainly, one’s moral sensibility might be expected to erode).

Not too many years ago, engineering was simply a branch of the military, and I don’t think we are very close to achieving ahimsa. Both engineering and the military are currently used to enhance or exact privileged status, and neither pay adequate attention to the holes they tear in our global fabric. Racism, nationalism, religious intolerance, and entrenched privilege are recalcitrant foes—feebly opposed by our efforts in the engineering curriculum, to address the problems of a nonkilling profession. I teach a class in engineering ethics to approximately 300 students a year—and consideration here is a miniscule step—but the moral dialogue needs to include active professionals. This is not something you can force with units of continuing professional education, and a serious dialogue may have to wait for the collective will to change. Perhaps volunteer organizations, like Engineers Without Borders will become so overwhelmingly successful that the profession as a whole will desire their institutional subsumption, and be willing to abandon the limited attitudes of centuries past.

A dialogue as to the goals of ahimsa might help us to appreciate the negative impact, on isolated individuals, of our otherwise positive projects. With appropriately respectful attitudes, the private good becomes the public good, and recognizing our moral obligation to marginalized victims is an important step. Thus, engineering concern for the individual, comparable to the concern expressed by physicians, seems to be at the core of a viable professional ethic for engineers. As engineers, we must consider the needs of all individuals, along with our first inquiries into the possibilities of engineered solutions in support of the public good.