Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paper - Ethical Motivation for Sustainability

Ethical Motivation for Sustainability

        The engineering profession holds a large amount of responsibility to promote sustainability because of both the knowledge and skills engineers have. Engineering transforms our raw materials into usable products, which means that it’s responsible for consuming the vast majority of our resources. Engineers are some of the few people aware of what goes on in the process of manufacturing, and their possible consequences. Therefore that knowledge binds them by duty to be responsible for both the direct and indirect consequences of their actions.

        Why should engineers care about sustainability? Here we have to establish the ideas of justice and distribution. If we care only about the present, there isn’t really any reason for engineers to concern themselves about sustainability since there are enough resources right now to be distributed among humanity to support enterprise and construction. However, this will not always be the case. Sustainability means that the rate at which we use resources is less than the rate that resource replenishes itself. Since we are using resources in an unsustainable way through the use of fossil fuels, we are facing a crisis where our civilization will eventually run out of usable resources. Estimates show that this will be sooner rather than later. This means that we have to worry about distribution of resources in a temporal way in order to preserve intergenerational justice.

        Intergenerational justice is the idea that we have an obligation to preserve the livelihood of future generations, which is an extension of the golden rule. The golden rule of ethics is the idea that we should treat others the same way that we would want to be treated ourselves, and it is found in every society on earth in one form or another. Intergenerational justice applies this not only to the people who live right now but the people who will live. If our generation uses up so many resources that it impinges on the ability for future generations to survive it would be unethical and a violation of the golden rule. A journal article Sustainability and Intergenerational Justice by Brian Barry goes over the specifics of intergenerational justice. Intergenerational justice assumes that we want progress for humanity as a whole. If we reverted to living like cavemen, sure we would solve the sustainability crisis, but it would not be just. Justice involves ensuring that quality of life of future generations is either equal or better than it is now. This is why we have to examine the engineering profession that create products and services since those items often increase quality of life.

        What role does the engineer serve in society? Alastair Gunn in his Integrity and the Ethical Responsibilities of Engineers notes that engineering is a unique profession with its own specialized concerns. Engineering projects are expected to be 100% successful, something that is not generally expected from a profession. For example, we expect that once a bridge is built it will stand and not fail. Engineers are unique in that they deal with the concerns of a large body of users, rather than singular interactions. An example of this is that a doctor visibly meets with their patients and interacts with them. On the other hand an engineer who works on a project is usually only in charge of a small aspect of it, and interacts with the user indirectly after the product has been assembled, purchased, and then used. This means that there are many layers of separation between the engineer and his end customer, which makes it difficult to see what responsibilities engineers have to society and their customers. However, the engineer must be able to live up to the expectation of 100% success with their projects, as it can often lead to disaster such as in the example case of a faulty bridge.

        So even though a single engineer can only control a particular aspect of a project, it is their role in society to make sure that projects are as successful as possible. Success in this case must adhere to the ideas of intergenerational justice in order to remain ethical because of the impact engineering has on future generations. Thus in order to live up to the role in society that is expected of them engineers must promote sustainable policies and practices.

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