What My Class Taught Me

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I presently
teach two sections of Engineering Ethics, a course jointly offered
at Texas A&M by the Philosophy and Engineering departments.
Last Friday, I had my students spend the class time writing essays.
To encourage them to think on their feet and to be able to work
through a problem with little preparation, they were not aware of
the subject until they came into class, although they knew that
they would be writing essays.

For their
essays, I had them analyze a case I found in the CNN archives. This
case involved a Grumman engineer who was arrested for selling American
defense technology to the governments of eight countries. The technology
was a special propulsion system for bombers that allows the plane
to not be detected by radar. I gave a general assignment, having
them write about the ethical issues raised. I was appalled, although
not entirely shocked, by what they wrote.

Many students
equated this engineer's actions with murder, for various reasons.
One rationale offered was that the governments of the other countries
might use this technology to bomb the United States, causing the
loss of American lives. True enough, but where were the expressions
of outrage over the American government designing these planes,
to be used in bombing innocent people in other countries? This is
Texas A&M — these students are not hippy anti-war types, to
say the least. Although it is correct that dropping bombs on people
is murder, I see something obscene in this fact being recognized
by war supporters, but only in reference to other nations. When
the United States performs these actions, they are "humanitarian"
or "liberating." If the war supporters were convinced
that such actions are not murder, they would be incorrect. If they
understand that they are murder and support them anyway, what exactly
are they? Are they still human?

line of reasoning, equally frightening, claimed that the potential
murder victims are not innocent civilians, but instead American
pilots. You see, a nation with this technology can reasonably be
expected to be able to design radar systems to get around it. Therefore,
the militaries of those nations will be able to detect the American
bombers, and shoot them down, killing the pilots. The engineer,
therefore, has caused the deaths of the pilots. But is this correct?
Does the engineer who allows another country to detect the presence
of a bomber cause the death of the pilot? Why not hold those who
order him to fly over another country responsible for his death?
Why, indeed, mourn the fact that his plane was shot down at all?
He was on his way to deliver death to innocent civilians in other
countries. Presumably, in the first argument above, it was assumed
that bombers lacking good stealth technology would be shot down
before they could kill American civilians, and this was regarded,
quite correctly, as a good thing. Yet now it becomes a bad thing
for a bomber to be shot down before delivering death. Most of these
students professed a preference for utilitarianism over other moral
theories discussed in class earlier this semester, yet now it seems
there are circumstances in which they favor the life of one pilot
— who most assuredly was destined to become a murderer, if he had
not been shot down — over those of hundreds or thousands of civilians,
many of them non-murderers. The contradiction is glaring.

Worse yet
was the chillingly cavalier language in which this idea was expressed.
Students referred in a casual way to war, writing such things as
"When the United States decides to go to war and attack another
country, our pilots will be at risk of being shot down." Franklin
Roosevelt had to engineer an attack on Pearl Harbor; now it seems
the American people are perfectly willing to accept war as a routine
option. I noticed, though, that no student was willing to write
"When the American government decides to shower death upon
the inhabitants of another country for political reasons, nothing
can be allowed to stand in their way."

Not all
essays, of course, centered on murder. Others argued, presumably
from utilitarian assumptions, that this action was bad simply because
it reduced the military advantage of the United States. We can only
assume, then, that the possession of a single weapon by the government
of another country, or a one-dollar reduction in taxation, are bad
for similar reasons. Little can be said of this line of reasoning,
although shades of Germans in brown shirts cannot be avoided.

some essays considered issues related to taxation. Namely, through
taxation, "we all have partial ownership of these designs."
Therefore, it is aggression against each one of us to sell these
plans, since our permission has not been asked. Very well, but then
I certainly should be able to see these plans that I own part of,
correct? More importantly, if I am to have veto power over their
sale, do I not also have veto power over their use? If I am the
owner of the plans, I decree that they not be used to cause innocent
deaths in other countries. I fail to see why sale of the plans should
differ in this way from use; if all owners have veto power over
sales, then each owner has veto power over use too. I did not notice
many writers embracing this conclusion, though.

This partial
ownership argument is exceedingly strange. I do not have ownership
over my actual property, yet I have partial ownership over a non-tangible
design I had no part in planning, no choice in funding, and little
knowledge of at all. This is a quite unusual situation, I think.
It ignores the common-sense fact that owners generally have a choice
in what they own. I only own things because I make them or acquire
them; I would be quite surprised at being forced to own something.
If someone attempted to force me to own something, he would find
that it doesn't work. I can simply walk away, and any force he uses
to prevent that will not accomplish his goal of giving me ownership
of the property. He can beat my head into the ground, stick a gun
in my ribs, and none of that will give me the property. Yet this
writer wants to make me own an airplane design by simple fiat.


poor writing skills, today's students have poor logical thinking
skills. While I am quite sure that my students can figure out technical
problems in their respective engineering fields quite well, their
poor reasoning skills become apparent when they turn to any larger
field, such as ethics or politics. I believe that they were born
with better ability to reason in these fields than they now have,
and that the government did a fantastic job of taking this ability
away from them through government schooling. Three years at Texas
A&M, the only university in the country with its own military
force, did not hurt.

13, 2006

Katz [send him mail] is
a graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M. He has studied philosophy
of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and is presently looking
for work after the academic term. He enjoys a glass of port and
a wedge of Brie as a way to start his day.

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