Is it ethical for engineers to design the weapons of the future?

According to SPRI, the total annual military expenditure worldwide reaches up to 1.8 Trillion Dollars. It is also estimated by the UN that only 30 Billion dollars are needed to end world hunger. With so much money being spent in an industry, it could become an attractive proposition for graduating engineers. As the engineers of the future, it is our responsibility to contribute ethically to society. Therefore is it ethical for engineers to design the weapons of the future?

Economic and Utilitarian View

Throughout human history war has always been a constant. “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war“. Humans by nature are competitive, we all compete for the best grades, the best job, the biggest house, and human led states are no different. The same way that natural selection favours the strongest animal so too it favours the stronger nation.

Even though our screens are filled with images of destruction, we are now living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. We have fewer wars and fewer deaths due to war than any other time. There is definitely no one reason why this happened, but evidence shows that deterrence does play a role. A simple way of describing this is that it gives the aggressor an assurance that any action towards another nation would be met by dire consequences. Although this is by no means the main reason we no longer have large wars. The development of new weapons such as nuclear bombs does seem to have had a net positive effect on the world as we know it.

From an economic standpoint, war costs the taxpayers money, however, this money goes into industry and advances our technology as a whole, arguably producing more wealth to society. One example is the story of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri, a piece of software born out of DARPA, an American defence research agency. In fact, the beginning of DARPA itself led to the invention of GPS, after the discovery of a Russian satellite, sputnik.

Not spending the money, however, could cause issues of its own, as other countries will still spend money, resulting in a lack of readiness should we be invaded, or should any other country need our help in a conflict. Either of these outcomes result in serious problems, both in terms of keeping allies, and in terms of our own public safety and wellbeing.

Using a utilitarian frame of thinking when examining a problem means that when faced with a decision one should opt for the one that increases the utility of the people, whether that be the average utility or total utility. Developing new weapons may seem as an immoral choice due to the nature of human death involved, however evidence suggests that more advanced weapons means that the likelihood of attack is lower and thus fewer wars occur.

Consequentialist Argument

Engineering ideally should be used for the benefit of the masses by improving the quality and ease of their lives, an engineer’s independence is based on public trust, to maintain this trust, engineers should take the ethical responsibility of balancing the profit of engineering side with public welfare. Is it then ethical for engineers to build weapons used to end lives and destroy properties?

Military expenditure in some countries is up to 12.9% of its Gross Domestic Product; some would argue that this reduces the budget that should be used on developing other industries and enterprises. On the other hand, the huge amount of military expenditure on weapon development worldwide provides a lot of job opportunity to engineers and drives the development of engineering industries.

Weapons have numerous definitions, classes, and uses; whether or not engineers should be involved in designing weapons of the future should depend on the potential outcome of designing such weapons. Weapon can be designed in order to perpetrate physically injury or property destruction, it could also be a measure used to defend oneself, as well as an equipment to be used in a sport.

This discussion of whether or not it is ethical for engineers should be involved in designing weapons is a complex one as most weapons can be used for all the above stated purposes. In the midst of this complexity, a form of simplicity is that these weapons vary in their potential to be used for either of these purposes. Nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological weapons, which are capable of causing extensive harm, ideally can either be used in attacking or defending a country’s sovereignty and territory, but not for sports. Firearms like rifles, pistols, or handguns, which vary in firing rate, recoil, accuracy etc. can be used for attacking, defending, and for sports. While weapons like the iron dome, stun guns, pepper sprays and flares are mostly defensive. In addition to using weapons having offensive, defensive and sporting potential, they could also serve as a preventive measure: there is a high chance that country A would not attack country B when it’s aware that country A has an extensive stockpile of weapons that could result in the extinction of its countrymen.

The availability of weapons encourages armed conflict, brings about destruction and results in fear and oppression of societies. Nevertheless, without a national defence, a country won’t hold its sovereignty and territory. In conclusion, it is only ethical for engineers to design weapons if they are used for defensive and sporting purposes.

46: Hugh Janice, Fred Smith, Donald Drumpf, Carmelo Anthony


9 thoughts on “Is it ethical for engineers to design the weapons of the future?

  1. There are a few arguments mixed in here. The first I want to tease out is the proposition is that military engineering expenditure might be justified on the basis that it spawns many benign technologies, and the dichotomy you propose is military R&D + benefits vs no military R&D + no benefits. I suggest that any sector benefitting from a $1.8 trillion investment would spin out multiple technologies. It is large-scale, purposeful investment – if we put the same intellectual and financial resources into energy how different would the world be, and how different might the practice of engineering be if it were not so heavily influenced by military and security models? To argue that developing military technologies is ethical on the basis of the technology it cascades requires that you justify what is special about military R&D, beyond its scale. [For interest and reference, the organisation Scientists for Global Responsibility have researched and written extensively on this.]
    Secondly, you use deterrance theory as an ethical defence, but you don’t reflect on the fact that the idea of ethical deterrance has being sorely tested in recent times. We have military action aimed at regime change, that is long and drawn out without clear exit plans and we frequently fight people who we have ourselves armed – these do not sit comfortably with ideas of deterrance and ideas of “defence” are stretched to the point of breaking these days.
    Having said this though, well done on taking on the question of military engineering. It plays a leading role in our sector, offers alot of employment and reawrding work, and funds alot of education, training and state-of-the-art facilities. I just think though that at some point we have to remember that we are global citizens as well as engineers.


  2. You have touched upon the fact that, during times of war, money is piled into industry and that therefore going down that road is a benefit to civilians. Whilst simplistically this may seem a good thing, might it not also lead to these industries growing a taste for war? Due to the nature of the defence industry they have very close ties with the nation’s military, and consequently the political establishment. This can lead to a not insignificant push for war from various special interest groups which is obviously not a desirable situation. Whilst many wars can be considered justified (although this is an entirely different debate), those started for purely financial gain – or even technological gain – are clearly not. I do agree that through defence research can come some fantastic civilian technology, but to use it as a reason for justifying more war (or the pursuit thereof) is a slightly different statement – especially from a utilitarian point of view.

    “Another element which after this war is likely to strengthen the tendencies in this direction will be some of the men who during the war have tasted the powers of coercive control and will find it difficult to reconcile themselves with the humbler roles they will then have to play.”


  3. The issue of ethics in professions could be subjective, requiring judgement and depending on the situation. In this case, I think that designing the weapons in itself is not unethical, the use of the weapons is the source of concern. I agree with the idea in the article that distinguishes weapon uses from the complexity of defending a nation to the simplicity of personal defense. In all, it is the government’s responsibility to regulate weapon usage with consequences for misuse.


  4. Why it’s true that we as human’s have a long history of violence. It is also true that The state of the world is radically different than it was in the past. While I agree that weapons of mass destruction do play a role in deterring violence between particular nations e.g. the US and Russia. It’s inconceivable to think that it’s sole reason for curtailing violence. We leave in an era of globalisation with strong economic and political bonds between nations. Nations particularly the developed ones can’t simply go to war with each other as was the case in the past without dire economic consequences. For e.g. Germany and France which have a long history of violence are highly unlikely to go to war as their economies and hence the standard of living of its people are largely dependent on each other, Furthermore a developed nation declaring war on another risks aggravating international trade partners of the latter nation.
    I ll agree it might be necessary to preserve existing weaponry to serve as a reminder of the threat we pose to each other and the planet as a whole. I seriously question the rationale behind investing substantial resources into building weapons of mass destruction given the current level of destruction the weapons we only have pose today e.g. the nuclear bomb, hydrogen bomb. need I go on?
    Resources human, financial and otherwise are better spent in education, energy, poverty alleviation etc. Such things increase the standards of human living worldwide and eliminate useless/irrational barriers to peaceful human coexistence that has been the cause of war for so long such as race, religion, country etc.
    On that note, I ll say the rational and pragmatic path to optimise human prosperity in the long term is to greatly cut/mitigate military expenditures and focus resources on endeavours that promote human prosperity. The issue of violence should be tackled by education, increased interdependence between nation’s economies and strengthening political unity between nations round the world.


  5. I think the issue of how much time and resources is spent on the military has always been a topic of debate, especially in recent times. In this article it was duly noted that these weapons provide a sense of security to its inhabitants, which to a certain extent is true and I agree very much with this statement. I, however, disagree on the amount budgeted for this sector because a large amount of these resources could be redistrubuted to other sectors that would be able to utiise it and produce a greater impact for the said country’s economy. I am not stating that it should be completely eliminated but the budget set aside should definitely be reassessed.
    Finally I do not believe engineers have a strong ethical obligation or responsibility when it comes to designing weapons because they are not necessarily the end users of the product. The ethical obligation should fall on the government of that country, not the engineers.


  6. In terms of ethics, it is the responsibility of communities to first raise awareness about the military expenditure by using facts to support their argument to encourage less spending in the arms trade industry. Having said that, engineers as part of their communities will hold a stance and develop their own views regarding whether it is ethical or not to support the financing of weapons of destruction. Even though a strong campaign might be set gaining a large number of support from the public and engineers to be precise, governments will always find a way to implement their strategies. For example this can be done by completely funding studies of students from poorer background into engineering majors provided that these students will work in the arms sector after graduation. From a personal point of view, I think engineers should not be complicit in the manufacturing of weapons regardless of their type or purpose. This step will put more pressure on governments that encourage spending in the arms strategies and defense trades. Doing so will be more efficient in democratic countries where the leadership is chosen by the people, where people can switch to vote for more “peaceful” parties that provide less funding for the military. Engineers should not be complicit in developing weapons of destruction and should be more concerned with improving the future of our planet despite the incentives that could be provided to work in public or private weapons development firms.


  7. In terms of the arguments proposed I would side with the consequentialist argument. In my opinion the issue of ethics for an engineer designing weapons would depend on the intent for their use. I am against violence of any form, but in the world we live in there is also a need to be prepared. To quote a movie I once watched “A king does not seek out war but he must be prepared for it”. I believe that weapon design would be ethical if the technological advancement benefits the nation and it is used as a form of defence and never offence.


  8. Despite the fact that military engineering forms a major root of engineering scientific research in most countries, I personally believe that the act of contributing to this industry while well knowing that your contribution will fatally harm another person is ethically wrong and unacceptable, despite whether or not you believe in the hoax of “homeland protection”


  9. This article raises several points about the ethics involved in gun manufacture. 1.8 Trillion dollars is a lot of money to say the least, money that could arguably be better served to many other ends such as the one you listed. I believe as citizen we should strive to do all in our ability to help our nation but also as engineers we should purely concern ourselves with weaponry from a defensive standpoint. We have seen the large scale and long term effects of nuclear weapons and I believe that no engineer should be involved in the designing of weapons of mass destruction.


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