Did You Kill Someone at Work Today? – The Responsibility to Know What you are Working On

In today’s world of engineering with IPs and trade secrets holding far more value than ever before, cases have emerged where engineers are given work not knowing its end use.

However, is this ethical? Engineering affects a variety of persons, each with different interests, from the clients (profit) and the engineers themselves (salary/safety/peace of mind) to the millions of civilians involved (safety). Knowing this, should engineers work on projects not knowing the consequences of their work?

Ignorance is not bliss

Would you build a supergun for Saddam Hussain? Because that is exactly what Sheffield Forgemasters did. On the 11th April 1990 customs officers seized a 40m long tube bound for Iraq, which transpired to be the barrel of what would have been the largest gun ever produced, codenamed Project Babylon. Of course, Forgemasters were unaware of the true purpose of the “tube” and it would be very unlikely they would have produced it if they had known.

According to the Engineering Council’s code of ethics, engineers have a professional responsibility to be actively aware of the legality and consequences of their work. It would thus be unethical to work on a project without knowing its consequences. Further, when a project’s purpose is obscured interdepartmental collaboration becomes limited, increasing the risk of compatibility issues. This is in stark contrast with the engineer’s responsibility to prioritise public safety.

From a different perspective, consider a situation where a group of 50 individuals are told the following:

“Whoever delivers this package to the middle of the street will be paid £10,000 in cash directly.”

Would it be ethical to accept this offer, not knowing what was in the package? True, the deliverer has no hand in the final use of the package. Indeed, it may be argued that even if a single individual refuses one of the other 49 might very well accept. But consider this, what if the package held a swarm of bloodsucking mosquitoes? As you lay down to sleep at night, serenaded by a symphony of buzzing wings would you still consider that individual guiltless? In the end, it is common sense that one should consider the results of one’s actions as they may affect not only one’s safety but also that of others.

Applying the universality principle from Kantian theory, if engineers were all made to work in ignorance how would anyone ever be held accountable should a project end in disaster? It would become near impossible to monitor the development of dangerous technologies.

To work on projects without knowing their purpose will encourage more organisations to keep such secrets. This may not be devastating in the world of motorsport engineering, but with the power not in the hands of the many but in those of the few, who knows what devices could be constructed unwittingly. Besides, many of these secrets are leaked eventually. You may sleep at night for now, but how about in 20 years’ time when you discover the truth?

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Ignorance, a necessary evil?

Ignorance may not be bliss, but there are often other reasons for a company or organization to withhold information from engineers regarding the nature of the project they’re working on. Consider an example where a military contractor is developing a highly innovative new weapon system. If the engineers were debriefed on exactly what the weapon was, as well as it’s intended use in combat, it could not only compromise security by creating an opening for a crooked engineer to be bribed or sell secrets, but might risk the safety of an engineer or their family at the hands of the enemy. Usually, when someone is kidnapped and tortured in order to reveal classified military information, the perpetrators know that the person captured has valuable secrets.

Alternatively, it could be argued that the quality of the design an engineer produces would actually be improved if the end use was unknown. Eliminating any influences brought on by the person’s moral point of view, the product might better serve the customers’ demands. This is a benefit from the customer or company manager perspective however, and it is certainly debatable as to whether this is a desirable outcome for the good of humanity.

Analysing the problem from a utilitarian perspective the choices available are for the other company to be told the end use or not and their options are to accept the work or not. The work will probably be conducted anyway as a willing company will eventually be found therefore the ultimate consequence won’t change so the choice to work on the project is irrelevant from a consequentialist viewpoint.

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Therefore the potential immediate outcomes are:

  1.       Don’t tell them what the end use is and they accept the work. Their ignorance gives an easy conscience and they get paid. There is low risk of information being leaked and the end user gets a good product.
  2.       Don’t tell them and they reject it. You lose out as you have to find another company wasting time and money. The risk of a leak is low.
  3.       Tell them and they accept. They now may regret accepting the work and a leak of information is more likely. The end user gets a good product but it may be compromised.
  4.       Tell the company and they reject it. Finding a replacement costs time and money as said before. There’s a greater chance of a leak and the product may be late and quality may be compromised negatively impacting the end user.

Most people are happy when the engineers are kept in the dark and when they accept the work as outcome 1 is the best outcome which is better than 3 and outcome 2 is better than 4. Overall it’s best not to tell companies you outsource to about the end use as a utilitarian and consequentialist.

Group 47: Scott Beamish, Dorea Andrews, Luke Bittenbinder, Jack Leonard

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8 thoughts on “Did You Kill Someone at Work Today? – The Responsibility to Know What you are Working On

  1. A great article on an interesting topic, the stance I take on this matter is that even if the engineer does not know what the end use of the product will be, their manager or company MD should know the use, and it should be a term for accepting the work. This, clearly is still not an ideal solution but I feel would be the best of both worlds. I feel the chance of a leak in this situation is low because this person is a senior member of the company so would have little incentive to leak the information, potentially ruining a good career and the company reputation. The engineer can still remain ignorant and work on the project to the best of his ability without worrying about the end use or allowing the knowledge of the end use to compromise the product.

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    1. This is a great point. It is true that most companies have a code of ethics which in an ideal world they would stick to. However, it can be tempting for managers to take on ethically questionable projects to ensure they get their bonuses or recognition for bringing more money into the company. Maybe there are ways businesses can structure themselves so this doesn’t happen.

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  2. This topic is always a difficult one. My thoughts go to the engineer as an individual, what do they risk if they decide working on a project is unethical but their company has accepted it. Should they be able to make a decision within a company and perhaps opt out of a project or be forced to move on to a company that better fits their views? No two people see an ethical situation the same way every time so there will always be conflict. I think, within reason, an engineer should be able to exercise their ethical free will without fear of repercussions.

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  3. Very interesting topic, its a tricky situation but I believe it is the companies responsibility to understand what they are creating. Therefore the engineer should have faith in the company that they work for that the work they are doing is for an ethical situation, because as mentioned it is very important that for certain security reasons information isn’t freely shared with all employees.

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  4. I think one thing that should be considered is how a company can lie about what their intentions are as in the case of the assassination of Kim Jong Nam where the perpetrators were under the belief that they were performing a practical joke for a television show. If a company is upfront that they do not want you to know the end use they are being honest but not open. Someone more nefarious may be pretending to be open but are dishonest. How would someone mitigate against this?

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  5. I am wondering that if someone thinks that their company has been asked to do some unethical work, when they refuse the work should they inform people (other companies and/or the public) that this potential work is being offered and may be unethical? This is assuming that as they haven’t been told what the work and they have refused it that they are not subject to a non disclosure agreement.
    Personally I think that they should as the goal should be to stop the thing from happening and not just washing your hands of it. But am I wrong in thinking this?

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  6. Great piece of work! this really made me think about my actions. From where I stand, I do believe that engineers should think about the consequences of doing the project. But there is no way of determining what the ‘project’ will be used for. Like the Saddam Hussain case mentioned, they were unaware that the tube built was going to be made into a weapon. If they had known, Im sure Saddam Hussain would find another way to fabricate the tube but it would be time consuming and might actually delay a terror attack.

    Morally, i think engineers and the client should communicate properly and honestly about what the project is. Although the client could intentionally lie, it is out of the hands of the engineers.

    In the end, i believe that an engineer should take the course of action that will able them to sleep at night knowing what he/she did was ethical.

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  7. A very interesting article, really made me think. This is a very complex problem, but I think there is always a responsibility on everyone involved to be vigilant. The world is better connected than it has ever been and people are more politically aware than ever. If the “supergun” situation were to occur today, it would be difficult to be completely ignorant and not to have suspicions. The responsible engineer should at least raise any concerns they may have and seek a satisfactory assurance about the project, from people closer to the customer. It is then up to their own professional judgement and moral judgement whether they carry out the work or not.

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