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?
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.
Therefore the potential immediate outcomes are:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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