Is Engineering Philosophically Weak? A Linguistic & Institutional Analysis


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Talk given by David E. Goldberg at SPT-2009 (meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Technology) to discuss analysis given by Carl Mitcham at WPE-2008 keynote "The Philosophical Weakness of Engineering as a Profession"

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Is Engineering Philosophically Weak? A Linguistic & Institutional Analysis

  1. 1. Is Engineering Philosophically Weak? A Linguistic & Institutional Analysis<br />David E. Goldberg<br />Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering EducationUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbana, IL 61801<br />
  2. 2. Causing a Stir at WPE-2008<br />Carl Mitcham keynoted Workshop on Philosophy & Engineering at Royal Academy of Engineering in 2008.<br />Paper entitled “The Philosophical Weakness of Engineering as a Profession” caused stir.<br />Analyzed 5 “professions” & labeled some as “strong,” others as “weak.”<br />Take that analysis seriously and probe in following directions: <br />What is philosophical weakness (PW)? <br />Recover Mitcham’s key distinctions. <br />Consider in light of complexity of (1) ideals & (2) institutions.<br />Carl Mitcham (b. 1941)<br />
  3. 3. Roadmap<br />Recap argument: Mitcham 5, a criterion, and a classification.<br />Some concerns.<br />What is philosophical weakness? An alternative formulation.<br />Reclassifying the 5. Engineering still weak but for different reasons.<br />Recapturing classification: End-in-themselves versus instrumental occupations.<br />Occupations and their institutional setting.<br />From is to ought & concerns regarding ideal complexity.<br />An ideals approach to the military: Lessons for engineering.<br />Institutional redesign: 2 bounding attempts.<br />neoProfessionalism: Déjà vu all over again.<br />
  4. 4. Mitcham 5, a Criterion & a Classification<br />Use term “occupations” to avoid debates about whether they are “professions.”<br />The 5:<br />Medicine<br />Law<br />Business<br />Military<br />Engineering<br />Mitcham: Medicine and law are philosophically strong (PS) as they serve good-in-themselves ideals (health, justice).<br />Others philosophically weak (PW) as they do not.<br />Is to Ought: Engineering would be better off and serve larger good more directly.<br />Query: Is Philosophy PW?<br />
  5. 5. Preliminary Concerns<br />Greek philosophy & virtues are the starting point.<br />Their methodology still relevant. <br />Are their values, values of idle elite of a slaveholding society 2.5kya?<br />Is anything good in itself (Pitt, 2000)? Pragmatic concern for community and usefulness.<br />Philosophically “strong” or “weak” as tied to ideals & ethical aspirations?<br />Difficulties in rooted normative in 20th & 21st century.<br />Ayers, Rorty, Foucault.<br />Weak stuff: Tied to tradition or community practice.<br />Set these larger concerns aside and accept terms of the debate:<br />Assume there are ideals that are good in themselves.<br />That original classification has meaning.<br />
  6. 6. Philosophical Strength & Weakness<br />Mitcham’s notion turns on ethics, one of five elements of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.<br />Considers ideals or aspirational ethics as turning point.<br />Here analyze the five according to first 3 of the elements:<br />Metaphysically reflective if occupation considers its history.<br />Epistemologically reflective if conscious of storing its knowledge in forms appropriate to subject.<br />Ethically reflective if occupations have codes of ethics.<br />Philosophically strong (PS’/PW’) if strong on 2 of 3 dimensions.<br />
  7. 7. Comparative Analysis of the Five<br />
  8. 8. Different Categorization<br />3 PS’ occupations: Medicine, law & military<br />2 PW’ occupations: Business & engineering<br />Mitcham scheme downgrades military, business & engineering for being insufficiently aspirational.<br />But military and engineering are reflective about ethics in fairly strong way.<br />Ironic: Call engineering “philosophical weak” on only dimension of philosophy it considers.<br />PW vs. PW’ not just academic. Engineering pathologies mainly due to ontological & epistemological lacunae.<br />Aside: Philosophy is PS’, not as clear whether it is PS or PW.<br />
  9. 9. Recovering Mitcham’s Division<br />Consider whether occupations are instrumental or end-in-themselves occupations.<br />Objection, tautology or prescriptive:<br />Captures grouping <br />Complex exchange  division of labor.<br />Some occupations expected to be instrumental<br />This gives us Mitcham’s grouping:<br />Doctors heal & lawyers seek justice for clients.<br />Businessmen, engineers & military are instrumental to accomplishing goals determined by others.<br />Only works at level of individual practitioner.<br />Adam Smith (1723-1790)<br />
  10. 10. At Aggregate Occupational Level<br />Does health care system provide health?<br />Fixing disease versus wellness.<br />Doctors unconcerned with lifestyle, nutrition, exercise, social engagement: major keys to longevity.<br />Does legal system provide justice?<br />Getting known criminal off is not directly just.<br />Tort pursuit of the deepest pockets.<br />Law/Med are rough institutional approximations to health & justice, at best.<br />
  11. 11. Institutional Settings: Clue to the Problem <br />Occupations work at level of individual practitioner and in institutional setting.<br />Not a bunch of free agents.<br />Institutions arise to shape & constrain work.<br />From economic perspective, institutions arise because using free market is not free.<br />Institutional frameworks different among the five.<br />Ronald H. Coase (b. 1910)<br />
  12. 12. Institutional Comparison<br />Lawyers: Officer of court, monopoly on practice by state. Work in private firms and in government.<br />Doctors: Member of regulated profession, in regulated institutions, monopoly on practice of medicine by state. Work in private practice, HMO, or government.<br />Military: State has monopoly on force, military members are employees/conscripts of state, follow direct orders of civilian leaders through chain of command.<br />Businessperson: Free agent to contract with others, obeying laws of the state. Works in private enterprise.<br />Engineer: Free agent to contract with others, obeying laws of the state. Some licensed for some types of work. Work in free enterprise or public sector.<br />Philosopher: Free agent to contract with others obeying laws of the state. Academic practitioners require PhD for tenure-track position. Work in private or public sector.<br />
  13. 13. Institutional Differences Significant<br />Institutional framework creates situation for Mitcham’sstrong occupations:<br />Practitioner advances the client’s interest.<br />Doing so assumed to promote societal interest (justice, health).<br />Call first condition local ethical alignment.<br />Call second presumption of global ethical alignment.<br />Philosophically strong merely ethically simple.<br />Institutional setting generally permits local action to lead to good global result.<br />Institutional framework of weak occupations does not ensure alignment:<br />Practitioner advances client’s interest.<br />No guarantee of good result.<br />2 ways:<br />Client may have malevolent intent.<br />Good intentions leading to unintended consequences.<br />Mitcham’s philosophically weak merely institutionally & ethically complex: local alignment does not yield global good.<br />Health & law less simple with increased i-complexity.<br />
  14. 14. Some Ethical Urgings<br />Move from “is” to “ought.”<br />Engineering ought be more like law/med.<br />Adopt ideals corresponding to health and justice.<br />Ostensibly to fix ill effects of technology.<br />2 questions:<br />Is simple engineering ideal feasible?<br />What institutional modifications necessary for presumption of global ethical alignment?<br />
  15. 15. Simple Ideals Hard for Biz/Engineering<br />Technological artifacts can satisfy many positive values: From human survival to εὐδαιμονία. <br />Hard to constrain generally.<br />Different individuals value different things differently.<br />Simple formulations seem problematic (biz/engin).<br />Consider military instead:<br />Aspirational ideal for military like law/meds?<br />Survival doesn’t seem good enough.<br />What about peace?<br />Kenneth J. Arrow (b. 1921)<br />
  16. 16. Peace, the Military & Engineering<br />Soldier seeking peace puts engineering problem in perspective, 4 problems:<br />Does military action  peace? Predictability problem<br />Deterrent effect as actions prevented: effectiveness detection.<br />Can individual soldiers directly aspire to peace? Ideal complexity problem.<br />Should individual soldiers directly aspire to peace? Social effectiveness problem.<br />Predictability problem: When does a little war here and now promote peace later? Does technology promote intended ideal? <br />Effectiveness detection: Can we actually detect good when it occurs.<br />Ideal complexity: Individual judgment of soldiers may be insufficient to directly promote the ideal. Engineers have similar limitations.<br />Social effectiveness: Individual soldiers pursuing peace individually would not be an army. Engineers work in complex social settings. Need cohesive corps to solve problem. <br />Can you modify institutions  individual action moves toward larger ideal.<br />
  17. 17. Return to Engineering<br />Assume simple, practical aspirational ideal exists or that engineers have sufficient judgment to practically pursue an ideal complex.<br />Marketplace insufficient institutionally to ensure local ethical alignment  global ethical alignment. <br />Design new institution for engineers that ensures local alignment  global alignment.<br />Bounding models of institutional restructuring:<br />Absolute control model<br />Absolute fail-safe model<br />
  18. 18. Absolute Control Model<br />Assume engineers aspire to some ideal.<br />Construct institutional framework to help good occurs.<br />Engineering is iterative process: Orders obeyed in space and time to ensure good outcome eventually.<br />Authoritarian control over private firms, decision-making, individuals, and property.<br />Limits on choice by others to ensure good outcomes deemed proper by engineers in name of the state.<br />Name for this technocracy. Approximated in regimes.<br />Be careful what you wish for!<br />
  19. 19. Philosophers, PW & the Republic<br />Institutional framework of philosopher similar to that of the engineer.<br />Philosophy has ideal of “loving wisdom” and seeking knowledge for its own sake.<br />But ideas and knowledge are often instrumental.<br />If philosopher has idea, how does he/she know that it will be used for greater good?<br />Plato’s solution in The Republic is close to the absolute control model.<br />Plato (428-328 BC)<br />
  20. 20. Fail-Safe Action Model<br />OK, don’t put engineers in charge.<br />Keep marketplace, insist engineers invent, make, sustain things that cause no harm, Ever!<br />Precautionary principle on steroids.<br />Regulatory regime: Strictly liability for all outcomes of things they make.<br />Minimax strategy: Minimize harm subject to adversary who will maximize misuse & mischief.<br />Ensures almost no innovation. Penalties for bad outcomes too severe.<br />Not really engineering. Mistake making as necessary for engineering progress (Petroski, 1992). <br />What about philosophers and their ideas?<br />
  21. 21. Engineer in Regulated Market Intermediate<br />Presently: <br />Engineers not in charge of a command economy.<br />Do not require them to never make mistakes.<br />Allow freedom to act in marketplace with regulatory regime to constrain worst outcomes.<br />Is Institutionally intermediate solution.<br />Analogous to majority rule as intermediate between veto & authoritarian rule (Buchanan & Tullock, 1962). <br />
  22. 22. History: Engineers Professional Strivings <br />Strivings reflect institutional & ethical variation.<br />Civil Engineers more autonomous. Closer to ideal of med/law practice.<br />Mining engineers employees from the get go.<br />Electrical engineers start as rock stars and end up as employees.<br />Variations in professional practice dictated by institutional variations.<br />Historical record of ideal & institutional complexity.<br />
  23. 23. NeoProfessionalism: Déjà Vu All Over Again <br />New report calls for professionalism at the center of educational reform.<br />NAE story.<br />Problematic for many of reasons here.<br />Institutional settings for different engineers different.<br />Simple aspirational ideals not practical.<br />Institutional arrangements to make them similar to law/med undesirable.<br />Reflect on complexity, history, and why things are.<br />Complex adaptive systems: No silver bullets. <br />
  24. 24. Summing Up<br />Examined “philosophically weak” based on ideals.<br />Defined PS’/PW’ differently. Engineering philosophically weak, but in sense closely aligned with pathologies of practice/education.<br />Recaptured distinction (good/instrumental occupation) & considered institutional setting.<br />Med/Law in institutional setting where local ethical practical assumed to global ethical alignment.<br />Comparative analysis yields significant differences and strong institutional support for law/med.<br />Difficult to envision simple ideals (social choice) for engineering/business.<br />Switch to military isolates difficulty in predicting outcomes, problems with institutional redesign & risk of making military ineffective.<br />Institutional reframing: absolute control & fail-safe action.<br />Regulated market regime as intermediate.<br />Engineering ethically/institutionally complex.<br />Past calls to ideals or professionalism haven’t worked.<br />neoProfessionalism likely to face similar difficulties in practice.<br />
  25. 25. More Information<br />Slides:<br />iFoundry:<br />iFoundryYouTube:<br />iFoundrySlideShare:<br />TEE, the book.<br />Engineering and Technology Studies at Illinois (ETSI)<br />Workshop on Philosophy & Engineering (WPE)<br />© David E. Goldberg 2009<br />