Ethics and Engineering Failures

During my first semester as a Ph.D. student in 2010, I authored a report with my advisors entitled “Lessons Learned from Dam Failures.”  This was a wonderful experience for me both as an engineer and an academic.  It was fascinating to see the many ways in which failure can occur and to consider the lessons that we as engineers should learn from past mistakes made by our profession.

Davis’s use of the Challenger failure to discuss codes and ethics in engineering reminded me of these dam failures in a couple of ways.  First, the engineers involved with some of the failures in the early 1900s expressed a need for the wider accountability within the civil engineering profession.  For dam engineering, this eventually came in the form of state dam safety organizations and review boards.  I would be surprised, however, if the adoption of ASCE’s first code was not influenced to some extent by the prominent dam failures of that era, especially Austin Dam and South Fork Dam.  Killing over 2,200 people, the latter was one of the worst engineering disasters in our country’s history.

My second observation has bearing on our consideration of almost all ethics violations, including the case studies we’re studying as a class.  Davis points out that it is almost always difficult to pinpoint a single cause of a failure.  In our report, we quote Sowers (1979) who said, concerning a landslide,

Often the final factor [in a slope failure] is nothing more than a trigger that sets a body of earth in motion that was already on the verge of failure. Calling the final factor the cause is like calling the match that lit the fuse that detonated the dynamite that destroyed the building the cause of the disaster.

As Davis and Sowers both point out, we need to be careful when considering failures, like the Challenger or the DC Lead scandal or the TCC case, not to narrow our vision to a single cause or try to blame only one person or organization.  Almost always, the situation is vastly more complicated with many shades of responsibility.

Spheres of Influence

After Thursday’s class, I began thinking about the boundaries of our ethical responsibility.  Do they exist, and if so, where?  Do we have obligation to every issue and problem we face?  That option is paralyzing.  Is there a caring, ethical, yet tenable, path forward?

Let me throw out the concept of spheres of influence to help with this dilemma.  I’ve heard it expressed something like this: We have more moral obligation the closer a person or situation gets to us, both in terms of physical location and intellectually.   Our greatest duty is to those in our closest communities and diminishes as one goes progressively further out.  This never excuses me from neglecting danger or harm immediately before me, regardless of whether it falls within my expertise or not.  Following this principle, I can’t walk right past the person in great duress but I may not have to step up to face every issue.  Going out to wider “spheres,” my responsibility narrows depending on my expertise.

Zooming out to the national or global scale, my biggest personal responsibility for justice and ethical issues is related to my professional expertise of slope stability, for example.  In this way I’m not ethically bound to confront water pollution issues such as those in DC but I should be ready to do something about landslides killing people.

For ethical problems outside my sphere of influence, I can still learn, becoming an educated member of the public.  In doing so, I can help others be informed about important issues and possibly advocate for justice.  For example, my wife and I are concerned about the state of agriculture in our country and the perils of agribusiness to us and our people.  On a large scale, this issue lies outside of our sphere of influence.  On a local scale, we can make decisions such as buying local food that are within our influence.  On the other hand, this issue might be an important moral issue for another scientist, say in agriculture, to be active in confronting.

I see this general framework as a way to act ethically without “passing the buck” yet at the same time not becoming paralyzed by the myriad ethical issues that face us each day.

Thinking clearly about moral humility

In his November 2011 TED talk Nitin Nohria claims: “We haven’t really understood moral over-confidence.”  While I agree with Nohria’s call for moral humility, I believe it is more truthful to say that we have forgotten our tendency for immorality.  As Nohria terms it, we suffer from moral overconfidence.  We think that only “those bad people” do wrong things.

By forgotten, I mean that people, religions, and philosophies have long recognized that humankind is NOT inherently good and is certainly capable of, in fact rather prone, to evil.  Consider, for example, the concept of “total depravity” – that man is completely unable to do good apart from God’s help – taught by the likes of Augustine and Calvin based on their understanding of the Bible.  While some see this belief as arrogant or judgmental, these men were actually practicing moral humility, seeing the penchant for evil in themselves and the people around them.  Whether or not you believe in this or similar doctrines, I think Nohria’s point helps to show us the truth about ourselves.  We too easily over-estimate ourselves and our own ability to “do the right thing.”

Lewis makes a similar point in “The Inner Ring” by pointing out how quickly we can become “scoundrels,” often times unwittingly and despite our intentions.  In Chapter 1 of his book Mere Christianity, Lewis makes a similar point to Nohria,

“None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature…I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behavior we expect from other people…They [human beings] know the Law of Nature; they break it.  These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”

Both Nohria and Lewis call us to think clearly and truthfully about our own hearts, and in the context of this class, the decisions we make as engineers and scientists.  A big part of the battle is simply admitting our own wrong-doing or tendency for it.  We are more likely to see the moral/ethical implications of our engineering decisions if we cultivate this type of mindset.  But Humility and the courage to act out of that humility are not easily come by.  Nohria seems to tell us to simply try harder and somehow we’ll make it.  Others, myself included, know that we need outside help to overcome this hurdle.


Since part of this class is about the ethics of communicating clearly with the public, I thought it appropriate to post this video that I received a link to during the first week of class.  While many may have already seen it, it’s always good to step back and evaluate how we sometimes sound to the public as engineers and scientists.


Wise Use of Technology

In last week’s reading The Myth of the Disconnected Life, Farman highlights growing trends to disconnect from technology and reconnect with people.  Interestingly, he too argues from history, just like Nicholas Carr, that people have always been afraid of new technology and the disconnection it supposedly breeds in society.  Both claim via these arguments that the technology was not bad, or at least more good than bad.  They are implicitly assuming first that the all of the previous historical technological breakthroughs listed are obviously good things for society.  Thus it must follow that the current technology really isn’t as bad as we are making it out to be.  While I don’t want to argue every point, I don’t think that this assumption can be made blindly or without consideration.  Remember that much is lost as well as gained through technology.

While I don’t purport to know much about the Digital Sabbath movement, Farman exaggerates the claims of the Digital Sabbath proponents while making his argument against them.  Saying that we need to take breaks from digital media – pick your reason – is not equivalent to calling all media evil.  So the mere presence and usefulness of cool technologies like [murmur] and the Museum of London app does not disprove the need to rest our minds and lives from the digital blur around us.

Electronic technology used wisely and in moderation is an amazingly powerful tool but used wrongly is a horrible master.  Just read E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops.  We can stay in touch with friends, explore the world, learn new things, etc.  On the other hand, we can abuse it or worse yet disrespect other people or ourselves through it.  The key is distinguishing between the two.  Maybe the concept of disrespect is a more appropriate way of differentiating wise use of technology than disconnectedness.  The latter is hard to judge, when we can interact and connect with people all over the world in productive ways through our electronics.  In contrast when electronic interaction leads to isolation or neglect of responsibilities, we are disrespecting ourselves. When we ignore or interrupt others for the latest text or Twitter, we belittle the importance of the people who are present with us.  As technology mushrooms around us, we must make a concerted effort to avoid disrespect and must learn to exercise the self-control to use technology appropriately without abusing it.

Why Digging Deeper?

To the geotechnical engineer in me, it’s obvious.  The nature of my work is to “dig” into the ground, into the earth, into the world around me.  I work with things we can’t just see.  I have to dig simply to get the information that I need to even begin a project.  So from an eminently practical standpoint, the moniker is perfectly obvious.

But maybe I should dig a little deeper than that??  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)

I’ve liked to dig and play in the sand since I was really little.  What little boy doesn’t?  I remember digging and filling and redigging holes in my backyard sandbox for hours on end.  I suppose I was laying the groundwork for an exciting career in some sense, but mostly I just enjoyed exploring this world and learning how things worked.  But in the sandbox, you can only go so deep before you reach the bottom and the sand runs out.  Then I got a little older and began to excavate bigger and bigger holes at the beach.  Still every hole had to stop when I couldn’t reach any farther or the water made the whole mess collapse.

When it comes to my academic pursuit of “playing in the sand,” I’m not sure where the bottom is.  Maybe there isn’t one.  Can I keep digging deeper into geotechnical engineering, soil mechanics, shear strength, slope stability?  Can I keep learning more about these fascinating topics?  I certainly hope so.  What about my teaching career – will I  keep digging deeper there or fall quickly into a rut?  What will that look like?

These and many other questions are what I hope to explore, discover, unearth – so to speak – as I write.