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Summary of the article Three Kinds of Ethics for Three Kinds of Engineering Explicatory Essay

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Updated: Apr 17th, 2019

Summary of the article

Mariarty (2001) main thesis is that modern-day engineers need to move beyond know what or know how, and embrace know-why. Contemporary engineering must be governed by three types of ethics that emerge from different eras of engineering: virtue ethics, conceptual ethics and material ethics. The latter are synonymous with traditional engineering, modernist engineering and focal engineering, respectively.

The author starts with a description of the earliest form of engineering, which was traditional engineering. At the time, engineers lacked a central scientific method with which to carry out their work. Therefore, most of them depended upon their intuition and experience. Since they worked under autocratic leaders, they had little room to inquire into the processes of production.

They merely implemented what they were told using rough estimates. As a result, the actor was the most important component of the engineering process. This meant that ethical principles that governed a person’s character were the most appropriate. Virtue ethics stresses the importance of doing good.

A person strives to be honest, caring and diligent in his or her method. Therefore, the traditional engineer compensated for the lack of scientific expertise using his character. Such a person was diligent, hardworking and even-tempered. This aspect of ethics is still applicable today as stakeholders still want to know about the actor. Know-what is still imperative in engineering practice.

Modernist engineering was the next phase of development in the profession. This saw the birth of scientific processes in engineering. Stakeholders were not just concerned about the actor but now dwelt on the act. They moved from know-what to know-how. Analysis and synthesis now became central elements of the engineering process. Therefore, the brand of ethics developed for this type of work was material ethics.

Individuals developed ethical frameworks that would justify why it was necessary to do good. At the time, individuals such as Johns Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant came up with conceptual ethics. Mill was the father of utilitarianism, which stressed the need to maximise the overall good for the greatest number of people.

Kant created the Categorical Imperative, which prompted people to act as though, if they were in the same position, they would do the same. Conceptual ethics is a brand that stemmed from technicism. Technicism is a school of thought which espouses that man should control his reality as he has the capacity to do so.

The final phase of this profession was focal engineering. It dwells on things that enrich people’s life. There, the main concern is not just to produce, but to add value to people’s lives. At this point, the actor’s role seemed to subside and more emphasis was given to the product hence the need for material ethics. Material ethics asks questions regarding the effect of the product on the concerned stakeholders or environment.

The focal engineer is one who looks at the reasons, purposes and causes behind certain things. He or she causes engagement between the user and product, harmony between the beneficiary and the world and harmony between the world and the products. It shifts away from know-how and know-what to know-why.

Therefore, a focal engineer ought to be engaging and enlivening. For instance, the person would consider the effect of his actions on professionals other than engineers, such as architects or manufacturers.

The author espouses that contemporary engineers are probably more of focal engineers than traditional or modernist engineers. Therefore, instead of just introducing new products, they ought to ask whether these products would enrich people’s lives or disengage them.

Negotiations are a necessary aspect. Nonetheless Moriarty (2001) still believes that it is essential to merge all three brands of ethics in engineering practice as it entails input from these different schools.

John Stuart on scientific management

It is likely that Stuart would have supported Taylor’s theory of scientific management. At its heart, the management theory is a brand of technicism, which espouses the need for human beings to control their reality. Taylor believed that worker’s could be controlled in order to reap maximum benefit from them.

This notion of controlling the world stemmed from the belief in the superiority and applicability of science in various aspects of life. 19th century thinking was grounded in this mind set. Technicism was propagated by the need to control the future, and allow for humans to have everything they wanted.

The main aim of technicism was to guarantee material progress by solving problems. In this school of thought, it is presumed that all problems have a solution. John Stuart Mill and Taylor both held these world views. Therefore; one can state that to some extent, Mill would agree with Taylor’s views on the same.

John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism advocated for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Taylor’s theory of scientific management aimed at increasing the greatest good for the greatest number of people in production. Taylor wanted to accommodate the aspirations and needs of all members of production. For instance, he wanted to meet managers’ needs by increasing productivity.

Furthermore, he was interested in increasing profits for business owners. The theory was also intended in curbing labour unrest by meeting the needs of employees. Many of them were concerned about their inability to meet their basic needs. Consequently, Taylor’s scientific management would grant them the proper platform to achieve these aims.

Although some unwanted intentions stemmed from Taylor’s suggestions, it is still laudable that he had such noble intentions. Since so many stakeholders were involved in production, scientific management accepted this fact, and tried to maximise their utility. In essence, Taylor was a utilitarian that would have garnered support from Stuart Mill.

To further illustrate the above point, one only has to study the effects of some of these principles in the work process. Taylor (2010) sold his theory of scientific management to several firms. Some firms required frequent movement of materials between various work stations. Typical examples included the automobile industry, textile industry and repair workshops.

Managers in these businesses wanted to minimise bottlenecks and delays. Their main aim was to increase output as well as the rate of production. Taylor’s theory would provide them with a solution to achieve this aim. Additionally, some firms were struggling with the employee reforms. They wanted to provide their employees with the best working conditions as this would guarantee harmony and reduce attrition.

Taylor’s theory held a lot of promise with regard to improvement of working conditions or the challenges of building social harmony. Taylor realised that every stakeholder in production is interested in preserving his well being. This was the reason why he used the analogy of the slow Dutchman. In this story, he believed that the worker needed an incentive to work for one company over its competitors.

By providing the worker with higher wages than competitors, a manager could meet the worker’s need as well as his own of maintaining consistent work. His theories were particularly useful at the time because some workers had the tendency to be overcome by greed if they found that they were to be compensated for any amount of time they put into their day.

Taylor thus suggested tempering this greed with controlled periods of rest for employees. Some labourers would be unaware of their need for consistent rest and this would minimise their capacity to work the next day. Therefore, their interests would be covered in scientific management, and this would have won approval from Stuart Mill (Taylor, 2010).

On the other hand, the theory had some dire consequences, which would have elicited disapproval from Stuart Mill. Contrary to Taylor’s expectation, his theory eventually led to speedups for most employees. Managers who implemented his theory started by streamlining production bottlenecks eventually increased working hours. This heightened fatigue and burn out among several workers.

Additionally, some of them instated wage rate cuts in order to make their production processes more efficient. In addition to the above measures, scientific management eventually led to deskilling and the loss of jobs. Workers experienced most of the negative effects of the theory of scientific management.

Since utilitarian principles espouse the greatest good for the greatest number of people, then it can be said that Taylor’s theory protected the interests of the minority (business owners and managers) but trampled the needs of majority who are the employees. In this regard, John Mill would have disapproved of the theory.

References

Moriarty, G. (2001). ‘Three kinds of ethics for three kinds of engineering.’ IEEE technology and Society Magazine, 31-39.

Taylor, F. (2010). The principles of scientific management. London: Penguin

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