Engineering Good: How Engineering Metaphors Help us to Understand the Moral Life and Change Society

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Engineering can learn from ethics, but ethics can also learn from engineering. In this paper, I discuss what engineering metaphors can teach us about practical philosophy. Using metaphors such as calculation, performance, and open source, I
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  ORIGINAL PAPER Engineering Good: How Engineering Metaphors Helpus to Understand the Moral Life and Change Society Mark Coeckelbergh Received: 15 April 2009/Accepted: 14 August 2009/Published online: 1 September 2009   The Author(s) 2009. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com Abstract  Engineering can learn from ethics, but ethics can also learn fromengineering. In this paper, I discuss what engineering metaphors can teach us aboutpractical philosophy. Using metaphors such as calculation, performance, and opensource, I articulate two opposing views of morality and politics: one that relies onimages related to engineering as science and one that draws on images of engi-neering practice. I argue that the latter view and its metaphors provide a moreadequate way to understand and guide the moral life. Responding to two problemsof alienation and taking into account developments such as Fab Lab I then furtherexplore the implications of this view for engineering and society. Keywords  Metaphor    Morality    Engineering    Politics    Alienation   Open source    Fab Lab Introduction Usually engineering ethics is concerned with the application of ethical theory toengineering. In this paper, I make a move in the opposite direction: I explore whatpractical philosophy can learn from engineering. In particular, I discuss whatengineering metaphors can teach us about morality and politics. Then I discuss theimplications for engineering. In this way I show how engineering and philosophycan learn from one another.Of course, engineering is itself a morally relevant activity: artefacts have moralconsequences (see for instance Verbeek  2005) and is sometimes driven by a moral M. Coeckelbergh ( & )Department of Philosophy, University of Twente, P.O. Box 217, 7500 AE Enschede,The Netherlandse-mail: m.coeckelbergh@utwente.nl  1 3 Sci Eng Ethics (2010) 16:371–385DOI 10.1007/s11948-009-9163-0  ideal when it attempts to make the world a better place. But my aim is differenthere: I show that there are some formal, structural features of engineering practicewhich, by means of metaphorical transfer to ethics and political philosophy, canhelp us to better understand normative philosophical inquiry and reconceptualise itsagenda.Using engineering metaphors, I will articulate two opposing views of moralityand politics. The first relies on metaphors related to engineering as a science and atop-down activity; the second draws on metaphors related to engineering as apractice that develops bottom-up. I will argue that the latter view and its metaphorsprovide a more adequate way to understand and guide the moral life. Then I willexplore the implications of this view for engineering design, production, andconsumption by responding to two alienation problems in contemporary society.Let me first make explicit my view of the relation between metaphor and moralthinking. Metaphor and Moral Thinking There are at least three views of the relation between metaphors and thinking,including moral thinking. On the first view, metaphors are means that help us toexpress thoughts in a more smooth and pleasant manner. They are decorations thatadd rhetorical value to our arguments. On the second view, this decorative positionputs metaphors in a too positive light. Rather than aids, metaphors are unwelcomeadditions that distract from the purity of clear language. The third view rejects bothinstrumental conceptions of the relation between metaphors and thinking. It holdsthat metaphors are crucial and central to thinking itself. They are not the cloths thatconceal the beauty of the propositional body; they are the backbone of reflection.They are not the paint; they are the building blocks of thinking. This is the view Ishall assume in this paper. 1 In moral philosophy, the latter position has been mainly (but not exclusively)developed by philosophers from the pragmatist tradition. In their classic work   Metaphors We Live By  (1980) Lakoff and Johnson have shown that metaphors arefundamental to thinking. Johnson (1993) has worked out the implications of thisinsight for ethics and Fesmire (2003) has used metaphors such as jazz improvisationto elaborate a Deweyan view of ethics.Making explicit metaphors, then, serves the descriptive and normative aims of practical philosophy. It helps to articulate and clarify several existing frameworksfor understanding morality and politics, but to the extent that these existingframeworks are inadequate it also helps us to imagine alternatives or improvements.My articulation and use of engineering metaphors in this paper is meant tocontribute to both aims. 1 Note that for the purposes of the arguments made in this paper one could also assume a slightly‘weaker’ version of this ‘strong’ view about the primacy of metaphor, as long as that version does notcome too close to what I called the ‘decorative’ view.372 M. Coeckelbergh  1 3  Morality as (Theoretical) Science and Top-Down Politics Engineering is often conceived of as a science. Sciences provide a clear and fixedmethod to reach their aim. The aim of science is knowledge. For instance, engineersworking in an academic context may aim to gain more knowledge about fluiddynamics, and build things that help them to reach that aim. Similarly, moralphilosophy can understand itself as a science that aims to gain knowledge aboutmoral values and moral reasoning. It may also become epistemology or philosophyof science and think about the justification of knowledge.Within such a scientific approach to morality, moral philosophy can come to beseen as being a matter of calculation. Traditionally, utilitarian philosophers tend tofavour this method. Bentham (1789) proposed a calculus to determine which actwould bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of individuals.Moreover, in this view moral reasoning is an individual matter: I, as an individual,can calculate the greatest good for myself or for others.The latter option takes us to engineering in a metaphorical and a literal sense.Utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill were concerned with society as a whole. Theyadvocated  social engineering . This concerns legislation as well as the concretedesign of things. For instance, Bentham proposed the famous panopticon: a buildingwhich allowed the guards to watch the prisoners while the latter did not know if theywere being watched. In this way, they could be better disciplined, as Foucault(1975) put it in his famous study.More generally, moral philosophers working in this tradition seek to changesociety top-down. In this respect, they do not differ from Plato, who envisioned theideal of the king-philosopher designing the perfect, well-ordered society. However,the model is not science as we know it today. Plato did not take to  experimental science as a method to gain knowledge; instead, he held that gaining moralknowledge was a matter of   theoria  ( hexqi 9 a ), which might be translated as insight orvision. Thus, it is not so much science that is a model here but  theoretical  science asopposed to experimental science. Science is seen as uncovering facts or truths ratherthan as a process of inquiry (as Popper and Dewey thought, see below). Moreover,utilitarian principles can be applied by everyone; they are more ‘democratic’ in thissense. Both Plato and traditional utilitarians shared the view that the moral life is amatter of gaining knowledge (indeed of theory) and that this knowledge should beapplied to change society from above. Politics is a matter of attaining a vision of theGood and applying this knowledge to matters of state.This interpretation of Plato as a top-down approach to politics seems in line withPopper’s analysis in the first part of   The Open Society and Its Enemies  (1945), buthe makes stronger claims. He argues that Plato’s political programme is totalitarian(Popper 1945, pp. 92–93) and utilitarian—by which he means that ‘the principle of collective utility is the ultimate ethical consideration’ (Popper 1945, p. 146). Thus,we may compare Plato’s collectivism and his view of the relation betweenknowledge and politics to collectivist versions of utilitarianism. Elsewhere Popperwrites that for Plato, ‘the criterion of morality is the interest of the state’ and thattherefore ‘morality is nothing but political hygiene’. He accuses Plato of defending‘the collectivist, the tribal, the totalitarian theory of morality’ (Popper 1945, p. 113). Engineering Good 373  1 3  Although this reading of Plato may be too one-sided when it comes to the strongemphasis on collectivism and totalitarianism and to the relation between moralityand politics (see for example Vlastos’s reception of Plato 2 ), his politicalprogramme—or, if Vlastos is right, the political implications of his  moral programme—can be identified as promoting a top-down approach to politics thatappears to have collectivist and totalitarian tendencies. However, here I am not somuch interested in finding out whether or not Plato held that view, but rather in howsuch an approach to morality and politics can be related to a view of how to attainknowledge. In so far as engineering is ‘theoretical’ science, it compares to the moraland political approach described above.Finally, engineering as a (calculating, theoretical) science also promotes a certainattitude towards the unexpected and the uncertain. In this view, risk is somethingthat can and should be calculated. A theory of risk is applied to get the world of contingency under human control. Similarly, moral philosophers who see moralityas (theoretical) science try to create abstract rules and principles that control orstand above the contingencies and risks of everyday life. According to Popper,Plato’s ‘wise men’ are too occupied with the problems of the superior world, theyhold fast to ‘the ordered and the measured’ and have no time to ‘look down at theaffairs of men’ (Popper 1945, p. 155). Whether or not this really was Plato’s view, itis certainly a view that encourages an attitude to risk that centres on calculation andcontrol.To conclude this section: there are some features of   engineering as (theoretical)science  that help us to construct the outlines of an approach to morality and politicsfocussed on gaining theoretical knowledge, calculation, the individual, theory, top-down social engineering, and abstract, contingency-independent principles. Takinginto account Popper’s interpretation of Plato, we can add that this approach showssome similarities with collectivist versions of utilitarianism and is at least in dangerof promoting totalitarianism. Of course this model of engineering, morality, andpolitics is an ideal-type. In practice, not all engineers, philosophers of (engineering)science, and moral philosophers that are sympathetic to this approach endorse allelements of this model or contribute to its moral and political implications. Morality as Engineering Practice and Experimental Science: Problem-Solvingand Experimentation Let me now articulate an alternative understanding of morality by drawing onmetaphors related to  engineering as a practice  and  experimental  science. I willshow that this yields a more adequate description of, and better guide to, the morallife. 2 Vlastos argues in his  Platonic Studies  that Plato’s goal was moral improvement, the improvement of thesoul, rather than the interest of the state (Vlastos 1973/1981, p. 14) and that therefore Popper should havesaid that politics is moral hygiene rather than that morality is political hygiene (p. 15). Thus, the relationbetween the moral and the political in Plato is more complex than suggest by Popper and in the argumentspresented above.374 M. Coeckelbergh  1 3  Engineering as a practice puts less emphasis on knowledge as such but onproblem solving, on getting things to work. In moral philosophy, there are a fewtraditions that follow a similar track. As McCarthy has argued, Wittgensteinunderstood philosophy as a problem-solving activity—perhaps because he wastrained as an engineer (McCarthy 2007). Pragmatist philosophers such as Deweyshare this conception of philosophy. Although Dewey modelled ethics on scientificinquiry (Dewey 1920) and could therefore agree with the phrase ‘morality asscience’—that is, as  experimental  science, he stressed the aspect of problem-solving: ethics is about solving practical problems. 3 Of course there are differences.Whereas for Wittgenstein and his followers we should solve problems in our use of  language  in order to solve problems in our thinking (and perhaps in the world),Deweyan pragmatists are more directly concerned with practical problems of howwe should live and how we should live together. But whatever the emphasis, the aimis to solve problems, not to gain knowledge or insight (theory) as such. If livingtogether doesn’t work, we should try to  make  it work by means of philosophicalthinking and moral practices.Moreover, this approach accepts contingency and accepts the risk that somethingcan go wrong. In this respect, it has close affinities to the emphasis on inquiry andimaginative rehearsal in contemporary pragmatism (Fesmire 2003) and to Nuss-baum’s neo-Aristotelianism, which is critical of Plato’s emphasis on control andinstead promotes the acceptance of contingency and vulnerability (Nussbaum 1986).This outlook on risk and morality differs from many modern moral theories. Kant,Rawls, and contemporary consequentialists generally hold a top-down approach tomorality (rules or principles applied to concrete ‘cases’) that is contingency-averse.For example, Rawls has argued that we should reason about the principles of a justsociety behind a veil of ignorance (Rawls 1971), removed from the real world.Against Rawls, Fesmire has argued that pragmatist ethics ‘must begin where allgenuine inquiry begins:  in media res , with the tangles of lived experience’. ForDewey, moral deliberation ‘is not disembodied cerebration deciding which action isderivable from ultimate principles, but is a form of engaged inquiry touched off byan uncertain situation’ (Fesmire 2003, p. 28). 4 And once we solve the problem, thesituation remains uncertain or can become uncertain again.I have no space here to offer a full critique of Rawls and other contemporarymoral theories. Instead, let me elaborate the practical, experiential view of moralityby using engineering metaphors. An engineering term for making something work well is performance. Applied to morality, this approach suggests that instead of aiming at knowing the good, we should try to  do  good. Good is not something that isout there and invites contemplation ( the  good) but something that needs to bedesigned and needs to work. The point is not to see the good ( theoria , vision, 3 Here I am mainly inspired by that aspect of this thought (problem solving), less by his view that moralexperimentation is a matter of confirmation. There have been further developments in 20th centuryphilosophy of science which offer more interesting views, ranging from Popper’s (1959) view that it is amatter of falsification to work by Kuhn, Feyerabend, and others. 4 Fesmire’s view of Rawls might be too one-sided here. I have offered an alternative interpretation of Rawl’s thought experiment, which demands rather than excludes the moral imagination Fesmire andNussbaum promote (Coeckelbergh 2007a).Engineering Good 375  1 3
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