11 May 2006

Final Paper of Greatness

I just submitted my last undergraduate paper. The essay question was,

To what extent are engineers responsible for the misuse of their innovations?

Here is my first paragraph:

Finding a Cozy Level of Causality in Engineering

Objective responsibility does not exist. Responsibility is a system of principles and judgments held by an individual or shared by a society, pertaining to whether actions are right or wrong. This system is applied to an objective measure, that is, the degree to which an individual’s actions cause another to occur, which I refer to as the degree of causation. The degree of causation sufficient to hold an individual responsible for an outcome differs among individuals or groups of like-minded individuals, rendering responsibility to the realm of subjectivity. So it does not make sense to speak of an engineer’s responsibility for the misuse of her innovations, only her degree of causation in a given misuse. Therefore, engineers are not at all responsible for the misuse of their innovations. Even so, engineers will attempt to find a comfortable degree of causation according to their individual preferences and pressures exerted by societies in which they interact. Furthermore, engineers will find it advantageous to understand the threshold degree of causation that other individuals and societies define as responsibility.

Update: To coincide with my submission, there is this (hat tip boing boing),

A farmer in Middlesex builds and exports gallows to African dictatorships, where they are used to execute dissidents and others who've been railroaded through corrupt judicial systems. He's been condemned by Amnesty International, but insists that "business is business," and some people deserve the death penalty. His business will be outlawed by a new EC regulation in July.
Shall my paper hang from the gallows?

1 comment:

Juan Carlos Bisso said...

I think the analysis in your last undergrad paper (congrats by the way) still applies to the gallows-exporter case. It seems to me that what you call degree of causation is a discrete variable that takes only two values: to sell or not to sell. According to the farmer’s own principles and values selling gallows is not sufficient to render him responsible for the executions (unfortunately). It is here where the government comes and sets a standard for legal responsibility: legally responsible in case of a sale.

What I called legal responsibility is nothing but what tort law denotes with the term negligence. Courts often have the difficult task of setting the threshold for declaring negligence, and in doing so they take into account the benefits and costs created to society as a whole -at least in theory-. Because individuals fail to internalize the costs generated to third parties (e.g., the lives of the people that have been executed), their own sense of responsibility usually falls below than what is socially optimal. Legal responsibility or negligence is one way to have them internalize the costs of their actions (or the cost of their degree of causation).

Even though I am not 100% sure, my guess is that there have got to be legal cases in which engineers have been held negligent for the effects created by their inventions.