Principles: How to Work with Engineers

Courtesy, tact, sympathetic engagement, and intellectual modesty all go a long way when collaborating with anyone, including engineers. But experience has taught me that there are several more specific principles to bear in mind when setting out to work with our engineering colleagues. Here are a few.

Do Not Condescend

Do not enter the relationship with the assumption that, as a philosopher, one is more attuned to the social and ethical implications of the work in technology. Do not assume that, simply because the engineer is an engineer, he or she is unconcerned with or blind to ethical issues, or that he or she lacks the conceptual resources to engage with social and ethical implications in a sophisticated manner. As philosophers we are, for the most part, better educated than our engineering colleagues about metaethics and normative ethics. But my being able to explain to my undergraduates why, for G. E. Moore, “good” is a non-natural predicate, does not, by itself, make me better able to articulate with nuance and detail the devastating effects of anthropogenic climate change on vulnerable peoples in low-lying, coastal areas in less developed parts of the world.

It's a Two-Way Street

If you expect the engineer to learn the ethics of care, the metaphysics of the ontology' of technoscientific objects, the philosophy and sociology of science in an age of uncertainty, and the epistemology' of modeling in the climate sciences, then you have to be prepared to learn the engineering. And, without understanding the engineering, the philosopher cannot understand the way in which the ethics, the ontology, the philosophy' of science, or the epistemology works in a given, technical setting. What is required of the philosopher is not, of course, Ph.D. level expertise in the relevant engineering disciplines. But a lot more is required than just a sophisticated, lay person’s passing familiarity with the technologies as described in Wired, Gizmodo, The Verge, or even the MIT Technology Review. How much expertise one must develop, and of what kind, depends, of course, on the specific problems one is engaging with. But, in general, what is required is something more like what Collins and Evans (2008) term “interactional expertise.” Someone possessing interactional expertise is not expected to be capable of making original research contributions in the technical field in question but is expected to know the basic concepts and theories, to understand experimental techniques and design and manufacturing tools. One should be able to read and understand the current literature and to engage in intelligent and informed conversation with technical partners.

Do Not Model Ethics as a Detachable Form of Philosophical Expertise

If ethics is the focus of a collaboration with engineering colleagues, then do not make the mistake of treating ethics as a detachable form of specialist, philosophical expertise. Of course, most philosophers are better trained than engineers in metaethics and normative ethics. But while ethical theory is helpful by way of providing frameworks and tools for ethical analysis and reflection, such theory, alone, does not suffice for assessing the ethical impacts of novel technologies. Ethics on the ground, as it were, is something very different from ethics in the philosophy classroom. One does not solve hard problems about the ethics of self-driving vehicles, facial recognition systems, or predictive policing algorithms by parachuting in an ethics specialist who dispenses a few pearls of ethical wisdom and then moves on to the next consulting contract.

In this respect, ethics is not like mechanics or thermodynamics or nuclear engineering. Such a view of applied ethics has, unfortunately, been encouraged by the medical ethics model, where the philosophically trained ethicist is often included in grand rounds, along with the oncologist, the radiologist, and pharmacist. I think this is the wrong model in medicine. But it is especially so in an engineering setting, where ethics must take the form of embedded and distributed expertise, more the domain of the engineer than the philosopher. The philosopher has a role to play in helping to construct cultures of ethical engagement and sophistication in private technology corporations, government agencies, and regulatory bodies (see Howard 2019). But the most important measure of the philosopher’s success in nurturing the growth of genuine, self-sustaining, and self-reproducing ethical expertise within technical communities is the eventual dispensability of the philosopher in those communities.

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