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Chapter: Professional Ethics in Engineering : Global Issues

Involvement in Weapons Work

Historically, a quick death in battle by sword was considered acceptable, whereas the use of remote weapons (from bow and arrow to firearms) was frequently decried as cowardly, devoid of valour, and tantamount to plain murder.



Historically, a quick death in battle by sword was considered acceptable, whereas the use of remote weapons (from bow and arrow to firearms) was frequently decried as cowardly, devoid of valour, and tantamount to plain murder. As modern weapons of war progressed through catapults, cannons, machine guns, and bombs released from airplanes and missiles to reach further and further, the soldiers firing them were less likely to see the individual human beings— soldiers as well as civilians—they had as their general target. The continuing automation of the battle scene tends to conceal the horrors of war and thus makes military activity seem less threatening and high-tech wars more appealing. How might the men and women who design weapons, manufacture them, and use them feel about their work? For some engineers, involvement in weapons development conflicts with personal conscience; for others, it is an expression of conscientious participation in national defence. The following cases illustrate the kinds of moral issues involved in deciding whether to engage in military work.


1.  Bob‘s employer manufactures antipersonnel bombs. By clustering 665 guava-size bomblets and letting them explode above ground, an area covering the equivalent of 10 football fields is subjected to a shower of sharp fragments. Alternatively, the bombs can be timed to explode hours apart after delivery.


Originally the fragments were made of steel, and thus they were often removable with magnets; now plastic materials are sometimes used, making the treatment of wounds, including the location and removal of the fragments, more time-consuming for the surgeon. Recently another innovation was introduced: By coating the bomb lets with phosphorus, the fragments could inflict internal burns as well. Thus, the antipersonnel bomb does its job quite well without necessarily killing in that it ties up much of the enemy‘s resources just in treating the wounded who have survived. Bob himself does not handle the bombs in any way, but as an industrial engineer he enables the factory to run efficiently. He does not like to be involved in making weapons, but then he tells himself that someone has to produce them. If he does not do his job, someone else will, so nothing would change. Furthermore, with the cost of living being what it is, he owes his family a steady income.


2.  Mary is a chemical engineer. A promotion has gotten her into napalm manufacturing. She knows it is nasty stuff, having heard that the Nobel laureate, Professor Wald of Harvard University, was said to have berated the chemical industry for producing this ―most brutal and destructive weapon that has ever been


created.‖ She saw a scary old photograph from the Vietnam War period, depicting a badly burned peasant girl running from a village in flames. But the locals were said to take forever in leaving a fighting zone and then there were complaints about them being hurt or killed. She abhors war like most human beings, but she feels that the government knows more than she does about international dangers and that the present use of napalm by U.S. forces in Iraq may be unavoidable. Regarding her own future, Mary knows that if she continues to do well on her job she will be promoted, and one of these days she may well be in the position to steer the company into the production of peaceful products. Will Mary use a higher position in the way she hopes to do, or will she instead wait until she becomes the CEO?


Ron is a specialist in missile control and guidance. He is proud to be able to help his country through his efforts in the defence industry, especially as part of the ―war on terrorism.‖ The missiles he works on will carry single or multiple warheads with the kind of dreadful firepower which, in his estimation, has kept any potential enemy in check since 1945. At least there has not been another world war—the result of mutual deterrence, he believes.


4. Marco‘s foremost love is physical electronics. He works in one of the finest laser laboratories.


Some of his colleagues do exciting research in particle beams. That the laboratory is interested in developing something akin to the ―death ray‖ described by science fiction writers of his youth is of secondary importance. More bothersome is the secrecy that prevents him from freely exchanging ideas with experts across the world. But why change jobs if he will never find facilities like those he has now?


5. Joanne is an electronics engineer whose work assignment includes avionics for fighter planes that are mostly sold abroad. She has no qualms about such planes going to what she considers friendly countries, but she draws the line at their sale to potentially hostile nations. Joanne realizes that she has no leverage within the company, so she occasionally alerts journalist friends with news she feels all citizens should have. ―Let the voters direct the country at election time‖—that is her motto.


6. Ted‘s background and advanced degrees in engineering physics gave him a ready entry into nuclear bomb development. As a well-informed citizen he is seriously concerned with the dangers of the ever-growing nuclear arsenal. He is also aware of the possibilities of an accidental nuclear exchange. In the meantime he is working hard to reduce the risk of accidents such as the 32―broken arrows‖ (incidents when missile launchings may have occurred erroneously) that had been reported by the Pentagon during the height of the Cold War, or the many others that he knows have occurred worldwide. Ted continues in his work because he believes that only specialists, with firsthand experience of what modern weapons can do, can eventually turn around the suicidal trend represented by their development. Who else can engage in meaningful arms control negotiations?


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