Professor Harold P. Sjursen. NYU – Polytechnic. Engineering Education as a means to Global Social Justice. Introduction. This paper considers the opinion, associated with the philosopher Rousseau but still debated today, that technology is a barrier to human happiness and social justice. Based up.... ID: 430353
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WEEF October 2012 Buenos Aires
Professor Harold P. SjursenNYU – Polytechnic
Engineering Education as a means to Global Social JusticeSlide2
This paper considers the opinion, associated with the philosopher Rousseau but still debated today, that technology is a barrier to human happiness and social justice. Based upon John Rawls’ theory of distributive economic justice, it is argued here on the contrary that engineering promotes social justice. This position is put forth in the context of the urgency generated by the globalized economies of our time. Since engineering addresses problems that define the quality of life it is important to understand that neither technology nor engineering is value free. Engineering education must foster a clear grasp of the cultural, ethical and social issues that proscribe how humans desire and choose to live. In conclusion it is asserted that how human interest as a metric of engineering quality is to be incorporated is perhaps the most important question to be faced in the assessment of engineering methods and methodology.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide3
Roussseau’s argument is that society and technological contrivance provide distractions from the purity and tranquility of human purpose as ordained by nature. This in turn leads to such undesirable tendencies as selfishness, greed and avarice, crime, war and murder. According to him, in the state of nature, before the debilitating influence of civil society, humankind exhibited “uncorrupted morals.” The nature of society, he proclaims, distorts our naturally beneficent and altruistic outlook. Thus Rousseau’s notion of happiness is related to how just, fair and equitable, society is toward all, with the conclusion that generally it is an assault upon our well-being. Were there a just and equitable society Rousseau’s conclusion might be different. But according to him the progress we laud associated with society and technology is actually only “in appearance so many steps toward the perfection of the individual, and in fact toward the decay of the species."
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide4
Engineering and Justice
Justice is an evasive concept, difficult to define in terms acceptable to everyone and especially so in the context of global pluralism. Whether or not individuals flourish under the system prevailing in their societie is often discussed in terms of human rights. By this measure what an individual is rightfully entitled to is seen as a measure of both happiness and justice. Yet a universal consensus of just what constitutes human rights is not likely to be attained. How can justice be defined such that traditional cultural and social differences may still be respected?
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide5
Distributive justice in the version of John Rawls known as the difference principle may be a standard acceptable cross culturally that would address the concerns about society advanced by Rousseau. Distributive justice is the condition where all goods and services are distributed equally across all society. This condition would seem to alleviate the corrupting social influence, lamented by Rousseau, that leads to avarice, crime and war and perhaps approximate the state of nature as preserved in the undeveloped societies of indigenous people in the Caribbean that he believed resembled the uncorrupted state of human kind. Rawls realistically recognizes that such complete equality of the distribution and availability of goods and services is more than unlikely and so his alternative formulation allows that so long as the least advantaged in society are materially better off. Without debating whether this circumstance if achieved would satisfy Rousseau, it should be clear that it would remove some of the societal influences he deplores.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide6
The question at hand is whether engineering promotes an inclusive global social justice and whether this in turn contributes to human happiness and the improvement of the quality of life. It should be beyond debate that the answer to this question depends upon what engineers actually do. Surely some applications of engineering skills would do little to improve the quality of life of the global commonweal. One of Rousseau’s evils is warfare and obviously engineering has contributed to the brutal efficiency of that activity. Other applications of engineering are subject to debate – has the iPad improved the quality of life or only added to the list of available diversions that launch us down Rousseau’s slippery slope of moral weakening. What engineers do, that is what they are actually able to do, depends on the demands of the global economy and the type of education that has prepared them to act in the world.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide7
It should go without saying that the core of the undergraduate engineering curriculum must include extensive work in mathematics and natural science (including biology). Certain technology skills, many of which involve computer competencies, are likewise essential. These three of four STEM disciplines together with the technical aspects of engineering necessarily fill most of the available time in a typical four year program. How should the non-technical portion of the engineering curriculum be structured to optimize the chances that engineering will contribute to global, social justice.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide8
Perhaps engineering will become the globe’s primary practical discourse. For anything like that to happen, however, engineering must eschew its uncritical approval of free market capitalism at the same time that it integrates deliberation on value questions (without sectarian influences) into its general approach. This in turn cannot happen without extensive reflection and discussion, and at least tacit commitment to the importance of the endeavor from key elements in the global engineering community.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide9
Engineering is not a “value-free” discipline. It has sometimes been casually assumed that since engineering is applied science, carrying out the mandates of natural science research, which is of-course value independent, that such independence descends to engineering activity. This is wrong on several counts. It is naïve to think that science research is value free even if the pure search for scientific truth ultimately is. Also, to construe engineering merely as applied science abstracts from much of what is importantly engineering. And obviously to think that engineering, which is our most systematic effort to solve human problems, is not precisely an expression of value is absurd.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide10
Economics and Globalization
The Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman argues, on the basis of historically demonstrated econometrics, that economic growth is the necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the decent or moral society. A similar point has been advanced by Amartya Sen based upon his study of famine and starvation. Both of these distinguished economists insist that rational economic development tends to undermine political tendencies toward discrimination and injustice. In his advocacy of globalization (it should be noted American style globalization) Thomas Freedman claims that free markets advance the welfare of all those that participate in them. The argument, at least in liberal circles, is that rational economics shows how to expand the availability of goods and services and this expansion is an objective measure positively correlated with the quality of life.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide11
As a historical question Jared Diamond addresses this lucidly in such books as Guns, Germs and Steel where he describes the factors that explain the unequal development in various parts of the world. The differences are all due to the consequences of technology, at least if we include agriculture and medicine among technologies. His point is rather straightforward: global exchange (trade, communications, etc.) for the sake of economic development does not ensure equitable technology transfer. Indeed, as is manifest today, economic globalization is largely a process of seeking out cheap labor and not one of transferring technology. The case of China makes the point. Western industry has moved manufacturing to China because production costs are considerably lower there than in Europe or the United States but has tried, not entirely successfully, to prevent the engineering and management expertise from taking root.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide12
Engineering needs to embrace ethics as part of engineering itself, i.e., engineering ethics should find its source within engineering itself and not accept ethical standards legislated from without. Professional ethics as promulgated by the professional engineering societies consist basically of deportment protocols to ensure the integrity of contract work. Such ethics are vital to professions and certainly should not be abandoned and perhaps need strengthening in light of technological advancement. But this level of ethical discourse accepts the overall legitimacy of engineering projects. It does not raise the question of whether a new highway or light rail is the better alternative or whether any new infrastructure is even appropriate from the standpoint of the social good. Engineering firms make recommendations regarding preferred engineering solutions in the narrow sense. What is needed is the broadening of that sense to include systematic considerations of the common good from all perspectives.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide13
Engineers alone should not run the world. Rather the startling notion that engineers make life and nature what it is today must introduce a profound sense of humility into any deliberations concerning the deployment of new technology. We note that while Plato’s famous philosopher king in the Republic was in our terms the CEO of an engineering firm (called the guardian class) and was hired to manage every detail of human life, the one big lesson of that book was that such a utopian technocracy will not succeed in creating justice or human happiness. This is the case even when the technologies themselves can be controlled and their objectives achieved with predictability.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide14
The reference to Plato helps us understand the shortcoming of technocratic society. The world does not need an engineering king but rather groups of engineers who resemble Aristotle’s phronemos – leaders who exhibit practical wisdom. Karl Popper’s philosophical critique of the decline of European politics in The Open Society and its Enemies proposes (piecemeal) engineering as the model of political discourse as an alternative to Platonism because he believes it respects human choice and freedom. But what Popper intends by engineering is not a dogmatic technocracy but rather a deliberative community that is perpetually revising itself as matters become clarified. This is all the more a requirement now in the context of a globalized economy.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos AiresSlide15
The reorientation of engineering education in the direction that acknowledges the centrality of the ethical imperative is one that will not come about through the normal process of curriculum reform. Similarly the challenges of globalization cannot be addressed adequately by the introduction of new courses designed to develop international competencies. What is called for the recognition on the part both of practicing engineers and engineering educators that most aspects of engineering work are far from value free but, on the contrary, are dedicated to a proposition of human interest. How human interest as a metric of engineering quality is to be incorporated is perhaps the most important question to be faced in the assessment of engineering methods and methodology. An understanding of this will emerge only from an extensive discussion among engineers and engineering educators from around the world.
WEEF October 2012 Buenos Aires
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