Letters 09/23/2010

Sept. 23, 2010
Letters 09/23/2010

Social justice: Job #1?

Leland Teacher’s blog entry (“Should engineering text books promote social justice?” http://tiny.cc/g0r79) opened a can of worms. Some commenters said it was an engineer’s duty to care and look out for the planet and its inhabitants. Others noted that engineers can only design to the requirements. 

Sustainable engineering

In the U. K., the Institution of Mechanical Engineers is responsible for the C Eng — the equivalent of the PE license. It requires its engineers to design for sustainability. Engineers are responsible for designing safe products, and that means safe for the environment long term. We’ve seen and are seeing the results of irresponsible design. We need materials recycled so we can reuse them. There is not an infinite supply of stuff.

Chris P.

Will having this SUV make citizens more or less able to live their lives freely? Will this SUV affect native or other subpopulations? Will increased congestion, pollution, and dependence on fossil fuels be acceptable? And how will making and using this SUV affect ecosystems? These questions make sense in deciding how to design a particular SUV. I agree, though, they have no place in deciding whether to design the SUV.

Consumers can better decide if an SUV is needed than an engineer sitting in an air-conditioned office thousands of miles away.

BTW, average income, which wasn’t mentioned, is one of the most important considerations because the SUV must be affordable.

Harry Burt

Just a note, Harry: To be successful, a product must be profitable, not affordable. Look at Rolls Royce and Ferrari. They’re still in business and turning out totally unaffordable cars. Affordable is a relative term. — Editor

I don’t think requiring engineers to design socially responsible products is so egregious. It’s analogous to physicians pledging to “do no harm” to their patients. After all, we (engineers) are in the best position to assess the harm our designs can do over the long term for the environment and society. What makes lobbyists and politicians any more competent to make such decisions?

Peter Stricker

The problem, as the author so accurately points out, is who decides what someone else’s choices should be and on what basis and authority those decisions are made. Socialism is when the government or other authority presumes to make those decisions for individuals. A free market is when individuals make their own decisions. Unfortunately, there is a broad move toward the socialism and a seemingly popular social justice agenda. There’s also the accompanying rejection of the free-market model that has made this country great and generated the most rapid increase in technology and decrease of human misery in the history of the world.

There is a popular but misplaced belief that capitalism is destined to create unbridled greed. Therefore, it’s the government’s role to tell citizens what they should do for their own good, including “saving” the environment. What happened to supply-based economics that asserts that using a particular item is controlled by the cost of its availability? And greed, selfishness, abuse of power, and the like are not the result of any particular social agenda or economic model. They stem from the basic fact that people are human and that’s how humans have always acted and always will. Any social agenda legislated or instituted by any government or other authority cannot fix the problem; only personal responsibility based on “do for others as you wish to be done for yourself” is the solution.

Nathan B.

Engineers should design to requirements as they are specified. If a requirement calls for looking at intangibles, then how can anyone determine if the engineer did that? Certainly, if the option to accomplish a task includes an eco-friendly choice and a consumptive choice and the two possess equal cost/benefit ratios, then the engineer would be remiss in not taking the eco-friendly choice.

In short, putting this burden on the engineer is functionally equivalent to the manager proactively seeking a scapegoat for decisions that only turned out to be “suboptimal” in hindsight. Or in a word “disgusting”!
Let engineers “engineer.” Let the politically correct crowd choke on that.

C.T. Yankee

CT Yankee, has it right. Let the “bean counters” do their job on this one. Build the best product you can. Most savvy buyers can tell the difference right away between a product which was made ”the right way” and some off-shore knockoff. Naturally, there are buyers for both, but you will rest easy knowing yours is the good one.

Gary Papesh

Engineers are responsible to their employers to design the highest-quality devices with the best performance that can be manufactured for the least cost. “Quality” and “performance” are defined by customers. “Cost” may include externalities like pollution and waste of resources. And customers will decide whether fuel efficiency is more important than power or range. They will make such decisions based on experience, need, and price signals they receive at the gas pump when they fill up. That’s how the free market works. “Social justice” is fascist busybodyism.

Mike Lorrey

Interesting. People are happy to design an unsafe product that uses rare resources. Perhaps a drop-down crib with shark fin decorations that uses helium to lighten the weight of the drop-down part? Presumably “politically correct” is a euphemism for environmentally aware. PE’s are responsible to the public. One would have thought that the rest of the engineers are as well. But then it proves that libertarianism will not work. Not all engineers are aware of the problems of resource depletion and so regulations are required.

Chris Pollard

Any engineer worthy of the title takes into account cost. And the market decides the cost of any raw material or commodity based on those tried and true concepts, supply and demand. On what planet would someone gold-plate a component if there was no benefit to it? I suppose if you want to get mad at a profession that flagrantly flouts the widespread use of extremely rare resources, you can redirect your anger at De Beers and the world’s jewelry designers. — Editor

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