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Environmental Values

Editorial, Vol.21 No.1

Editorial: The Ethics of Engineering

Environmental Values 21 (2012): 1-4
doi: 10.3197/096327112X13225063227862

A central theme in this and recent issues of Environmental Values has been the relationship between engineering and environmental ethics. It is central to the topic of this special issue - synthetic biology. As Marianne Schark notes in her paper, one way of understanding what is new about the project of synthetic biology is that it is a form of radical engineering of life that marks it as distinct even from genetic engineering:

The difference between this familiar field of genetic engineering and synthetic biology is the radical engineering approach of the latter. The ultimate goal is not to start from naturally occurring organisms and change them, but to assemble (micro-)organisms in a technical fashion from functional biological parts.1

Two main questions are raised by papers in this volume with respect to these developments: the first is the moral status of the organisms that are produced by these engineering techniques; the second is the moral significance of the distinction between the artificial and natural.2 The significance of the distinction between natural and artificial has also been central to a second area in which engineering ethics has recently emerged as a central theme - geoengineering.3

Worries about engineering in the biological sphere are reflected in more popular responses to genetic engineering. The 2005 Eurobarometer on attitudes to genetic engineering reports the following:

The terms ‘biotechnology’ and ‘genetic engineering’, as in previous years, appear to have different connotations for the public. 8 per cent more Europeans see ‘biotechnology’ as likely to improve their way of life in the future than those asked the same question about ‘genetic engineering’. In 1999 the difference was 8 per cent, in 2002 it was 5 per cent. The more positive connotation of the term ‘bio’, perhaps a result of the association with healthy and natural things, contrasting with ‘engineering,’ with its connotations of manipulating or tampering, holds across much of Europe with the exception of Spain, Italy and Malta. Perhaps most striking is the ‘lead’ of biotechnology over genetic engineering in some countries: it is more than 20 per cent in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Finland and Austria.4

Neither is the antipathy to engineering being taken beyond its proper scope confined to the natural world. The concept of ‘social engineering’ has similarly fallen into disrepute. Stalin’s description of writers and artists as ‘engineers of the soul’ is likely to result in still stronger negative responses. Indeed, I remember many years ago being a member of a class discussing what it is to be a good teacher with the students coming up with a variety of descriptions and metaphors. One visiting Chinese student then came up with ‘engineer of the soul’. The tutor busy putting up the responses on a board blanched, looked embarrassed and did not list this suggestion along with the rest.

Is this particular antipathy to engineering in the biological and social spheres fully warranted? The questions raised about synthetic organisms and geoengineering in this volume are significant and this editorial is not the place to go into a detailed discussion of the various claims and counter-claims.5 However, I do want to use this editorial to point to resources within the practice of engineering for those concerned with some of these new technologies either on the micro-scale of synthetic biology or the macro-scale of geoengineering. In particular I want to question the particular account of the practice of engineering that tends to be assumed in at least some discussions of its appropriate scope.

Consider for example the account of engineering that Hayek assumes in his influential criticism of the project of social engineering. For Hayek, socialism is based on a rationalist illusion that is embodied in the figure of the social engineer. His central objection to the socialist project is the assumption that the planner can have the kind of complete knowledge of a domain that is typical of the engineer.

The application of the engineering technique to the whole of society requires ... that the director possess the same complete knowledge of the whole society as the engineer possesses of his limited world. Central economic planning is nothing but such an application of engineering principles to the whole of society, based on the assumption that such a complete concentration of all relevant knowledge is possible.6

Are Hayek’s claims about engineering true? Is it true that the engineer possesses ‘complete knowledge’ of his ‘limited world’? One of Hayek's main opponents in his criticisms of social engineering and socialism was the logical empiricist and central figure in the left Vienna Circle, Otto Neurath. Neurath is a much more interesting thinker than the standard picture of positivism in the Vienna Circle would suggest. Neurath defends social engineering, but he does so based on a much more modest idea of what engineering involves. He rejects the idea that the engineer could collect all the knowledge of his particular limited world, to use Hayek’s phrase. No such complete knowledge is possible.7

Neurath is surely right here. Engineers are constantly confronted by the limits of their knowledge. This modesty is indeed implicit in the practice of good engineering itself. In contrast to the theoretical sciences, engineering is a practice that deals with the limits of human control. The art of getting things to work carries with it the awareness of the variety of ways that things can go wrong. Engineering as a result has a version of precaution that is presupposed by good design. Consider the following from the engineer Lev Zetlin:

Engineers should be slightly paranoiac during the design stage. They should consider and imagine that the impossible could happen. They should not be complacent and secure in the mere realization that if all the requirements of design handbooks and manuals have been satisfied, the structure is safe and sound.8

He continues:

I look at everything and try to imagine disaster. I am always scared. Imagination and fear are among the best engineering tools for preventing disaster.9

If that is right, and I think it is, then there is a precautionary disposition that is built in to good engineering itself. This precautionary disposition in good engineering is particularly apt in the areas of synthetic biology, genetic engineering and geoengineering. In all three the questions of epistemic limits, limits of control and the scale of possible disasters all matter. In the case of synthetic biology and genetic engineering part of the problem is not that the resultant organisms are ‘unnatural’, but rather that they are living micro-organisms which will be subject to their own reproductive patterns and they can potentially undergo a series of natural processes which are independent of our will. It is the features that they share with other natural beings that raise particular problems. In the case of geoengineering, epistemic limits, the limits of human control and the scales of potential disasters loom still larger, at least for the technology that is currently most ‘cost-effective’ and ‘feasible’ - the release of sulphate aerosols into the upper atmosphere. There are prima facie limits to the knowledge that can be had in advance of such technologies on the spatial and temporal scales at which they must be deployed.10 There are clear limits to the controls that can be exercised over the consequences of an experiment on this global scale. The consequences the release of sulphate aerosols could be disastrous locally through changing patterns of monsoon rainfalls and globally through continuing acidification of the seas, possible effects on the ozone layer and the difficulty in terminating their release without rapid changes in the climate.11 It is a mark of the seriousness of the actual experiment we are currently engaged in - the release of greenhouse gases - that the possibility is being contemplated at all. These are points that can be made from within the practice of engineering itself, not as external points of criticism. Engineering is an enterprise which deals with the limits of abilities to control and manipulate the world. Precautionary dispositions should be part of the practice of good engineering itself.



1 Schark 2011, pp. 19-20.

2 These questions are addressed in all of the papers in this volume: Attfield 2011; Baertschi 2011; Deplazes-Zemp, A. 2011; Sandler 2011; and Schark 2011. The ethical significance of the distinction between artificial and natural was also addressed by another recent paper in this journal - Preston 2008.

3 The distinction was particularly central to the arguments in Preston 2011. See also the reflections on the recent Royal Society report on geoengineering in Gardiner 2011.

4 Gaskell et al. 2006, p.11.

5 For a discussion of some of the questions they raise see O’Neill et al. 2008, chs.6-8.

6 Hayek 1979, p.173

7 On Neurath’s view and the contrast with Hayek see O’Neill 2006.

8 Cited in Petroski 1994, p.3.

9 Ibid.

10 Bunzl 2009.

11 Royal Society, 2009.


Attfield, R. 2011. ‘Biocentrism and artificial life’, Environmental Values 21: 83-94.
Baertschi B. 2011 ‘The moral status of artificial life’, Environmental Values 21: 5-18.
Bunzl, M. 2009. ‘Geoengineering research: shouldn’t or couldn’t?’, Environmental Research Letters 4: 1-3.
Deplazes-Zemp, A. 2011 ‘The moral impact of synthesising living organisms: biocentric views on synthetic biology’, Environmental Values 21: 63-82.
Gardiner, S. 2011. ‘Some early ethics of climate geoengineering: a commentary on the values of the Royal Society Report’, Environmental Values 20: 163-188.
Gaskell, G. et al. 2006. Europeans and Biotechnology in 2005: Patterns and Trends Final report on Eurobarometer 64.3 http://www.lacbiosafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/europeans-and-biotechnology-patterns-and-trends1.pdf
Hayek, F. 1979 [1942-4]. The Counter-Revolution of Science. Indianapolis: Liberty.
O’Neill, J. 2006. ‘Knowledge, planning and markets: a missing chapter in the socialist calculation debates’, Economics and Philosophy 22: 55-78.
O’Neill, J., A. Holland and A. Light. 2008. Environmental Values. London: Routledge.
Petroski, H. 1994. Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgement in Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Preston, C. 2008. ‘Synthetic biology: drawing a line in Darwin’s sand’, Environmental Values 17: 23-39.
Preston, C. 2011. ‘Re-thinking the unthinkable: environmental ethics and the presumptive argument against geoengineering’, Environmental Values 20: 457-479.
Royal Society, 2009. Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2009/8693.pdf
Sandler, R. 2011 ‘The value of artefactual organisms’, Environmental Values 21: 43-61.
Schark, M. 2011. ‘Synthetic biology and the distinction between organisms and machines’, Environmental Values 21: 19-41.

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