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A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology by Vincent F. Hendricks, Stig Andur Pedersen, Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis

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3. The Moral Responsibility of Engineers

Engineering designates a type of action which takes place in a complex social and technical network, jeopardizing multiple animate and inanimate beings and consisting fundamentally in transforming ideas into concrete forms. The designing act entails a specific responsibility of its authors because society is dependent on engineers in this domain. The intensity of this responsibility is proportional to the number of beings whose existence, health, quality of life – even life expectation – are at stake.

Certainly, the engineers’ obligation is difficult to apprehend owing to the engineering context. Dennis Thompson (1980) gave the name of “problem of many hands” to the phenomenon of dilution of the individual responsibility in large organizations where it is difficult to identify who is morally responsible, because many different persons in various manners contribute to the decisions. Nevertheless engineers, owing to their training, their mission and their position in the social space, contribute collectively to the creation of phenomena whose effects on the social and natural environment are important, and sometimes irreversible.

To draw the borders of the engineers’ moral responsibility amounts to raising three questions: What is their specific knowledge? What are their concrete “degrees of freedom”? What is their moral legitimacy to take into account the engineering ethical stakes within the framework of their professional activities?

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