Monday, July 28, 2008

Not Really The Only Ethics Rule You'll Ever Need

After responding to my esteemed correspondent Michael Faris last week, I have heard from him again. This time he reminds me that I failed to respond to what he considers his most important argument: that opposing same-sex marriage violates the Golden Rule ("Do to others as you would have them do to you."). Even though I wrote last week that we were done with the issue, I think it's worthwhile to go with one more round, because the question of the Golden Rule's applicability has wider application than the specific matter that brought it up.

Now it is true that I wrote a short piece last year entitled "The Only Ethics Rule You'll Ever Need," meaning the Golden Rule. My point then was that if you're going to limit yourself to one rule of ethics to memorize, the Golden Rule wasn't a bad one to pick. But it's hard to treat all of moral philosophy in a 600-word column, and what I didn't say was that although the Golden Rule (or something like it) is needed in order for anyone to engage in meaningful ethical analysis, it is not sufficient. Let me give a simple example to show how the Golden Rule by itself can land you in a contradiction. And to make it more interesting, it'll be a personal experience.

My late father started smoking when he was a teenager, and kept it up to the day he was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 56, in 1983. He died of it a year later. Back in the 1970s, when the news came out that smoking probably caused lung cancer, I went on a little campaign of my own to convince him not to smoke. He liked smoking, he'd tried quitting and couldn't, and he finally told me to mind my own business because I was making a pest of myself. So I piped down.

Now how does the Golden Rule apply in that case? How was I going to do to him as I would have him do to me? I saw him doing something that was bad for him, so I encouraged him to stop. If I were doing something that could hurt me, I'd want him to tell me so (and in fact he did—numerous times—while I was growing up). Philosopher Karl Popper has proposed what some have since called the "Platinum Rule": namely, do unto others as they want to be done by. In other words, don't just do to others what would make you happy, given your tastes, preferences, and standards; take into consideration what the other person's tastes and standards are, and do to them what they would like, not what you would like.

Clearly, this latter version is what Mr. Faris has in mind when he says that keeping same-sex marriages illegal violates the Golden Rule. According to him, we should take the desires of those who want same-sex marriage into consideration, and allow it. But what if I applied the Platinum Rule to the case of my father's smoking? Clearly, he didn't want to hear my nagging about it. So if I did to him as he wanted to be done by, I should never have told him to stop smoking. But if I did to him as I would have wanted to be done by, I should have insisted he stop. It's easy to come up with other examples where the Golden Rule gives contradictory answers, depending on whether you use your own preferences or those of the person you're dealing with.

Leaving aside the specific issues—same-sex marriage, smoking, jaywalking, or what have you—the point here is that neither the Golden Rule nor the Platinum Rule gives unequivocal answers. To the extent that you must use your imagination to put yourself in the other person's place, the rules help you to do this. But if the other person wants something that is bad for them, or just bad in general, applying either rule mechanically can lead to answers that go against other moral principles. What about the guy who walks into a bar looking for a fight? Making him happy means somebody else will get beat up.

That is what I meant when I said the Golden Rule is necessary, but not sufficient. Jesus and many other moral teachers have endorsed the Golden Rule. As a Christian, I am committed not so much to this rule or that rule, but to a Person. In my view of what that Person said and did, I do not believe same-sex marriage is as important an issue as certain others, such as euthanasia and abortion, but I don't think it is without moral implications, either. I do not expect anyone who does not share my religious convictions to give them any weight, which is why I did not bring religion into the argument. I mention religion here only because the Golden Rule took us into the realm of moral philosophy, and I try to base my moral philosophy on Christian principles.

If I knew what Mr. Faris's moral philosophy was, I could say more about his argument with regard to the Golden Rule, but I don't. I thank him for this opportunity to clarify my thoughts on the issue, and sincerely hope that next week we'll get back to engineering ethics.

Sources: The Wikipedia article "Ethics of Reciprocity" cites numerous versions of the Golden Rule from a wide variety of religious traditions, and also contains the quotation from Karl Popper that I used for the Platinum Rule and the example of the guy picking a fight in a bar. My article "The Only Ethics Rule You'll Ever Need" appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Marriage and Engineering Revisited

Back on May 31, I argued here that allowing same-sex marriage in the U. S. could conceivably damage our prospects for raising the next generation of engineers. It elicited several responses, including a remarkably thoughtful and articulate set of counterarguments by Michael Faris, an instructor in business and technical writing at Oregon State University. In the time since, I have read David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (I admitted I had only read the reviews of it earlier). In the May 31 blog, I cited that book to support my arguments that children raised in circumstances other than a two-biological-parent family do not do as well, in a variety of measures, as children who grow up under the care of their own mother and father.

Reading the book has given me a deeper understanding of the complex issues involved, and I would like to explore a few of them briefly here as I respond to some of Mr. Faris's arguments. For those of you who are wondering what this has to do with engineering ethics, the point is that anything which encourages the development of stable, intellectually agile, and dedicated young adults will augur well for the future of engineering education, and without such people, there won't be as many future engineers. Also, there's some interesting ethical reasoning in this issue to be explored on its own.

First, I will concede a couple of points to Mr. Faris.

He claimed that maybe white, male, middle-class students do better in engineering, not because they are "inherently 'superior,'" but because such students receive "unearned privileges" such as living in better school districts than students of poorer single parents, having more relatives and friends who are college graduates, and so on. I will admit that I did not consider these kinds of factors in my original arguments, although they are difficult to disentangle from intrinsic abilities and character.

Second, he said my likening same-sex marriage to flooding the engineering-degree market with bogus degrees from fake institutions was a bad analogy. I admit that the comparison was poorly chosen and rather obscure. But as my reading of Blankenhorn revealed, that analogy turned out to be my intuitive way of groping toward a point that Blankenhorn makes abundantly clear in his book. That point is the "deinstitutionalization" of marriage. What does he mean by that?

Social institutions of any kind—marriage, universities, the legal system, you name it—both grant rights and require responsibilities of those who participate in them. If people claim the rights without following the rules that specify the responsibilities, the institution collapses, and whatever good it was doing disappears along with it. To remove the responsibilities from marriage, or any other institution, is to deinstitutionalize it, which radically reduces its beneficial effects for society.

To oversimplify Blankenhorn's main point, the promotion of same-sex marriage is an attempt to use marriage for a purpose it was not designed to fulfill: the promotion of human dignity for gay people. Blankenhorn is in favor of giving gay people equal recognition as full members of society. But he sees this good thing to be in conflict with another good thing: the right of every child to be cared for by their natural mother and father. He sees the latter good as the primary institutional purpose of marriage, which is why sexual intercourse and the care of children are responsibilities involved in the institution as it has historically stood.

He shows, in more detail than I can outline here, how the legalization of same-sex marriage must change the meaning of marriage for every single person in the country—married, single, with or without children, and for the children themselves. It already has in Canada. Largely because of that nation's implementation of same-sex marriage, the term "natural parent" has been eliminated in Canadian law, and replaced by the term "legal parent." And that isn't just for children of same-sex couples—it's for everybody. In law, there is no longer any such thing as a natural parent in Canada. Parents are now what the law says they are, period. My badly chosen analogy to the debauching of engineering degrees was simply my attempt to show how you can wreck an institution by lowering its standards. Changing marriage from what the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights says it is when it guarantees "the right to marry and to found a family," which is "the natural and fundamental group unit of society. . . entitled to protection by society and the State," to what one judge called "a celebration of a life of commitment to the relationship" lowers the standards of marriage.

Mr. Faris discounted my citation of "objective" social-science research that shows children raised in a two-biological-parent family do better, saying that social science is an "ideology." He implied that if a thing is ideological, then it can't be objective. By "objective," I simply mean that which is the same for me, for you, and for everybody else—that which is public knowledge, as opposed to a subjective feeling or sensation. If Mr. Faris wants to call social science an ideology, that is his privilege. But that does not change the fact that if you look at two different groups of children, one group being raised by their two natural parents and the other some other way, and the natural-parent group drops out of school less, commits suicide less, does drugs less, engages in early sex and has babies in their teenage years less, then those numerical facts are the same facts for everybody, whether you call them ideological or not.

The last point I will address is the one Mr. Faris makes here: "Our current Western model of family didn't arise because it was best for children; it arose because it was best for the continuity of property under a capitalist system." I beg to differ. He says there are societies in which children are raised "communally" or by "large extended families." First, I am unaware of any society, present or past (with two exceptions that Blankenhorn cites) in which the biological mother and father, if available, do not play a lead role in the raising of children, however much the extended family or community or the village raises the child as well. Blankenhorn uses the example of the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific as a society in which conventional inheritance of property as we know it in the West is largely unknown (uncles, for example, take on the primary responsibility for providing food), but in which the mother and father play primary roles in the raising of children. This is not to say that property rights are not related to family structure at all. But Mr. Faris is simply wrong when he claims that property rights are the main reason for the near-universal practice of mothers and fathers bearing the main responsibility for raising their children.

I understand from his blog that Mr. Faris will be pursuing a Ph. D. in English rhetoric and composition at Penn State in the fall. I wish him the best in his pursuits, and thank him for his thoughtful and stimulating comments. All the same, it looks like we will have to agree to disagree on this topic, which I will now give a well-deserved rest.

Sources: My original blog on this topic was "California Supreme Court Damages Future of Engineering" on May 31. Mr. Faris's comments can be found below that entry, and his website "A Collage of Citations" is currently at The quotations from the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights is from p. 182, and the judge's definition of marriage is from p. 147, of David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books, 2007).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Too Good To Be Ethical

You've probably heard the saying, "If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't'." If someone came up to you and offered to let you invest in a project to make free energy, what would you do? Or what if you were looking for an engineering job, and got an offer from a company working on such a project? This isn't as farfetched as it sounds.

Over my years as an engineering professor, I have run across my share of techno-eccentrics: people who promote ideas or theories that obviously violate the known laws of physics. Some of them were relatively harmless—the guy who thought he could replace all of Maxwell's electromagnetic equations with diagrams of springs, for example, or the fellow who said he found a meteorite in Barton Creek in Austin and claimed to have made a battery with it that generates huge amounts of energy. But every so often I come across someone who is clearly using an idea like this to raise lots of money. And then things get complicated.

Recently I heard a presentation by a fellow who claims to have developed a way to generate energy from nothing. He's been working on this for the last twenty years, he says, and now has built a system that takes eighty-five kilowatts of power to run and puts out 800 kilowatts—you do the math. No fuel, no solar input or anything, just run it and it makes energy from nothing.

How does it work, if it works as he claims? Well, there are two things to be considered: what he says it does, and what it actually does. They may not be the same. What he says he does is to heat up gas or air with a microwave oven and a high-voltage transformer until some quantum-mechanical things go on, and presto!—free energy.

Now, quantum-mechanical things are always going on everywhere, and people have been heating gas with microwaves and high-voltage transformers for decades. Nobody other than the gentleman in question has claimed to get out eight times more power than they put in for hours at a time. Although he appeared at a scientific meeting, he clearly delivered more of a sales pitch than a technical presentation. He admitted he wasn't telling everything he knew, claiming that he had to protect his investors, from whom he has already raised millions of dollars.

This situation raises a number of questions which need to be addressed in a logical order. The first question is, does he really get the results that he claims? The scientific way of answering this question is to try to duplicate his experiment. But this is impossible, because he has already told us that he hasn't described all the details necessary. The purpose of describing experiments, all the way back to Robert Boyle of Boyle's Law, is to make things so clear that anyone with the necessary equipment can duplicate them and get essentially the same results. By refusing to do so, the free-energy man is clearly not acting like a scientist, but like a promoter.

The law of macroscopic conservation of matter-energy (allowing for the conversion of matter into energy as in nuclear fusion reactions) is so basic to modern science, that any reputable scientist will resort to almost any other alternative than to question it. But this gentleman runs right up to the issue and says you can get away with violating it under some conditions having to do with quantum mechanics. Judging by some other things he said, he is using the words "quantum mechanics" merely as an incantation to get people to suspend their common-sense disbelief that you can get energy from nothing.

Philosophically speaking, there is a logical possibility that he has evaded the conservation of matter-energy, but if he has, it's the biggest scientific discovery of the last three centuries. In order to be recognized as such, however, the data must be presented in a scientific way for experimental validation, and this has not been done. A discovery that is not generally recognized is not yet a dis-covery, in that it remains covered or concealed to most people except perhaps to the discoverer. And if this fellow really has something, it's clear to me that he doesn't understand the details of the scientific issues involved.

Well, if he's not a scientist, is he acting like an ethical engineer? That takes us to the next question: is he consciously perpetrating a fraud, or does he sincerely believe that he's getting free energy? This question is not so easy to answer. Some crooks plan to be crooks from the start, know they are acting as crooks, and even glory in their crookedness. But many con artists have a psychological makeup that allows them to maintain an emotional belief in the legitimacy of their crooked scheme, even as they are pocketing the profits and delivering little or nothing of value to the victims. When they're caught, they will make excuses like, "Well, if you had just let me operate for another six months, everything would have worked out fine and everybody would have gotten their money back." This faith in the rightness of their evil schemes allows them to sell their ideas with a zeal and sincerity that convinces the gullible—and there are always plenty of those types around, even among trained professionals.

Nevertheless, just because a crook believes sincerely in a fraud doesn't make it any less of a fraud. Just as ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating the law, a sincere belief that a fraud is either technically or legally sound is no excuse for perpetrating it on people. That is why all good engineering is based on the best available scientific principles. If an engineer happens to discover something that seems to violate a well-known physical law, the first thing to question isn't the physical law—it's the engineer's own experiments and calculations. And while these days, few working engineers are in fields where they have opportunities to make fundamental scientific discoveries, it has been known to happen.

The case of Karl Jansky is an example. Purely as a practical matter, he was hired by the Bell Telephone Labs to investigate sources of radio noise in order to improve long-distance shortwave transmission in the 1930s. When he detected a mysterious source of noise that seemed to move around slowly with the seasons, he tracked it for an entire year in order to make sure it was really coming from outer space. Once he was sure of his findings, he published his results. Without really meaning to, Jansky founded the scientific discipline of radioastronomy. This discovery wasn't the kind that he could have personally profited from, but if it had been, I think he would have had the integrity to report it to his employers and to the scientific community anyway.

I expect our free-energy friend will go on for a while raising capital with his flashy machinery until the inevitable crash, which he will blame on anything and everything except himself. Of course, there's the tiny, tiny possibility that he's really on to something. If he is, well, you read about it here first. But if I were you, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

E-Haste Makes E-Waste

Last night some young people came by the house taking signatures and contributions for the Texas Campaign for the Environment. We see folks like this several times a year, and this time their issue was e-waste. My wife gave them a small sum and wrote and mailed four letters to legislators about the issue. And I'm blogging about it, so that's my bit for the cause.

What is e-waste? Basically, anything electronic that you throw away—cell phones, computers, TVs, electric toothbrushes, and so on. And as I heard someone say a few years ago, "there isn't any 'away' anymore." We are increasingly aware that trash has to go somewhere, and electronic waste causes peculiar problems in landfills. Most of it is held together with solder, and until a few years ago all solder had lead in it. Cadmium plating was popular for steel chassis, certain plastics have toxic plasticizers that leach out into the soil, and so for a variety of reasons, e-waste is one of the less attractive types of garbage to put on top of your water table. And it's highly non-biodegradable—there's a good chance that the twentieth century will be known to future archaeologists as the Cathode-Ray Tube Era, since the big glass bottles we watched TV on for many years will probably outlast almost all other artifacts from our time, like pottery shards in ancient Sumerian archaeological digs.

Anyway, over two million tons of e-waste went to municipal dumps in the U. S. as long ago as 2005, when the annual rate of increase was running between five and seven percent, so who knows what it is now. And next February, when millions of analog TVs in the U. S. become instantly useless for anything but viewing old VHS videotapes, the flood of e-trash is sure to increase.

Years ago the European Union decided to shift some of the burden of disposing of e-waste from the consumer and the government onto the manufacturers who make the stuff. They have what is called "extended product responsibility" (EPR), which means that you can't simply make and sell electronics and wash your hands of all responsibility once the things are sold. Manufacturers (or their agents) are under an obligation with EPR to take back used and obsolete electronics and dispose of it in an environmentally responsible way. This costs the manufacturers more than otherwise, but it also gives them an incentive to change their products so they are easier to dispose of. "Easier" can mean anything from no-lead solder (which is now required in Europe) to reducing the size and weight of products overall. What it apparently doesn't mean is making products that will last longer, and not just in terms of not breaking down.

In all the discussions of e-waste I've seen, the unmentioned elephant in the room is the fact that the whole consumer-electronics economy is based on faster and faster product life cycles. A personal comparison may be apt here. During my brief foray into industry around 1980, I worked for a company that made mobile radios for ambulances, fire trucks, and so on. We were developing a new product line of radios to replace the previous line, which came out about 1972. So, taking this recollection as a guide, the lifetime for that product, in terms of how long it would remain basically the same piece of equipment for sale with only minor changes, was eight years. Of course, police departments and private consumers are two different breeds of cat, but the point is that sales were generated from new customers, not by making the same customers throw away something they just bought six months ago in order to buy a newer model.

But the newer-better-faster speedup cycle—the "e-haste" of my headline—is the reigning paradigm in consumer electronics today. Product and even component life cycles are now measured in months, not years. Such rapidity used to be physically impossible, but with modern computer-aided design and manufacturing tools, an entirely new product can be designed, developed, tested, and in full production in three to six months. Having acquired this wonderful tool, manufacturers use it to the limit, which is why you can't find parts for anything electronic older than a couple of years. That's an exaggeration, of course, but perilously close to the truth.

I applaud the efforts of those who are trying to get take-back laws passed in the U. S., although they have an uphill battle to fight. The fact is that the vast majority of consumer electronics bought in this country is made in Asia, and we lack the protectionist motives that partly inspired the European Union's move toward take-back laws. Still, we are a big market, and if we decided to move to EPR, U. S.-based retailers such as Wal-Mart would have to deal with it somehow. I can't picture shiploads of obsolete PCs making their way back to China for disposal, but if that happened, I would be very careful to check up on what happened to them once they got back to their country of origin. There are already third-world countries whose leaders have turned to accepting U. S. waste streams for fun and profit, to the harm of the average citizenry, and we don't want to make that kind of problem worse by passing laws that just move the junk offshore. And there is another way yet, and that is to deal with the elephant face-to-face.

There is a discipline in many religious traditions called simplicity. It means basically not buying, doing, or having things that are not necessary. And of course you can spend a lifetime figuring out what "necessary" means. Unless you live like a hermit, you will eventually have to buy some number of electronic gizmos just to get along in today's world. And simplicity has never made for big new markets—the last thing electronics manufacturers want to do is to sell you something you can use for ten years without spending any more money on it. But if enough people ask for things that you don't have to throw away right after you've learned how to use it because the software is obsolete or everybody else has the new model that yours isn't compatible with, maybe the manufacturers will start making things that way.

Sources: An organization called the Electronics Take-Back Coalition ( has collected statistics from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sources, some of which I used for this column.