, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 13-34
Date: 05 Aug 2010

“Ain’t No One Here But Us Social Forces”: Constructing the Professional Responsibility of Engineers

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Abstract

There are many ways to avoid responsibility, for example, explaining what happens as the work of the gods, fate, society, or the system. For engineers, “technology” or “the organization” will serve this purpose quite well. We may distinguish at least nine (related) senses of “responsibility”, the most important of which are: (a) responsibility-as-causation (the storm is responsible for flooding), (b) responsibility-as-liability (he is the person responsible and will have to pay), (c) responsibility-as-competency (he’s a responsible person, that is, he’s rational), (d) responsibility-as-office (he’s the responsible person, that is, the person in charge), and (e) a responsibility-as-domain-of-tasks (these are her responsibilities, that is, the things she is supposed to do). For all but the causal sense of responsibility, responsibility may be taken (in a relatively straightforward sense)—and generally is. Why then would anyone want to claim that certain technologies make it impossible to attribute responsibility to engineers (or anyone else)? In this paper, I identify seven arguments for that claim and explain why each is fallacious. The most important are: (1) the argument from “many hands”, (2) the argument from individual ignorance, and (3) the argument from blind forces. Each of these arguments makes the same fundamental mistake, the assumption that a certain factual situation, being fixed, settles responsibility, that is, that individuals, either individually or by some group decision, cannot take responsibility. I conclude by pointing out the sort of decisions (and consequences) engineers have explicitly taken responsibility for and why taking responsibility for them is rational, all things considered. There is no technological bar to such responsibility.