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Self-reflection for Activist Engineering


Many blame politicians, governments, and markets for the technically-driven problems the world faces (think war, climate change, surveillance, disinformation, and so on). But why is it that there are almost always engineers and corporations willing to design and build the technologies that cause those problems, many times in spite of knowing about the negative consequences of those technologies? I offer in this paper practical guidance on how to engage in activist engineering, the goal of which is to get engineers to step back from their work and be able to ask and have a conversation about the question, “What is the real problem, and does this problem ‘require’ an engineering solution?” Building on research in the history and philosophy of engineering, and engineering ethics and education, as well as current events—all of which highlight important issues of debate within engineering practice—I provide a list of questions that engineers can start with for self-reflection to better understand their motivations for doing engineering work, and to better understand the implications of their work. The questions relate to considerations engineers must make regarding the social, environmental, economic, and peace implications of their work, and relate to alternative and non-technical interventions to the problem at hand. I believe that each engineer should, in the end, be able to answer the questions: Why am I an engineer? For whose benefit do I work? What is the full measure of my moral and social responsibility?

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  1. 1.

    I pilot-tested the questions in Table 1 on students, engineers working in industry, and engineers working in the federal government.


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I am grateful for the continued guidance, support, feedback, and input of Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, Dr. Zachary Pirtle, and Dr. Daniel Sarewitz. I thank the editor and four anonymous reviewers for their input, feedback, and support for this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Darshan M. A. Karwat.

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Karwat, D.M.A. Self-reflection for Activist Engineering. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 1329–1352 (2020).

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  • Activist engineering
  • Self-reflection
  • Praxis
  • Peace
  • Justice
  • Environment