Engineering Ethics Blog: Sentiment, Calculation, and Prudence


Some engineers eventually become
managers, and managers not only of engineering projects but of entire companies
or even public organizations.  The COVID-19
pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the question of how those in charge should
allocate scarce resources (including technical resources) in the face of
life-threatening situations.  And so I
would like to bring you a brief summary sketch of three ways to do that:  two that are widely applied but fundamentally
flawed, and one that is not so well known but can actually be applied
successfully by ordinary mortals like ourselves.


None of this is original to
me, nor to Robert Koons, the philosopher who describes them in a recent issue
of First Things.  But originality
is not usually a virtue in ethical reasoning, and in what follows, I’ll try to
show why.


In the 1700s, the Enlightenment
thinkers Adam Smith and David Hume devised what Koons calls a “difference-making”
way of coming up with moral decisions. 
The way this process works is best described by an example.  To properly assess an action or even the
lack of an action
, you must figure out the net difference it makes to the
entire world.  Koons uses the example of
a homicidal maniac who, if left to himself, is bound to go out and kill three
people.  Suppose you know about this
maniac: you can either do nothing, or choose to kill him.  If you do nothing, three people die; if you
kill him, only one person dies.  Other
things being equal, the world is a better place if fewer people die, so the
logic of difference-making says you must kill him.


That’s an extreme example, but
it vividly illustrates the rational basis of two popular ways of making moral
decisions involving public health.  Let’s
start with the commonly-heard statement that every human life is of infinite
value.  Few would dare to argue openly
with that contention, yet if you try to use it as a guide for practical action,
you run into a dilemma.  Even something
as simple as your driving a car to the grocery store exposes other people to
some low but nonzero chance of being killed by your vehicle.  If you take the infinite value of human life
seriously, you will never drive anywhere, because infinity times (whatever
small chance there is of running over someone fatally) is still infinity.


Koons calls one way of
dealing with this dilemma “sentimentalism.”  He’s not talking about people who watch mushy
movies, but the fact that the sentimentalist, in the meaning he uses, abandons
logic for emotion and settles for life more or less as it is, but feels bad
whenever anybody dies.  Such people exist
in a constant state of deploring the world’s failure to live up to the ideal
that every human life is of infinite worth, but otherwise derive little moral
guidance from that principle in practice.


The more hard-headed among
us say, “look, we can’t act on infinities, so if we put a finite but large
value on human life, at least we can get somewhere. ” Applying the
difference-making idea to human lives valued at, say, a million dollars, allows
you to make calculations and cost-benefit tradeoffs.  Engineers are familiar with technical
tradeoffs, so many engineers find this method of moral decision-making quite
attractive.  But one of many problems
with this approach is that it requires one to take a “view from
nowhere”:  there are no boundaries
to the differences a given decision makes, other than the world itself.  Again, if we try to be truly logically
consistent, calculating all the differences a given life-or-death decision
makes is practically impossible.


At this point Koons calls
Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas to the rescue. 
Operating under the umbrella of the classical virtue called prudence, Koons
asks a given person in a given specific set of circumstances to judge the
worthiness of a particular choice facing him or her.  He sets out four things that make a human act
of choice worthy:  (1)  whether the human is applying rational thinking
to the act, rather than random chance or instinct; (2) what the essential
nature of the act is; (3)  what the
purpose or end of the act is; and (4) what circumstances are relevant to the


Unlike the difference-making
approach, which imposes the impossible burden of near-omniscience on the
decider, judging the worthiness of an action doesn’t ask the person making the
decision to know everything.  You simply
take what you know about yourself, the kind of act you’re contemplating, what
you’re trying to accomplish, and any other relevant facts, and then make up
your mind.


In this process, some decisions
are easy.  Should I kill an innocent
person, a child, say?  Item (2) says no,
killing innocent people is always wrong. 


Here’s another situation Koons
uses, but with an example drawn from my personal experience.  You walk outside your building past a bicycle
owned by a person you really hate (call him Mr. SOB) and would like to see out
of the way.  You notice that someone who
hates Mr. SOB even more than you do has quietly disconnected the bike’s brake
cables, so that unless Mr. SOB checks his brakes before he gets on his bike, he
will ride out into the street with no brakes and quite possibly get killed.  If you decide to say or do nothing, you have
not committed any explicit act; you have simply refrained from doing
anything.  But item (3) says your
intentions in refraining were evil ones: 
you hope the guy will get killed on his bike.  In this case, not doing anything is a morally
wrong act, and you are obliged to warn him of the danger. 


And in less extreme cases,
such as when public officials decide how to trade off lockdown restrictions
versus spending money on vaccines or public assistance, the same four
principles can guide even politicians (!) to make decisions that do not require
them to be all-knowing, but do ask them to apply generally accepted moral
principles in a practical and judicial way.


Of course, judiciousness and
prudence are not evenly distributed virtues, and some people will be better at
moral decision-making than others.  But when
we look into the fundamental assumptions behind the decision-making process, we
see that the difference-making approach has fatal flaws, while the traditional
virtue-based approach using prudential judgment can be applied successfully by
any individual with a good will and enough intelligence to use it.


Sources:  A
much better  explanation of these approaches
to moral reasoning can be found in Robert C. Koons’s original article
“Prudence in the Pandemic” which appeared on pp. 39-45 of the October
issue of First Things, and is also accessible online at

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