20 September 2012 by Francis Goode
OK, an odd thing to ask but it provides an example, if a bit trivial, of an ethical question. Perhaps swearing is one of those things you just don't do, because it's wrong. Or maybe it depends whose company you're in: it's acceptable in front of the lads at work, but not at home with the family. Either way, in the cold light of rationality we know that mere words can't do actual harm, but still we understand that other people may take offence at them, and it's out of respect for them that we cut the cussing.
Making decisions about our actions, taking into account their effects on other people, is what ethics is about. It's the branch of philosophy that many people are most comfortable with; when we say we have our own philosophy, we often mean we have our own set of internal rules or "code of conduct" that we aspire to live by, and that we use to make our decisions.
And making decisions is what we humans do par excellence. We pick our way through an incredibly complex physical and cultural landscape, using a lifetime's worth of memories and associations to link whatever situation we find ourselves in with some relevant part of our learned history in order to decide our next steps. We can do this because our enormous brains that have evolved to perform pattern-matching on a massive scale, making many more decisions each day than we can ever be fully aware of. Picking a moment to cross the road, judging if it's safe to overtake, choosing whether or not to smile at a stranger we pass in a night-time street, the slick efficiency of our brains allows us constantly to make potentially life-changing choices that we scarcely even notice.
This ability to leap to quick, pragmatic judgements has given us humans a massive evolutionary benefit, but does it come at a cost? Perhaps we don't always give full consideration to alternative, less obvious, actions. In our eagerness to get on and live our lives to the max, do we always take the time to consider some of the prejudices and superstitions, often picked up during our early childhood years, that still shape our actions as adults?
Taking things too much for granted is the danger Socrates warned of, when he said the unexamined life is not worth living. But how do we go about examining our lives? How often should the examinations take place?
For many of us, it is the big events in our lives that provide moments of reflection. Births and deaths, new year's resolutions, the big four-zero and mid-life crises all give occasion to rethink priorities and perhaps make changes in our approach to life. Other ceremonies too, like weddings, publicly professing a religious creed or taking an oath.
Which takes us back to engineers swearing. The recent edition of E&T (Vol 7 Iss 2) that looked at the topic of professional ethics focused in particular on whether engineers would benefit from taking a formal oath. It reported a straw poll conducted at an IET event to test the participants' response to the question. The result was that the respondents split roughly evenly into three camps, that perhaps also reflect the way we approach ethical decisions in other parts of our lives.
The first group welcomed the idea of an engineers' oath, and the opportunity to this major, binding decision, on their future lives in front their peers, and possibly some higher authority. A lot of us like this sort of ceremony and the feeling of constancy it brings in an uncertain world, and we are happy to make a public commitment because we know it gives us a framework for our future decisions, and a means to defend them, if necessary, by reference to our public vow. Perhaps it also means we don't have to think so hard about those decisions.
The second group saw the value in a code of conduct but considered the swearing of oaths old-fashioned and unnecessary. In other words, they are happy to let others provide a set of rules for them to go along with, but not necessarily commit to fully. I suspect that if a wider survey was performed this group would comprise more than a third of the population.
The last group "trusted the questions of ethics to be answered by the wider cultural forces of education and common sense". In other words, they'll make their own minds up, thank you very much. While some might see this as a cop-out, an easy way to avoid responsibility, it's actually the reverse. Taking full responsibility is hard work. Socrates said, "the greatest good of a man is to converse about virtue daily" but Spinoza saw true freedom as exercising rational thought in every action, taking into account not just the action itself and its likely consequences, but also our own motivations. For him, knowing what we want to do is not enough; it's also necessary to understand why we want to do it. Even with our enormous brains, is it possible to apply this much reasoning to every action we make? Perhaps not - we'd probably end up doing nothing at all, and still be exhausted by the sheer mental effort of doing so.
It appears we all have different approaches to working out how to live our lives, balancing the pragmatic and pensive. After five thousand years, has philosophy come up with the answer to which way is best? Perhaps not yet, but looking at the history and ideas of ethics can give us a lot to think about. And that surely can't be a bad thing.
But as for whether or not it's OK for engineers to swear, well, I'm bu****ed if I know!
Posted By: Francis Goode @ 20 September 2012 09:48 AM General
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