Cover image for The Engineering Project: Its Nature, Ethics, and Promise By Gene Moriarty

The Engineering Project

Its Nature, Ethics, and Promise

Gene Moriarty


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03254-2

$32.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03255-9

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224 pages
6" × 9"

The Engineering Project

Its Nature, Ethics, and Promise

Gene Moriarty

“This genuinely original book contributes significantly to contemporary efforts to rethink the human-made world through an extended engagement with the philosophical examinations of technology found in the work of Albert Borgmann, Hubert Dreyfus, Andrew Feenberg, Jürgen Habermas, and others. It constitutes a thoughtful, reflective engineer’s effort to deepen engineering and engineering education discussion in ways that go beyond apology or promotion. It will be of value not only to those in engineering, engineering studies, and the philosophy of technology, but also to historians of technology, to science and technology studies scholars, and to any informed citizen concerned about the future shape and character of our technoscientific world. I recommend it for all of us.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
We all live our daily lives surrounded by the products of technology that make what we do simpler, faster, and more efficient. These are benefits we often just take for granted. But at the same time, as these products disburden us of unwanted tasks that consumed much time and effort in earlier eras, many of them also leave us more disengaged from our natural and even human surroundings. It is the task of what Gene Moriarty calls focal engineering to create products that will achieve a balance between disburdenment and engagement: “How much disburdenment will be appropriate while still permitting an engagement that enriches one’s life, elevates the spirit, and calls forth a good life in a convivial society?”

One of his examples of a focally engineered structure is the Golden Gate Bridge, which “draws people to it, enlivens and elevates the human spirit, and resonates with the world of its congenial setting. Humans, bridge, and world are in tune.” These values of engagement, enlivenment, and resonance are key to the normative approach Moriarty brings to the profession of engineering, which traditionally has focused mainly on technical measures of evaluation such as efficiency, productivity, objectivity, and precision. These measures, while important, look at the engineered product in a local and limited sense. But “from a broader perspective, what is locally benign may present serious moral problems,” undermining “social justice, environmental sustainability, and health and safety of affected parties.” It is this broader perspective that is championed by focal engineering, the subject of Part III of the book, which Moriarty contrasts with “modern” engineering in Part I and “pre-modern” engineering in Part II.

“This genuinely original book contributes significantly to contemporary efforts to rethink the human-made world through an extended engagement with the philosophical examinations of technology found in the work of Albert Borgmann, Hubert Dreyfus, Andrew Feenberg, Jürgen Habermas, and others. It constitutes a thoughtful, reflective engineer’s effort to deepen engineering and engineering education discussion in ways that go beyond apology or promotion. It will be of value not only to those in engineering, engineering studies, and the philosophy of technology, but also to historians of technology, to science and technology studies scholars, and to any informed citizen concerned about the future shape and character of our technoscientific world. I recommend it for all of us.”
“I think this will make a major contribution to the sub-field of philosophy of technology that devotes itself to the philosophy of engineering—which I think ought to be the heart of philosophy of technology. Up to now there has been almost nothing available in that field. And it is a unique and original interpretation from within the engineering profession.”
“He does an admirable job in considering the contributions of engineering within a philosophical and ethical perspective. The book has a good index.”

Gene Moriarty is Professor of Electrical Engineering at San Jose State University.


Preface and Acknowledgments


Part I: The Modern Engineering Enterprise

1. Process

2. Process Ethics

3. Colonization

Part II: The Premodern Engineering Endeavor

4 Person

5. Virtue Ethics

6. Contextualization

Part III: The Focal Engineering Venture

7. Product

8. Material Ethics

9. Balance



Engineering is the practice of making good on the promise of technology. Technology, throughout history, has promised relief from the burdens of everyday life. Engineering practice has brought us an array of time- and labor-saving devices. The telephone, for instance, lifts the burden of distance between friends, family, neighbors, and others. In characterizing technology as disburdening, philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann also points to its disengaging character, which implies that typically we need have only minimal connection to or involvement with engineered devices, and these in turn have minimal connection to or involvement with the worlds in which they are functioning. Disengagement and disburdenment tend to go hand in hand in a world under the influence of modern engineering practice.

Engaging practices and products on the other hand tend to be burdensome. Cultivating my vegetable garden is an engaging pursuit. It is also hard work. It is a bit easier if I use a rake and a hoe, instead of, say, my bare hands, which would be highly engaging but quite burdensome. More and more garden tools would reduce my burden, but increase my disengagement. The ultimate disburdenment might be to just shop for my vegetables at the supermarket and be done with it. Somewhere there must be a balance: how much disburdenment will still permit an engagement that enriches life and elevates the spirit? The kind of engineering that contributes to such a balance I call focal engineering.

Still, you might ask, is not disburdenment an inherent good? It is certainly good to be relieved from the burden of an onerous task, and it is not necessarily bad to be disengaged from the world in which that onerous task was performed. Without a telephone, a conversation with a friend three hours away on foot would require a six-hour round trip. That would pretty much do in the day. Now I just pick up the phone and am disburdened from all that travail. But along with the disburdenment I am also disengaged from the walk in the woods between his house and mine, an outing would have embellished my being, cleared the cobwebs from my brain, and given me some much needed exercise. However, disengagement is not necessarily problematic. I can still take an engaging walk in the woods after my phone call, or these days I can make the call on my cell phone from wherever I happen to be. In principle, the lifting of burdens frees up the human spirit for other ventures. In fact, thanks to the engineered product of the telephone, compared to life in the pre-telephone era, I now have more hours in my day to do other things.

I am certainly grateful for burdens lifted and time saved. How do I use that time? That is of course a personal matter. I may squander it or spend it wisely. Personally, I tend to spend some of it being entertained by other engineered devices, some of it involving myself in other practices I see as engaging, and some of it attending to a variety of other burdens a given engineered product might engender. My car, for instance, is in fact engaging to drive. It gives me tremendous mobility—and pleasure, but at the cost of keeping it properly fueled and maintained. Good engineering minimizes the time needed to address many of those additional burdens. It is surely the case that a well-engineered automobile needs less time in the shop than a poorly engineered one.

Suppose I choose to take my home off the energy grid. Renewable electric power systems usually employ lead acid battery storage and solar cell or photovoltaic panels, which are often augmented by small generators powered by wind or running water. Certain practices are required in order to keep the system together. Unlike standard electrical power, which I can get with the flip of a switch, home power is not so convenient. After a home power system is installed, the real work begins. The battery terminals must be kept clean, and the homeowner must continually adjust energy use to resource availability (sun, wind, water flow). Standard electrical power available from the grid disburdens my life but at the same time tends to disengage me. I may not know or even care where the power comes from. It is just there. I am not just anonymous when I draw power from the grid, I am scarcely conscious.

The real issue here is not where I get my power but that a life entirely disburdened is a life entirely disengaged and a life entirely disengaged is a life out of balance. I agree with Borgmann. We need disburdenment in our lives but we also need engagement. He suggests a variety of engaging practices, which he calls focal practices, like running or “the culture of the table,” which though outside the immediate purview of the engineering world do depend at some stage of their coming into being on engineering processes. My suggestion is that we devote more energy directly to the spirit of the focal engineering venture as it seeks to bring into the world products that have an engaging rather than disengaging aspect. Engagement is a measure of harmony between end user and focal product. But there are other values important to focal products: enlivenment, a measure of harmony between end user and the world, and resonance, a measure of harmony between the world and the focal product. Later in the book I will invoke all three values in an ethical assessment of the focally engineered product.

Consider the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It is one of the most popular and spectacular bridges in the world and the symbol of one of the most cherished of American cities. It has a commanding presence that has inspired poems, paintings, and photographs. The Golden Gate is a structure that gathers people to it, enlivens and elevates their spirit, and resonates with its setting. Humans, bridge, and world are all in tune.

The Golden Gate Bridge is an engineered structure I would call focal. It is engaging, invigorating, and harmonious. We shape our worlds around focal objects by virtue of our nurturing involvements with them. Focal objects are never “things as such” but are always embedded in social, cultural, or natural contexts. Focal practices, like tending to a wood-burning stove, require a regular engagement with orienting activities that demand skill and effort.

Unlike the Golden Gate and the wood-burning stove, however, most engineered systems, devices, structures, networks, and organisms are nonfocal, employed for their functionality and not much else. But, in fact, that is often sufficient. Disburdenments, of course, are welcomed. I want to heat up a cup of coffee. I put it in the microwave for thirty seconds and in the meantime boot up my computer to check my email. Before the computer comes on, the coffee is done. Mission accomplished. My days are packed with these functional events. The problem, again, is not these activities per se, but that when these events constitute the whole of my being, life becomes a humdrum, leveled affair. So I seek out diversion and distraction, which result, in general, in further leveling. A focal practice, on the other hand, can enliven life, make it meaningful, bring it into relief. I write a poem, and my world lights up. If I use my computer to write that poem, I am using technology in a functional manner but also in a manner that contributes to focal reality. A computer can be focal or nonfocal, though when I speak of focal reality, again, I must think, not computer, not “thing as such,” but computer/world conjunct. It is not just a matter of applying the device to a focal or nonfocal event. Patterns are what matter. Although an engineered product is seldom itself a focal object, if it can serve a focal practice, and be immersed in a world patterned by such practices, as exhibited in a pattern of life that is resonant, enlivening, and engaging, then the engineering involved can be considered focal.

Focal engineering aims to bring focal products into the world. Consider the windmills tastefully placed along the canals in the Netherlands. They require focal engagements and are focal things contextually embedded. Such products, instead of just aiming to do no harm, actually seek to contribute to the good life in a convivial society, and once the notion of the good becomes prominent, ethics and morality enter into our deliberations. The ethical assessments of focal engineering must be made from within an inclusive and hopefully democratic decision space. The corporate capitalist, fulfilling real needs or artificially manufactured ones, cannot be the only voice. Politicians, concerned citizens, environmentalists, philosophers, scientists, spiritual leaders, and others must be invited to the conversation about what constitutes a focally engineered device.

David Billington categorizes the types of entities that can be taken as engineered entities as machines, structures, networks, and processes. Those distinctions can be further nuanced to cover a wide range of what Carl Mitcham calls “types of technology as object,” including utensils, apparatus, utilities, tools, and automata. For my purposes, these will all be in the category of the engineered, the products of the engineering process. Of course, we use tools and equipment of all sorts when we do engineering. I will be primarily concerned with the engineered as a product of the process of engineering, recognizing that many of these products, like oscilloscopes and computers, serve the engineering process itself.

We engineers most commonly gauge the viability of the engineered by a technical assessment in an ongoing and immediate fashion: it is what we do when we do engineering. Efficiency, productivity, objectivity, and precision are quintessential technical measures, even though different branches of engineering might interpret these measures differently. For instance, in looking at efficiency, mechanical and electrical engineering speak of it as the mathematical ratio of output over input energy. Civil engineering views efficiency broadly in notions of accuracy of measurement and durability of structures, as well as measures of economy of cost and elegance of form. But the technical assessment looks at the rational good of the engineered in a local and limited sense. From a broader perspective, which encompasses the engineer, engineering, and the engineered, what is locally benign may present serious moral problems in the realms of social justice, environmental sustainability, and health and safety of affected parties. The moral assessments of engineers, of engineering, and of engineered products require a step back and away from immediate concerns to reflect on the larger picture of the contextually embedded engineering project. It is here where Mitcham’s notion of technology as volition comes into play. As Mitcham maintains, technology is certainly an activity and employs all kinds of objects and involves various modes of knowing. But, as volition, technology most clearly becomes a phenomenon we humans can take control of, fit to our purposes, and mold into good products, giving engineering the opportunity to authentically make good on the promise of technology.

Both technical and ethical assessments, then, are intrinsic to the engineering project. Both are needed in the assessment, for example, of focally engineered products. Furthermore, any particular assessment is seen most clearly in the light of a general framework, suggesting that we need to look at engineering in general and attempt to see it in the fullness of its being. Such an effort, at a minimum, entails surveying the engineering project from social, philosophical, and historical contexts. Social and philosophical contexts provide a vertical, synchronic reach to engineering, while the historical context provides a horizontal, diachronic range. The social and philosophical perspectives on the engineering project uncover an expanded need for ethics in engineering, a need to ask not only the conventional questions about how to be good engineers and how to do good engineering, but also, and especially, to ask about how to make good products. Being, doing, and making are all gathered and harmonized in the practice of focal engineering. In addition, social and philosophical perspectives reveal a structure and function that have an inward-looking micro aspect and an outward-looking macro aspect. Generally, the inward look, following Mitcham again, is the way engineers view engineering, and the outward look is the way social scientists view engineering. Structural and functional portrayals, revealing a schematic look at the engineering endeavor, will be fleshed out by the integration of historical perspectives. Those historical perspectives will point to modulations over time of the macro and micro aspects of the engineering project, as well as to perturbations within the compass of engineering ethics. To champion focal engineering, I will need to show the centrality of focal engineering in the process of engineering a world oriented toward a resonant life of engagement and enlivenment. This book will be a task of analysis as well as synthesis, and I will provide, as product of my reflections, both descriptions of and prescriptions for the project of engineering.

Since ethics plays a key role throughout the book, several chapters will be dedicated to discussions about virtue ethics, process ethics, and material ethics. Each of these kinds of ethics is keyed to one of the dimensions of the engineering project: the engineer, engineering, and the engineered. Virtue ethics concerns itself with the character of the engineer, process ethics with the character of the engineering process, and material ethics with the character of the product brought into being. Though these elements cannot be separated, they can and will be distinguished. The inward, micro look at the engineering project reveals a confluence of these three dimensions.

Each type of ethics will deal with one of the issues: virtue ethics with the ambivalence often found in the hearts and minds of practicing engineers, process ethics with the ambiguity inherent in the actual practice of engineering, and material ethics with dilemmas that arise in the quest to engineer focal products. Who performs the assessments necessitated by these three types of ethics? And where? I will point to three levels of assessment, including the group or team level, the professional level, and the social level. At the group level, engineers can do a self-assessment in terms of certain virtues that will be seen to be important, and the members of the group can also be assessed by the group leader, as is common in engineering practice today. Or instead of the group leader, a company may engage the services of an ombudsperson. At the professional level, professional societies can assess the ethicality of the engineering process and of the engineer as well. At the social level, an overall assessment of the engineering project needs to be made. This includes not only the material ethics assessment of the engineered product, but also the ethics of the process and the assessment of the engineer. Ultimately, at the social level, all three types of assessments will be involved. At this level assessment teams need to be formed that will include a broad diversity of voices.

The outward-looking, macro aspect of engineering reveals it to be a contextualized project with several nested layers of context. The three most important are the realm of technological systems, the realm of systems, and the human lifeworld, as indicated in the following diagram (see Figure 1).

The engineering project is a particular type of technological system, embedded in the context of technological systems in general. There are technological systems that are not included within the domain of the engineering project. Technological systems are particular types of systems, embedded in the context of systems in general. Furthermore, the systems way of being is a particular way of being embedded in the human lifeworld, the realm of our everyday affairs, wherein we take up with all sort of things, and pursue goals and enact roles of every kind imaginable. There are systematic and nonsystematic ways of being in the lifeworld. I can grow row after row of genetically modified corn in a seriously systematic project, or I can just sit in my backyard and shoot the breeze with my friends in casual communion. Although the notion of the human lifeworld is uncommon in engineering, it forms the background of our everyday engineering activity and is fundamental to the philosophical concerns of this text.

Jürgen Habermas insists that the crucial event in contemporary times is the colonization of the lifeworld by the realm of systems. The familiar notion of colonization refers to the process whereby one country settles in and takes over another, as Belgium did to the Congo in Africa. But Habermas refers to a more philosophical sense of the word. What he means by the notion of colonization is that as systems proliferate—many of them driven by the products of the engineering project— they impose on the fluid reality of the lifeworld, ever more stringently, the values of productivity and efficiency. Drawing on the work of Talcott Parsons, Habermas distinguishes between quantitative and qualitative media. Quantitative media involve influence and value-commitments that are only enacted in communication between people. Within such communicative action or discourse differences are hammered out and people come to more or less common understandings. Colonization diminishes the realm of qualitative and communicative discourse so that more and more of the lifeworld becomes noncommncative and quantitative. Some of that is of course a good thing. But how much? Technology can be employed within the lifeworld without becoming excessively colonizing. The Appropriate Technology movement comes immediately to mind. But it is also important to keep some acreage of the lifeworld free from systematization altogether. We humans seem to need ways of being that include just hanging out, kicking back, and goofing around.

I will consider what the specific contribution of the engineering project is in the colonization process and, in light of the judgments of engineering ethics, what it ought to be. Throughout these discussions it will be important to keep alive the difference between contextualization and colonization, especially the colonization of the lifeworld by the engineering project and the contextualization of the engineering project by decisions made in the human lifeworld. A distinction Andrew Feenberg makes between what he calls the Primary and the Secondary Instrumentalizations resonates with the contextualization/colonization distinction and will be useful to my concerns. The Primary Instrumentalization involves the processes of abstraction or de-worlding or decontextualization of a sector of concern from out of the human lifeworld, and deconstruction of that sector into basic and useful parts or particles. These processes are driven by ideals of rendering the lifeworld more efficient and productive. The role of the Secondary Instrumentalization is to reconstitute reality by reintegrating useful entities, which for us would be the products of the engineering project, into natural or artificial systems. Those systems need to be controlled by decisions made in the lifeworld. The quintessential example is nanotechnology, which de-worlds matter and breaks it up into atoms and molecules, which are then reassembled (ideally) into any desired object and those objects are reintegrated into wider systems and the human lifeworld. Lifeworld decisions contextualize the engineering process. System colonizes lifeworld at the same time that lifeworld contextualizes system.

The text proper has three parts, and each part has three chapters. The first part investigates the modern engineering enterprise, with emphasis on the process of engineering and the nature of process ethics, and explores the idea of the colonization of the lifeworld by systems, especially the modern engineering enterprise in alliance with the system of corporate capitalism. The second looks back in time to the premodern engineering endeavor, with emphasis on the person of the engineer and virtue ethics, and explores the idea of contextualization, which was more prominent within the premodern engineering endeavor than it is now. The third looks forward to the focal engineering venture, with emphasis on the product and material ethics, and explores the possibility of striking a balance between contextualization and colonization.

There is much talk nowadays that laments an apparent decline in engineering professionalism. One hears much discussion about new graduates from engineering schools being minimally competent technically and poor in communication skills. Strategies for addressing these problems abound, and the struggle continues, as well it should. Nevertheless, I propose that professionalism must be advanced, not only by boosting the skill levels of engineering graduates, but also by instilling in them an understanding of engineering as structurally and historically rich in meaning, as ethically variegated, and as both a colonizing and contextualized project. As such, engineering is capable of an orientation toward a more exhilarating and exalted nature, toward a focal engineering whose products embellish the lives of end users and, more generally, contribute to the good life in a convivial society, a society in which a spirit of trust can begin to flourish.

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