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Engineering Handbook

Issues in the Profession of Engineering
This handbook was developed by the School of Engineering at Santa Clara University to provide help to students in understanding the eight issues specified in ABET's Criterion Four, plus three other issues selected by Santa Clara University.

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The Engineering Handbook is copyright © by the School of Engineering at Santa Clara University. Materials on this site may be copied for use by students or faculty concerned with these issues. The material cannot be sold for profit, but users may charge enough only to defray the costs of copying. If any of these materials are copied they must bear the copyright statement:

The Engineering Handbook is copyright © by the School of Engineering at Santa Clara University.

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Tim Healy -


Welcome to the profession of engineering.  This handbook, which you will be using for the next four years, introduces you to a number of issues that are key elements of the practice of engineering.  Let’s start with a definition of engineering.  There are many such definitions, here is a very simple one.

Engineering is the application of the laws of nature and the goods of the world to the development of products and systems for the betterment of the human 

The definition is very simple but it implies a great deal, namely those things that you must accomplish in order to become a competent engineer.  Here are some things you will need.

  •  A knowledge of mathematics and science.
  • An understanding of how to apply this knowledge to the design and development of engineering products and systems.
  • An understanding of the human condition, and of the ways in which society functions effectively.
  • An understanding of, and an inclination toward, lifelong learning.
  • Experience.

We start with an understanding of mathematics and science because they are the foundation upon which all else rests. Mathematics gives us tools that allow us to quantify our work, usually an essential feature of engineering.  Science gives us those laws of nature that all of our products will have to follow. You will be learning most of this material in the first two years at Santa Clara University, although some new material, and lots of applications will show up in the last two years. 

The next step is to introduce those engineering techniques that allow you to take the principles learned in mathematics and science to develop new products and systems. We begin talking about this in the freshman year, and it continues through the rest of your four years, culminating in a year-long senior design project that allows you to use what you have learned.

That might be enough if it were not for that phrase in the definition above alluding to “…the betterment of the human condition.”  Engineers don’t build just anything they please. Engineers build things that are useful, are safe, are sustainable, and they do this while working within a society as good citizens of a community, whether that be a small village or the whole world.  Clearly, engineers must have a broad vision of a society, beyond the building of products. Much of this vision is obtained through a study of the humanities, although the engineering faculty have a complementary role to play in this part of your education. Most of the rest of this handbook relates to that aspect of the profession of engineering. 

All professions, law, medicine, education, engineering, share at least one obligation, that of remaining current with the field throughout the life of the practitioner. Lifelong education is part of the engineering profession. During the four years that you are here, we will work very hard to help you develop your ability to learn continually, and your desire to do so. 

Most of the experience that will someday help you become an excellent engineer will come after you have left here. But in these next four years, we will be training you in ways that will help you take advantage of your experience. We also will make available to you the opportunity to gain some practical experience through co-op programs if you choose to take advantage of these. In either event, you should understand that the experiences that you have here, and in the years after you leave, are a part of becoming an engineer.

1. Some Issues in the Engineering Profession 

Most of the rest of this handbook is concerned with a number of issues that are important aspects of the engineering profession.  They are sometimes mistakenly thought of as peripheral to engineering, but in fact they are a critical component.  A number of them are closely tied to subjects raised within the humanities.  It is not our intention here to substitute for work that must be done in the humanities.  Rather our intent here is to provide a framework for how these issues arise and are considered in the engineering process.  Here then are eleven issues we will consider in this handbook.

  1. Manufacturability
  2. Sustainability
  3. Usability 
  4. Health and Safety
  5. Environmental Impact
  6. Ethical
  7. Social
  8. Political
  9. Economic
  10. Lifelong Learning
  11. Compassion

When you carry out your senior project four years from now you will be required to address specifically the first nine of these issues when you write your final report.  The rest of this section explains briefly the role of each of these issues in the engineering process.  Later we will turn to a detailed look at each issue. 

Manufacturability issues are of great importance.  Can the product be built?  Is there an easier way to build this product than first imagined?  What development time issues arise?  What are the cost issues?

Sustainability means two things in engineering, one is a narrow sense, one broad sense.  In the former sense, sustainability refers to the degree to which a product that is developed can continue to be viable and useful for a reasonable amount of time.  A product that fails soon after it is built and cannot be repaired or updated or modified to fit new needs is not a sustainable product.  In the broader sense a community or region or a world, perhaps, that uses its resources effectively so that it can sustain its life for a long time is said to be sustainable.  We say that such a community has a sustainable economy.  Engineering can help develop sustainable economies. 

Usability refers to what is sometimes called “user-friendliness”.  Is the device straightforward, easily learned, and easily used by the end-user. 

We develop our products for the use of the public.  Hence we must consider health and safety issues related to our product.  How safe does a product have to be?  Are there laws that determine this?   Are there related ethical issues?  What health effects are relevant?

All of our products and systems have some environmental impact, in the uses of valuable resources, or in the production of pollution, or in other changes in our surroundings.  The engineer is obliged to consider such impacts and to point them out where they arise or are a threat. 

Ethical conduct is what one ought to do in working with others.  It is the right thing to do, the moral action.  It is not surprising that virtually all of our professional societies and groups, in all professions, have codes of ethical conduct.  Professions realize that there are good and bad ways of working with others, and we need to make the distinction.  Sometimes it can be difficult to know what is the right thing to do.  Ethical training helps us approach this.  You will be required as a part of your study in the humanities to take a course in ethics.  There you will learn about ethical theory.  In this handbook, we concentrate largely on applied ethics, but still there will be enough guidance so that you will have theoretical adequate background to help you make ethical decisions on a number of practical cases that you will see.  We have had considerable help in developing this material from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, a major campus resource that has a long tradition of working with engineering companies on the resolution of ethical questions. 

Engineering is done within a social context, within a community of other people.  Sometimes that community is defined very narrowly, sometimes very broadly.  A focus on social issues allows us to consider the impact of our work on society.  If we develop this product, or implement this system, what will be the effect?  All of our human developments, in engineering and elsewhere, have unanticipated consequences, some good, some bad.  We have an obligation to reflect on the consequences as well as we are able.  We will discuss this and other social issues in detail later.  Another major on-campus resource, the Center for Science, Technology and Society, has helped develop these materials.

Many of our projects are very political in nature, requiring us to take into consideration the will of the general public, usually through elected representatives.  Engineers who work on public projects need to understand the political processes that make such work possible.

Economic considerations in engineering concern the costs of the various steps in the project.  Such costs are usually dependent on the engineering decisions that are made. During the design phase.  Alternative approaches may offer cost options.  We also need to consider the cost of money.  How do we pay for the cost of a product development?  If we must borrow significant amounts of money how do we account for the cost of the loan in the pricing of the product?

Before we go on to the last two of the issues considered in this book, let’s take a moment to note something very interesting about these first nine issues – the ones that you will be discussing in your senior project.  Have you spotted the high degree of interrelatedness of many of these issues?  Health and safety issues may impact the economics of the project.  Ethical questions may impact political or environmental or social questions.  Manufacturability and sustainability questions may pull us in opposite directions.  This is just a tiny fraction of the enormous number of connections that you may have to consider.  In the sections ahead we will recognize these natural conflicts by giving you some cases to think about that involve more than one issue.

Now for our last two issues.

Lifelong learning is a necessary part of all professions.  You wouldn’t want to have a doctor who did not know the latest procedures and medications to protect your life.  And you wouldn’t want an engineer who didn’t know the analysis tools that had been developed since graduation, or the cost-effective materials that had just come along.  We just have to keep up.  Learning never stops.  It may surprise you to know that we can help you become a lifelong learner, and that it can be fun.  We’ll be working on that.

Finally, a few words about compassion.  One definition for compassion is an awareness of and sympathy for the suffering of another.  Compassion means to recognize the suffering of another.  But let’s look at a broader definition.  Let’s define compassion as “The awareness of and sympathy for the suffering of another, and the desire to relieve that suffering.”  What does that have to do with engineering?  Simple!  One of the things that engineers can choose to do in life is to look for and try to relieve suffering where they find it.  Perhaps it means replacing an ancient water supply system that is leading to disease in some tiny village, or designing a communication system to protect seniors with illnesses, or designing prosthetic devices for crippled children.  Even if we do not decide to make the relieving of suffering the focus of our life’s work, it is still critically important to our fullness as a human being that we feel compassion for the suffering.  It is a part of the education that we hope you will acquire at Santa Clara.  We had help in developing the materials on compassion from two campus resources, the Bannan Center for Jesuit Education, and the Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Center for Community-Based Learning.

So, let’s close this section by reminding you of those three cornerstones of a Santa Clara University education.

  • Competence
  • Conscience
  • Compassion

In the next four years, we will develop your competence through a curriculum that emphasizes science, engineering and the humanities.  We will help you develop your conscience, your sense of moral conduct, in theory and in application, and we will ask you to find compassion in your heart for those who suffer.

In the pages ahead we address each of these eleven issues in turn, providing you with some ways to think about each issue, and some exercises to help you learn more about each of them.  In the four years of your engineering education we will return often to these issues, so hold onto this handbook.  It will see a lot of use.  When we address each of the eleven issues raised here we start each section with some theory or background.  Then you will find a number of “cases” or problems that will be assigned to you during the four years that you are here.

2. Evaluation Rubrics 

An evaluation or scoring rubric is a rule by which an evaluator determines what score to give a student for a given piece of work.  Instructors may use explicit rubrics such as the one below, or the rubric may be implicit, in the head of the instructor.  Here is an example of a rubric that could be applied to the case given in the section above.




Student understands question, and defines key terms.


One, plus student identifies at least two ways to find the answer, and provides a logic or reference for each.


Two, plus student identifies issues needed for calculation of the answer, and successfully carries out the calculation.


Three, student compares results critically, and raises questions about the results.


Four, plus student generalizes the results, applying them to other related problems.

“One, plus…” means that the student accomplished what is required for a score of one, plus the additional demands for a score of two.


There are often many ways to build or manufacture an engineering product, and some are bound to be better than others.  Design for manufacturability (DFM) is concerned with designing a product in such a way that it can be manufactured efficiently, reliably, and within acceptable costs.  Let’s consider a very simple example.  Suppose that your product includes the component shown below.  It consists of two metal crosspieces with a pipe through the cross-section.  You could manufacture this part by first manufacturing the three individual pieces.  You could then connect the two cross pieces, perhaps by soldering or by using nuts and bolts or other techniques.  You would then drill a hole through the cross-section, and insert the pipe.

Figure 1.1:  A Simple Three-Part Component

Alternatively, you might form the structure as a single piece of metal, ready to go into the larger system.  The latter would probably be much less expensive to build, requiring no labor to connect the pieces.  It would also probably be more reliable.  In the DFM process design engineers and manufacturing engineers work together to find approaches such as this to make products that are easier to build, and have other desirable features. 

1.1 Putting Design for Manufacturability into Practice

There are many approaches to DFM.  Here is a set of approaches or guidelines that have been adapted from Reference 3.1.

  1. Simplify the design and reduce the number of parts because for each part, there is an opportunity for a defective part and an assembly error. The probability of a perfect product goes down exponentially as the number of parts increases. (This is an interesting result that you can consider when you study probability theory.)  As the number of parts goes up, the total cost of fabricating and assembling the product goes up. Automation becomes more difficult and more expensive when more parts are handled and processed. Costs related to purchasing, stocking, and servicing also go down as the number of parts are reduced. Inventory and work-in-process levels will go down with fewer parts. As the product structure and required operations are simplified, fewer fabrication and assembly steps are required, manufacturing processes can be integrated and lead times are further reduced. The designer should go through the assembly part by part and evaluate whether the part can be eliminated, combined with another part, or the function can be performed in another way. To determine the theoretical minimum number of parts, ask the following: Does the part move relative to all other moving parts? Must the part absolutely be of a different material from the other parts? Must the part be different to allow possible disassembly? 
  2. Standardize and use common parts and materials to facilitate design activities, minimize the amount of inventory in the system, and standardize handling and assembly operations. Common parts will result in lower inventories, reduced costs, and higher quality. Operator learning is simplified and there is a greater opportunity for automation as the result of higher production volumes and operation standardization. Limit exotic or unique components because suppliers are less likely to compete on quality or cost for these components.
  3. Design for ease of fabrication. Select processes compatible with the materials and production volumes. Select materials compatible with production processes and that minimize processing time while meeting functional requirements. Avoid unnecessary part features because they involve extra processing effort and/or more complex tooling. Apply specific guidelines appropriate for the fabrication process such as the following guidelines for machinability:
  • For higher volume parts, consider castings or stampings to reduce machining
  • Use near net shapes for molded and forged parts to minimize machining and processing effort.
  • Design for ease of fixturing by providing a large solid mounting surface & parallel clamping surfaces
  • Avoid designs requiring sharp corners or points in cutting tools - they break easier
  • Avoid thin walls, thin webs, deep pockets or deep holes to withstand clamping & machining without distortion
  • Avoid tapers & contours as much as possible in favor of rectangular shapes
  • Avoid undercuts that require special operations & tools
  • Avoid hardened or difficult machined materials unless essential to requirements
  • Put machined surfaces on the same plane or with the same diameter to minimize the number of operations
  • Design workpieces to use standard cutters, drill bit sizes or other tools
  • Avoid small holes (drill bit breakage greater) & length to diameter ratio > 3 (chip clearance & straightness deviation)
  1. Design within process capabilities and avoid unneeded surface finish requirements. Know the production process capabilities of equipment and establish controlled processes. Avoid unnecessarily tight tolerances that are beyond the natural capability of the manufacturing processes. Otherwise, this will require that parts be inspected or screened for acceptability. Determine when new production process capabilities are needed early to allow sufficient time to determine optimal process parameters and establish a controlled process. Also, avoid tight tolerances on multiple, connected parts. Tolerances on connected parts will "stack-up" making maintenance of overall product tolerance difficult. Design in the center of a component's parameter range to improve reliability and limit the range of variance around the parameter objective. Surface finish requirements likewise may be established based on standard practices and may be applied to interior surfaces resulting in additional costs where these requirements may not be needed.
  2. Use mistake-proof product design and assembly (poka-yoke) so that the assembly process is unambiguous. Components should be designed so that they can only be assembled in one way; they cannot be reversed. Notches, asymmetrical holes and stops can be used to mistake-proof the assembly process. Design verifiability into the product and its components. For mechanical products, verifiability can be achieved with simple go/no-go tools in the form of notches or natural stopping points. Products should be designed to avoid or simplify adjustments. Electronic products can be designed to contain self-test and/or diagnostic capabilities. Of course, the additional cost of building in diagnostics must be weighed against the advantages. (We’ll come back to that interesting term “poka-yoke” when we discuss health and safety in Section 4.)
  3. Design for parts orientation and handling to minimize non-value-added manual effort and ambiguity in orienting and merging parts. Basic principles to facilitate parts handling and orienting are
  • Parts must be designed to consistently orient themselves when fed into a process.
  • Product design must avoid parts that can become tangled, wedged or disoriented. Avoid holes and tabs and design "closed" parts. This type of design will allow the use of automation in parts handling and assembly such as vibratory bowls, tubes, magazines, etc.
  • Part design should incorporate symmetry around both axes of insertion wherever possible. Where parts cannot be symmetrical, the asymmetry should be emphasized to assure correct insertion or easily identifiable features should be provided.
  • With hidden features that require a particular orientation, provide an external feature or guide surface to correctly orient the part.
  • Guide surfaces should be provided to facilitate insertion.
  • Parts should be designed with surfaces so that they can be easily grasped, placed and fixtured. Ideally this means flat, parallel surfaces that would allow a part to be picked up by a person or a gripper with a pick and place robot and then easily fixtured.
  • Minimize thin, flat parts that are more difficult to pick up. Avoid very small parts that are difficult to pick up or require a tool such as a tweezer to pick up. This will increase handling and orientation time.
  • Avoid parts with sharp edges, burrs, or points. These parts can injure workers or customers, they require more careful handling, they can damage product finishes, and they may be more susceptible to damage themselves if the sharp edge is an intended feature.
  • Avoid parts that can be easily damaged or broken.
  • Avoid parts that are sticky or slippery (thin oily plates, oily parts, adhesive-backed parts, small plastic parts with smooth surfaces, etc.).
  • Avoid heavy parts that will increase worker fatigue, increase the risk of worker injury, and slow the assembly process.
  • Design the workstation area to minimize the distance to access and move a part.
  • When purchasing components, consider acquiring materials already oriented in magazines, bands, tape, or strips.
  1. Minimize flexible parts and interconnections. Avoid flexible and flimsy parts such as belts, gaskets, tubing, cables and wire harnesses. Their flexibility makes material handling and assembly more difficult and these parts are more susceptible to damage. Use plug-in boards and backplanes to minimize wire harnesses. Where harnesses are used, consider foolproofing electrical connectors by using unique connectors to avoid connectors being disconnected. Interconnections such as wire harnesses, hydraulic lines, piping, etc. are expensive to fabricate, assemble and service. Partition the product to minimize interconnections between modules and co-locate related modules to minimize routing of interconnections.
  2. Design for ease of assembly by utilizing simple patterns of movement and minimizing the axes of assembly. Complex orientation and assembly movements in various directions should be avoided. Part features should be provided such as chamfers and tapers. The product's design should enable assembly to begin with a base component with a large relative mass and a low center of gravity upon which other parts are added. Assembly should proceed vertically with other parts added on top and positioned with the aid of gravity. This will minimize the need to re-orient the assembly and reduce the need for temporary fastening and more complex fixturing. A product that is easy to assemble manually will be easily assembled with automation. Assembly that is automated will be more uniform, more reliable, and of a higher quality
  3. Design for efficient joining and fastening. Threaded fasteners (screws, bolts, nuts and washers) are time-consuming to assemble and difficult to automate. Where they must be used, standardized to minimize variety and use fasteners such as self-threading screws and captured washers. Consider the use of integral attachment methods (snap-fit). Evaluate other bonding techniques with adhesives. Match fastening techniques to materials, product functional requirements, and disassembly/servicing requirements.
  4. Design modular products to facilitate assembly with building block components and subassemblies. This modular or building block design should minimize the number of part or assembly variants early in the manufacturing process while allowing for greater product variation late in the process during final assembly. This approach minimizes the total number of items to be manufactured, thereby reducing inventory and improving quality. Modules can be manufactured and tested before final assembly. The short final assembly lead time can result in a wide variety of products being made to a customer's order in a short period of time without having to stock a significant level of inventory. Production of standard modules can be leveled and repetitive schedules established.
  5. Design for automated production. Automated production involves less flexibility than manual production. The product must be designed in a way that can be more handled with automation. There are two automation approaches: flexible robotic assembly and high-speed automated assembly. Considerations with flexible robotic assembly are: design parts to utilize standard gripper and avoid gripper/tool change, use self-locating parts, use simple parts presentation devices, and avoid the need to secure or clamp parts. Considerations with high-speed automated assembly are: use a minimum of parts or standard parts for a minimum of feeding bowls, etc., use closed parts (no projections, holes or slots) to avoid tangling, consider the potential for multi-axis assembly to speed the assembly cycle time, and use pre-oriented parts.
  6. Design printed circuit boards for assembly. With printed circuit boards (PCBs), guidelines include: minimizing component variety, standardizing component packaging, using auto-insertable or placeable components, using a common component orientation and component placement to minimize soldering "shadows", selecting the component and trace width that is within the process capability, using the appropriate pad and trace configuration and spacing to assure good solder joints and avoid bridging, using standard board and panel sizes, using tooling holes, establishing minimum borders, and avoiding or minimizing adjustments.


Case 1.1:  In Guideline Number One above the following statement appears.  “The probability of a perfect product goes down exponentially as the number of parts increases.”  Suppose that the probability of failure of a component is p.  

  1. If a product has just one such component, what is the probability of a perfect product?
  2. Suppose that a product is made up of 2 components. Now, what is the probability of a perfect component?
  3. And what if the product has k components?
  4. Make a table of the product of a perfect component if p is 0.8 and k is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. This is an exponentially decreasing function as the statement above suggests.
  5. Now suppose that the product has five components, each of which has different failure probabilities, given respectively by a, b, c, d, and e. What is the probability of a perfect product?  Is this still an exponential relation?


We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Native American proverb 

That’s a fascinating thought, that we have borrowed the earth from our children, and of course we must return it to them in twenty or so years.  Implied is the idea that when we return the earth to our children it will be in as good shape as when we borrowed it.  This is the thought behind the term “sustainable”.  Here is a definition developed by the United Nations.

Sustainable development is that which meets all the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

We use the word “sustainable” in two senses in this chapter.  The first is in reference to “sustainable communities”, which might be anything from a tiny village to the whole world.  A sustainable community is then one that uses the resources available to it to meet the needs of the members of the community in such a way that future generations will be able to meet their needs as well.

Second, we will be discussing “sustainable engineering”, which refers to the process of developing engineering devices, products, systems that will be used in sustainable communities.  And that is where you come in.  You will be using the resources of the world to develop products to meet the needs of your generation.  The purpose of this chapter is to try to convince you not to forget your children when you do this.

2.1  Why Sustainability?

We live in a world of finite resources.  Some are renewable (sunshine, wind, wood, corn, chickens).  Some ore nonrenewable (oil, coal, natural gas, metals, industrial minerals).  We will eventually exhaust our reserves of nonrenewables, or they will become so expensive to extract that it will no longer be feasible to do so.  We don’t know how long it will take to do this, but it will happen eventually.  People have two different responses to this fact.  The first is to ignore the problem or to assume that if we muddle along something will work out to save us.  The second is to accept the obligation of stewardship that we bear, and use our resources in a responsible and sustainable way, if not for the sake of our conscience then for the sake of our children.

The underlying problem is that of growth.  The number of users in a community and the amount of resources they use tend to grow according to a rule called an “exponential growth” model.  A “model” is a way of describing how life tends to act.  Models are almost never perfect pictures of what happens, but if they are close enough they are of immense value to engineers.  To get a numerical idea of the nature of the exponential model let’s look at what it means, and how it acts.  Exponential models describe populations or quantities that grow such that the amount of growth is directly proportional to the size of the quantity.  For example, suppose that you put $100 in the bank and it grows at the rate of 5% per year, then in one year it will grow by $5.  But if you have $1000 it will grow by $50.   Many things tend to follow this rule, such as bank accounts, human populations, rabbits, and lots of things that you will see in engineering.  Over time such quantities tend to follow the exponential model, which can be expressed as:

                  Q = Qoert

where Q is the quantity at any time t, Qo is the value of the quantity at time t = 0, and r is the rate of growth, expressed as a fraction.  Hence a growth rate of 10% corresponds to an r of 0.1.  Below is an example of an exponential model that has an initial (t = 0) value of Qo = 1, and a growth rate r of 0.35 (or 35%) per year, and t is in years.

Figure 2.1  Exponential Growth

Note that the quantity grows very slowly at first, but then begins to grow very rapidly as time goes on.  Exponentially growing quantities have a very interesting property.  If the quantity increases by a factor K over any given time interval at one part of the curve, then it will increase by the same factor K over the same interval, at any other part of the curve.  For example, this curve has the property that it doubles (K = 2) every 2 years.  Thus in going from t = 0 to t = 2 the quantity goes from 1 to 2.  In going from say t = 10 to t = 12, the quantity goes from approximately 33 to about 66 (this is not exact, but it is very close.)  It turns out that it is very easy to find out how long it takes for a quantity to double.  It is easy to show that the time for a quantity to double, call it td, is approximately equal to:

            td = 70/r

Let’s do an example.  Suppose that the world use of oil grows at a rate of 2% per year.  Then the doubling time is td = 70/2 = 35 years.  Then every 35 years the use of oil would double.  In 35 years it doubles.  In 70 years it is up by 2x2 or 4.  In 105 years it is 2x2x2 or 23.  In 350 years the world would be using 210 or about 1000 times as much as today.  It is inconceivable that the world would have the resources to sustain such a level of usage.  Something will have to change.

Suppose that there are 100 rabbits on a small island with limited vegetation.  Let the growth rate be 10% per month.  That gives us a doubling rate of 7 months.  In 10 years the model predicts that the population will be about 14.5 million rabbits.  Well, this little island cannot sustain such growth.  Long before we get near such a number the vegetation will have run out, perhaps disease will have become rampant, and we will no doubt have a passel of neurotic rabbits from the crowding.  The goal of sustainability is to avoid such a scenario for human beings.

We have three fundamental approaches to avoiding the problems associated with growth. 

  • Limit growth
  • Use nonrenewable resources more carefully
  • Develop the use of renewable resources

Let’s consider material and energy resources in more detail.

2.2. Material Resources

Materials extracted from the earth are needed to produce our most fundamental needs, food, clothing and shelter, as well as our higher level needs or desires, transportation, communication, entertainment, education, etc.  Figure 2.1 describes a material flow cycle that traces materials from original extraction from the earth to use by the consumer to final disposal back to the earth. 

Materials are extracted from the earth to become a supply of resources, which are used to produce and manufacture commodities for human consumption.  Both production and consumption lead to waste products such as smoke, smog, material deposits on roadways or in the water, material delivered to landfills, wells, etc.   Some of the products that we consume can be recycled.  The output of this process is returned to the cycle as a supply of resources.

As resources become more limited and expensive incentives to reduce waste and recycle increase.  Today’s responsible engineer needs to be aware of resource limitations and design products that reflect this problem.

2.3 Energy Resources

Our products and systems require energy for manufacture.  Sometimes they also require energy for operation (automobiles, toasters, television, housing, but not food, clothing, books, furniture, for example).  Table 2.1 shows how much energy was used in 2000 by sector.

                   Energy Sector                                             Percentage Use                       

                     Nonrenewable Resources

                         Petroleum                                                       38.9 %

                         Natural Gas                                                    23.4

                         Coal                                                                22.7 

                         Nuclear                                                             8.1 

                     Renewable Resources 

                         Wood, Waste, Alcohol                                     2.9                         

                         Hydroelectric                                                    2.8              

                         Geothermal                                                       0.3

                         Solar and Wind                                                 0.1


Table 2.1  U.S. Energy Use in 2000 

Clearly, nonrenewable resources, which much eventually be used up, account for most of our energy use today.  Only 6.1% comes from the renewable sector.  Let’s consider the prospects for development of the various renewable sectors.  Wood, waste, and alcohol could contribute a bit more, particularly if large amounts of fuel in the form of trees or corn or some other agricultural products were grown.  Hydroelectric probably cannot grow by very much.  This form of power requires large amounts of water that falls a significant amount.  There simply aren’t very many untapped rivers left that have these characteristics.   Geothermal power requires lots of hot clean steam to work effectively.  There are not very many reserves of such material.  Also, it is also not clear to what extent sources of steam are replaced over time by nature.  There are tremendous sources of solar and wind energy.  Today it is expensive to develop these resources, although prices are going down relative to the cost of competing fossil fuel systems.   Solar and wind require land and sky space, which some find objectionable, but nonetheless this is seen as an outstanding prospect for renewable energy development as time goes on. 

How significant is energy from the sun?  The peak power incident on the upper atmosphere of the earth is about 1,350 watts per square meter.  The atmosphere reduces that to about 1,000 watts per square meter on the surface of the earth on a sunny day.  If we were able to convert all of that solar energy into electric power we would have enough to make a piece of toast, or run two or three computers, or a couple of televisions with a stereo thrown in, or do any of a number of other jobs around the house.  Unfortunately the conversion efficiency of solar cells today is only about 10% so that we would really need about 10 square meters of solar panels to do those jobs.  The average house probably requires around 6,000 watts peak, which means around 60 square meters of solar panels.  Many houses have enough roof space to accommodate this.  And in fact many houses have such systems.  They are expensive, but the price is going down relative to other competing energy sources. 

There is, of course, a major problem.  The numbers above refer to peak power from the sun.  But our use of electric power is not constant, varying throughout the day.  At night or on cloudy days there is no available solar power.  What do we do about this problem?  One approach is to develop some form of energy storage system.  Another is to sell the peak power back to the utility, which can then cut or eliminate its use of fossil fuels during sunny periods, saving these resources for a rainy day.

So, here are some wonderful challenges in this sector for the young engineer.

  • Develop more efficient and less expensive solar power panels.
  • Develop new energy storage systems.
  • Develop new strategies for sharing power with others, such as a local utility.
  • Develop solar tracking systems that increase the solar energy over the day.

Significant development of solar power in the years ahead will require many bright and imaginative civil, mechanical, electrical and computer engineers.

Let’s end this discussion of solar power with one interesting statistic.  The peak solar power incident on the State of California exceeds the peak electric power demand in the state by a factor of 10,000 times.

2.4 Energy Utilization

Table 2.2 shows where we used energy in the year 2000. 

                            Use Sector                                              Percentage Use 

                            Residential                                                      20.0 % 

                            Commercial                                                    16.5

                            Industrial                                                         36.1

                            Transportation                                                 27.3


Table 2.1  U.S. Energy Utilization in 2000

Interestingly, we use energy quite uniformly across the sectors of our lives.  One message we get from this fact is that energy conservation in any of the sectors has the potential to save a lot of energy.

2.5 Sustainable Engineering

The goal of developing sustainable communities will offer the engineer extraordinary opportunities and challenges for the indefinite future.  Here are just a few of these challenges.

  • Ensure that basic human needs are met for all people. It remains the primary task of the engineer to help develop products and systems for the betterment of the human condition.
  • Work toward the development of sustainable communities.
  • Establish metrics or measures of the state of our world and our activities that will allow us to determine how effective we are in our sustainability efforts.
  • Develop renewable energy sources.
  • Design systems and products that have less impact on the environment because they:
    • use less energy
    • use less material
    • fail less often
    • pollute less
    • can be reused
    • can be recycled
  • Help educate the public about the need for, the measures of, and the progress toward sustainability.


Case 2.1:  You are responsible for initiating the design of a new car that will support the sustainability goals of your community in a significant way.  What general steps design approach might you propose to work toward the goal of sustainability?

Case 2.2:  You are in the Jesuit Volunteers, working in a remote village that has an ethos very consistent with the principles of sustainability.  They do not have electricity because they are far from the country’s power grid, and the cost of developing power lines would be prohibitive.  You recognize that life could be easier in many ways for the 150 villagers if they had electric power.  Your mind keeps coming back to the idea of a solar power system.  Many, many questions go through your mind as you think about the idea of working toward the “betterment of the human condition” that they talked about back at Santa Clara.  Just what are those questions going through your mind, and what answers are you getting? 

Case 2.3:  At the time of the writing of this case the State of California had a program to support the development of electric power by giving a rebate on the cost of solar panels to homeowners who wished to install solar systems.  This of course made the systems more affordable, and more competitive with the power available from local utilities.  Why do you suppose the State did this, and do you think it is an appropriate use of taxpayer funds? 

Case 2.4:  Metrics or measures are an important part of sustainable engineering.  Consider a materials cycle for steel used in the building of a car.  The cycle begins with the extraction of iron ore from the earth, the transportation of the ore to a steel mill, the shipping of the steel to the car factory, the forming of the raw steel into automobile parts, the building of the automobile, the use of the automobile over its lifetime, and its eventual disposal.  What should we measure in this process?  What data should we gather to help us understand the questions of sustainability related to this cycle?

Chapter 3.  USABILITY


Here is an exercise for you.  You have just purchased a new product that promises to make your work easier.  You take it to your office, open up the box, take out the instruction manual and settle down to learning how to use it.  What features or characteristics would you hope were true of this product now and over its lifetime?  Give this some thought and write down some of your ideas before you go on.

Well, here are some ideas.  The instruction manual should be well-written and easy to follow.  It should be easy to work with the product, that is, it should have good controls, user interfaces, that sort of thing.  It should be easy to learn how to operate or use the product, and it should be easy to remember how to use it.  It should effectively and efficiently do the job that you need to have done.  Over its lifetime it should not fail too often, and those failures should not be too severe, or inconvenience you too much.  It would be nice if it were fun or satisfying to use.  And when the product has reached the end of its lifetime it would be nice if it could be reused or recycled so that its impact on the environment is minimal.   Let’s make a list of these ideas.  The product should be:

  • Easy to learn and remember
  • Effective and efficient
  • Relatively free of failures
  • Satisfying to use
  • Sustainable

Now put yourself in the shoes (you will be there some day) of the design engineer who is to create this product.  What do you have to do to ensure that your product has these characteristics?  Again, give this some thought, and write down some ideas before you go on.

What is one thing that the designer must not, cannot, afford to forget?  Well, how about the user, the customer?  The usability of a product follows from, and is intimately connected with the nature of the customer.  So that is a major starting point.  Let’s make a list of the tasks for the designer.

  • Describe the user
  • Describe the tasks that need to be done
  • Describe the environment in which the tasks will be done
  • Describe the equipment to do the tasks
  • Design the product in the light of the above descriptions
  • Carry out tests that can yield usability measures

Next we’ll look at some of these ideas in more detail.

3.1 The Customer

Let’s continue our exercise.  What questions should we ask about our customer?  Again, write down some of your own answers before you go on.  The following seem like a reasonable start.


  • What are the customer’s needs – what is to be done?
  • What is the customer’s education?
  • What are the customer’s abilities, experience?
  • Does the customer have any limitations or handicaps that are relevant? 

These questions might be asked about a specific customer if one can be identified.  More likely these questions may be asked about customers in general.  It is very important that the design engineer not design the product for himself, that is, he must not assume that the customer is like the engineer.  It is the customer’s nature that must drive usability.  For example, if the customer does not speak English (or whatever is the language of the society), it may be necessary to use icons or easily recognizable symbols to help the customer use the product.  Documentation may need to be graphical instead of verbal.

3.2 Types of Products

It is of value to discuss briefly three types of products that have substantially different natures.  These are:

  • Hardware products
  • Computer interface products
  • Communication products

It may not be easy to identify a give product as just one of the above, but the distinction is nonetheless helpful.  Hardware products include, for example, measurement equipment, medical treatment devices, vehicles, telephones, printers, and the like. 

Computer interface products usually use a display device to present data, pictures, graphics or other information to the user.  The usability of such interfaces is of great importance today, and the reader will find a great deal of information about them on the Internet, which is itself a most important example.

Communication products include written papers, instruction manuals, oral presentations, slide shows.  Nowhere is it more important to keep in mind the nature of the user, or observer of such communications.  The engineer who writes a document or makes a presentation needs to keep in mind who is listening, and why.  The presentation made to a vice president who needs a quick update on the progress of a product development is far different from the detailed presentation made to a design team, or to the written documentation that will go to the final user.


Case 3.1:  A nursing home has decided to install a new wireless emergency warning system that will permit residents to communicate with the main office from anywhere in the home.  The device is to allow the resident to send a simple message of a few words if possible, but at the very least to sound an alarm that there is an emergency.  The residents are aging, of course.  Some are ambulatory, some are not.  They have varying levels of physical infirmities.  Write a description of the range of users as well as you can imagine it.  What are their characteristics?  On the basis of this description describe the device interface that you will provide to the user.

Case 3.2:  You are to design a simple toy for ten-year-olds.  It must have all five of the characteristics listed below the second paragraph of the Introduction.  Describe the user and the device you come up with.

Case 3.3:  The vice president for development – a very busy woman – is looking for new development ideas.  You have a great idea.  You are proposing the development of a brand new device called a “probacrate”.  In no more than 150 words describe this product, and convince her that it should be developed. 

Case 3.4:  A third-world country has a number of old television sets but there are no antennas.  A simple UHF antenna can be a circle of wire with a radius of three inches.  The users do not speak English.  Create a graphical instruction set on a single sheet of paper that demonstrates how to convert a coat-hanger into a three-inch radius antenna, and connect the antenna to the television.  You can’t use words, just pictures. 

Case 3.5:  Your company is developing a computer to be used by persons who speak any one of the following languages: Chinese, French, Italian, English.  The computer describes how each of four machines work.  They are: water pump, electric generator, fan, steam engine.  The first page on the computer screen is to have eight icons, four for the languages and four for the machines.  The user selects one language icon and one machine icon and that takes her to a detailed description of the machine in the language of her choice.  Design the eight icons.


Let’s go back to the definition of engineering from the Introduction.

Engineering is the application of the laws of nature and the goods of the world co the development of products and systems for the betterment of the human

Clearly if engineering products are to improve the human condition they must be healthy and safe for human beings.  But sometimes things go wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong, with loss of human life, sometimes irritatingly wrong, with loss of a television signal during the big game.  Here are just a few of the big failures.

In 1940 the Tacoma Narrows Bridge fell into Puget Sound, just four months after it opened, because design engineers had failed to account properly for the effect of the wind load on flat plates on the side of the bridge.

In 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, due to the failure of a pressure seal operating at unusually low temperatures, and because of a decision to waive engineering concerns.

In 1989 a section of the San Francisco Bay Bridge failed during the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

In the 1970’s the Ford Motor Company designed a car called the Pinto with a poorly placed gas tank.  Ford officials knew about the problem, and did not correct it.  The result was the loss of many lives and scores of millions of dollars.

On October 30, 1996 Odwalla learned that it’s apple juice had become contaminated in the production process, with the cost of one life and many illnesses.  It immediately closed down the operation, and sought and found a solution to the problem.  The company recovered quickly from the incident. 

In 1982 a company called the Atomic Energy Commission Limited (AECL) released a fully computer-controlled radiation therapy machine called the Therac-25.  Six accidents involving massive overdoses of radiation to patients occurred between 1985 and 1987.  The primary problem was a set of software problems, exacerbated by failure of AECL management to respond quickly and effectively to early signs of problems.

Accidents happen, people are injured or get sick, and sometimes die.  One of our most important tasks as engineers is to make sure that this happens as little as possible.  So, let’s see why things go wrong.

4.1 Why Engineering Failures? 

Things go wrong in engineering for a number of reasons.  Here are five.

  • Material failure
  • Poor design
  • Environmental effects
  • Human error
  • A combination of the above

The materials that we use in our products can fail.  This may because the designer chooses the wrong material, and then the failure may occur early on in the life of the product.  Or perhaps it fails because the material has aged, has rusted perhaps over the years, or if the material is plastic it may have deteriorated in the sun.  Such failures may be unavoidable, or may be the fault more of the user than the designer.  There is a common failure model that applies to most products called the “bathtub model”, shown in Figure 4.1. 

Figure 4.1  Bathtub Model of Failure Rate

This model suggests that products tend to have a relatively high failure rate at the beginning of the life cycle, due to faulty parts, materials, or fabrication mistakes.  If the product survives a period of “infant mortality”, it settles into a normal life with a low failure rate.  Then, near the end, the joints begin to ache, rust starts to erode the parts, and one day the product nears its end of life.

Another cause of engineering failures is poor design.  Go back and look at the list of major failures given above.  Which of these do you think are largely attributable to poor design?  Well, certainly the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, with its sail-like skirts that blew in the wind.  And the Ford Pinto with its poorly positioned gas tank.  And the pressure seals on the Challenger, that were not designed for the low temperatures encountered.

The environment in which our products function may cause or contribute to failure.  Here are some of the effects that can hurt us.

  • Earthquakes
  • Fire
  • Wind
  • Rain/floods
  • Humidity

Of course it may not be possible for the design engineer to anticipate the severity of the environmental effect.  We’ll talk about this problem later.

Human error is a very common contributor to, or cause of, engineering failures.  It can come about in a number of ways.  An operator may push the wrong button, or misread a safety warning, or fail to maintain a piece of equipment, or make any one of a thousand other mistakes.  A challenge for the engineer is to design a product so as to protect us from our own foolish mistakes.  We’ll see later some ways to do this.  The other side of human error is in our own human weaknesses, including:  inappropriate cost-cutting to save money, ignoring sound principles, ignoring regulations, believing that we understand complex situations or problems (the Greeks called it hubris), cheating, lying or misrepresenting a situation.  Here the connection with ethics becomes clear.

And last, but certainly not least, is a combination of these four effects.  Most major failures involve a number of factors.  The Challenger disaster was not just a matter of pressure seals.  It was also a failure on the part of the knowledgeable engineers to get across their concerns to superiors.  It was the pride of those superiors in the mission, a concern about future funding, a “sense” that everything would be all right.  The cause of the collapse of the San Francisco Bay Bridge was not just a severe earthquake, but also an inadequate design for earthquake environments.  In this case it is difficult to blame the original design engineers since so little was known of earthquake design in the 1930’s.  But, today’s bridge designer has to learn from the mistakes of the past.  The problem with the Ford Pinto was not just a design error on the part of an engineer, but a decision made by company officials to ignore the problem because of the tremendous cost of correcting it.

We will not eliminate all engineering failures, but there are some things we can do to limit such events.  Let’s look at them next.

4.2 Engineering for a Healthier and Safer World

Here are three specific actions that we take to try to make things better.


  1. Better engineering
  2. Government regulation
  3. Poka yoke

The first approach is simple – learn to be a better engineer.  Learn to pick the right materials, know the customer, understand the environment, design wisely, anticipate use follow engineering codes and codes of ethics.  There is nothing like doing it right the first time.  There isn’t room in this manual to get into engineering design.  That is the purpose of your engineering curriculum, but we will raise some cases at the end of this section that do involve some practical problems for you to consider.

Most governments have an inherent interest in public health and safety.  This has led inevitably to rules, regulations and codes that operate from the level of tiny municipalities to the entire nation, and today many of our standards are necessarily global.  Engineers must follow codes and standards or face legal action.  This is one of the reasons why some engineers, who are directly involved with public health and safety, must be licensed if they are to practice.

Well, I promised you that we would get to poka-yoke (pronounced POH-kah YOH-kay).  It’s a Japanese term that means mistake-proofing.  The idea is to design a product in such a way that you either avoid making mistakes, or at least cause them to be obvious so that they can be corrected.  This is hardly a new idea.  You will find examples all around you.  Remember that little hole that is at the top of most wash basins.  It is there to drain off the water if you forget and leave the water running.  Try to put a 3 ½ inch floppy in its slot upside down or backward.  Sorry.  Some engineer designed it so that you can only put it in the right way.  Didn’t get your car door all the way shut?  Most cars today will flash or sound a warning.  Oh, and before you try to start the engine, make sure that you are in “park”, or the engine will not start.  Have you tried to turn on both the toaster and the microwave at the same time?  You probably will have to go out into the backyard to reset your breaker that was designed to keep you from drawing too much current and burning down the house.  Speaking of the microwave, it turns off when you open the door so that you will not get too much radiation.  These are some pretty simple examples.  Engineers today try to find ways to build safety into more complicated devices to protect sophisticated products. 

4.3 Unanticipated Consequences

When we develop new kinds of products, new systems, we should understand that they may change the way we live, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  There may be unanticipated consequences.   When we develop any new product, a new model car, a television, a computer control system, perhaps a robotic device, things may go wrong that we had not anticipated.  A product may fail in a way that threatens our health, perhaps our lives.  On a broader scale major new systems may change the way we live as a people.  When the automobile was first developed no one could anticipate the extraordinary growth of this new form of transportation, nor its impact on the way that cities developed, nor the air pollution that it would develop, and certainly the way it would change geopolitics because of the need for oil to fuel our cars.  The personal computer was developed almost as a toy by exuberant young engineers who just liked to tinker with the things.  Nobody foresaw the pervasive influence that it would have on our lives.  The internet was developed as a tool for communication among scientists, not as a way to interconnect the whole world. 

Today we ask what will happen if we begin to clone human beings.  What if we develop computers that approach the capacities of the human brain?  What will be the products of the emerging field of nanotechnology?  What effect will new surveillance systems have on our private lives?   Let’s ask two questions about unanticipated consequences.  First, why do we have them, and second, what obligations does the development engineer have in the light of this uncertainty?

Dietrich Dorner has recently analyzed systems in a way that can help us see why they can be so difficult to understand, and hence why consequences are unanticipated.  Dorner has identified four features of systems that make a full understanding of any real system impossible.

  • complexity
  • dynamics
  • intransparency
  • ignorance and mistaken hypotheses

Complexity reflects the many different components which a real system has and the interconnections or interrelations among these components. Our system models necessarily neglect many of these components or features, and even more so their interrelations, but there is always a danger in doing so, because it is from such interrelations that the unanticipated may arise. Our economic system is an example of a highly complex system. Not only are there many players, but the players are also interrelated in many ways which are difficult to identify and define. If Player A sets this price, how will Player B respond, and what will Player C think and do when she observes the actions of A and B?

Many devices and systems exhibit dynamics, that is, the property of changing their state spontaneously, independent of control by a central agent in charge of the system. One of the most fascinating examples of our time is the Internet, an extraordinarily dynamic system, with no one in charge. There is no way to model the Internet system in a way which will predict its future and the future of the people and things which will be impacted by the Internet. Many of our complex technological systems have this property. Examples might include: a new freeway system, nuclear power, high definition television, genetic engineering. For example, a freeway system is dynamic because a large number of players initiate actions beyond any central control. Driver A slows down to observe an accident, Driver B responds in an unpredictable way, depending on his skills, state of mind, sobriety perhaps, and other factors. The system, though structured to some degree, is in many ways on its own.

Intransparency means that some of the elements of a system cannot be seen, but can nevertheless affect the operation of the system. More complex systems can have many contributors to intransparency. In the Internet, for example, the list would include almost all of the users at a particular time, equipment failures at user sites, local phenomena, such as weather, which affect use of the Internet at other locations. We need to understand that what you can't see might hurt you.

Finally, ignorance and mistaken hypotheses are always a possibility. Perhaps our model is simply wrong, faulty, misleading. This last problem is particularly interesting and important, because it is the one we can do something about. We can take steps to reduce our ignorance, to increase our understanding, as we shall discuss in Section 6. And in Section 7 we argue that we are obliged to do so.

Given that unanticipated consequences are a fact of life, what obligation do engineers have in this regard?  Perhaps the first is to try to resolve as much uncertainty about the product or system as is possible, so as to give as clear a picture as we can about what may evolve.  We cannot expect to have a full picture, because of the four issues discussed above, but we can with effort develop a clearer picture.  The second thing that we can do is to anticipate what happens if something goes wrong.  If a product fails, can the effects of failure be limited, can the product be repaired easily, can it be replaced without undue cost or effort?

There is one thing we must say about unanticipated consequences before we leave the subject.  They are not limited to engineering products.  They are common to all of our lives.  There will usually be unanticipated consequences if medicine develops a new drug, or if congress passes a law controlling pollution, or if the Federal Reserve reduces the prime interest rate, or if a university changes its approach to teaching, or if a religion changes its rules about worship.  There is uncertainty involved in all of what we do.   In engineering we need to think about how we are to design in light of uncertainty.

4.4 In Defense of Failure

Failure generally gets a bad name in all areas of life.  We don’t like to fail.  We like things to go as we have planned them.  At the same time we know that failure happens.  The best way to avoid failure is to take no risks, to try nothing new.  The downside is that if you try nothing new, then nothing new gets accomplished.  Failure is a fact of life for those who accept risk.  The trick is not to avoid failure, but to learn from it when it happens.  Few people in the history of technology failed in more projects then Thomas Edison.  But every time he failed he learned something.  Spence Silver was a failure.  He tried to develop a new strong glue, but it turned out to be very weak in its adhesive qualities.  Today his glue is used millions of times each day – on Post-It notes.  In the world of politics, few ever failed (lost elections) more than Abraham Lincoln.

It isn’t a sin to fail.  But it is a sin not to try, or to fail to learn from your failures when you do try.

4.5 It’s a Risky World

Because our ventures have unanticipated consequences life is full of risks.  When we say that a product or a system is “safe”, we do not mean that it cannot fail, or that we cannot get hurt or be killed.  Rather we mean that the degree of risk is “acceptable”.  The product is “safe enough”.  And that of course leads us to some of the most fascinating questions that we ever face.  How safe is safe enough?  Who decides?  How much are we willing to pay for a given level of safety? 

There is a temptation to assert that we would pay any price for safety, but that is not the case.  We do not have “any price”.  We have limited resources.  Some of those resources can go toward safety, but not all of them.  And in fact, we do not make safety our only criterion.  Sometimes we buy something other than the safest car available, perhaps because our choice is less expensive, or a bit flashier, or fills some special need.  In the end we have finite resources to spend on our choices in life, and the level of safety is just one of these choices. 

As an engineer you may be forced to directly address the question of safety and its cost.  (See the Ford Pinto case below.)  Economic factors will be a major part of the decision, but not the only factors.  We haven’t talked formally about ethics yet, but you can easily anticipate that ethics matters when we talk about safety.  Is a manufacturer obliged to inform a customer about safety concerns of a product?  Is it right to ship a product whose safety has not been fully determined?  What if it could never be exactly determined – due to those pesky unanticipated consequences?  It is moral to put a price on the value of a human life?  How high a price?  We’ll address some of these questions in the cases below and in those in the section on ethics. 


Case 4.1:  The destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger is documented in detail on the Internet and in numerous books.  In Section 4.1 above we discussed what can go wrong in engineering projects.  Which of the five given causes of failure contributed to the Challenger disaster. 

Case 4.2:  Consider the bathtub curve in Figure 4.1.  What are some of the factors associated with infant mortality and with end of life wear-out for human beings?  How about for a suspension bridge?

Case 4.3:  A new disease has arisen that has a destructive effect on the human eye.  Many people are losing their sight each week.  An engineer has developed a device that seems to be able to reverse the damage.  There is some question about whether the device could have serious side effects.  The engineer wants to be perfectly sure that the device is safe before it is released.  Who are the stakeholders in this matter?  That is, what people have an interest in whether the device is used?  Engineers have a well-known penchant holding onto a product, their “baby”, until it is perfect.  How can the stakeholders together decide when the device is “safe enough”?

Case 4.4:  Here is a poka-yoke opportunity that actually happened.  A large device is being built on a production line.  At one point a spring must be installed behind each of two switches, in a place where the spring is hidden.  The procedure is for the worker to pick one spring out of a box of springs and install it.  The worker then picks out a second spring and installs it behind the second switch.  Occasionally the worker forgets the second spring, and the product is shipped with one missing spring.  The company must then send out an engineer to correct the problem, a very expensive process.  Come up with a very inexpensive poka-yoke that will prevent this problem from arising.

Case 4.5:  The ARPANET was developed decades ago to connect a fairly small group of scientists across the country.  But it has evolved over the years in a most unanticipated way into the worldwide Internet.  What do you think it was about the original system that hid from its developers the extraordinary potential it had?

Case 4.6:  Let us assume that you have a net worth of $10,000,000.  This is all you get, no borrowing, no rich parents, this is it.  What do you think your life is worth to you personally?  Put down a dollar figure.  Now lets assume that you live in a risky environment in which your life is under threat.  However, you can purchase a safety system with various levels of risk.  The lower the risk of death, the higher the cost of the safety system.  The one-time cost of the system is given in the table below versus the probability of death each year. 

                 Cost of Safety System                           Probability of Death Per Year

                         $10,000,000                                                    0.00001%

                             5,000,000                                                    0.1

                             1,000,000                                                    2.0

                                100,000                                                  10.0 

How much would you be willing to pay for the safety system?  Why?  Is the cost you chose the same or nearly the same as the amount you said you thought your life was worth?  If so why do you think this is the case?  If they are different, why the difference?


One of the unintended consequences of much of what we do in engineering is a negative impact on the environment.  Our intention is to generate electric power.  But in the process we pollute the air, and warm our rivers or oceans.   Our goal is to extract oil from the ground.  But in doing so we spill some of it, polluting a fragile landscape or seashore.  Our plan is to build a highway to allow people to move easily from one place to another.  But the highway leads to traffic noise that makes living near the freeway less pleasant.  In these and many other ways our work, and sometimes the work of nature, serves to degrade our environment.  (For a paper on unintended consequences see:

Engineers have two ways to affect this situation.  The first is to clean up existing environmental degradation.  People who do this are commonly called “environmental engineers”.  The second approach is for all of us to do all of our engineering work is such a way as to minimize the amount of environmental degradation that we cause.  Since virtually all of what we do can have some negative effects, in a larger sense we are all environmental engineers.  All of us can do our engineering work in ways that recognize environmental impact, and minimize environmental degradation.  In this Chapter we look at some ways that engineers can reduce the effects of existing problems and mitigate future environmental problems.

5.1  Environmental Engineering

The goal of the environmental engineer is to reduce or eliminate existing pollution. Environmental Engineering is often seen as a subset of, or linked with, Civil Engineering.  This is a historical result of the fact that much early pollution involved contaminated water and earth, two natural venues of the civil engineer.  Today, however, the field is broadening significantly with important contributions from other sectors, including mechanical, electrical and computer engineering. 

The past 100 or so years have been a time of tremendous industrial growth.  Sometimes over these years we recognized environmental degradation and did something about it at the time.  But often the material wastes of our engineering projects were swept under the rug, or into the river, or down a convenient mine shaft.  The result was contaminated sites where people could not live, or new industry could not develop. In recent years we have begun to recognize the necessity of cleaning up the garbage left behind by our forbears.  In 1980 Congress established the Superfund Program under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify the worst of our contaminated sites, and to proceed to clean them up.

Over 1000 sites throughout the United States are on the EPA’s superfund list, and are undergoing cleanup. Here is a small sample that will give you an idea of the nature of the problem.

  1. At an Applied Materials site in Santa Clara, California, monitoring wells indicate the presence of volatile organic compounds, which are a threat to health if they reach ground water. So far this has not happened.  The site is being cleaned up through the use of wells that extract contaminated materials from the ground.  This work is in progress.
  2. The Dover Airforce Base in Delaware was contaminated by the dumping of various waste between 1951 and 1970. The result is a number of chemicals in the ground that are potentially harmful to human health.  Cleanup of the dump sites is in progress, and the Airforce has provided alternate sources of potable water to the inhabitants.
  3. In Davie, Florida a landfill was found to be contaminated with cyanide and sulfide. Nearby groundwater was found to contain vinyl chloride and antimony.  The landfill was closed and cleanup is in progress.
  4. Hanford, Washington was one of the first sites that produced plutonium, beginning in the 1940’s. Cleanup efforts today are a result of contamination from nine nuclear reactors, the last of which was closed down in 1988.  Cooling water used in the reactor containing radioactive and chemical contamination was discharged into the adjacent Columbia River and to other bodies of water.

And the list goes on into the thousands.  During most of the Twentieth Century we dumped our military and industrial wastes with little thought to the future.  Today our generation is paying the price for an earlier generation’s carelessness.  If we truly believe that we have borrowed the world from our children then we must vow to do better.  We must all become environmental engineers as we create new products and systems for the decades ahead.

5.2 Engineering for a Better Environment

All engineers have the ability to help shape our children’s environment for the better, and the obligation to do so.  In this section we consider ways in which each of our engineering sectors can help the environment.  But keep in mind that many of our systems are far too complex to involve only one discipline.  It is increasingly important that we work in teams that represent many of our disciplines.  Let’s look at some examples from each area.

Civil Engineering

Civil engineers are the primary developers of the environment in which we live, providing us with shelter, transportation, fresh water and waste water facilities, fuel handling, power generation, and much more.  They have opportunities to protect our environment in all of these functions.

Housing, schools, office buildings and other shelters can be constructed to minimize material use, and energy use over the life of the facility.  Structures can take advantage of renewable energy resources such as direct solar radiation, and solar power panels to provide electric energy.  A major challenge is to develop structures that are as immune as possible to damage or destruction by natural causes, such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and the like.

Transportation engineers can design systems that accommodate a number of forms of transportation, including automobiles, mass transit, bicycles, and foot traffic.  They can work with planners to develop communities that minimize the need for transportation 

Civil engineers must develop water resources that are sustainable.  Growing populations will require more and more water, and ways must be found to provide this critical resource efficiently.  A part of this plan must no doubt be the effective handling and reuse where appropriate of waste water.

Computer Engineering

One of the most important elements of environmental protection today is information.  This is sometimes referred to as the field of environmental informatics or environmental information systems (EIS).  Engineers in this field collect and organize data, in areas such as water, air and soil quality.  New ways must be found to collect such data in real-time, and present such it perhaps in graphical modes that facilitate understanding and reaction.

Improved analysis of weather data, and its relation to pollution-generating sources is a major concern. 

Development of highly sophisticated models of the environment, and the effect on the environment or various options that we might take in a given situation, will give us a powerful new planning tool.

Electrical Engineering

Many of the electronic products of the day provide us with major recycling problems.  Millions of obsolete computers and computer peripherals have the potential to contribute large amounts of contaminants to the environment.  Electrical engineers are challenged to develop electronic systems that make less use of materials that are difficult to recycle, or materials that are not renewable.

One of the most important challenges facing electrical engineers, and their colleagues in physics, is the development of more efficient solar panels that are crucial to the migration to renewable energy resources.

The environmental data that is essential to the work of the computer engineer comes largely from sensors that are developed by electrical and mechanical engineers.

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineers have close or necessary relationships with most of the examples cited above.  And in fact almost none of these problems can be dealt with by a single discipline.  Nonetheless, there are areas where mechanical engineers make major contributions.

Combustion engines contribute enormous pollution to the air.  Mechanical engineers are challenged to find ways to burn fuels with cleaner emissions, and at the same time to reduce the amount of nonrenewable resources burned to accomplish a given task.

Today’s new hybrid vehicles are providing major increases in automobile gas mileage.  Engineers can continue and expand this trend.

Noise reduction is an important goal for the mechanical engineer.  Engines need to be designed to reduce noise through the original design, or through noise cancellation techniques.


Case 5.1:  Electric cars are often said to be pollution free.  But are they really?  The electric energy required to charge the batteries must be generated somewhere.  Where?  And if there is pollution at the power plant, then is it fair to say that the car is pollution- free?  Is pollution in one location more acceptable than pollution somewhere else?  From an environmental standpoint are we better off with or without electric cars?  These may seem like simple questions, requiring a simple yes or no answer.  But in fact they are highly complex.  Your discussion should reflect that fact. 

Case 5.2:  Not too long after you graduate you run for and are elected to the planning commission in your community.  One of the great eyesores in your village has been the property along Johnson Creek, which has been used for decades for an informal dumping ground.  There is garbage, chemicals, paint, old tires, all the usual products of civilization.  There has been a move on for years to clean up the property and develop a major village park in that area, but it always is found to be just too expensive for the village budget.  Recently, Henderson Development has proposed to build a strip mall where the park was to be.  To sweeten the deal they agree to clean up the creek bed, and build a small park with a pathway to connect up to the village trail system.  People are not too enthused about the strip mall, but the cleanup sounds great.  You have to vote on this one.  You ask yourself whether the environment will be better with or without this deal.  What are the considerations?  What do you decide?

Case 5.3:  The neighbors around the airport are willing to live with the noise from planes taking off and landing during the day.  But they insist that all flights end at 8 pm.  The Parts Distribution Corporation insists that it cannot survive unless planes can land and take off until midnight.  They have threatened to pull out of town, closing the business and laying off their 1000 employees.  Are 1000 jobs in your community worth an added four hours of airport noise?  What are the considerations?  How do you decide such a complex question?   Who decides it?  On what grounds?

Case 5.4:  Who pays for clean air?  Here’s the situation.  Mega Power is proposing to build a new electric power plant out near the old quarry.  Unfortunately, your town is downwind, and you have been successful in helping to force them to add more air-cleaning equipment to their plant than is required by the state.  That will help keep the air clean.  Now the question has come up of who should pay for this equipment.  Mega Power says that it must pass the costs on to its customers.  But in public hearings a number of citizens have argued that Mega Power should pay for it since they are the polluter, and they are a wealthy company.  

Chapter 6.  Ethics

This chapter introduces you to ethical reasoning as it pertains to your studies now and to your future professional work.  The chapter was largely developed by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  For almost ten years the Center has worked with the local and national communities, as well as the University, in the search for ways to approach practical ethical dilemmas.  The Center’s website is an outstanding source for study materials in applied ethics.  (

The field of ethics is the study and practice of standards of moral conduct. As such, ethics is not something that only philosophers and theologians think about. Ethics is for everyone – all human beings including engineers! All of us think ethically whenever we face the issue of right and wrong. Moreover, ethics does not pertain alone to the more private realms of our lives – to such issues as whether to cheat on a test or lie to a friend. Rather, ethics pertain to all aspects of our lives – from the more private and personal to the professional and political. Accordingly, it is essential to consider the many ethical issues and questions that are always present in the study and work of an engineer.

One of the major contributions of the Markkula Center over the years has been to develop and evolve a way of addressing formally ethical problems.  It is called A Framework for Thinking Ethically.  We begin this chapter with some introductory ideas, then move on to a discussion of the Framework, and then finish with a more detailed look at a number of important concepts.  Here is what we will look at.

  • An introduction to ethics
  • A Framework for Thinking Ethically
  • Rights
  • Fairness and Justice
  • Utility
  • The Common Good
  • Virtue
  • Compassion
  • Conscience and Authority
  • Some Websites

6.1 An Introduction to Ethics

This section is designed as an introduction to thinking ethically.  We all have an image of our “better selves” – or of how we are when we are “at our best.”  We probably also have an image of what an ethical community, an ethical business, or an ethical government is – and maybe even an ethical society as a whole.  Ethics really has to do with all three levels – acting ethically as individuals, creating ethical organizations and governments, and making our society as a whole ethical.  But, just what is ethics?

Simply stated, ethics gives us standards of behavior that tell us what human beings ought to do in the many situations in which we find ourselves – as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople, teachers, professionals, and so on. 

It is helpful to identify what ethics is NOT.

Ethics is not our feelings.  Some people have highly developed habits that make them feel bad when they do something wrong, but many people feel good even though they are doing something wrong. And often our feelings will tell us it is uncomfortable to do the right thing if it is hard. 

Ethics is not religion.  Many people are not religious but ethics applies to everyone.  Most religions do advocate high ethical standards but sometimes do not address all types of problems we face.

Ethics is not law.  A good system of law does incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from what is ethical.  Law can become ethically corrupt, as some totalitarian regimes have made it.  Law can be designed to serve the interests of narrow groups.  Law may have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards in some important areas.

Ethics is not following socially accepted norms.  Some societies are quite ethical, but others become corrupt - or blind to certain ethical concerns (as the United States was to slavery before the Civil War).  “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not a sufficient ethical standard. 

There are two fundamental questions that we face in identifying the ethical standards we are to follow:

  1. On what do we base our ethical standards?
  2. How do these standards get applied to specific situations that we face?

If ethics are not based on feelings, religion alone, law, or accepted social practice, what are they based on?  Many philosophers and ethicists have helped us answer this critical question.  They have suggested over the centuries at least six different sources of ethical standards we should use.

The Rights Approach:  Some philosophers and ethicists suggest the ethical action is the one which best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected.  This approach starts from the belief that humans have a dignity based on their ability to choose freely what they do with their lives, and have a right to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends.  The list of “moral rights” – to makes one’s own choices about what kind of life we will lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, to a degree of privacy, and so on – is widely debated. Also, it is often said that rights imply duties – in particular, the duty to respect others’ rights.  And so we must ask, what if my rights and yours are in conflict? 

The Fairness or Justice Approach: Aristotle and other Greek philosophers have contributed the idea that all equals should be treated equally.  Today we use this idea to say that ethical actions treat all human beings equally – or if unequally, then fairly based on some inequality that is defensible.  We pay people more based on their harder work or the greater amount that they contribute to an organization, and say that is “fair.”  But there is a debate over CEO salaries that are hundreds of times larger than the pay of others; many ask whether the huge disparity is “unfair.”  And what shall we do about situations in which fairness is not possible?  Where shall we build that freeway, near your house or near mine?

The Utilitarian Approach:  Some ethicists emphasize that the ethical action is the one that provides the greatest good for the greatest number, or produces the most good or does the least harm.  The ethical corporate action, then, is the one that produces the greatest good for all who are affected – customers, employees, shareholders and the community.  Ethical warfare is the one that balances the good achieved in ending terrorism, for example, with the harm done in such warfare in injuries and deaths to all parties, and to disrupted lives and destroyed property.  The utilitarian approach tries to increase the good that is done, and at the same time reduce the harm.

The Common Good Approach:  The Greek philosophers have also contributed the notion that every society needs “common conditions” which are important to the goodness of everyone.  This may be a system of laws, effective police and fire departments, guaranteed health care, a public educational system, or even public recreational areas.  The ethical action under this consideration is the one that serves the common good of creating these “common conditions” and enhancing these common relationships.  This also involves the network of human relationships that run throughout every society.

The Virtue Approach:  A very ancient approach to ethics is that ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues which provide for the full development of our humanity.  These virtues are dispositions and character traits that enable us to be and to act with our highest potential, traits that are commonly admired by society.  Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics asks of any action, “What kind of person will I become if I do this?”

The Compassion Approach:  Some ethicists separate out one of the virtues, compassion, as a standard for ethical behavior of central importance.   This approach suggests that relationships are the basis of all human society and that compassion and concern for others – especially the vulnerable -- are essential to relationships and to the functioning of society.  Therefore, ethical actions should always serve the interests of others, and should serve to deepen the relationships one has with family, officemates, community, and people in all parts of our earth. 

Each of these six approaches helps us determine what standards of behavior can be considered ethical.  There are still problems to be solved, however.  The first problem is that we may not agree on the content of some of these specific approaches.  We may not all agree to the same set of human and civil rights.  We may not agree what constitutes the common good.  We may not even agree what is a good and what is a harm.

The second problem is that the different approaches may not all answer the question “what is ethical” in the same way.  Nonetheless, each approach gives us important information with which to determine what is ethical in a particular circumstance.  And much more often than not, the different approaches do lead to similar answers.

Making good ethical decisions requires a trained sensitivity to ethical issues and a practiced method for exploring the ethical aspects of a decision and weighing the considerations which should impact our choice of a course of action.  Having a method for ethical decision-making is absolutely essential.  When practiced regularly, the method becomes so familiar that we work through it automatically without consulting the specific steps. The more novel and difficult the ethical choice we face, the more we need to rely on discussion and dialogue with others about the dilemma.  Only by careful exploration of the problem, aided by the insights and different perspectives of others, can we make good ethical choices in such situations.  We have found the following framework for ethical decision-making a useful method for exploring ethical dilemmas and identifying ethical courses of action.

6.2 A Framework for Thinking Ethically

This section introduces a formal process for addressing ethical issues, an approach developed by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  There are five steps in the process.


  1. Recognize an ethical issue.
  2. Get the facts.
  3. Evaluate alternative actions from various ethical perspectives.
  4. Make a decision.
  5. Act, then reflect on the decision later. 

And so to the details.


We need to recognize ethical problems as such.  If we don’t notice the ethical content to the situation then we cannot proceed. 

1. Is there something wrong personally, interpersonally, or socially?   Could the conflict, the situation or the decision be damaging to people or to the community?

2. Does the issue go deeper than legal or institutional concerns?  What does it do to people as persons who have dignity, rights, and hopes for a better life together?


3. What are the relevant facts of the case?

4. What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome?  Do some have a greater stake because they have a special need or because we have special obligations to them? 

5. What are the options for acting?  Have all the relevant persons and groups been consulted?  If you showed your list of options to someone you respect, what would that person say?


6. Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?  (The Utilitarian approach:  the ethical action is the one that will produce the greatest balance of benefits over harms.) 

7. Which option is fair to all the stakeholders?  Even if not everyone gets all they want, will everyone’s rights and dignity still be respected?  (The Justice or Fairness approach: the ethical action is the one that treats people equally, or if unequally, that treats people proportionately and fairly.)   (The Rights approach: the ethical action is the one that best respects the human and civil rights of all who are affected.)

8. Which option would help all participate more fully in the life we share as a family, community, society?  (The Common Good approach:  the ethical action is the one which contributes most to the achievement of a quality common life together.)

9. Would you want to become the sort of person who acts this way?  (The Virtues approach: the ethical action is the one which invites performance of key attitudes and character traits which represent humans at their best.)   (The Compassion approach: the ethical action is the one which demonstrates concern for the impacts of situations and actions on specific human beings with whom we have or might have a relationship.)


10. Considering these perspectives, which of the options is the right or best thing to do?

11. If you told someone you respect why you chose this option, what would that person say?


12. How did it turn out for all concerned?  If you have to do it over again, what would you do differently?

That’s our framework for making ethical decisions.  Later we will apply it to some cases or problems.  But first, let’s take a closer look at our six approaches to ethics.

6.3 Rights

In 1978, American Cyanamid, a paint company located in West Virginia, announced that in order "to protect the unborn children of working employees from any possible harm," women capable of bearing children could no longer work in company jobs that might expose them to lead and other chemicals potentially harmful to fetal life. One year later, four women interviewed by a newspaper, claimed that they had to be sterilized to keep their high-paying jobs at American Cyanamid. While the company asserted it was trying to protect the rights of the unborn, the women declared that the company forced them to sacrifice their own reproductive rights. Supporters of the company agreed that an employer has a right to set working conditions for its employees, while supporters for the women claimed that workers have a right to be protected from workplace hazards without having to choose between having themselves sterilized and losing their jobs.  Who was right? 

Many moral controversies today are couched in the language of rights. Indeed, we seem to have witnessed an explosion of appeals to rights--gay rights, prisoners' rights, animal rights, smokers' rights, fetal rights, and employee rights. The appeal to rights has a long tradition. The American Declaration of Independence asserted that "all men...are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In 1948, the United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating that all human beings have "the right to own property,...the right to work,...the right to just and favorable remuneration,...[and] the right to rest and leisure." 

What is a right? A right is a justified claim on others. For example, if I have a right to freedom, then I have a justified claim to be left alone by others. Turned around, I can say that others have a duty or responsibility to leave me alone. If I have a right to an education, then I have a justified claim to be provided with an education by society. 

The "justification" of a claim is dependent on some standard acknowledged and accepted not just by the claimant, but also by society in general. The standard can be as concrete as the Constitution, which guarantees the right of free speech and assures that every American accused of a crime "shall enjoy the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury," or a local law that spells out the legal rights of landlords and tenants.

Moral rights are justified by moral standards that most people acknowledge, but which are not necessarily codified in law; these standards have also, however, been interpreted differently by different people.

One of the most important and influential interpretations of moral rights is based on the work of Immanuel Kant, an eighteenth-century philosopher. Kant maintained that each of us has a worth or a dignity that must be respected. This dignity makes it wrong for others to abuse us or to use us against our will. Kant expressed this idea in a moral principle: humanity must always be treated as an end, not merely as a means. To treat a person as a mere means is to use a person to advance one's own interest. But to treat a person as an end is to respect that person's dignity by allowing each the freedom to choose for himself or herself. 

Kant's principle is often used to justify both a fundamental moral right, the right to freely choose for oneself, and also rights related to this fundamental right. These related rights can be grouped into two broad categories – negative and positive rights. Negative rights, such as the right to privacy, the right not to be killed, or the right to do what one wants with one's property, are rights that protect some form of human freedom or liberty. These rights are called negative rights because such rights are a claim by one person that imposes a “negative” duty on all others—the duty not to interfere with a person's activities in a certain area. The right to privacy, for example, imposes on us the duty not to intrude into the private activities of a person.

Kant's principle is also often used to justify positive or, as they are often called, welfare rights. Where negative rights are “negative” in the sense that they claim for each person a zone of non-interference from others, positive rights are “positive” in the sense that they claim for each person the positive assistance of others in fulfilling basic constituents of human well-being like health and education. In moral and political philosophy, these basic human needs are often referred to as “welfare” concerns (thus this use of the term “welfare” is similar to but not identical with the common American usage of “welfare” to refer to government payments to the poor). Many people argue that a fundamental right to freedom is worthless if people aren't able to exercise that freedom. A right to freedom, then, implies that every human being also has a fundamental right to what is necessary to secure a minimum level of well-being. Positive rights, therefore, are rights that provide something that people need to secure their well-being, such as a right to an education, the right to food, the right to medical care, the right to housing, or the right to a job. Positive rights impose a positive duty on us--the duty actively to help a person to have or to do something. A young person's right to an education, for example, imposes on us a duty to provide that young person with an education. Respecting a positive right, then requires more than merely not acting; positive rights impose on us the duty to help sustain the welfare of those who are in need of help.

Whenever we are confronted with a moral dilemma, we need to consider whether the action would respect the basic rights of each of the individuals involved. How would the action affect the basic well-being of those individuals? How would the action affect the negative or positive freedom of those individuals? Would it involve manipulation or deception – either of which would undermine the right to truth that is a crucial personal right? Actions are wrong to the extent that they violate the rights of individuals.

Sometimes the rights of individuals will come into conflict and one has to decide which right has priority. We may all agree, for example, that everyone has a right to freedom of association as well as a right not to be discriminated against. But suppose a private club has a policy that excludes women from joining. How do we balance the right to freedom of association—which would permit the club to decide for itself whom to admit—against the right not to be discriminated against—which requires equal treatment of women? In cases such as this, we need to examine the freedoms or interests at stake and decide which of the two is the more crucial for securing human dignity. For example, is free association or equality more essential to maintaining our dignity as persons? 

Rights, then, play a central role in ethics. Attention to rights ensures that the freedom and well-being of each individual will be protected when others threaten that freedom or well-being. If an individual has a moral right, then it is morally wrong to interfere with that right even if large numbers of people would benefit from such interference.

But rights should not be the sole consideration in ethical decision-making. In some instances, the social costs or the injustice that would result from respecting a right are too great, and accordingly, that right may need to be limited. Moreover, an emphasis on rights tends to limit our vision of what the "moral life" entails. Morality, it's often argued, is not just a matter of not interfering with the rights of others. Relying exclusively on a rights approach to ethics tends to emphasize the individual at the expense of the community. And, while morality does call on us to respect the uniqueness, dignity, and autonomy of each individual, it also invites us to recognize our relatedness--that sense of community, shared values, and the common good which lends itself to an ethics of care, compassion, and concern for others.

6.4 Fairness and Justice 

When Beatrice Norton was fourteen, she followed in her mother's footsteps and began working in the cotton mill. In 1968, after a career in the mill, she had to stop working because of her health. Years of exposure to cotton dust had resulted in a case of “brown lung,” a chronic and sometimes fatal disease with symptoms similar to asthma and emphysema. In 1977, she testified at a congressional hearing, asking that the government require companies to provide disability compensation for victims of the disease similar to the compensation companies provided for other similar diseases.

I worked in the dust year after year ... I got sicker and sicker. In 1968 I suddenly had no job, no money, and I was too sick to ever work in my life again. State legislators have proven in two successive sessions that they are not going to do anything to help the brown lung victims, so now we come to you in Washington and ask for help. We've waited a long time, and many of us have died waiting. I don't want to die of injustice.

Another woman, Mrs. Vinnie Ellison, spoke bitterly about the way her husband had been treated when the illness caught up with him after twenty-one years at a cotton mill:

In the early sixties, he started having trouble keeping up his job because of his breathing. In 1963 his bossman told him that he had been a good worker, but wasn't worth a damn anymore and fired him. He had no pension and nothing to live on. My husband worked long and hard and lost his health because of the dust. It isn't fair that the mill threw him away like so much human garbage after he couldn't keep up his job because he was sick from the dust.

To Mrs. Norton and Mrs. Ellison, receiving compensation for the debilitating effects of brown lung similar to that given to other diseases was a simple matter of justice. In making their case, their arguments reflected a very long tradition in Western civilization. In fact, no idea in Western civilization has been more consistently linked to ethics and morality than the idea of justice. From the Republic, written by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, to A Theory of Justice, written by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, every major work on ethics has held that justice is part of the central core of morality.

Justice means giving each person what he or she deserves or, in more traditional terms, giving each person his or her due. Justice and fairness are closely related terms that are often today used interchangeably. There have, however, also been more distinct understandings of the two terms. While justice usually has been used with reference to a standard of rightness, fairness often has been used with regard to an ability to judge without reference to one’s feelings or interests; fairness has also been used to refer to the ability to make judgments that are not overly general but that are concrete and specific to a particular case. In any case, a notion of desert is crucial to both justice and fairness. The Nortons and Ellisons of this world, for example, are asking for what they think they deserve when they are demanding that they be treated with justice and fairness. When people differ over what they believe should be given, or when decisions have to be made about how benefits and burdens should be distributed among a group of people, questions of justice or fairness inevitably arise. In fact, most ethicists today hold the view that there would be no point of talking about justice or fairness if it were not for the conflicts of interest that are created when goods and services are scarce and people differ over who should get what. When such conflicts arise in our society, we need principles of justice that we can all accept as reasonable and fair standards for determining what people deserve.

But saying that justice is giving each person what he or she deserves does not take us very far. How do we determine what people deserve? What criteria and what principles should we use to determine what is due to this or that person?

The most fundamental principle of justice--one that has been widely accepted since it was first defined by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago--is the principle that "equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally." In its contemporary form, this principle is sometimes expressed as follows: "Individuals should be treated the same, unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved." For example, if Jack and Jill both do the same work, and there are no relevant differences between them or the work they are doing, then in justice they should be paid the same wages. And if Jack is paid more than Jill simply because he is a man, or because he is white, then we have an injustice--a form of discrimination--because race and sex are not relevant to normal work situations. 

There are, however, many differences that we deem as justifiable criteria for treating people differently. For example, we think it is fair and just when a parent gives his own children more attention and care in his private affairs than he gives the children of others; we think it is fair when the person who is first in a line at a theater is given first choice of theater tickets; we think it is just when the government gives benefits to the needy that it does not provide to more affluent citizens; we think it is just when some who have done wrong are given punishments that are not meted out to others who have done nothing wrong; and we think it is fair when those who exert more effort or who make a greater contribution to a project receive more benefits from the project than others. These criteria--need, desert, contribution, and effort--we acknowledge as justifying differential treatment.

On the other hand, there are also criteria that we believe are not justifiable grounds for giving people different treatment. In the world of work, for example, we generally hold that it is unjust to give individuals special treatment on the basis of age, sex, race, or religious preferences. If the judge's nephew receives a suspended sentence for armed robbery when another offender unrelated to the judge goes to jail for the same crime, or the brother of the Director of Public Works gets the million-dollar contract to install sprinklers on the municipal golf course despite lower bids from other contractors, we say that it's unfair. We also believe it isn't fair when a person is punished for something over which he or she had no control, or isn't compensated for a harm he or she suffered. And the people involved in the "brown lung hearings" felt that it wasn't fair that some diseases were provided with disability compensation, while other similar diseases weren't

There are different kinds of justice. Distributive justice refers to the extent to which society's institutions ensure that benefits and burdens are distributed among society's members in ways that are fair and just. When the institutions of a society distribute benefits or burdens in unjust ways, there is a strong presumption that those institutions should be changed. For example, the American institution of slavery in the pre-civil war South was condemned as unjust because it was a glaring case of treating people differently on the basis of race.

A second important kind of justice is retributive or corrective justice. Retributive justice refers to the extent to which punishments are fair and just. In general, punishments are held to be just to the extent that they take into account relevant criteria such as the seriousness of the crime and the intent of the criminal, and discount irrelevant criteria such as race. It would be barbarously unjust, for example, to chop off a person's hand for stealing a dime, or to impose the death penalty on a person who by accident and without negligence injured another party. Studies have frequently shown that when blacks murder whites, they are much more likely to receive death sentences than when whites murder whites or blacks murder blacks. These studies suggest that injustice still exists in the criminal justice system in the United States.

Yet a third important kind of justice is compensatory justice. Compensatory justice refers to the extent to which people are fairly compensated for their injuries by those who have injured them; just compensation is proportional to the loss inflicted on a person. This is precisely the kind of justice that was at stake in the brown lung hearings. Those who testified at the hearings claimed that the owners of the cotton mills where workers had been injured should compensate the workers whose health had been ruined by conditions at the mills.

The foundations of justice can be traced to the notions of social stability, interdependence, and equal dignity. As the ethicist John Rawls has pointed out, the stability of a society--or any group, for that matter--depends upon the extent to which the members of that society feel that they are being treated justly. When some of society's members come to feel that they are subject to unequal treatment, the foundations have been laid for social unrest, disturbances, and strife. The members of a community, Rawls holds, depend on each other, and they will retain their social unity only to the extent that their institutions are just. Moreover, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant and others have pointed out, human beings are all equal in this respect: they all have the same dignity, and in virtue of this dignity they deserve to be treated as equals. Whenever individuals are treated unequally on the basis of characteristics that are arbitrary and irrelevant, their fundamental human dignity is violated.

Justice, then, is a central part of ethics and should be given due consideration in our moral lives. In evaluating any moral decision, we must ask whether our actions treat all persons equally. If not, we must determine whether the difference in treatment is justified: are the criteria we are using relevant to the situation at hand? But justice is not the only principle to consider in making ethical decisions. Sometimes principles of justice may need to be overridden in favor of other kinds of moral claims such as rights or society's welfare. Nevertheless, justice is an expression of our mutual recognition of each other's basic dignity, and an acknowledgment that if we are to live together in an interdependent community we must treat each other as equals.

6.5 Utility

When Oliver North was asked during the 1980s to explain why he lied to congressional committees about his role in the Iran-Contra affair, he replied, "Lying does not come easily to me. But we all had to weigh in the balance the difference between lies and lives." Elsewhere in his testimony, North was asked about the false chronology of events he fabricated when preparing a summary of the government's involvement in arms sales to Iran:

Questioner:...You have indicated your own was a good idea to
 put forth this false version...[But] there were reasons on the other side, were there 
North:...Reasons on the other side?
Questioner:...First of all, you put some value, don't you, in the truth?
North: I've put great value in the truth. I came here to tell it.
Questioner: So...that would be a reason not to put forward this [false] version of
the facts?
North: The truth would be reason not to put forward this [false] version of the
facts, but as I indicated to you a moment ago, I put great value on the lives of the
American hostages...and I put great value on that second channel [an intermediary
used by the U.S. to deal with the Iranians], who was at risk.
Questioner: By putting out this false version of the facts, you were committing,
were you not, the entire Administration to telling a false story?
North: Well, let, let--I'm not trying to pass the buck here. OK? I did a lot of
things, and I want to stand up and say that I'm proud of them.

North's method of justifying his acts of deception is a form of moral reasoning that is called “utilitarianism.” Stripped down to its essentials, utilitarianism is a moral principle that holds that the morally right course of action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected. So long as a course of action produces maximum benefits for everyone, utilitarianism does not care whether the benefits are produced by lies, manipulation, or coercion.

Many of us use this type of moral reasoning frequently in our daily decisions. When asked to explain why we feel we have a moral duty to perform some action, we often point to the good that will come from the action or the harm it will prevent. Business analysts, legislators, and scientists weigh daily the resulting benefits and harms of policies when deciding, for example, whether to invest resources in a certain public project, whether to approve a new drug, or whether to ban a certain pesticide.

Utilitarianism offers a relatively straightforward method for deciding the morally right course of action for any particular situation we may find ourselves in. To discover what we ought to do in any situation, we first identify the various courses of action that we could perform. Second, we determine all of the foreseeable benefits and harms that would result from each course of action for everyone affected by the action. And third, we choose the course of action that provides the greatest benefits after the costs have been taken into account.

The principle of utilitarianism can be traced to the writings of Jeremy Bentham, who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bentham, a legal reformer, sought an objective basis that would provide a publicly acceptable norm for determining what kinds of laws England should enact. He believed that the most promising way of reaching such an agreement was to choose that policy that would bring about the greatest net benefits to society once the harms had been taken into account. His motto, a familiar one now, was “the greatest good for the greatest number. 

Over the years, the principle of utilitarianism has been expanded and refined so that today there are many variations of the principle. For example, Bentham defined benefits and harms in terms of pleasure and pain. John Stuart Mill, a great 19th century utilitarian figure, spoke of benefits and harms not in terms of pleasure and pain alone but in terms of the quality or intensity of such pleasure and pain. Today utilitarians often describe benefits and harms in terms of the satisfaction of personal preferences or in purely economic terms of monetary benefits over monetary costs.

Utilitarians also differ in their views about the kind of question we ought to ask ourselves when making an ethical decision. Some utilitarians maintain that in making an ethical decision, we must ask ourselves: "What effect will my doing this act in this situation have on the general balance of good over evil?" If lying would produce the best consequences in a particular situation, we ought to lie. Others, known as rule utilitarians, claim that we must choose that act that conforms to the general rule that would have the best consequences. In other words, we must ask ourselves: "What effect would everyone's doing this kind of action have on the general balance of good over evil?" So, for example, the rule "to always tell the truth" in general promotes the good of everyone and therefore should always be followed, even if in a certain situation lying would produce the best consequences. Despite such differences among utilitarians, however, most hold to the general principle that morality must depend on balancing the beneficial and harmful consequences of our conduct.

While utilitarianism is currently a very popular ethical theory, there are some difficulties in relying on it as a sole method for moral decision-making. First, the utilitarian calculation requires that we assign values to the benefits and harms resulting from our actions and compare them with the benefits and harms that might result from other actions. But it's often difficult, if not impossible, to measure and compare the values of certain benefits and costs. How do we go about assigning a value to life or to art? And how do we go about comparing the value of money with, for example, the value of life, the value of time, or the value of human dignity? Moreover, can we ever be really certain about all of the consequences of our actions? Our ability to measure and to predict the benefits and harms resulting from a course of action or a moral rule is dubious, to say the least.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with utilitarianism is that it fails to take into account considerations of justice. We can imagine instances where a certain course of action would produce great benefits for society, but they would be clearly unjust. During the apartheid regime in South Africa in the last century, South African whites, for example, sometimes claimed that all South Africans—including blacks—were better off under white rule. These whites claimed that in those African nations that have traded a whites-only government for a black or mixed one, social conditions have rapidly deteriorated. Civil wars, economic decline, famine, and unrest, they predicted, will be the result of allowing the black majority of South Africa to run the government. If such a prediction were true – and the end of apartheid has shown that the prediction was false—then the white government of South Africa would have been morally justified by utilitarianism, in spite of its injustice.

If our moral decisions are to take into account considerations of justice, then apparently utilitarianism cannot be the sole principle guiding our decisions. It can, however, play a role in these decisions. The principle of utilitarianism invites us to consider the immediate and the less immediate consequences of our actions. Given its insistence on summing the benefits and harms of all people, utilitarianism asks us to look beyond self-interest to consider impartially the interests of all persons affected by our actions. As John Stuart Mill once wrote:

The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not...(one's) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.

In an era today that some have characterized as “the age of self-interest,” utilitarianism is a powerful reminder that morality calls us to look beyond the self to the good of all.

6.6 The Common Good

Commenting on the many economic and social problems that American society now confronts, Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote: "We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits." Newsweek is not the only voice calling for a recognition of and commitment to the "common good." Daniel Callahan, an expert on bioethics, argues that solving the current crisis in our health care system--rapidly rising costs and dwindling access—requires replacing the current "ethic of individual rights" with an “ethic of the common good.”

Appeals to the common good have also surfaced in discussions of business' social responsibilities, discussions of environmental pollution, discussions of our lack of investment in education, and discussions of the problems of crime and poverty. Everywhere, it seems, social commentators are claiming that our most fundamental social problems grow out of a widespread pursuit of individual interests.

What exactly is "the common good", and why has it come to have such a critical place in current discussions of problems in our society? The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the moral philosopher John Rawls defined the common good as "certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone's advantage.” The Catholic religious tradition, which has a long history of struggling to define and promote the common good, defines it as "the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment." The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people. Examples of particular common goods or parts of the common good include an accessible and affordable public health care system, an effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, an unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing economic system. Because such systems, institutions, and environments have such a powerful impact on the well-being of members of a society, it is no surprise that virtually every social problem in one way or another is linked to how well these systems and institutions are functioning.

As these examples suggest, the common good does not just happen. Establishing and maintaining the common good requires the cooperative efforts of some, often of many, people. Just as keeping a park free of litter depends on each user picking up after himself, so also maintaining the social conditions from which we all benefit requires the cooperative efforts of citizens. But these efforts pay off, for the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded. All persons, for example, enjoy the benefits of clean air or an unpolluted environment, or any of our society's other common goods. In fact, something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access.

It might seem that since all citizens benefit from the common good, we would all willingly respond to urgings that we each cooperate to establish and maintain the common good. But numerous observers have identified a number of obstacles that hinder us, as a society, from successfully doing so.

First, according to some philosophers, the very idea of a common good is inconsistent with a pluralistic society like ours. Different people have different ideas about what is worthwhile or what constitutes “the good life for human beings,” differences that have increased during the last few decades as the voices of more and more previously silenced groups, such as women and minorities, have been heard. Given these differences, some people urge, it will be impossible for us to agree on what particular kind of social systems, institutions, and environments we will all pitch in to support.

And even if we agreed upon what we all valued, we would certainly disagree about the relative values things have for us. While all may agree, for example, that an affordable health system, a healthy educational system, and a clean environment are all parts of the common good, some will say that more should be invested in health than in education, while others will favor directing resources to the environment over both health and education. Such disagreements are bound to undercut our ability to evoke a sustained and widespread commitment to the common good. In the face of such pluralism, efforts to bring about the common good can only lead to adopting or promoting the views of some, while excluding others, violating the principle of treating people equally. Moreover, such efforts would force everyone to support some specific notion of the common good, violating the freedom of those who do not share in that goal, and inevitably leading to paternalism (imposing one group's preference on others), tyranny, and oppression. 

A second problem encountered by proponents of the common good is what is sometimes called the “free-rider problem.” The benefits that a common good provides are, as we noted, available to everyone, including those who choose not to do their part to maintain the common good. Individuals can become "free riders" by taking the benefits the common good provides while refusing to do their part to support the common good. An adequate water supply, for example, is a common good from which all people benefit. But to maintain an adequate supply of water during a drought, people must conserve water, which entails sacrifices. Some individuals may be reluctant to do their share, however, since they know that so long as enough other people conserve, they can enjoy the benefits without reducing their own consumption. If enough people become free riders in this way, the common good which depends on their support will be destroyed. Many observers believe that this is exactly what has happened to many of our common goods, such as the environment or education, where the reluctance of all persons to support efforts to maintain the health of these systems has led to their virtual collapse.

The third problem encountered by attempts to promote the common good is that of individualism. Our historical traditions place a high value on individual freedom, on personal rights, and on allowing each person to “do her own thing.” Our culture views society as comprised of separate independent individuals who are free to pursue their own individual goals and interests without interference from others. In this individualistic culture it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to convince people that they should sacrifice some of their freedom, some of their personal goals, and some of their self-interest, for the sake of the “common good.” Our cultural traditions, in fact, reinforce the individual who thinks that she should not have to contribute to the community's common good, but should be left free to pursue her own personal ends. 

Finally, appeals to the common good are confronted by the problem of an unequal sharing of burdens. Maintaining a common good often requires that particular individuals or particular groups bear costs that are much greater than those borne by others. Maintaining an unpolluted environment, for example, may require that particular firms that pollute install costly pollution control devices, undercutting profits. Making employment opportunities more equal may require that some groups, such as white males, sacrifice their own employment chances. Making the health system affordable and accessible to all may require that insurers accept lower premiums, that physicians accept lower salaries, or that those with particularly costly diseases or conditions forego the medical treatment on which their lives depend. Forcing particular groups or individuals to carry such unequal burdens “for the sake of the common good” is, at least arguably, unjust. Moreover, the prospect of having to carry such heavy and unequal burdens leads such groups and individuals to resist any attempts to secure common goods.

All of these problems pose considerable obstacles to those who call for an ethic of the common good. Still, appeals to the common good ought not to be dismissed. For they urge us to reflect on broad questions concerning the kind of society we want to become and how we are to achieve that society. They also challenge us to view ourselves as members of the same community and, while respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals to pursue their own goals, to recognize and further those goals we share in common.

6.7 Virtue

For many of us, the fundamental question of ethics is, "What should I do?" or "How should I act?" Ethics is supposed to provide us with "moral principles" or universal rules that tell us what to do. Many people, for example, are passionate adherents of the moral principle of utilitarianism: "Everyone is obligated to do whatever will achieve the greatest good for the greatest number." Others are just as devoted to the basic principle of Immanuel Kant: "Everyone is obligated to act only in ways that respect the human dignity and moral rights of all persons." 

Moral principles like these focus primarily on people's actions and doings. We "apply" them by asking what these principles require of us in particular circumstances, e.g., when considering whether to lie or to commit suicide. We also apply them when we ask what they require of us as professionals, e.g., lawyers, doctors, or business people, or what they require of our social policies and institutions. In the last decades, dozens of ethics centers and programs devoted to “business ethics,” “legal ethics,” “medical ethics,” and “ethics in public policy” have sprung up. These centers are designed to examine the implications moral principles have for our lives.

But are moral principles all that ethics consists of? Critics have rightly claimed that this emphasis on moral principles smacks of a thoughtless and slavish worship of rules, as if the moral life was a matter of scrupulously checking our every action against a table of do's and don'ts. Fortunately, this obsession with principles and rules has been recently challenged by a growing number of ethicists who argue that the emphasis on principles ignores a fundamental component of ethics—virtue. These ethicists point out that by focusing on what people should do or how people should act, the "moral principles approach" neglects the more important issue--what people should be. In other words, the fundamental question of ethics is not "What should I do?" but "What kind of person should I be?"

According to “virtue ethics,” there are certain values, such as beauty, justice, solidarity, and friendship toward which we should strive and which allow the full development of our humanity. These values are discovered through thoughtful reflection on what we as human beings have the potential to become. 

"Virtues" are dispositions or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop this potential and to flourish as human beings. They enable us to pursue the values we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues.

How does a person develop virtues? Virtues are developed through learning and through practice. As the ancient philosopher Aristotle suggested, a person can improve his or her character by practicing self-discipline, while a good character can be corrupted by repeated self-indulgence. Just as the ability to run a marathon develops through much training and practice, so too does our capacity to be fair, to be courageous, or to be compassionate. 

Virtues are habits. That is, once they are acquired, they become characteristic of a person. For example, a person who has developed the virtue of generosity is often referred to as a generous person because he or she tends to be generous in all circumstances. Moreover, a person who has developed virtues will be naturally disposed to act in ways that are consistent with moral principles. The virtuous person is the ethical person.

At the heart of the virtue approach to ethics are the ideas of "community" and “story” or “narrative.” A person's character traits are not developed in isolation, but within and by the communities to which he or she belongs, including family, church, school, and other private and public associations. As people grow and mature, their personalities are deeply affected by the values that their communities prize, by the personality traits that their communities encourage, and by the role models that their communities put forth for imitation through traditional stories, fiction, movies, television, and so on. The virtue approach urges us to pay attention to the contours of our communities and to the habits of character they encourage and instill in the stories that each community tells.

The moral life, then, is not simply a matter of following moral rules and of learning to apply them to specific situations. The moral life is also a matter of trying to determine the kind of people we should be and of attending to the development of character within our communities and ourselves.

6.8 Compassion

6.9 Conscience and Authority

Since the Nazi atrocities toward the Jews were discovered at the end of the World War II, people have wondered how so many could have engaged in such obviously unconscionable behaviors. The death camps in which Jews were systematically tortured and killed were efficiently organized and managed by well-trained administrative personnel. These administrators were not extraordinarily vicious savages running amuck. On the contrary, the Germans who ran the death camps seemed to be ordinary "decent" citizens, with consciences no different from those of any of us. How could they have blinded themselves to the clear injustice of what they were doing? More generally, what motivates the unethical acts of ordinarily decent people?

Perhaps one of the most fascinating experiments ever conducted to investigate this moral question is known as the Milgram experiment, after Stanley Milgram, the psychologist who devised the experiment. Subjects in his experiment were told that they were going to take part in exercises designed to test other people's abilities to learn. They were seated at a mock "shock generator" with thirty switches marked from 15 volts ("slight shock") to 450 volts ("danger--severe shock"). Through a small glass window they could see the "learner" in the adjoining room strapped to a chair with electrodes on his or her wrists. The subject was told he or she was to test the other person's ability to memorize lists of words, and to administer a "shock" when the learner made the mistake, increasing the intensity each time. As the intensity of the "shocks" grew, and the learner pretended to cry out in more and more pain, eventually fainting, the experimenter told the subjects they had to continue administering the shocks. Astonishingly, although the subjects grew nervous and agitated, more than two-thirds administered the highest level of shocks to the learners when ordered to do so by the experimenter. Milgram concluded that when people are ordered to do something by someone they view in authority, most will obey even when doing so violates their consciences.

In view of the Milgram experiments, the Nazi crimes are not difficult to understand. Milgram himself suggested that one of the major factors accounting for the Holocaust was the ready propensity of human beings to obey authorities even when obedience is wrong. Indeed, although Milgram's experiment has been repeated dozens of times with many different groups of people, the results are always the same: most people will obey external authority over the dictates of conscience.

Although Milgram's findings are disturbing, more recent research has suggested that obedience to authority over conscience is not inevitable. Indeed, the research of Steven Sherman, also a psychologist, suggests that education can strengthen the power of conscience over authority. Sherman had a colleague contact several people by telephone, ostensibly to "poll" them on their opinions. The "pollster" asked them what they would do if they were ever ordered to perform a certain act that was morally or socially undesirable, and spent some time discussing the issues with them. Several weeks after the contact was made, these same people were actually asked to carry out that act. Surprisingly, two thirds refused to obey the order, a sharp contrast to to Milgram's finding that two thirds of those ordered to act against their conscience would normally obey.

The implication of the Sherman experiment is that if people reflect on a moral issue before they are involved in it, they are more likely to behave in accordance with their consciences when that issue faces them in real life. Moral reflection and discussion of the kind found in the best types of moral education substantially enhance the ethical quality of a person's future choices.

6.10 Some Websites

There are many websites available on the subject of ethics, and in particular the application of ethical principles to problems in technology.  Here is a list developed by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Engineering Ethics Web Sites

From the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Web Site

From the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at Case Western Reserve University

From the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism

From Texas A&M University

From Stanford University (an Encyclopedia of Philosophy) 


Case 6.1:  Click on the Markkula Center link:

From there go to the case “The Sole Remaining Supplier”.  This case was written by Thomas Shanks, a Communications professor at Santa Clara University, and a past Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Read the case carefully, and then apply the Center’s Framework for Thinking Ethically to analyze the case.

Chapter 7.  SOCIAL 

Do you remember the definition for engineering that came at the beginning of the Introduction to this handbook?

Engineering is the application of the laws of nature and the goods of the world to the development of products and systems for the betterment of the human condition. 

The idea is simple enough.  Engineers are to create products and systems that lead to a better life.  But a few questions arise.  What things are for the betterment of the human condition?  What about pesticides, SUV’s, cell phones, supersonic airplanes, television, bombs, loudspeakers, police surveillance devices?  Are these things good or bad?  Who decides?  What if something is misused?  Does the development engineer bear any responsibility?  What if a product has unanticipated consequences?  Is anyone responsible?  These are the sorts of questions that society should ask.  At Santa Clara University such questions are addressed formally by the Center for Science, Technology and Society.   

Just how does the working engineer fit in?  What is he or she to do?   That’s the topic of this chapter.  Here are some of the things we will look at.

  • The role of technologies in society
  • Deciding what is to be done
  • The role of the engineer in addressing social issues
  • A century of achievements


7.1 The Role of Technologies in Society

There are certain things that we can say about a technology that is to be developed.


  • It is seen as a good, as bettering the human condition, by at least someone.
  • It may not be seen as good by everyone.
  • It may be abused, that is, used for bad purposes.
  • It may well have consequences, good or bad, which were not anticipated by the developer. 

Let’s use the cell phone as an example to illustrate these points.  Developers of the cell phone saw the device as a means toward improved communication, eliminating the need for hardwiring.  And in fact it has been extraordinarily successful in meeting that goal. But not everyone sees the cell phone as a good, citing the ubiquitous presence of cell phones in restaurants, theaters, and other places where they are found to be an annoyance.  Questions have been raised about the health and safety aspects of cell phones, with no definite medical position available on the long term effects of cell phone use.  The use of cell phones by automobile drivers has been banned in some communities because of accidents assumed to be due to driver inattention.  Cell phones have been used by criminals to increase the effectiveness of their operations.  The original developers did not anticipate this problem.  Nor did they foresee the great potential for cell phones to provide needed communication to developing countries where the cost of a hardwired infrastructure would be prohibitive.

Many more examples could be raised, but the point is clear.  The fruits of technology are often mixed blessings.  Before we discuss what to do about that fact it is interesting to note that we in engineering are not alone in this matter of mixed blessings.  Society has many ways of trying to better the human condition.  Here are a few other fields that strive to accomplish a better life.

  • Medicine
  • Law
  • Government
  • Education
  • Religion
  • Business

A new medicine is developed to control depression.  A legal system is set up to judge accused felons.  A law is passed to limit the emissions from automobiles.  An educational philosophy is introduced into a school system.  Notice that in each of these cases we can say exactly what we said about technology above.  If society takes some action,

  • It is seen as a good, as bettering the human condition, by at least someone.
  • It may not be seen as good by everyone.
  • It may be abused, that is, used for bad purposes.
  • It may well have consequences, good or bad, which were not anticipated by the developer.

Let’s take an example.  Let’s assume that the Federal Reserve Board lowers short term interest rates in an attempt to stimulate the economy.  Some may well believe that this is not a wise policy.  A corrupt board could use such an action for its own private purposes.  The consequences of the action are almost certainly not anticipated, at least not exactly. 

Here’s one that looks to the future.  In a decade or two or three it may be possible to develop a computer-like device that could emulate the human brain.  Suppose that such a device is proposed.  How might society respond? 

The conclusion of this section is that we live in a very complex world.  Almost all of our actions, technological or otherwise, have mixed and uncertain effects on society.  What is society to do in the face of such uncertainty 

7.2  Deciding What Is To Be Done

It is important to understand at the outset that these are not new questions for society.  Communities of people have been making rules and laws, trying to heal the sick, teaching the young, building water supply systems, tending the crops since long before the dawn of recorded history.  And these communities should have, and probably sometimes did, question what they were about to do.  And if they did not, it is likely that some of those communities failed to survive because of that.  It has been suggested, though never proved, that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to some extent to the water pipes made of lead.

In the Eighteenth Century the smokestacks of London inspired this dream of a better society. 

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green. 

 William Morris

Today some of the decisions that face society involve the entire planet.  Should nuclear electric power be developed?  If an epidemic of a new virulent disease breaks out in a some nation, how should the worldwide medical and political communities respond?  Should third world countries, badly in need of economic development, have lower environmental standards than the developed countries?  Should cloning of farm animals be allowed or encouraged?  Should a community ban the use of cell phones in automobiles?

How do we address such questions?  A simple answer is to say that the community that is affected is the community that should address such questions.  But life is seldom that simple.  Consider the use of cell phones.  If a city or state bans their use in automobiles, then car-driving phoners can no longer be reached, and those who are trying to call them from a distant city or state are at a disadvantage.  The effect of the rule goes beyond the community.  Or, from another perspective, the community is larger than it had seemed to be.  A recent power outage in the Northeast United States led to a loss of power in parts of Canada.  And yet the problem appeared to have originated in the United States, and will have to be solved here.

Some problems are local and have local solutions, but increasingly problems cross boundaries, and need to be addressed by wider communities, by bodies that can influence actions quite broadly.  And what do such communities ask of the engineer?

7.3 The Role of the Engineer in Addressing Social Issues

Engineers are in a unique position to contribute to the resolution of problems that cross the boundaries of science, technology and society.  No one has a greater understanding of the technical aspects of a product or a system.  No one is in a better position to point out the predictable effects of projects, or to approach the far more difficult task of peering through the fog in hopes of catching a glimpse of the unanticipated consequences of what we do.  Engineers have a responsibility to society to make their expertise available to the community in the assessment of proposed and existing technologies.  In the same sense that a doctor would be remiss if he or she did not point out the potential dangers of a new drug, so is the engineer wrong not to help assess the implications of proposed work.  The community depends upon us for this contribution.

Here are some specific expectations that society can properly ask of the engineer.

  • Consider what projects ought to be carried out, and hence ought to be worked on by the engineer. Not everything that is proposed should be developed.  The engineer can say no.
  • When a project is carried out it should be done well, with competence. It is reasonable to assume that this will lead to a better understanding of the project and its implications.
  • When a project is carried out the engineer should take into account as many of the considerations as possible that have an effect on society. This handbook was written to help you understand these issues and integrate them into your work.  Engineers must ask whether there are ethical issues, health and safety concerns, environmental implications, sustainability questions, and so on.
  • When things go wrong the engineer must be able and willing to bring this to the attention of society in a appropriate way.   

The last point brings us back to the question of whistleblowing, which we also considered in the Chapter on ethics.  Whistleblowing is the act of making public certain information or knowledge about some situation in which harm may arise.  This definition is purposely broad.  Many definitions with lots of variations can be found on the Internet.  For example, some would include making information known to internal officials, others would say that it is not whistleblowing unless one goes outside of the corporation, or group in question.

Some argue that engineers should be encouraged, even urged to blow the whistle on problems that they are aware of.  Others argue that much caution should be used in whistleblowing because of the damage that can be done to the whistleblower, and sometimes unfairly to the corporation.  Most people agree that it is best to try to solve problems internally, and that external whistleblowing should be considered as a last resort only.  Most also agree that anonymous whistleblowing, perhaps writing an unsigned letter to the local newspaper, is seldom effective.  Engineers who become aware that something is wrong need to have the courage to stand up and air the matter publicly. 

7.4  A Century of Achievements

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries saw the beginnings of the great technological developments that were to come in the Twentieth.  These forerunners included the Industrial Revolution, the development of steam power, railroads, the telegraph, and the experiments in electricity and magnetism that would culminate in 1873 with the brilliant synthesis of James Clerk Maxwell.  Maxwell’s equations led to much of that technology that we have today.  In the Year 2000 the National Academy of Engineering came up with of list of what it considered to by the twenty greatest engineering achievements of the Twentieth Century.  We list them here in alphabetical order so that you will be able later in one of the cases to try you hand at putting them in order of importance.  Here they are.  Ask yourself how many of them had an impact on your life for just this one day – today.    

  • Agricultural Mechanization
  • Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
  • Airplane
  • Automobile
  • Computers
  • Electrification
  • Electronics
  • Health Technology
  • High Performance Materials
  • Highways
  • Household Appliances
  • Imaging
  • Internet
  • Laser and Fiber Optics
  • Nuclear Technologies
  • Petroleum and Petrochemical Technologies
  • Radio and Television
  • Spacecraft
  • Telephone
  • Water Supply and Distribution

The Twentieth Century was quite a ride.  Do you think that just about everything has been invented, or do you suppose that there are still a few things left to come along?

7.5 Human Needs

Engineering is about the business of meeting human needs through technological development.  But just what is it that people need?   One answer to that is due to the Twentieth Century psychologist Abraham Maslow.  Maslow claimed that we have a hierarchy of needs.  Each must be met before we can proceed on to the next.  And if one need becomes deficient then we must go back and satisfy that before we proceed to satisfy our higher needs.  Maslow expressed his needs as a pyramid.


  • Ignore the matter, it is not your responsibility.
  • Discuss the matter with the engineer directly responsible for the part of the job where you think there may be a violation.
  • Discuss the matter with the engineer in charge of the project.
  • Discuss the matter with the local building inspector.
  • Write a signed letter to the local newspaper.
  • Write an unsigned letter to the local newspaper.

Our first needs are physiological.  These include air, water, food, sex.  If these needs are not met we feel uncomfortable and we may attempt to meet these needs before moving on to other things.  Of course we might choose to continue with some task even though we are hungry or thirsty, but the need is still there. 

Our next need is for safety.  This includes adequate housing to protect us from the elements and to alleviate our fear of what may threaten us “out there”.  Fear for our safety also motivates societies to set up protection systems, such as police, the military, etc.  As long as we fear for our safety it is hard, though not impossible, to move on to higher things.

Next we need love or companionship.  We like to have friends, belong to groups, join clubs, organizations, churches.  We need to feel that others love and respect us.

Esteem comes next.  Self-esteem comes from feeling good about what we have accomplished in life, a sense of satisfaction with the contributions that we make.  We also feel good if others appreciate our contributions.

Finally we seek self-actualization, having the ability to grow richer and more complete as life goes on, to develop our strengths, overcome our weaknesses, to enjoy a sense of wholeness with life.

It is interesting to consider these needs in the light of the twenty technological developments in Section 7.4.  Which need(s) do these developments satisfy? 


Case 7.01:  You are a civil engineer who is aware of the seismic construction code for buildings in your area.  You observe what appears to be a violation of the code in a project in which you are not involved.  You do know the engineer in charge of the project.  Here are some options that come to mind.


  1. Ignore the matter, it is not your responsibility.
  2. Discuss the matter with the engineer directly responsible for the part of the job where you think there may be a violation.
  3. Discuss the matter with the engineer in charge of the project.
  4. Discuss the matter with the local building inspector.
  5. Write a signed letter to the local newspaper.
  6. Write an unsigned letter to the local newspaper. 

It is possible to give reasons or make arguments for and against each of these options.  Do so, and then decide what is your choice for a plan of action.  If your first step does not work, what do you do next, etc? 

Case 7.02:  Should third world countries, badly in need of economic development, have lower environmental standards than the developed countries?  First, state and defend your position.  Then address the question of who in the world should decide what the answer is to be.

Case 7.3:  Go back to Section 7.4 and take a look at that list of technologies.  Rank them in order or importance in your view.  Don’t look up the answers until you have had a chance to think about it a bit for yourself, and do a ranking.  Then when you have done that take a look at the ranking that the National Academy of Engineering came up with.  

  1. Why do you suppose they picked Number 1? What makes it so important?
  2. Why is their fifth pick more important than their sixth?
  3. Let’s take a look at one of these in detail. We’ll do Water Supply and Distribution.  Follow the link to some details about this work.  Read the History and the Timeline.  Water supply is often thought of as a Civil Engineering field.  And yet a number of the twenty technologies, outside of CE, are important to water supply.  Which ones?  Why?

Case 7.4:  Make a table with Maslow’s five needs as the head of columns.  Below the heading list which of the twenty technologies of Section 7.4 satisfy each need.  You may well want to use some of the needs in more than one column.

Case 7.5:  The homes we live in are full of electronic communications devices.  Telephone, radio, television, computers, cell phones, PDA’s.  What effect do these devices have on the way we live, the way that families function in a home.  Think about your own experience.  How are you and those you live with affected by all this electronics.  After you have had a chance to think about this read the article by Christine Bachen, a member of SCU’s Communications Department.


The world of engineering abounds in political issues.  The well-educated engineer needs to understand how engineering and political activities interact, and how to work effectively in this environment.  This chapter addresses four issues.

  • Government as a regulator.
  • Government as a customer.
  • The engineer in politics.
  • Training the political engineer.

 8.1 Government as a Regulator

From the most powerful federal agencies to the tiniest villages, governments regulate development in myriad ways.  This happens because communities of all sizes have an inherent interest in controlling the nature of their communities.  We don’t want a slaughterhouse built across the street from a residential area, or a four-story house on the edge of the sea that blocks the view of dozens of houses, or a factory that emits a great deal of noise in an urban area, or a toaster that is so poorly built that it can kill the user, or a microwave oven that emits enough radiation to harm the user, or a tanker that easily leaks oil into the water, or an automobile that spills excess pollution into the air, or a building that easily falls down in an earthquake.

Because we don’t want these things, and many others, we create laws, regulations, rules, codes, standards that determine what is acceptable, and what is not.  Such regulations arise because a problem is recognized and quantified, a community is concerned about the problem, and a political system has the ability to devise a solution.  Such solutions are often controversial.  The rights of one group are pitted against the rights of another.  Why should the size of my house on the beach be limited, I have a right to do what I want with my property.  Why should you have a right to build a house that limits my view, I have a right to the view that I paid for?  Why should you dictate the quality of my oil tanker, it will be more expensive to build, and the price of gas will go up?  Why should you be allowed to spill oil, and ruin the marine environment that I cherish?  Why should you impose earthquake standards that will make the building twice as expensive as it need be?  Why should you be allowed to construct a building that is almost certain to fail and cause loss  of life in the inevitable major earthquake?

Engineers have vital roles to play in such controversies.  They are often the first to notice or recognize a problem, and they carry an obligation to inform the community of the situation.  This obligation arises from the inherent moral right of an individual or community to knowledge of matters that are of concern to its health, safety, well-being.  Such knowledge gives the community the opportunity to decide how to address the concern, if at all.  The second role of the engineer in this process is to quantify the danger and the costs of removing the danger, as well as possible.  The community needs that information to determine how to act.  Here is a hypothetical example to make the point.

A community decides to build a new school in a region that has occasional strong earthquakes.  The basic cost of the building is $10,000,000.  The design engineer points out that the probably of no loss of life in an earthquake over the life of the building can be increased by various additional steps in the construction.  Table 8.1 below gives the estimated probability of no loss of life versus the cost for the required additional work.

                Probability of No Loss of Life                     Additional Cost

                                  10%                                               $500,000

                                  25                                               $1,000,000

                                  50                                               $5,000,000

                                  75                                             $40,000,000

                                  90                                           $500,000,000        

                                  99                                      $20,000,000,000


Table 8.1:  The Cost of Safety

The community must now decide how much it is willing to pay for safety.  It makes no sense for a member of the community or perhaps one of its politicians to say “There is no price too high to pay for the safety of the children.”  Of course there is too high a price.  This community does not have $20,000,000.000 or anything remotely close to such a figure.  It must make a decision about the price that it can afford and that it wishes to pay.  The job of the engineer has been to provide the estimates that make that decision possible.

Engineers play similar roles in thousands of situations.  If the engineer is to be effective in this role he or she must be professionally competent, articulate, and able to work within the political environment.

8.2 Government as Customer

The artifacts of engineering are bought and used by individuals and by communities.  The latter require schools and other public buildings, transportation systems, information systems, local and national defense, and a host of other things.  Working through and with the political sector, engineers help provide the needs of the community.  To be effective in this arena engineers must be themselves political, must be able to communicate effectively, argue their case when necessary, clarify the need for and the possible negative side of proposed new community systems.

8.3 The Engineer in Politics

Another way in which the engineer can influence the political life of the community is obviously to enter politics.  Engineers have not typically made up a significant portion of the political world.  There are reasons why that should change, and there are changes in the wind that will facilitate a new role for engineers. 

It is increasingly important that engineers play a direct role in political life because of the increasing complexity of the world that we are creating, and the need to explain that world to the electorate and to one’s political colleagues.  Engineers have too often chosen the isolated role of the designer in the back room, happily leaning over a drafting board solving technical problems.  Today society needs more of the gifts that engineers can bring.  Let’s list some of those strengths.

  • Engineers understand numbers. Quantification is one of our strengths.  Many problem require accurate and meaningful quantifying.  We’re good at that.
  • Engineers tend to speak plainly. When we understand a situation we tend to want to explain it as it is, not as someone might want to hear it.
  • Engineers are inherently problem solvers. We like to tackle a tough problem, and come up with an answer that helps someone out.  We usually bring a straightforward approach to situations.
  • Engineers are particularly able to help set standards, devise codes, regulations.
  • Engineers understand risk, and are often able to quantify it effectively.

8.4 Training the Political Engineer

Well, all of this looks like quite a challenge for that engineer who might prefer the drafting board in the back room.  If society increasingly needs her out in public what can we do to train her for this role?  What we can do is just what we have begun to do in the last few years.   We can restructure engineering education so that you learn something about the non-technical areas that are of increasing importance.  What are they?  They are the topics of this handbook.  Here they are, just to remind you.

  • An ethical sense of right and wrong.
  • A sensitivity to health and safety, as well as environmental impact.
  • Manufacturability, sustainability, usability.
  • A passion for lifelong learning.
  • Social, political and economic skills.
  • Compassion for those who are in need.


Case 8.1:  Let’s start by going back to that $10,000,000 school that the community wishes to build in the earthquake-prone region (Table 8.1).

  1. Once the engineer has provided the community with Table 8.1 do you think that he has any further responsibilities, or is his job through? Specifically, should he lobby, as an engineer, not just as a citizen, for one of these choices?
  2. Suppose now that you are a citizen of this community. What choice would you make?  Justify your choice.
  3. Are there any other contributions that the engineer might make to the community in this situation?

Case 8.2:  Imagine that as a frosh engineering student you decide that you would like to run for congress sometime after you graduate?  What changes or additions to your curriculum or co-curricular activities would you make?  Why?

Case 8.3:  The engineering firm that you work for has contracted to build that school (Table 8.1).  The community has decided after long debate to go with the 50% option, so the total cost of the building will be $15,000,000.  Some design problems arise after construction has begun.  The company secretly decides to reduce slightly some of the construction standards with the result that the estimated probability of no loss of life will be a little lower.  Nothing big – a few percentage points.  At first you are inclined to blow the whistle on the company, anonymously, by writing an unsigned letter to the local paper.  Then you reason that the changes are so minor that the company would probably be able to argue its way out of the matter if it went to court – and going to court could delay the finish of the school for years, a most unfortunate prospect for the community.  You are losing sleep nights thinking about this dilemma.  You have quite a few options.  What are they?  What option do you think is best for the community?

Case 8.4:  Good news, you got elected to congress – it was a tight race, but you made it.  You are serving on the House Committee on Science.  A number of old factories near the Canadian border have been identified as the source of acid rain in parts of Canada.  Canada has asked the United States to pass legislation requiring these plants to install emission abatement devices that will reduce the amount of acid rain.  Some good staff work and a trip to three of the plants on your part have convinced you of three things.  The land in Canada impacted by the acid rain is sparsely populated, the long term effects of the rain are difficult to assess, and it is virtually certain that many of the plants would have to close down because of the prohibitive cost of the emission abatement devices.  This would have a very serious affect on the communities where these plants are situated.  Who are the stakeholders here, who has interests?  What are the competing rights that make this a tough problem?  Do you have enough information to vote?  If not what else would you like to know?  What do you wish you had studied back at Santa Clara to help you on this one?  What are you going to do?

Chapter 9.  ECONOMIC

The purpose of the economic analysis of a project is to determine whether the project should be carried out, from a financial perspective.  Of course other questions relating to sustainability, health and safety, environmental impact and others must also be considered before a final decision is reached.  In this chapter we restrict our attention to the financial issues.  We will be looking for a way to decide what it costs to produce a product, so that we can determine whether we can sell the product at an acceptable price.

This chapter addresses three area.

  • The cost of making a product
  • The cost of ownership
  • An example – electric power generation
  • The user’s perspective
  • Another example – power from the sun

9.1 The Cost of Making a Product

Let’s start by considering some typical products, and how they come to be. 

Let’s build an automobile.  We start by building a manufacturing plant.  We then hire a number of employees, purchase raw or processed materials, and have the people put the pieces together to create the car. 

Or, how about some electric power?  We build a gas-fired power plant, hire some people, and purchase fuel to run the plant.

Perhaps our product is a service, such as computer repair consulting.  We rent a building, hire some smart computer consultants, get in some telephone lines, and wait for the phone calls.

What does it cost to do these things, and what must we charge our customers in order to stay in business.  We need a way to think about costs.  Here is a start.

The cost of a product can be divided into fixed costs and variable costs.  Fixed costs are those associated with being in business, with being available to produce a product.  Variable costs are those that depend on how much product we produce.  Let’s use the power plant for an example.  The first thing we must do is to build the plant.  We then have the capacity to produce electric power.  But suppose that demand goes dry, and nobody needs electric power.  We still pay the price of owning the plant, including a skeleton crew to keep things healthy.  But now suppose that demand picks up.  Then we must purchase natural gas to run the power plant.  The amount of gas we use and pay for will depend on the amount of electric energy we sell, and are paid for by our customers.  The total cost of the gas varies, depending on demand or sales.  The cost of the gas plus any other costs that depend on usage, such as more employees perhaps, are variable costs.  The total cost of our product is the sum of the fixed and the variable costs.

The next question is this.  What does it cost to own something, to build and own that power plant, for example?

9.2 The Cost of Ownership

Power plants are expensive things.  (So are houses, manufacturing plants, skyscrapers, cruise ships, railroads, and so on.)  It may cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build that plant.  There is the concrete, steel, gas turbines, electric generators, cooling systems, pipes, vents, carpenters, laborers, accountants, lawyers, and on and on.  The vendors and the workers all want to be paid now.  So if you are to build this plant you will have to come up with those hundreds of millions of dollars.  A naïve argument might suggest that the power company is rich, they probably have the money in the bank.  Well, that may or may not be true, but it makes little difference.  Money is a very valuable thing, and it would be absurd not to account for its value.  A rather common approach to the matter is for the power company to go to a lender, and borrow the money, agreeing to pay back what it has borrowed with interest.  (This is exactly what you do when you buy a house with a mortgage.  The mortgager provides the money for the building of the house, and then you pay the mortgager back over time.)   If the power company happens to have a few hundred million in the bank it might well use that money to build the plant, but if it does not account for the value of the money in determining the cost of the electricity, then it has failed to charge the true price of the electricity.  A logical way for the power company to act would be to pay itself back with interest, just as it would have paid the mortgager.  Then, at the end of the life of the plant it would have its few hundred million back in the bank, and would have charged the customer an amount that took into account the monthly payments into its account, that is, that took account of the value of that work that it took to build the plant.

So, what is the value of money?  Again, this is like buying a house.  You borrow enough to acquire the house.  Then you spend perhaps 20 or 30 years making payments to the mortgager that includes interest on the loan and payments on the principle.  At the end of the term of the mortgage you have paid back all of the amount that you borrowed, plus the interest, and you own the house “free and clear”.  Suppose that you buy a house for $500,000.  Your monthly payments might be around $3,500 or so, depending on the interest rate, and the length of the load.  The $3,500 per month is your payment for the right to live in this house, to own it.  It’s your way of paying back all of those carpenters, bricklayers, painters, etc. 

Let’s get down to hard numbers.  Just exactly how much must my power company or I pay back to the lender if the annual interest rate is i, expressed as a fraction (8% is i = 0.08), and the principle, the amount we borrow, is P.  Then, at the end of one year we owe the lender

P + iP = P(1+i) 

Now if we wish to pay the loan off in one year then we given the lender this amount.  But if we wish to pay off the loan over n years then we make an annual payment R that is just the right amount to pay off the interest and the principle in n years.  It is not difficult to show that the annual payment rate for any principle P and interest i is given by:


As an example let’s see what would be your yearly and monthly mortgage payments on that $500,000 house for some different interest rates, assuming a 30 year mortgage.  


                            i                            R                               Rm


                         5 %              $32,500 per year        $2,710 per month


                         7                    40,300                        3,360


                       10                    53,000                        4,420


It is always nice to buy a house when interests rates are low, because it makes a great difference in that monthly mortgage rate.  Now, we must say here that the way of arriving at Equation 9.1 is not exactly the way that lenders do the math, but the differences are small, so that this equation gives quite accurate results.  (We hope that your natural curiosity led you to check our results or perhaps to try some other combinations.  Did you perhaps wonder how much your monthly payment goes down if you take out a 100 year mortgage?  Is that a good idea?  Hmmm!)

9.3 An Example – Electric Power Generation 

How much does it cost to generate one kilowatt hour (KWH) of electric energy?  How much should you have to pay to run your toaster for an hour, or your TV for 3 hours, or that 100 watt light bulb for 10 hours?  This is an interesting example for a number of reasons.  First, it illustrates the economic analysis idea quite well.  Second, as new forms of power are proposed, such as wind and solar, for example, this gives us a way of comparing their costs with conventional systems.  Third, understanding this cost analysis will help you understand the highly complex societal debate that is going on today over how we generate and distribute electric power.  You will be a more informed citizen.

Before we start let’s be sure that you understand the difference between electric power and electric energy.  Power is the capacity to do work.  It does not imply that work is being done.  It is the same as with your car.  If you buy a 300 horsepower car, you have a vehicle with a great deal of power, a great potential for doing a lot of work in a short amount of time.  If you wish to accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds, you will have to have a very powerful car.  But you do not do any work until you drive the car.  If it sits in the car it still is a powerful car but it isn’t doing any work, using any energy.

The power plant is the same way.  If you build a 100 megawatt (MW) plant, you have a powerful plant, but as long as it is not running, no energy is delivered to the customer.  It costs you money to own the plant, as it costs you money to own that car.  Those are fixed costs.  When you decide to run the car or the plant you must provide fuel to it.  Then it will deliver energy, and you will need to pay the variable costs of the fuel.

Let’s use that gas-fired power plant to generate 100 MW of power.  The architects have designed the plant, and the low bid has come in at $340,000,000.  That’s $340 per KW.   The lender is willing to loan you the money at 6% over 40 years.  From Equation 9.1 it is seen that you will need to pay back the lender $22,800,000 per year.  We had better take out some insurance, and since this is a private plant we will have to pay taxes.  Maybe that adds $5,000,000 per year.  So, your total cost of owning this plant for one year is $27,800,000.  You are going to have to get your customers to pay for that.  Let’s see how much they will have to pay per kilowatt hour (KWH) just to cover the cost of owning the plant.

Let’s assume that there the plant has a duty cycle of 0.7.  That means that it runs 70% of the time on the average.  Since there are 8760 hours in a year, this plant runs for 6130 hours each year.  So, with a power of 100 MW or 100,000 KW the energy generated per year is power times time or 613,000,000 KWH.  Hence the cost per KWH due only to plant ownership is:

      $22,800,000/613,000,000 = $0.037/KWH = 37 mills/KWH

A mill is $0.001 or one tenth of one cent.  (Don’t confuse it with a mil.  That’s 0.001 inches, a thousandth of an inch. 

In addition to paying for ownership of the plant we also have to pay for the natural gas that is burned to produce each KWH of energy.   This is a variable cost.  Our accountants have determined that the average cost for fuel is 21 mills.  Hence the total cost for each KWH of energy is 58 mills or 5.8 cents.  We’ve left out a lot in this simplified example.  There are also costs of operation and maintenance, office costs, and a number of other things that we might have considered.  But these two factors are enough to give you the idea.

9.4 The User’s Perspective 

We consumers also have fixed and variable costs for many of the things that we buy and use.  Let’s start with an automobile.  What does it cost you per mile?  Let’s assume that you buy a new car for $25,000, finance it at 4% over 5 years, and that you drive it 10,000 miles per year, for ten years, and then junk it.  From Table 9.1 the payment for each of the five years is 0.225x$25,000 = $5,625 for a total cost of $28,125.  If we spread this over ten years it costs us $2,812 per year to own this car.  Let’s assume that insurance costs $800 per year.  Thus the total fixed costs are $3,612 per year.  Since we drive 10,000 per year, the fixed cost per mile for ownership alone is $0.36 or 36 cents.  The government estimates today that the fuel and maintenance costs are 34 cents per mile, a variable cost.  Hence the total cost of driving the car for each mile is 70 cents. 

Here’s another example.  Suppose that you buy a fan for those few really hot days each year.  Let’s assume a duty factor of 1%.  You pay $50 cash for it, and expect it to last for 20 years.  (Just out of curiosity, what would be the total cost of the fan if you put it on your credit card at 18%, and let the bill ride for three years?  Ouch!)  If we pay cash, and do not wish to account for the value of the cash, then it costs $2.50 per year to own this fan.  With a duty cycle of 1% we are using this fan about 88 hours per year.  Hence each hour of operation costs us 2.84 cents.  This fan draws 120 watts and so in one hour of operation the electric energy used is 0.12 KWH.  If the power company charges us 10 cents per KWH, the energy cost is 1.2 cents.  So the total cost of owning and running this fan is 4.04 cents per hour.

9.5 Another Example – Power From the Sun

With a bit of discussion of fixed and variable costs we are in a position to answer a question that one often hears.  Why don’t they just harness the free energy of the sun,  or the winds, or water, or tides, or geothermal steam, or ocean waves?  Well, actually we do.  We have lots of hydroelectric power, and a bit of each of the others.  But none of it is free because of the capital costs of the dams, the generators, the solar panels, geothermal steam processors, wind generators, etc.  These costs are not trivial.  It can be very expensive to own such plants, and that cost of ownership must be spread over the energy generated to determine the total cost of energy, exactly as we have done above.  Let’s walk through an example for a solar power system to go on the roof of your house.

The peak solar power incident on the surface of the earth (it is called insolation) is about 1,000 watts per square meter.  Solar cells today have an efficiency of around 15%.  So the electric power available is about 150 watts per square meter.  If you wish to generate 3,000 watts (3 KW) peak, you will need about 20 square meters, which is an area of about 12 feet by 15 feet.  This may well fit on your roof or in a good-sized backyard.  The installed cost of solar panels runs about $10 per watt (2003), or $30,000 for our 3,000 watt system.  This system does not have too high a duty cycle since it obviously does not operate at night, or on cloudy days, or when the sun is very low in the sky.  Let’s assume an average duty cycle of about 30%.  Hence the system operates about 2600 hours per year, producing a total of about 8,000 KWH.  If we borrow money to purchase the system at 5% interest over 10 years, making the assumption that this is the life of the system, we must pay the lender $3,900 per year.  This gives us a cost of 49 cents per KWH. 

This is quite a bit higher than the cost of energy from hydroelectric, fossil or nuclear plants.  So, while we are not using up nonrenewable resources, the cost of solar electric energy is higher than these competitors.  However, this does not suggest that it will continue to be higher.  There is every reason to believe that the cost of solar panels will come down, and the efficiency will go up.   At the same time the cost of nonrenewable fuels will no doubt go up, so that eventually solar power costs will be competitive with that of conventional sources.

There are many more issues that we could address here.  Let’s look at some of them briefly, leaving a more detailed analysis to your own studies.  The above analysis applies to solar power.  But the same kind of analysis might easily be applied to other forms of renewable energy forms, such as the wind, which has seen significant interest in recent years.  A problem that applies to both wind and sun is what one does when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow.  One answer is to develop a storage system.  Another is to switch to a conventional source when the renewable is down.  Still another question is whether we apply an “environmental cost” to nonrenewables.  For example, suppose that someone who has a strong interest in the environment decides to install a solar power system even though it costs more then the conventional sources.  Such a person is essentially applying a cost to the environmental damage done by conventional plants, and is willing to pay that cost. 


Case 9.1: 

Chapter 10.  COMPASSION

If you have come to help me you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your life and your liberation are bound up with mine, then let us work together.

- Unknown 

In the introduction to this Handbook we offered the following definition.

Compassion, in a narrow sense, is the awareness of and sympathy for the suffering of another, a taking upon ourselves of that suffering. In a broader sense compassion recognizes systemic problems in the world, and the desire to relieve that that lead to continued suffering for large groups of persons, and that lead us to a sense of solidarity with the suffering, and again the desire to relieve that suffering.


In this section we explore this interesting subject in more detail, and relate it to the profession of engineering.  Specifically we address seven questions, and then finish as usual with some cases.  Here are the questions we ask.

  • Can compassion be taught?
  • Why is compassion commendable?
  • What evokes compassion?
  • When does compassion go wrong?
  • What inhibits compassion?
  • What is the role of compassion in the life of the engineer?
  • What is the Arrupe Center?

10.1 Can Compassion Be Taught?

We start with this question so that you will have a clearer idea of what we are trying to do in this chapter.  So, let’s say it up front.  We cannot teach you to be compassionate by having you read essays and consider ideas, just as we can not teach you to be ethical.  But you can learn compassion through exposure to the sufferings of people.  One approach to this is through community-based learning, in which you work in the community outside the walls of the University.  Such programs are run by the Arrupe Center for Community-Based Learning, which we will talk about later 

What we do in this section is to introduce some ideas that will help you think about this very important subject.  You will, without question, face situations in life that call upon your compassion.  It will be better for you if you recognize certain aspects of the matter.  This should enhance your ability to make wise decisions.  Even though we cannot teach you to be compassionate we consider compassion to be of extraordinary importance in your life.  Remember the three cornerstones of a Santa Clara education.

  • Competence
  • Conscience
  • Compassion

The University believes deeply that your education will be successful only if these three characteristics are a part of your life in the years ahead.  We believe that with them you will know a life well-lived, a life of true joy, and that the world will be a better place for all of us to live in.  So, let’s see what compassion is all about.

10.2  Why is Compassion Commendable?

Is compassion to be commended?  Is it desirable that each of us be compassionate?   We offer two simple arguments in support of compassion.  The first is an argument from consensus.  It says that almost all societies, almost all groups of people, believe that compassion is a virtue, that is a characteristic to be sought in people.  The argument says that if so many people say that compassion is commendable, then it must be so.  Sometimes arguments from consensus turn out to be wrong, but they nonetheless deserve some attention.  Let’s move on to a second approach.

It seems as though compassion is important to the health of the community (which is no doubt what led to the consensus position above in the first place).  Compassion seems to foster community by leading us to correct problems, disruptions, breakdowns in groups or in individuals.  Healing our wounds seems to strengthen community. 

10.3  What Evokes Compassion?

Why do we feel compassion?  Where does it come from?  Well, let’s start with an exercise.  Get out a piece of paper and write down the things in life that are fundamentally important to you.  I will start you out with two – how about life and health?  Can you come up with a half dozen more?  Don’t peek below.

Do you have your list?  Good.  Here is one that I came up with.  These are some things that I really desire in life. 

  • Life
  • Health
  • Shelter
  • Food
  • Freedom from pain
  • Satisfaction with work and play
  • Tranquility
  • Friendship and love

If you compare your list with mine, or with others, I suspect that you will find much common ground.  Most of us want pretty much the same fundamental things in life - the things that make for the “good life”.  Now here is the interesting thing.  Most of us also seem to want these things for others, as well as for ourselves.  It is interesting to speculate why this is the case.  Perhaps it is a survival of the fittest issue.  Maybe those of us who survived the evolutionary selection process were those who cared for each other, those who believed in community, and saw that compassion was a way of sustaining community.  Whatever the root cause, compassion is a common characteristic of our species.  Most people are generally compassionate.  Sometimes that breaks down, and we’ll talk about why in a later section.

Suffering is the word we use to describe the lack of one or more of these desires or needs.  They suffer from a lack of food.  She is suffering because she lacks decent shelter.  His fear is making his life miserable.  Her life is unbearable because she has lost her best friend.

Compassion happens when we observe that people are suffering, and when we do what we can to alleviate that suffering.  If the second part is not there we might call it sympathy or perhaps pity, but not compassion.

We said above that most people seem to be compassionate, at least in many situations.  Let’s look at some examples from real life.

Suppose that you are walking down the road and a child is struck by a car and thrown to the ground.  Bystanders rush to the scene trying to offer assistance, to alleviate the pain of the child.  Why?  Well, the cynic might wonder about motives, but most of us would agree that we feel that child’s pain.  We are hurt.  We can feel the rocks dig into our skin as she slides along the street.  There is a commonality here.  We are one with this child, and we want to fix things.

Our friend has just lost her spouse.  We hold her in our arms and comfort her.  She is sobbing, and suddenly we find that there are tears in our eyes, we become choked up, and can barely whisper the words of comfort.  We become one with her for this moment.

An old man sits on the curb.  His sign says, “I am so hungry.”  And suddenly you feel less hungry than you did when you bought that Big Mac, and you feel his hunger.  If you feel sorry for him, that’s sympathy.  If you give him the Big Mac, that’s compassion.

10.4 When Does Compassion Go Wrong?

Compassion, like all of our human virtues, can go wrong.  Aristotle spoke of our virtues as being “Golden Means” between two undesired extremes.  Thus courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness.  Aristotle did not speak of compassion as a virtue, but we might say that compassion is the mean between callousness and misdirected social action.  Compassion requires not only sympathy but also action that is chosen wisely, action that succeeds in alleviating the suffering.  What are some examples of misdirected social action.

Suppose that your friend is deeply in debt because of a gambling addiction.  He is about to lose his home, and you feel very sorry about that.  He wants to borrow money from you.  But you know that his addiction is too strong, and that he will gamble with your money, encouraging his addiction in the process.

Perhaps you are a university professor and a student comes to you begging for an extension on a paper because of the death of a best friend.  But supposing that there was no death.  This is just a story to arouse your sympathy.  If you give him the extension you encourage him to lie again, and you are unfair to the other members of the class.

10.5  What Inhibits Compassion

People may be generally compassionate, but compassionate acts don’t happen all the time.  Why not?   The first problem is that we may not notice the suffering.  When we studied ethics we saw that there is no ethical reflection until we recognize the situation as an ethical problem.  Similarly, we have to recognize suffering if there is to be any compassion.  Some people are not very observant, some spend most of their time with their head in the sand.  But even if we recognize suffering we may not react to it, for lots of reasons.  Here are some.

  • Fear
  • Greed
  • Isms (sexism, racism, ageism, etc.)

We may fear that getting involved will disturb our life too much.  Consoling a sick friend may cause us too much mental anguish, or embarrass us.  Coming to the aid of a stranger in a burning car may put us at risk of physical harm.

We may be unwilling to give up any of our worldly goods.

The ISMs may convince us that the sufferer is not worthy of help, or should not have gotten into trouble in the first place, or simply is not of interest to us.  If we don’t like “those kind of people”, we are not so likely to come to their aid.

10.6 What is the Role of Compassion in the Life of the Engineer?

Compassion again is much like ethics in this regard.  Engineers have special professional obligations to society in light of their work.  But we also live lives outside the profession.  All of us ought to be compassionate when we observe suffering.  Within their professional work engineers may choose a career that helps alleviate systematic suffering, perhaps due to hunger, or disease, or lack of adequate water supply.  If they do not choose quite so noble a path there are still many ways in which the working engineer can feel compassion, perhaps for colleagues who experience some personal disaster, perhaps for the eventual users of the products of engineering.  There were engineers involved in the design and subsequent deaths related to the Ford Pinto with the gas tank in the wrong place.  Once the problem became clear, and a number of people had died, where was the compassion that should have led to the recall of the car?

10.7 What is the Arrupe Center?

The Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Center for Community-Based Learning at Santa Clara University provides a way for students to experience the lives of the less fortunate, and to help make those lives better.  The Center facilitates the connection of students to meaningful projects in the community.  Details of the Center’s work, along with a list of available projects can be found at:  


Case 11.1:  Professor Payson was clear about one thing from the first day of class.  Your term paper must be handed in by the last day of class – no exceptions, for any reason.  For each day you are late you lose one full course grade.  If you are four days late you fail the course.  This is a course you plan to ace so there is no way you are going to be late.  You put your heart and soul in the paper, and are fully confident of a solid A for the course.  A careful person, you make sure that nothing can go wrong.  You work up to the last minute but keep both soft and hard copies of the paper as it progresses, updating them every day.  You keep a paper copy in your desk, a soft copy on your computer, and every day you give your best friend, who lives in another dorm, a floppy disk with the updated paper.  The night before the class the guys next door have a BIG party.  Decorations include – oh no, not candles.  Yes candles – the breeze that blew the curtains over to the candles didn’t come up until after everyone was sound asleep.  The whole dorm could have burned down.  Fortunately the damage was not too bad.  Your neighbor got by with a charred curtain and some lost clothes.  But somehow the fire spread to your room, and you lost just about everything – computer, desk, books, notes for the paper, just about everything.  Thank goodness for that floppy disc that you gave your neighbor.  You rush over there, hoping that her printer works.  You pop in the disc and scan the contents – there is nothing there, it’s empty.  You must have given her the wrong disc. Tears form in your eyes.  You steel yourself for the long walk across campus to Professor Payson’s office.  You sigh, knock gently on the door.  You tell him the story.

  1. What are Professor Payson’s options?
  2. Should he follow his rules, or take into account the mitigating circumstances? (Isn’t it always better to follow the rules?)
  3. What do you hope that he does?
  4. Suppose that this has not happened to you, but to someone else in the class (who, if the truth were told, you really don’t like very much). Professor Payson grades on the curve, and you and the other person are essentially in competition for an A.  Besides, you suspect that she plagiarized part of the paper.  Do you thank that Payson should give her an extension?
  5. Is it just for Payson to give either one of you an extension? Isn’t that unfair to the rest of the class?
  6. Now it’s a few years later and you are in a leadership role in your company. Problems like this keep coming up.  Do you always follow the rules – no exceptions?  If you do, explain why you have taken this position.  Or do you let circumstances enter the picture?  If you do, how do you decide when to follow the rules and when not to. 

Case 11.2:   The situation in Case 11.1 taken another twist.  It is a few weeks later.  The student who held the party that led to the fire has been called up before the Interdorm Disciplinary Board.  He faces permanent expulsion because he has been involved in numerous other escapades that have threatened the safety of the dorm.  There is no question, he is a threat to your community.  People could get killed.  You might have been killed in that fire that wiped out your room.  But, he comes from a poor family, and is here on a scholarship.  If they toss him out, he probably never will get back to college.  What should be done?  Why?

Case 11.3:  Sometimes a photo can evoke compassion.  One of the most famous examples is called ‘Migrant Mother’, a picture of a migrant worker and her two children taken in 1936.  See it at:  This picture caught the heart of the American people, themselves deep in the suffering of the Depression.  There was an outpouring of compassion for this woman, and for the millions of others that she represented.  Read Dorethea Lange’s story of how she came to photograph this woman, and then click on Picture 1a.  You can blow it up to get a better sense of the woman’s suffering.  Most great photographers assert that their task is not simply to record reality, but to find their own soul’s in what they picture.  What do you think Lange found in Migrant Mother?

Case 11.4:  Can you feel compassion for potential suffering?  The literature does not seem to speak to this question.  What do you think?  Suppose that you were one of the engineers working on the Challenger Shuttle the night before it was to be launched.  You know that those o-rings could fail, and you can just feel the terrible heat the astronauts will feel if the ship blows up?  You decide to speak out.  Is that compassion, or is the word not appropriate for that situation?

Case 11.5:  Ricky, the company flake, walks into your office.  He says that he knows that the boss is going to ask you whether Ricky really went to the conference last week – which you know he did not.  Ricky begs you to tell the boss he was there.  If you don’t he will probably lose his job, and hey the baby is due next week, and Ricky cannot afford to be without a job.  Give arguments for why you should tell the truth, and for why you should lie.  Bottom line, what do you do?  

Chapter 11.  Lifelong Learning


It has been popular over the last twenty or so years for learned persons to proclaim on occasion that the “half-life” of the engineer is five years or six, or eight, or ten, or some other such number.  The idea was that after say six years half of what you learned in school is obsolete.  The concept is extraordinarily simplistic.  It suggests an image in which we fill you up with engineering over four years, like a gasoline tank.  Then in six years your tank is half empty, or half full if you prefer the optimistic perspective.  Implicit in this model is the idea that education is largely about learning facts.  In fact education is quite a bit more complex than this, and that’s the good news.

In this chapter we talk about a number of things relating to how we learn and how we can continue to learn for our life time.  Here is what we will look at.

  • The Structure of an Engineering Education
  • Levels of Learning – Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • What’s Your Style
  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication

11.1 The Structure of an Engineering Education=

Your engineering education can be seen as consisting of four parts, the first three of which are largely unchanging over the years.  Let’s look at these parts, along with some sub-parts.

Basic Mathematical tools

  1. Algebra and trigonometry
  2. Calculus
  3. Probability
  4. Finite mathematic
  5. etc

Fundamental laws of nature 

  • Newton’s Laws
  • Maxwell’s Equations
  • First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics
  • Principle of Relativity
  • etc

The Ways of the Engineer 

  • Critical Thinking
  • Learning How to Learn
  • Disciplined Analysis
  • Creative Design
  • Checking Results (initial conditions, boundary conditions, limits)
  • Professionalism
  • Working in Teams
  • Communications


  • Each discipline has its own technology, which changes over the years

Most of what we you learn in the first three areas is relevant to any of the engineering disciplines, and most of it will be relevant throughout your career.  This is not to suggest that it is static.  You may need to learn some additional mathematics to approach a new technology.  You will almost certainly increase your engineering skills with experience.  You will want to develop your skills in working with other people. You may have to learn new techniques or approaches to problems. 

But it is in technology that you will likely see the greatest changes in the years ahead, and you will need to keep up with these changes if you are to continue to be an effective engineer.  Because we are committed to helping you remain effective over the lifetime of your career, one of the objectives of your engineering education is to help you become an effective lifelong learner. 

If you are to be an effective lifelong learner you will need two things.

  • Motivation to learn
  • Tools or methods to facilitate that learning 

Motivation comes from the heart and the mind.  What do you want to do in life?  What do you love to do?  These questions have always moved you, they always will.  When you decided to come to engineering school, it was with some goal in mind.  Perhaps you love to make things work, or maybe you think this is a good way to make money, or perhaps you always loved mathematics and physics and just want to learn some more.  The goals you set in life provide you with the motivation to do the work necessary to reach these goals.  We will do what we can to help you with this matter of motivation.  We will try to show you that our work is exciting, that it’s fun to solve problems, to design things, to make them work, to make the world a better place to live.  But in the end motivation is pretty much up to you. 

So let’s talk about what you can do to become a better lifelong learner.  We’ll start by talking about the different ways in which we learn.

11.2 Levels of Learning – Bloom’s Taxonomy 

In the 1950’s Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues identified three different ways in which all of us learn, the cognitive, the affective and the psychomotor.  Cognitive learning involves knowledge and the development of effective ways to use knowledge.  Most of the explicit work we do in formal education is cognitive.  Affective learning involves the emotions, including feelings, intuition, desires, ambitions, attitudes.  Psychomotor learning involves learning to move and act effectively, to respond to new situations requiring motion, to adapt to new motor demands.  In this section we limit discussion to the cognitive realm. 

In the cognitive sector Bloom identifies six levels of accomplishment or competence.  At  each level certain skills are demonstrated and certain keywords apply.  In Figure 11.1 we have adapted the original list of skills and keywords to apply to engineering education.  Education is certainly about knowledge, about knowing things, terminology, names, theories, practices, concepts.  But that’s only the beginning.  We have to comprehend or understand what we know.  We need to know what our theories mean, how to explain them, how to work with data.  If we do, then we are in a position to apply data and ideas and theories to solve problems, make judgments, evaluate alternatives. 

Let’s apply Bloom’s taxonomy to an example of something that you learn in engineering.  We’ll consider Ohm’s Law. 

     I = V/R                                                                                                                     11.1

You have to start by knowing Ohm’s Law.  But that is not enough.  You must comprehend or understand it as well.  What does Equation 11.1 mean in words?  “The current that flows in a resistor is equal to the voltage across the resistor divided by the resistance.”  Can you explain what that means to someone, perhaps with a picture or by using a resistor as a prop?  Now, can you apply Ohm’s Law to the solution of a simple problem?   If the voltage across a resistor is 12 volts, and the resistance is 3 ohms, then 4 amps flows.  Well, that was easy but still useful..  What if we have a more complex circuit, as below?  What is the current in the 6 W resistor?  This requires analysis.


Now we cannot apply Ohm’s Law directly.  We need to break the circuit down into parts and we have to know and apply some other laws.  First we focus on the two parallel resistors on the right and apply the rule for reducing parallel resistances to find that the equivalent resistance if 4 W.  Next we need to know that we can add this to the 3 W resistor to get a total resistance of 7 W.  Now we apply Ohm’s Law to find that 2 amps flows in the 3 W resistor.  Next we know that the voltage across a resistor is the current times the resistance, and hence the voltage across the parallel resistors is 8 volts.  Applying Ohm’s Law one more time tells us that the current in the 6 W resistance is 4/3 amps.

In synthesis we may use Ohm’s Law as part of the design of a circuit intended to accomplish some task.  See Case 11.1.  And in the end we will evaluate the design.

11.3 What's Your Style? 

All of us think, but we don’t all think the same way.  And we don’t all learn the same way.  Some of us learn well by listening to someone’s explanations.  Others prefer to see a picture, a graph, a diagram.  And some people like to touch the things they are learning about.  Quite literally, they like to get their hands around the problem.  The principle of Multiple Intelligences was developed about 20 years ago by Howard Gardner.  He originally identified seven ways in which we learn, later expanding the list to nine.  Here they are.

  • Mathematical-Logical: the ability to process logical problems including equations, to think in terms of concepts, to notice logical or numerical patterns, to understand what makes a causal system work.  This is what is often being tested in standardized multiple-choice tests.  It is hard to imagine an engineer who was quite weak in this area.  But this is not the only way in which engineers learn.
  • Verbal-Linguistic: the ability to learn through language, and to express your ideas clearly, to learn through reading and through listening to lectures, discussing ideas.  Not everyone learns best this way.  Listening to lectures and talks may not be your best thing.  You may need to look for additional ways to learn most effectively.
  • Visual-Spatial: the ability to think in images and pictures, to see something clearly in your mind, to learn from pictures, to explain things through pictures.  These folks want to see pictures on the blackboard or PowerPoint presentation that illustrates the concept or idea that is being discussed.  They may learn more from the pictures than from the words being spoken.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic: the ability to control your body to accomplish some task or to learn something, to handle objects skillfully and learn from that process.  These people like to touch things, to feel the piece of steel or the new plastic material on the market, to get an idea of its weight, its roughness.  This helps this engineer decide how to use the material.
  • Interpersonal: the ability to understand other people, to learn by understanding another’s viewpoint, to notice mood or feelings or intentions.  Almost all engineers work in teams much of the time, and must have some measure of interpersonal intelligence.
  • Intrapersonal: the ability to understand yourself, to be aware of oneself, to know who you are and what are your strengths, perhaps to know what are your strongest kinds of multiple intelligence, to know where you are at any one time in Bloom’s taxonomy.  The engineer who has a sense of who he or she is has a headstart on the road to lifelong learning.
  • Naturalist: the ability to understand nature, to classify plants, animals, to distinguish subtle differences among similar entities.  In the forest these folks can pick out the differences among similar trees, or perhaps birds.  Back in the city they recognize little differences that tell one car from another.  In the engineering laboratory they may be able to pick out the best of a number of solutions that look very much alike to the rest of us.
  • Musical: the ability to recognize and to create meaning within sound, to appreciate rhythm, pitch, timber, to hear patterns and repeat them, to recognize harmony.
  • Existential: the ability to face and to ponder the most fundamental questions about life, death, ultimate values.  The engineer might ask, why did I choose this profession, what is the contribution I was born to make in this world, how can the world be a better place because of the life I live?

Of course no one is just one kind of learner.  All of us can learn in all of these ways, but we are almost certainly much better at some than others.  Typically people find that they are strong in three or four areas, and weak in three or four.  It is interesting indeed to find out what are your strengths and then ask yourself whether you would have said this ahead of time.

Before we go any further it is time to stop and ask some very fundamental questions about the ideas of Mr. Bloom and Mr. Gardner.  In the previous section we looked at Bloom’s Taxonomy, and in this section at Gardner’s multiple intelligences.  A reasonable question is this, are these ideas “correct” or “true”?  Is this really the way people are, is this the way people act?  How can we know if these ideas are “right”? 

These questions get to the fundamental concepts of human knowledge.  What people do is to observe the infinitely complex world in which we live, and try to make finite limited statements, or theories or laws about what they see.  We do this in science and engineering, and we do it in psychology.  The difference is that scientific laws tend to be much more easily tested than the theories of social sciences.  One reason for this is that the laws of science are usually applied to very simple limited situations.  This is certainly true of Ohm’s Law, Newton’s Laws, Gauss’s Law, and all the rest.  The laws of the social sciences are applied to far more complex situations, namely the actions of human beings.  Such laws cannot be as easily tested as the laws of science.  So, instead of asking whether the concepts in the social sciences are “right”, let’s ask if they are useful.  Do they tell us something of the human condition?  You may ask yourself this question.  When you read about Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence, did you find yourself nodding your head in agreement?  Did you see yourself as one kind of learner, but not another?  Did this help you think about the learning process?  I think that most of us find that we can relate to these ideas, that they do help us think about how we are thinking.  If they do that, perhaps that is enough to ask of them.  The Greeks taught us to “know thyself”.  If such ideas help, then we welcome them.

If the world of the physical sciences is a relatively predictable world, and the world of the social sciences less so, what of the world of engineering?  It seems that engineering must take something from both of these worlds.  The laws of science are used to design engineering products, but they do not address the question of whether such products are useful, are desirable for society, of whether they do indeed work toward the betterment of the human condition.

11.4 Critical Thinking

Everybody thinks, all the time.  Our species has been doing this for millions of years.  The question is whether there is much of anything to say about thinking, and perhaps more to the point, can we learn to think better if we try.  Well, the answer had better be yes, because one of the primary purposes of education is to help you learn to think more effectively, more critically, more creatively, with more concern for the results of your thinking.   A university education is not so much about teaching you facts as it is about teaching you what to do with facts, how to work effectively with what you know.  We can think about thinking in a number of ways.  Here is one.  Let’s break thinking down into three parts.

  • Critical thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Ethical thinking

Let’s explain each briefly and then settle down to a more detailed look at 

Critical thinking refers to the process of analyzing a problem purposefully and carefully, evaluating and interpreting aspects of the problem, making inferences based on the data, finding ways to explain the problem or the situation, and understanding oneself well enough to reflect on the quality of the analysis.  Critical thinking is usually assumed to take place within a fairly well-structured world view or paradigm, one’s vision of “how things work” 

Creative thinking requires us to think beyond the established paradigm, to new and original ways of seeing the problem.  In the jargon of the day, it is “thinking outside of the box”.  It requires new ways of analyzing, new levels of openness to odd or unexpected outcomes or visions.  Creative thinking breaks new ground.

Ethical thinking is thinking that leads to good things, to things that “ought” to be done..  It is not enough to be able to think critically and creatively.  We want your thinking to lead to good actions.  That is a major part of your education at Santa Clara University.

We have included this section in your Engineering Handbook because we want to help you increase your ability to think well when you consider the issues addressed in this handbook.  We would like you to apply some of these principles to all of your education, to the classroom, to what you read, and what you write, and what you think about.  If you do this well you will be a much more effective person, you will understand yourself much better, and you will be ready for the life of education that lies ahead of you.

Learning to think well will free you from the bonds of ignorance, prejudice, apathy, mindlessness.  It will free you to become a leader.  That’s why we call it a “liberal” education

11.5 Communication

Few things are as important to the engineer as the ability to communicate effectively.  Our work involves others by its very nature.  We work together in the engineering process.  Then we prepare our products for use by society.  And, we are members of society with a professional obligation to make our expertise available to the community.  Each of these activities requires communication with others.  We need to share ideas orally, to write clear and effective documents, to explain how our products function, to give formal presentations or speeches.  To do this effectively we need to understand the frame of mind of the listener.  We need to walk in the other person’s shoes.

There are many things we do at Santa Clara University to help you learn to communicate effectively.  In your first year you will study composition and rhetoric in two courses (English 1, and English 2).  These courses will address critical thinking, reading, and writing.  They will help you explore rhetoric in the writing of others and in your own writing.  In your third year you will take the “third writing course”, English 182, which is designed specifically to help engineering students communicate more effectively, and to prepare them for the year-long senior capstone course. 

But communication is not confined to formal courses in English.  You will have the opportunity to communicate in all of your courses in one way or another.  The courses that you take in the humanities will help you learn more about the world, in which you must communicate.  When you get to the senior year the three-term capstone course will require major communication activities including personal communication within your team, oral communication at the Senior Design Conference in May of your senior year, and of course the final written report of your project.

A last point.  It is very likely that you will find that you have the opportunity to communicate voluntarily in a number of ways.  There might be an essay contest, or perhaps someone will ask you to give a talk or run for office.  The first normal reaction that all of us have is that I don’t know enough to do that, I don’t talk well enough, someone else would be much more effective than I.  Okay, that’s probably all true, but now that you have that off your chest, it is time for your second reaction.  And that is to go ahead and do it.  Accept the challenge, and go ahead and do your best.  Perhaps it will be better than you had believed it could be.


Case 11.1:  You have been assigned the job of designing a small electric heater that is to keep the engine area of a car in a garage warm during cold nights so that the car is easier to start in the morning.  The device should be simple, easy to use, and is to radiate 150 watts in the form of heat.  Design the product.  Your final design is to specify all of the components of the device as it will be sold off the shelf.  Be sure to evaluate your design.  Is this the best design?

Case 11.2:  So, what’s your style?  How do you learn best?  There are some tests on the Internet that can help you learn that.  Before you take one, go back and look at Gardner’s nine intelligences.  Which ones do you think are high for you?  When you have done that try the test at:

You do not have to log in.   Just enter an arbitrary user number of your choosing,  read down through the page and follow the instructions.  When you take this test try not to anticipate how the question relates to the nine intelligences.  Just sit back, relax, and give your best answers. 

How did you do?  Good – whatever it is.  You may have wondered whether you would get similar scores if you took a different test.  Well, give it a try if you like.  Here is another one.  However, if you do take this test, use the scores from the first one  above to fill out the Survey in the ENGR 1 Angel page.

Case 11.3:  Learn nine things today using each of the nine intelligences.  They may be things that you learn as a part of your studies, or you may have to create a situation.  For example, ask a friend to explain something.  Pick up a rock and get a sense of its weight roughness, etc.  Make up a little song to help you remember some law or fact.  Write down the style of learning and explain what you learned today using that style.  If it was difficult explain why.

Case 11.4:  Let’s consider some situations that might arise.  What would Bloom and Gardner have to say about them.  In some cases more than one answer might fit. What Bloom Competence and Gardner Intelligence(s) are at work if you: 

  1. Explain Ohm’s Law to a friend using a blackboard.
  2. Take apart a motor to get a feeling for how it is constructed, and the nature of its parts.
  3. Try to remember the value of pi to 6 places by trying to see the numbers in your mind.
  4. Decide which car to buy by talking it over with a number of friends.
  5. Make up and give a speech about why you should be governor.
  6. Ask yourself whether you could make a greater contribution to the world as an engineer or in some other profession.
  7. Try to determine while blindfolded which is the heaviest of five steel balls of almost the same weight. 

Case 11.5:  Here is a thinking problem – one that actually happened.  During the Second World War a B-24 bomber was returning to its airbase without any brakes, that had been shot away in combat.  The emergency landing strip on the small island was too short for stopping the plane without brakes.  One alternative was to abandon the plane and parachute to the ground.  But it was dark and there was a strong possibility of ending up in the shark-infested ocean instead of on the island.  In addition the pilot did not wish to lose the plane.  He had to think fast.  And he had to think “outside of the box”.  What was he to do?

Case 11.6: Write a brief paragraph describing the most meaningful learning experience that you have had.  Explain why it was a good learning experience.  Is there a relation between the nature of that learning experience and the scores you got on the multiple intelligences inventory.

Case 11.7:  Make up a test problem that makes use of Gauss’s Law.  Then apply Bloom’s Taxonomy to the problem.  That is, state Gauss’s Law, then explain it, then explain how it is applied to solve simple problems, then create a problem, then analyze the problem that you have created, then critique it.  Is it a good problem, is it particularly interesting? Note that this changes slightly the order of the taxonomy, but that’s ok.  You will just be doing some of the latter steps a little out of order.

Chapter 12:  Bringing it All Together

Divergent problems offend the logical mind, which wishes to remove tension by coming down on one side or the other, but they provoke, stimulate and sharpen the higher human faculties, without which man is nothing but a clever animal.

- E.F. Schumacher

In the first eleven chapters we considered eleven aspects of engineering, treating each as a separate issue.  But you must have noticed that on occasion an idea would sneak in from another chapter.  Thus, when we talked about the environment we had to think about the cost of protecting it.  When we discussed societal problems, political questions arose.  In this chapter we focus on bringing many, perhaps even all, of our issues to bear on some complex problems.  We start with a discussion of the complexities of life, and then move on to talk about what to do about it.  Specifically, we address:

  • Convergent and divergent problems
  • Searching for the solution to divergent problems
  • Bringing it all together

12.1 Convergent and Divergent Problems

E.F.Schumacher was an environmentalist, economist, writer, thinker.  He is perhaps best know for the book Small is Beautiful, one of the best books of the Twentieth Century.  He died in 1977, the year that the above quote appeared in an article that was published in the now-defunct magazine Quest.  In that article Schumacher distinguished between two kinds of problems that he called convergent problems and divergent problems.  Convergent problems are those for which most all reasonable persons agree to the solution.  He suggests that the bicycle is the solution to the convergent problem of designing a human-powered two-wheeled vehicle.  In engineering we have many convergent problems, including those simple problems where Ohm’s Law is applied to a known circuit.  We might call radio the solution to the convergent problem of how to send information to large numbers of people over long distances without the use of wires.  There do not seem to be any important alternative candidate solutions to this problem that society accepts.

Divergent problems are another matter.  They are problems for which there do exist not generally accepted solutions.  You, as an individual, may well have your answer to a divergent problem, but we as a people have not agreed on a solution.  Here are some divergent problems.

  1. Should the United States send troops into foreign nations?
  2. Should abortion be legal?
  3. Should same-sex marriage be legal?
  4. Is it better to be conservative or liberal?
  5. To what extent should we sacrifice individual freedom for collective security?
  6. Should poor nations have weaker environmental regulations than rich nations?
  7. What premium should we pay to develop sustainable electric power?
  8. How do we balance the cost of a car versus its safety?
  9. Is it moral for an engineer to work on the development of a bomb?

Let’s go back and analyze the quote at the beginning of this chapter, in the light of such problems.

Divergent problems offend the logical mind, which wishes to remove tension by coming down on one side or the other,

They really do.  They make us uncomfortable.  The easiest way to solve that problem is to jump onto one side or the other.  We all do it.  You may well already have your mind made up on a number of the above questions.  It’s just easier – less tension.  But, Schumacher is not going to let us off the hook.  He points out the value of not deciding the answer, because divergent problem 

provoke, stimulate and sharpen the higher human faculties,

Which higher human faculties?   Open-mindedness, reflection, reconsideration, intuition, consideration of the thoughts of others, an internal debate with ourselves.  These higher human faculties

without which man is nothing but a clever animal.

We can teach you to be a clever animal, to solve convergent problems, the simple things of life.  But we want you to be more than this, we want you to be able to face, to challenge, and perhaps even – in some sense – to solve divergent problems, the ones that cannot be solved. 

Isn’t it illogical to talk about solving divergent problems?  It is indeed.  It offends the logical mind mightily.  But sometimes we must act in the face of divergent problems,  because the world abounds in divergent problems that cannot be solved.  So, what are we to do?

12.2 Searching for the Solution to Divergent Problems 

All right, we have been playing with the word “solve” in the above to make a point, namely that this is not a completely logical environment.  You might think of the word solve in one of two senses here.  First, it might mean to come up with a solution that everyone agreed on, but then it would no longer be a divergent problem.  None of the above problems are going to turn into convergent problems.  Second, we might mean by solve that we are going to act, in one way or the other.  We are going to send the troops into Iraq, or not.  We are going to legalize abortion, or not.  But these are not solutions.  The divergent problem is still there.  We have simply decided by some means to act in one way or the other.

So in this section we concentrate on the word “search”.  We are going to search for a solution, with the expectation that we will not find it but that the action we finally take will be the better because of the search.  There is an old Jules Pfeiffer cartoon from 1978 that makes the point.  A group of four people is in conversation with a dancer in leotards 

Group:     You say that there is no answer?
Dancer:    Right.
Group:     And that you are not our leader?
Dancer:    Exactly.
Group:     Then where is there room for hope?
Dancer:    In the search.
Group:     What search?
Dancer:    For the answer.
Group:     So long as we continue to search, hope exists?
Dancer:    I believe so.
Group:     And since no answer exists, hope continues to exist?
Dancer:    I believe so.
Group:     Then hope depends on not finding an answer?
Dancer:    I believe so.
Group:     It’s complicated.
                It’s confusing.
                It’s frustrating.
                It’s too hard.
Dancer:   Hence we dance.

Let’s consider some strategies that we can use in the search for the solution to divergent problems.

Withhold or Withdraw Judgement 

Eventually we have to act.  We have to make a decision, a judgment, and proceed.  Perhaps we have to cast a vote as a citizen, or make a decision on how many people to lay off in an economic downturn, or choose the level of safety that we can afford to build into a building, or decide what decision to make in a complex ethical case.  But what happens so often is that we make a judgment too early, before we have to.  And when we do that, we essentially close the door on new knowledge, on working toward a greater understanding of the problem.  At the same time we alienate ourselves from all those folks on the other side of the decision.  After all, now, I am right and you are wrong 

So, the first strategy is to delay making a decision, or to stand back from a decision that we have already made.  Take a deep breath, stand back and say ‘I no long hold a position on this question.’  It can be quite refreshing, and at the same time maybe a bit scary.  The logical mind is offended, but there is something liberating about being out in the open air.  There’s hope.

Search for Alternative Views 

Now that you have given up “the answer” it’s time to go in search of other people’s answers.  This can be difficult sometimes, because there is a strong tendency to listen to that answer, and immediately look for ways to refute it.  If you truly suspend judgment you have to listen to other points with a completely open mind.  The Stanford University economist Kenneth Arrow puts it this way.

The sense of uncertainty is active: it actively recognizes the possibility of alternative views and seeks them out.  I consider it essential to honesty to look for the best arguments against a position that one is holding.  Commitments should always have a tentative quality.

That’s a fascinating idea.  If you are to be honest in your approach to a difficult problem it is essential that you look for arguments against your own position.  Zen Buddhism has a saying that speaks to this idea.  It says, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, you must slay him.’  If you find the ultimate answer to life, you must discard it, because the ultimate answer to life is not to be found.

There is another reason to search for alternatives to your position.  You will have to talk to some new people, and you may well find that people who hold opinions that differ from yours are not so bad after all.  You may make some new friends.

Evaluate What You Have 

Do you remember Blooms last competence, evaluation?   It’s the last step in the engineering process, to evaluate the various solutions to the problem.  So, when you have as many answers as you think there are, or the time has come when the decision must be made, evaluate, contrast, compare, justify, defend, discriminate, and then finally judge.

In fact the whole process reminds one of Bloom.  First, we seek knowledge, with an open mind.  And we seek to understand, to comprehend that knowledge.  Then we analyze the situation.  Next we consider a number of solutions.  We become creative.  Finally, we evaluate.

12.3 Bringing it All Together

Most of life’s really interesting problems are divergent, and they are also multi-faceted.  They are not just ethical problems, or economic problems, or sustainability problems.  They may have political, societal, environment, sustainability faces that must be considered at the same time.  In this section we talk about bringing together all the faces of a problem. 

One of the problems with considering more than one factor at a time is that factors are generally not commensurable.  That is, they do not have a common measure of value.  The measure of a thing in an economic sense is its cost, in dollars and cents.  But the measure of a clean river or a clear sky is something else.  One way around this is to assign a dollar value to an environmental good.  This is seldom very helpful, and may just be a way of evading what is an essentially divergent question.

Let’s consider an example.  In 1990 the State of California adopted a program requiring that by 2003 ten percent of the automobiles sold in the State would have to be zero-emission-vehicles (ZEV). In 1990 the primary ZEV interest was in electric cars.

This program sounds like a great idea because such vehicles emit no pollution into the air.  If this is the only factor that you consider, then you can jump onto the ZEV bandwagon and cast your vote.  But if you do so you will miss the opportunity to consider a number of other issues, from which you might well learn a great deal.  Let’s talk about some of these issues.

Let’s start with environmental impact, since that it the primary reason for developing the vehicles in the first place.  While it is true that ZEV’s emit no pollution directly, the electric power that charges the batteries must be generated somewhere.  In California much more that half of the power is obtained by burning fossil fuels, which pollute the air and use a nonrenewable resource, creating or continuing a sustainability problem.  The pollution source has been moved from the vehicle to the power plant.  Is this a good tradeoff?  It certainly is a difficult one to measure.

We will need to ask questions about health and safety.  Are electric cars as safe as internal combustion cars?  Are they lighter, about the same, or heavier?  What are the safety issues related to weight?  If an electric vehicle is involved in an accident is there a health threat due to the acid in the batteries?  Usability issues arise related to the limited driving range of the ZEV.  Does this constrain them to local transportation?  If so, would the effect to be to increase the total number of vehicles built?  Would the existence of large numbers of electric vehicles cause significant changes in society?

Economic question center on the cost of the vehicles.  They can be quite expensive.  Political issues arise when manufacturers who do not wish to build such vehicles attempt to influence legislation.  There are lots of issues or questions here.  Now we are not saying that the engineer who designs the vehicle need answer all of them.  But the engineer should be aware of such issues, and be ready and willing to contribute to the debate in the light of his or her expertise.

Here is another example.  Suppose that you are a Jesuit Volunteer working in a small remote village.  The life of the village depends on hauling water from a river up a steep grade to farmland on a plateau.  It takes much of the time and energy the villagers have to do this task.  Every time you see them carrying water you wince as you can feel the load on your own back.  It occurs to you that a small wind-power electric plant could supply power to pump the water up from the river.  The only suitable place to put the plant is at the top of a pass that goes to a neighboring village.  What issues should you think about before you do anything else about the project. 

Well, to begin with it’s good that you had the compassion to try to help them with this problem of water supply.  And the wind power certainly suggests a sustainable source of energy.  What about the effect of such a plant on the life of the village?  Would there be bad as well as good effects on the community, on this society?  The natives are not well educated.  Can you make the system easily used?  Repaired?  What would be the economic burden of repairs over time?  If you are going to do this project, is it ethical to proceed without discussing the matter with the neighboring village that shares the pass?  If you do this it may take all of your political skills to bring this off.  Perhaps there has to be some kind of quid pro quo, that is, you may have to give the other village something.  It seemed like such a simple matter when you first thought of it.  But if you are to make it as effective as possible, you will have to think through a lot of questions. 

Let’s close with a more formal approach to the examination of divergent problems.  Here are some steps.

  1. Study the situation carefully. Learn as much as you can.  Try not to let any pertinent facts elude you. (Knowledge)
  2. Understand the facts. What is the meaning of what you have learned?  (Comprehension)
  3. What are the various elements of this situation? Are there ethical issues, environmental, societal, safety, economic? (Analysis)
  4. How are the various elements of the problem interlinked? How do they fit together?  (Analysis)
  5. What are some candidate solutions to the problem? (Synthesis)
  6. How do the solutions compare? What are strengths and weaknesses of each?  What is the “best” solution?  Why? (Evaluation)

We’ll use this approach in some of the cases to follow.


Case 12.1: A number of states and municipalities have set up programs to help pay for the cost of solar power systems in an attempt to make them more competitive with conventional sources.  What factors might motivate such programs?

Case 12.2:  Consider the list of divergent questions in Section 12.1.  Is there one there on which you have a firm position.  If so, pick it out.  If not, think of some other divergent problem on which you have a strong position.

  1. What is the question?
  2. Why do you hold your position?
  3. Take a deep breath, and try to stand back from your position. Try to have an open mind on the matter.  How does that feel?
  4. Find someone who takes an opposite position. Ask that person to talk about why they take the position they do.  Try very hard to listen with an open mind.  Why do they hold their position?
  5. After you have at least one other position in hand, evaluate the positions that you have. Did you learn anything about the problem in this process?  If so, what?  If not, why not?

Case 12.3:  Read the paper:  A New Green Regime:  Attacking the Root Causes of Global Environmental Deterioration  at 

Case 12.4: Consider xxxxxxxx

     Apply the six steps at the end of Section 12.3 to the above case.