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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Common Good Approach to Engineering

Rafael Guerrero

You and your team may have been able to design, fabricate, and validate your senior design project within the duration of your senior year. This accomplishment may have required you and your team to take a variety of ethical approaches to iterating and refining your design. A Utilitarian Approach may have been useful in optimizing costs, lead time, and materials to produce the best product possible while minimizing the potential harms the design could produce. A Rights Approach may have asked your team to step back and reevaluate the design based on user centricity, and its overall appropriateness for the people it would serve.

Just as the design process and the final deployment of a product are not where the job of an engineer ends, the considerations an engineer makes regarding the ethics behind the project does not end either. Engineers are also responsible for considering the potential effects of the implementation of their design in society as a whole-- not just for the people that are intended to benefit from the design. How engineering design positively impacts society beyond the target individual or community of the design is what ethicists relate to as the “common good”.

What is the “common good” in engineering design? And how does this differ from Utilitarianism?

The common good is an approach to ethical decision making that asks individuals to advocate for choices that focus on “having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people”(Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, & Meyer, 2014) [1]. The notion of a common “good” connotes that a service, product, or decision can produce benefits that are accessible by all members of society. We may think of engineering design as the production of new technology that benefits a narrow margin of society, as products such as the Tesla Roadster, the Nintendo Switch, or the da Vinci Surgical System seem to provide “good” for people only as far as money can go. But we may overlook technologies that are produced and maintained by engineers that do contribute to some greater good in society, such as children’s play structures, sewage systems, and the internet. These goods, while they may not be realistically not available to every person around the world, are designed to contribute to “conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone” that interact with them (The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 2009) [2].

Earlier, we discussed how Utilitarianism in engineering ethics focuses on decision making that “produces the greatest good and does the least harm for all who are affected”(Markkula Center 2009) [2]. While this may sound very similar to the approach offered by the Common Good, the Utilitarian Approach to design thinking does not have a definite answer to the following question: “who should experience these goods?”. Consider the design of a new extension to a city subway system. A Utilitarian approach in design factors in cost, time, materials, and environmental impact in producing a societal good-- but may also look to minimize financial risk of the city or engineering firm by requiring a high boarding pass price. A Common Good Approach makes the same considerations, but instead, would focus on how it would be possible for everyone in the city to have access to a safe, fast, and reasonably priced subway system. The Common Good Approach also suggests that part of producing a common good is acknowledging that despite the risks that come with making this good available to all members of society, “something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access”(Velasquez et. al, 2014) [1].



[1] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “The Common Good.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 2 Aug. 2014.

[2] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1 Aug. 2015.

Jun 29, 2018