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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Rights Approach to Engineering

Rafael Geurrero

Engineers seek to produce robust, effective, efficient, safe, and creative solutions to world problems. One dimension of design that cannot be numerically analyzed or calculated, however, is the extent that an engineering design solution will be able to address the needs, wants, and concerns of the people and communities that have these problems. While the engineering may seem sound through numbers and figures, the ethics behind design would be completely missed if the solution is not designed with a “people-centered” focus.

What is a “people-centered” focus in design, and how does it relate to ethics?

As real people at the other end of the engineering design process, the customer or target community that will receive the product has a justified claim on the engineer to demand that their product be safe to use and effective at completing its expected tasks. These “justified claims” that customers have on the engineer are part of what the SCU Markkula Center defines as the Rights Approach in ethics. Moral rights are founded in the philosophical belief that “humans have a dignity based on their human nature”, and that as human beings, we have a “right to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends”[1]. A Rights Approach is applied in engineering design when the satisfaction of the customer, not the completion and deployment of the final product, is treated as the goal of the design process.

This people-centered focus in design considers not only the functional aspects of engineering solutions, but also the resources, energy, and transportation that customers will have access to in their community. The utility, creativity, and effectiveness of your design is therefore evaluated based on how well the engineering adapts to the constraints and desires of the customer. More specifically, a people-centered focus in design places values in product features and capabilities that contribute to the autonomy of the people the product serves. Taking steps to ensure that the intent and architecture of your team’s design solution are “appropriate” for the people it will serve respects the rights of your customers to greater autonomy in their daily lives and work. This concept of “appropriate technology” is fundamental in engineering because it emphasizes ethical as well as practical considerations in design.


Respect for the rights of the customer in design thinking comes with the following considerations:

  • Considerations for the respect of community resources:
    • Can the design be fabricated, implemented, and maintained in a way that only uses resources and tools that are available and familiar to the community?
  • Considerations for the respect of community literacy, education, and skills:
    • Is there a significant amount of engineering knowledge or skill that is necessary to interact with the design? Will the community/customer that interacts with the design have that knowledge or skill? Does the design require training for use and maintenance?
  • Considerations for the respect of community energy restrictions:
    • Will the design require energy sources that are available and affordable to the customer?
  • Considerations for the respect for community environmental restrictions:
    • Is the design compatible with the climate and topography of the community?
  • Considerations for the respect of community/consumer lifestyles:
    • Does the design change the customer’s lifestyle or daily routine? If so, are these changes for the betterment/detriment of the individual or the larger community?
  • Considerations for the respect of community/consumer safety and trust:
    • Does the design solution present any harms to the physical, cultural, social, and emotional needs of the customer?

And, most importantly,

  • Considerations for the respect of community-specific needs:
    • How might this design solution be appropriate for one community, but inappropriate for another?



[1] 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