Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Utilitarian Approach to Engineering

Rafael Guerrero

All engineers are familiar with the engineering design cycle in one form or another. While each step may be represented differently in different interpretations, design is always understood to be a cycle, rather than a linear series of steps. In order to move forward, it does become necessary to revisit and revise previous aspects of your design where more efficient, more effective, safer, or more appropriate solutions appear in your team’s progress.

In the context of engineering ethics, iteration is one of the most important stages in the design process. As a team of designers, you and your team are always responsible for welcoming, discussing, and implementing design changes that improve the overall quality of your solution for the people who will benefit from it. Cost, efficiency, weight, material, portability, and environmental impact are all dimensions of design solutions that are important on the design end. The quality of your solution, however, does not end with optimizing these parameters. Good engineering demands that designers also place importance on the needs, wants, and concerns from the user/customer end. This includes non-quantifiable aspects of design, such as simplicity, comfort, the “coolness” factor, and, in some cases, even the appropriate colors to use in your solution.

What does “good engineering” entail beyond optimizing cost, efficiency, weight, etc?

Optimization requires you and your team to give equal consideration to the technical performance of your solution as well as how your design will be received, interpreted, and used by your customers. This presents a noticeable distinction between what you, as the engineer, deems appropriate for the design and what the customer expects from your design. So, how should you best reconcile the quantifiable with the unquantifiable in design?

This question can best be described as an application of what is called the Utilitarian Approach in ethics, which is defined by “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” as making decisions that “[produce] the greatest good and [do] the least harm for all who are affected-- customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and the environment.” [1]. It is worth noting that this approach forces engineers to consider that design changes are not only sensitive to technical specifications, but also sensitive to the possible harms to stakeholders that could result. Where a solution may be cheaper to implement, it may not necessarily be as safe or as desirable for your customer as intended. Similarly, it may be possible that a community would prefer that your solution is able to rely on natural resources, and yet the solution could present significant harms to the local environment.

Utilitarianism in ethical design thinking doesn’t mean putting customer needs, wants, and concerns before technical requirements for safety, cost, etc. Instead, it asks engineers to consider how design changes will enable their design solutions to best fit customer needs and technical requirements while minimizing the potential safety hazards, costs, and other harms that could result from the implementation of the design. Most importantly, Utilitarianism is NOT aiming to achieve perfection. Design with a Utilitarian Approach in engineering is more about identifying these tradeoffs in design dilemmas, and weighing the costs and benefits that come with them.

Enumerating certain trade-offs as a result of making design choices is a great example of using utilitarianism in engineering design. While not all trade-offs are as simple as increasing “A”, but decreasing “B”, some helpful considerations to analyze the ethical outcomes of design decisions are:

  • With regard to functionality and user-simplicity: Value may be added to the design with the addition of peripheral functionalities. At the same time, user-simplicity demands that your product achieve its main functionality while being as simple as possible to operate. Does including certain functionalities in your design solution increase its value without compromising simplicity?
  • With regard to functionality and cost: Similarly, the addition of peripheral functionalities can require more hardware, programming, and aesthetic work that can make the design more expensive. How does including certain functionalities in your design solution contribute to the efficiency/effectiveness/simplicity of the product while limiting additional costs?
  • With regard to cost and safety: Sometimes it is necessary in the design process to consider cheaper options to design problems to maintain a budget or meet a target cost. Would lowering the cost of production of your product to fit a team or customer budget put your product at risk of being less safe?
  • With regard to cost and functionality: Implementing cheaper design solutions may solve immediate problems with the design, however, it is possible that these solutions will not be robust and compromise the main functionality of the design. Would lowering the cost of production of your product to fit a team or customer budget reduce the effectiveness or efficiency of certain functionalities of your product?
  • With regard to customer expectations and safety: While it is important to listen to customer input on your design, their input may not always consider human safety. Would increasing the value of your product by implementing desired functionalities put your product at risk of being less safe?
  • With regard to cost and sustainability: Implementing design solutions that rely on non-reusable materials such as non-recyclable plastics, soiled aluminum, or glass in your design may be cheaper, but also less sustainable in practice. Would lowering the cost of production of your product to fit a team or customer budget decrease the sustainability of your project?



[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