Engineers, Emotions, and Ethics

Engineers, Emotions, and Ethics

Michael Davis (Illinois Institute of Technology, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0159-6.ch063
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This chapter tries to answer the question: What part, if any, should emotion have in making engineering decisions? The chapter is, in effect, a critical examination of the view, common even among engineers, that a good engineer is not only accurate, laconic, orderly, and practical but also free of emotion. The chapter has four parts. The first, the philosophical, provides a critical analysis of the term “emotion.” The second and third parts show how that analysis helps us understand the relation between emotion and engineering. It explicates what a reasonable emotion is. These two sections are organized around an ethical problem concerning management's rejection of engineering judgment. The fourth part, the pedagogical, delineates how we should develop a curriculum for a course in engineering ethics. It suggests teachers of engineering ethics should take time in class to help students accept the fact that engineering has an emotional side, for example, that doing good engineering is likely to delight them and doing bad engineering to depress them.
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I. Defining Emotion

What then is emotion? If we define emotion as “a strong feeling, such as anger, fear, joy, love, or revulsion” (as many dictionaries do), Spock may be right. We can imagine something like a human life without strong feelings – and so, perhaps, without violence.2 There are nonetheless at least four objections to this popular way of defining emotion. The first is that it creates a problem of measurement. Even assuming we had an “emotion meter” (as we may soon have), we would still have the problem of deciding how strong a feeling like anger or fear must be before it is strong enough to count as “strong”. Presumably, a feeling strong enough to overcome reason (what used to be called “a passion”) would be strong enough to count as an emotion in this sense. But using that criterion would define reasonable emotions out of existence (making “emotion” a mere synonym for “passion”).3 We seem to think that some emotions, such as horror upon seeing a young child cruelly killed, are, though very strong feelings, quite reasonable, indeed, appropriate, and their absence a sign of a damaged psyche.4 Of course, it is not good for even such reasonable emotions to “overcome reason”. But that is a point distinct from whether the feeling in question is strong. We should try not to decide by definition what seems to be an empirical question, for example, whether even a weak feeling could overcome reason or even a very strong feeling be reasonable.

What would constitute an emotion on the overcoming reason way of measuring strength would, of course, depend on how we defined “reason”. Defining “reason” is itself a major problem in philosophy, a problem we should avoid here if we can.5

A second objection to the strong feeling way of defining emotion is that even the avoidance of emotion (so defined) is not obviously desirable. The world such avoidance would create would be a world of irritation but not anger, timidity falling short of fear, thin joys, “love” that is hardly more than lukewarm affection, disgust but not revulsion, and so on. Life in a world without emotion (so defined) seems deeply impoverished (explaining, perhaps, why the very human Captain Kirk, not Spock, is the protagonist of the early Star Trek).

A third objection to defining “emotion” as strong feeling is that so doing seems to exclude many gentler feelings commonly counted as emotions, for example, boredom, contentment, curiosity, liking, and regret. The strong feeling definition seems designed to catch the pejorative use of “emotion” – as in “Don’t be so emotional” – but to ignore many emotions that have an important place in life – Vulcan as well as human.6 (After all, Spock’s father, though entirely Vulcan, must have felt strongly about Spock’s human mother, since he married her despite much Vulcan prejudice.)

A fourth objection to the strong feeling definition is that it fails to connect emotion to action. Yet, even on Spock’s understanding of emotion, emotions have a connection with action. Disposing of emotion is, after all, according to Spock, the way to end violence. That end to violence is possible only if emotions are causes or reasons for violent action. Not all feelings are causes of or reasons for action. Some, such as those one has when dreaming, are simply feelings.

I therefore suggest we adopt the following definition of emotion instead: emotion is any feeling that is a reason to act (or refrain from acting). By feeling, I mean (roughly) any conscious mental state that includes both a) a mental representation (for example, “this pump is broken”) and b) a positive, negative, or indifferent response to that representation (for example, attraction or distaste). Given this pair of definitions, some pleasures and some pains are emotions, whereas others are not. For example, the pain I feel upon seeing my son hurt is an emotion; but the immediate pain I feel when I accidentally hit my finger with a hammer is not. The first includes a mental representation (“my son is in pain”); the second does not, producing instead an automatic response (a cry of pain, the bruised finger moving toward my mouth, and so on). The pain of the bruised finger is not, strictly speaking, even a feeling but (we might say) a physiological shock or eruption (until I calm down enough to realize what has happened). Because emotion is a kind of feeling, there can be no unconscious emotions (unless feelings can also be unconscious). The unconscious, insofar as it motivates, will have to be the domain of other kinds of motives.

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