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An accessory to blowing people up… November 5, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, religion, science, societal commentary.
Tags: , , , ,

Part of the reason I’m interested in teaching is because I feel like it’s a morally unambiguous effort:  teaching helps people to learn, and that is always a good thing.  However, I just came across one part of teaching that I don’t feel so good about.

I had a student come to talk to me about advising for coursework.  He said that he had difficulty with his actual advisor, and after a few minutes, the guy just signed his card and told him he was done.  (The professor is new and apparently has some difficulty with English.)  He wants me to sit down and help him plan out his coursework.  I’m fine with that.  In fact, once we started talking, it was clear he was in the wrong major: his major is computer engineering, and he hates coding.  I said the first thing he needs to do is switch over to an EE major because he’ll get a lot more opportunity to work on hardware there, which he said he really likes.

In the process of talking, I figured I should ask if he had any career plans.  He wants to do weapons development.


My dilemma is that I feel that because the student asked for help, I should help him.  On the other hand, I’m pacifist (or try to be) and don’t feel that helping someone find a way to blow up other people is in line with the Quaker peace testimony.

The best thing I’ve been able to think of is to tell the student that while I am very willing to help him plan out his coursework, I do feel like I need to say I really wish he’d use his intellectual abilities to save people rather than kill them.

The other option, in my mind, is to simply not help him.  I have considered this, but I believe strongly in setting an example through action.  If I refuse to help someone when they ask, I think I am only going to make this person less willing to try to see things from my perspective.

This is the hard thing about being in technical fields.  It’s like knowledge of nuclear processes: it can be used to provide a lot of energy for people, but it can also be used blow people up.  By training people in this field, however, there’s likely a non-zero chance you’ll end up with at least one student who does research on making bombs or things like that.  So does that make you an accessory to killing people?  I really don’t know.  And I guess I never really thought about the fact that by teaching engineering students, I could be in this position.  I have to say that it doesn’t make me terribly comfortable.  Of course, the same would be true in physics.

I realize that most people don’t have this particular dilemma, and it’s one I never thought would come into play with teaching students.  I’ve contemplated this a lot because good chunks of my paycheck right now come from military organizations.  I’ve tried to look at the things I’m working on and see if these are morally questionable.  In pretty much all cases, the things I’ve been working on could easily be used for good things: research into ionospheric physics, devices used for communication that could also go into things like cell phones, and RFID for asset tracking.  (I do say that I feel a big funny about working on things that encourage materialism, like the constant push toward new and better cell phones, for instance.  I also know that there’s pretty much no stopping it when we live in an economy that only functions because of materialism…but that’s a dilemma for another post.)

It’s making me realize how very hard it is to completely extricate one’s self from things that are morally questionable despite best intentions.  Maybe the Amish have it right.



1. Chris Taylor - November 5, 2011

This is an interesting post for me. I work at a national security lab and I experience(d) the same questions coming from both myself and family members. I turns out, though, that a great deal of our technical work goes into understanding how to “undo” nuclear weapons (to meet disarmament goals), and prevent proliferation & terrorism by better security, detection, tagging of materials, etc. It’s a mixed bag, for sure, as the concept of deterrence is morally ambiguous. Ultimately, though pacifism is not so much an action of technological development, but one of policy. Modern weaponry has raised the cost of total warfare so high, that nations have avoided direct confrontation (i.e. cold war), fighting smaller proxy wars and pursuing creative policy solutions instead. While this sucks for the nations in which proxy wars are fought, it’s better than total warfare, which they would likely have been sucked into anyway.


2. Charles J Gervasi - November 5, 2011

I wonder why he’sattracted to weapons in the first place. Most people get sucked into it. I wouldn’t think it would be a childhood passion.


3. Clare Flourish - November 6, 2011

If you train someone to drive a car, he thereby becomes more likely to kill someone than a non-driver. Even if you train someone in Literature, they might be therefore more persuasive, and create propaganda. I see your dilemma, and see no way of avoiding these risks.

I think your moral duty in your work is to help your student.


4. GEARS - November 7, 2011

I would explain to the student that weapons development goes against your morals but you are willing to help them plan their coursework. However, if you did know someone working in that area, I do think you have an obligation to tell that student “Hey Prof so-and-so is working in this area. Talk to them if you’re interested.”


5. Luke Holzmann - November 7, 2011

Just a thought: Rather than trying to chart/change the direction of a person’s life, I believe we should focus–where we have opportunity–on helping people become better people. May we encourage students to follow their interests and passions in ways that bless and help others. This is the Spider-Man responsibility thing. And this goes to show that ambiguity of the morality of so much of what we do… demonstrating again the contextual nature of morality. The only way to properly understand how morality fits into a context is to have a solid framework/standpoint from which to measure/consider the situation. And so we see that education must be coupled with moral development. Without becoming better people, our education is likely to be detrimental.

Rambling two cents… if it’s worth that much [smile].



6. frautech - November 9, 2011

Agree with Mr. Gervasi on this. But I wouldn’t worry too much. Chances are he’ll end up wherever there is a job. I used to work in non-profit and would have liked to have made an engineering career in a similar kind of place, but I’ve made my peace (ha!) with what I do now. No career choice is completely without blame. At last weapons are one of the few things we still design and manufacture in America. Is working at Apple knowing all your hardware goes towards Chinese jobs any better for the country?


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