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An accessory to blowing people up… November 5, 2011

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

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