I was confronted an ethical dilemma the other day. Although it is just a hypothetical one with the form of a series of academic discussions, I consider it to be serious enough to put up an article documenting it, and expressing some of my thoughts. The question at the center of the concerns is very simple: we, who identify ourselves as engineers, are we really making the difference we think we make?
It’s a nonsense question at the first glance. We don’t care what we are supposed to do a lot of times. We live our lives in a competitive world, we study in order to get a decent job so that we can be responsible and reasonable persons, and so that we can enjoy our lives; or, if with enough resources, to help others enjoy theirs. It’s totally reasonable not to think too much about we are “supposed” to do, although almost every engineering school teaches its students that engineering is about solving real-world problems to improve quality of life and to make the world a better place. The ethically problematic question is, for whom? Whose quality of life, and making the world better for whom? I can see many of us already start to “Err”.
Engineering has revolutionized the way people live. From as early as the industrial revolution to the nowadays ubiquitous information technology, lots of people without enough education were essentially kicked out and replaced by numerous and increasingly capable machines. The optimistic American people have this thing called “the American Dream”: work hard and you can get anywhere. However the reality is a bit different than what it sounds like: education, the very thing that truly makes the difference of success and failure, is an expensive service that requires lots of resources to purchase. I, among many of my close friends, are somehow among the highly privileged who have the luxury to access high quality education without too much struggle financially. Education makes a person more likely to success and make a fortune out of … those who are less educated. Sadly that’s how the world works. Some people have to suffer so that someone else can live better. It’s the dirty secret of we human-beings as a society; we can do nothing about it, or so do we think.
Obviously things are more complicated than what schools teach us in order to be “politically correct”. We work as engineers not to make lives better for everybody; to some extent we serve good to the privileged only. So what’s the point of this whole engineering thing?
There is an old saying in China which delivers the wisdom we need to solve the dilemma: “穷则独善其身，达则兼济天下”. Literally it means to take care of yourself first while in poverty, but don’t forget to help others once you become affluent. Work hard for the sake of ourselves, and then give back. That’s the way to go about it. It’s not the perfect solution which makes everybody happy at once, but at least it seems much more acceptable than the dirty secret mentioned before.
So what’s the difference we engineers are to make? In numerous commencement speeches we heard countless examples of excellence being transforming into real changes in life that benefit everybody. As I mentioned before it was usually not the whole story, and even if it does happen, real sensible changes in life are rare and therefore precious events that we do not encounter often enough to all grasp the opportunity to make them meaningful. We are not making the difference so that everybody can be successful; we are making the difference so that we can be successful, and with a good will our leadership can guide more people toward success. For sure, engineering is about problem solving, life improving, or whatever we do to make things better, cheaper, and even better, but by the end of the day it’s just the same as any other occupations that lead a person to success: leadership. It’s leadership that gives us the power and resource to truly impact the world. Of course comes with power is responsibility, which is where the importance of education kicks in, but anyway without this power we can never make the difference we are all taught to make.
We should all prepare to be future leaders, and by saying that I mean we should keep in mind what we are supposed to do for our lives, but not inferring that we should act like politicians. Sadly the most influential leaders in our world are politicians, but I can see many leaders from other fields doing equally influential and much more lovely things than those guys in nice suits. For example, my favorite basketball player, Chris Paul. Yeah it may be surprising that it’s not Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, but yes, Chris Paul, because I could find no athletes other than him to be more inspiring, at least to me, and to be making a difference reaching far beyond his occupation as an athlete. His newest TV commercial says he is “born to assist”, but to me he is more of a person who is born to lead. As an athlete he served the class president for two years in high school, which is highly uncommon and says everything about his excellence, the very foundation that justifies his leadership. After joining NBA and becoming a millionaire, he never stopped giving back. He founded his own charity foundation, providing services and scholarships to talented teenagers without enough resources to access the education they need; he and his wife buy and give away prom dresses to high school girls so that they can feel confident and loved; he and his family even randomly pick up people on the street to offer kindness, from pieces of advice to bill-pays. Ellen DeGeneres called him the most charitable athlete in the world, and as always Chris responded with a modest grin and declined the compliment politely. He does everything he does off-court with an extremely low profile, which often drives his female fans crazy. Recently he also ran for and got elected the president of the NBA Player’s Association, leading the organization and fighting for the rights of his fellow athletes. Interestingly, Chris became my favorite basketball player not because of his plays (of course he does nice plays, but obviously he’s not even tall enough to play like Kobe or LeBron…), but because of his personality and what he does off-court. For me he is the person I want to be: a leader in a broken world but tries to put things back together, and lets other people enjoy his success. I can never play basketball as good as he does, but perhaps I can be a leader that is as good, given that I become as successful in my own field of expertise.
So the problem is actually solvable. Engineers are not slaves of big corporations which insatiably extract from people; engineers fight for their lives in order to let other people live off the success of theirs. It’s just like basketball players can be more than simply entertainers, engineers are also more than problem solvers, or slaves, but can be leaders who make the real difference. What’s the difference? It’s up to you. A leader can do both bad and good. It’s our choice, and do no evil can be a pretty good bottom line. And always remember, we were born to this world not to complain, but to improve.
Some argue that altruism is just another form of being selfish, but I believe the two do not necessarily conflict, just like how the old Chinese saying goes.