As an employee of a technology company, I help to build tools that accelerate the pace of engineering and science. Our clients include automobile, aerospace and defense industries.

My biggest ethical dilemma arises when we work with defense companies to build missiles, rocket launchers, warships etc. On one hand, I feel it will help protect innocent civilians from outside threats, but I also know these weapons will be used to kill other innocent people. We have witnessed world wars, the Vietnam war, or the Afghanistan war, and they have only led to nations/families being destroyed as a consequence. I believe no one wins these wars, but they only lead to destruction and distraught populations – and I hate that part of my job that is associated with war.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

2 responses »

  1. It just means you have a conscience. Something a lot of people lack these days.


  2. John Hooker says:

    I will take the issue to be whether you should work for a company that requires you to contribute to weapons systems.

    A key ethical test for this dilemma is the utilitarian principle: are you maximizing net expected utility for all concerned? Or would the world be better off if you were to work for some other company?

    It may seem that it makes no difference. If you didn’t make weapons, someone else would happily take your job and do it. The utilitarian outcome would be no better, and so you may as well stick with your current job. This is called the “futility argument,” and it comes up all the time in utilitarian arguments.

    The futility argument is valid when properly applied, but when you apply it, you have to consider the opportunity cost: if you weren’t making weapons, you could be making measles vaccine (about half a million kids die from measles every year).

    So you have to pose the question this way: consider the current world (world A), and an alternate world (world B) in which someone else has your current job and you are making measles vaccine (or whatever). Which world has more utility?

    Of course, in world B you may displace someone who makes vaccine in world A. If that person is making weapons in world B, there is no gain. But that person may be a plumber or a surgeon in world B. You have to judge whether world B is likely to be better than world A. If so, you should change jobs.

    If you are convinced that the weapons you develop go to legitimate users who are defending themselves, then there is probably no need to leave world A. But if some of the weapons end up in the wrong hands, world B is likely to be better.

    This kind of dilemma is usually a tough call, but such is life. We must all make a judgment as best we can when choosing a job or career.

    I don’t mean to suggest that you should be a heart surgeon or disaster relief worker simply because these occupations create more utility. This is not generalizable, because if everyone chose a few high-yield occupations, there would be no one left to pick up the garbage or fix the plumbing. Utility would not increase after all because the economy that makes surgery and relief work possible would collapse, thus defeating the purpose of the choice (this is what makes it ungeneralizable). Note that this is not a violation of the utility principle, which cares only about the utility contribution of the individual agent. However, choosing heart surgery may violate the utility principle as well if you lack the necessary talents and end up killing your patients.

    An ethical choice of job or career should be made for more specific reasons that take into account your abilities, training, interests, and dreams. Choosing heart surgery because you have great hand-eye coordination, can master the science, are cool under pressure, and have a drive to save lives is certainly generalizable. You career choice should be one that is (a) generalizable, given your reasons for the choice, and (b) so far as you can reasonably believe, creates as much net utility as any other generalizable choice, given your interests and abilities.


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