The Proper Purpose of Engineering

As Joseph Dunne has noted (“The Rationality of Practice,” September 2012), a practice as defined by Aladair MacIntyre (“Rethinking Engineering Ethics,” November 2010) is “something that can succeed or fail in being true to its own proper purpose.” Both MacIntyre and Dunne had internal goods in mind, but there is an alternative sense in which a practice may have a “proper purpose.” In a 1984 paper (“Virtues and Practices,” Analyse und Kritik, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 49-60), British political theorist David Miller identified two different kinds of practices:

There is an important distinction to be drawn between practices which have no raison d’etre other than the particular excellences and enjoyments which they allow to participants (I shall refer to such practices as ‘self-contained’) and practices which have a wider social purpose (I shall refer to these as ‘purposive’). Games, from which much of MacIntyre’s thinking about practices seems to be drawn, are the main exemplars of the first category… On the other hand, in the case of a productive activity… there is an external purpose which gives the practice its point and in terms of which it may be judged.

In other words, MacIntyre’s rigid classification of all goods as either internal or external to any given practice is difficult to maintain if it is one that Miller would describe as purposive. Such a practice has an end that is intrinsic in a way that a strictly external good cannot be; and yet that end also does not qualify as an internal good, since its benefits extend well beyond the boundaries of the practicing community.

Combining the terminology of Dunne and Miller, what is the proper purpose of a purposive practice? It seems to me that the answer is something analogous to, or perhaps equivalent with, the fundamental ideal for which the practice strives; something that is treated as an end in itself, such that the practice qualifies as a praxis (“The Social Nature of Engineering,” November 2012). Physicians pursue health; if humans ever attain perfect health, then doctors would be out of a job. Attorneys pursue justice; if humans ever attain perfect justice, then lawyers would be out of a job. Engineers pursue . . . what, exactly? What perfection would humans have to attain in order for engineers to be out of a job?

Henry Petroski contends that engineering innovation is driven primarily by dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs (“Learning from Failures,” July 2006). Would engineers be out of a job if humans ever attain perfect satisfaction? Presumably, but is satisfaction really an ideal on par with health and justice? Contentment might seem like a more suitable concept from that standpoint – except that genuine contentment is supposed to be independent of outward circumstances, and engineering deals exclusively with outward circumstances.

A better candidate might be quality of life. Would engineers be out of a job if humans ever attain a perfect quality of life? Probably, but practitioners other than engineers – including physicians and attorneys – can and do contribute to quality of life, as well. Furthermore, even within engineering, improving the quality of life for some people may diminish that of others; in fact, such tradeoffs are routine in the real world.

Aristotle would insist that the proper purpose of any worthwhile activity is to facilitate some aspect of eudaimonia (yoo-dy-moh-NEE-ah), which is best translated as well-being or human flourishing (“Engineers Are from Aristotle,” July 2010). Unlike most other ancient Greek philosophers, he affirmed that favorable physical, social, and material conditions can be important factors for living a genuinely good life. With this in mind, Richard Bowen described the end of engineering as “the promotion of human flourishing through contribution to material well-being” (“Engineering Ethics as Virtue Ethics,” May 2011).

Ashvin Shah echoed this in personal correspondence, suggesting that the proper purposes of medicine, law, and engineering are physical, social, and material well-being, respectively; roughly corresponding to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In accordance with the principle that these are unalienable rights possessed by every individual, it is important to stipulate that the scope of well-being that these practices should foster is universal; i.e., engineers ought to work toward the material well-being of all people, not just a privileged group. As Miller wrote:

If a “practice” account of the virtues is going to be successful, the practices concerned must be those I have called purposive, and moreover those whose aims are fairly central to human existence. By implication it is a mistake to try to explain the virtues by reference to goods internal to practices. Although MacIntyre is quite right to draw our attention to the existence of such goods – for even in the case of purposive practices standards of excellence will develop whose achievement will be regarded as an internal good by the participants – the virtues themselves must be understood in relation to those wider social purposes which practices serve.

This requires a significant adjustment of MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics. The proper purpose of a purposive practice constrains what will count as its internal goods, since the latter must tend to advance the former in some way. Likewise, the personal attributes that enable someone to achieve the internal goods of a purposive practice only count as genuine virtues if they also facilitate the accomplishment of its proper purpose.

Consequently, a good that is internal to the practice of engineering will be something that uniquely contributes to the material well-being of all people. What exactly is “material well-being” in this context? How do engineers enhance it? What obligations do they assume in the process? I will take up these questions next time.▪

About the author  ⁄ Jon A. Schmidt, P.E., SECB

Jon A. Schmidt ( is a Senior Associate Structural Engineer in the Aviation & Federal Group at Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City, Missouri. He serves as Secretary on the NCSEA Board of Directors, chairs the SEI Engineering Philosophy Committee, and shares occasional thoughts at

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