The Intellectual Virtue of Engineering

Based on the work of Allison Ross and Nafsikas Athanassoulis, I have identified safety, sustainability, and efficiency as “The Internal Goods of Engineering” (March 2013). Based on the work of Gene Moriarty, I have identified objectivity, care, and honesty as “The Moral Virtues of Engineering” (May 2013). However, I have also acknowledged the potential for dissonance among the individual goods or virtues in each list. How is an engineer supposed to harmonize them when that happens?

One way to look at this issue is to recall that engineering involves the exercise of skill (“The Nature of Competence,” March 2012). Rules and maxims can help novices and advanced beginners learn to incorporate safety, sustainability, and efficiency into their designs; but it takes someone who has enough experience to be at least competent, if not proficient, to do so consistently. Successfully integrating all three could be seen as the mark of a true expert. Many philosophers have drawn a strong analogy between virtues and skills (“Virtue as a Skill,” May 2012), so the same terminology applies to those who characteristically exhibit objectivity, care, and honesty in the proper proportions.

Ross and Atahanassoulis seem to agree, observing that engineers internalize these goods and virtues to the point that they are able to balance them rightly in particular cases, having developed “a reliable capacity to respond to risk with the appropriate attitude.” They affirm that “professionals acquire, through training and thought, settled dispositions to judge in accordance with their distinctive professional values and thus can be said to exemplify a kind of professional practical wisdom”; i.e., phronesis (“Knowledge, Rationality, and Judgment,” July 2012).

This notion strikes me as closely related to a faculty that engineers constantly take for granted but rarely try to explain: engineering judgment. Michael Davis, a philosophy professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, addressed the challenge of delineating exactly what it is in a 2012 paper (“A Plea for Judgment,” Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 789-808). As he says, “One who otherwise knows what engineers know but lacks ‘engineering judgment’ may be . . . a handy resource much like a reference book or database, but cannot be a competent engineer.”

Similar to Ross and Athanassoulis, Davis defines judgment as “the disposition (including the ability) to act as competent members of the discipline act.” It involves more than just (theoretical) knowledge-that or even (technical) knowledge-how; it is “the embodiment of a high likelihood of making certain decisions in the appropriate way at the appropriate time.” Such judgment is neither arbitrary nor algorithmic, and the reference to peers as the benchmark is consistent with the legal notion of the standard of care – the level or quality of services that is ordinarily provided by practitioners of good standing in the same field under similar circumstances.

Davis portrays judgment as the key to integrating ethics into any discipline that requires it. “Once we see judgment as central to the discipline, we can also see how central ethics is to its competent practice. There is no good engineering, no good science, and so on without good judgment and no good judgment in these disciplines without ethics.” However, Davis is quick to clarify what kind of ethics he has in mind and reveals a deontological orientation: “I mean those (morally permissible) standards of conduct (rules, principles, or ideals) that apply to members of a group simply because they are members of that group. Engineers need to understand (and practice) engineering ethics to be good engineers, not moral theory, medical ethics, or the like.”

As Davis acknowledges, this approach – unlike that of Ross and Athanssoulis – treats applied ethics as a matter of technical rationality (techne), rather than practical judgment (phronesis). Despite recognizing that engineering judgment, like phronesis, is “a disposition to act in an appropriate way,” he defines the latter much more broadly as “the ability reliably to respond to any situation with a course of action that makes life better … Phronesis is (more or less) a global term; judgment is not global … We should speak of the art, craft, or skill of [an engineer] rather than his phronesis when he shows good [engineering] judgment.”

Nevertheless, Davis explicitly wonders whether engineering judgment is a virtue, since it admittedly “is a disposition that contributes to living well (both to the engineer’s living well and to others living well).” Ultimately, though, Davis remains worried about the limited scope of judgment in this sense; as he notes, “The traditional virtues (courage, hospitality, truthfulness, and so on) concern the whole of life. No traditional virtue concerns only a single discipline as, for example, engineering judgment does.”

Personally, I do not see this as a problem, given MacIntyre’s situation of virtues within distinct practices. Engineering judgment is, in fact, a discipline-specific form of practical judgment, which Aristotle classified as an intellectual virtue – importantly, the one that guides and ultimately unifies the corresponding moral virtues. As Moriarty summarizes:

Phronesis is at work in discerning and choosing appropriate goals of ethical virtue. Thus, ethical virtue without phronesis remains directionless. But, discernment of the good and perfection of deliberation are dependent on having good character. Hence, without ethical virtue, one might have cleverness in figuring out the means to any end, but one would not have phronesis, the virtue of choosing the appropriate means to the right end.

This intellectual virtue of practical judgment – i.e., engineering judgment – is thus what makes it possible for engineers steadfastly to achieve their practice’s internal goods of safety, sustainability, and efficiency, while conscientiously exhibiting its moral virtues of objectivity, care, and honesty.▪

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

Comments posted to STRUCTURE website do not constitute endorsement by NCSEA, CASE, SEI, C3 Ink, or the Editorial Board.

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