the problem with engineering ethics

My friend Luke is working on his M.A. thesis in applied ethics. It’s on ethics in engineering, and while doing some web research, he came across Texas State University professor Karl Stephen‘s blog, where he argues that same-sex marriage is bad for engineering. Barf:

I’m going to go out on a limb here. But I’m sure that the limb’s pretty solid.

[…] I am going to argue that allowing same-sex marriage will endanger the future of the engineering profession in this country.

He goes on to explain that if same-sex couples marry, their children will be less likely to succeed, and be less likely to be good engineers. With less people already going into engineering, and with good engineering students (supposedly) coming from traditional families, engineering would be harmed by same-sex marriage. Go read his post. I left a comment. You can also read my comment below the cut.

Yes, you went out on a limb. However, this limb cracks under these following critiques:

Ignoring systems of oppression when referencing studies. You “cite” various studies that show that children who do not have a nuclear family mother and father are more likely to be maladjusted, have criminal records, early or frequent sex or drug use, and increased likelihood of suicide and depression. However, you fail to ask why this is the case. You take it for granted that it is because they do not have a mother and father. Perhaps a deeper, more structural problem is the case. Perhaps it is because our society is structurally sexist (example: there is little support for a single mother; there is lots of support for a middle class, heterosexual married couple), structurally homophobic (children of same-sex parents have to deal with homophobia against their parents and against themselves). Perhaps if we worked toward a less sexist, less homophobic society, children of single parents and same-sex couples would be less likely to be “maladjusted” than children of traditional families. (Though I doubt the validity of these studies, in part because they are ideological, which I will discuss below.)

We are always already ideological. You claim that conventional marriages raise children better than non-traditional families that that “That is not an ideological statement. It is a social-science statement backed up by years of the best kind of research that social science can offer these days.” By making this claim, you are appealing to an “objective” truth — that this knowledge is outside of ideology. However, it is an ideological statement. Ideology is, under one definition, how we perceive our relationship with society and how we act in society. Social science is as ideological as any other field of study. This caveat to protect the “objectivity” of this research is unsound.

You do not account for unearned privilege and how university education is geared in favor of white, male, middle class students. You claim that “the better grade of engineering students come from just the kind of stable family background that same-sex marriage will militate against.” Even if this is true, why is it the case? It is not because children of traditional families are inherently “superior” students, but because of a whole system of unearned privileges that help children of traditional families succeed economically and educationally. Example: A son or a daughter of a middle class couple is more likely to be going to a stronger high school, more likely to have more books at home, more likely to be encouraged to go to college, more likely to be able to afford college — these are economic and social advantages granted to children of traditional couples because of system injustices.

You work under the assumption that marriage is solely or mostly about raising children. While I agree that this is true, in part, it’s also flawed reasoning. This is because, by your reasoning, marriage is not a good idea unless it is procreative, and the children know their biological parents (“being a biological and social unit that consists of a man as father, a woman as mother, and children who each have the same mother and father”). If this is true, then heterosexual men and women who are unable to procreate should also not marry (they can’t have children!). Women over a certain age could not get married (they can’t have children!).

You are working under the same assumption that David Blankenhorm makes in The Future of Marriage. I have only read the introduction, but he argues against his friend who claims that marriage is about private property. Blankenhorn claims instead that marriage is about raising children. But the question arises, in the historical development of the nuclear family, why did it arise that way? Was it because it was the best way to raise children? I doubt it. I think that other societies where children are raised communally or raised by large extended families have healthy children who contribute to society. Those societies haven’t failed. I think Blankenhorn’s friend is correct: the reason to have our current nuclear family is for property reasons. If there is a single man and a single woman, it is clear whose children they are, and it’s clear who inherits property. Our current Western model of family didn’t arise because it was best for children; it arose because it was best for the continuity of property under a capitalist system.

You use a poor analogy. You make the analogy between a system of engineering accreditation and extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. This analogy treats our lifeworld — how we can create and live our lives — as a strategic structure. It takes the strategic rationality of professionalism, corporatism, and science (as it is currently practiced) and places it into the lived experiences of folks. Which leads to my next critique:

You fail to account for how we are creative beings, creating our world. Why must our society be the way it is? Why must society malign same-sex couples and their children to the point that it is more difficult to be gay or lesbian or the child of gays and lesbians? Why can’t we have faith that we can work toward a better society, one in which it is possible for a variety of lifestyles to flourish and be successful, and for people to not have dignity maimed based on a classification?

Your argument fails the test of your own ethical paradigm. In the Fall 2007 Technology and Society Magazine, you argue that engineers should follow the Golden Rule: to treat others how you would like to be treated. Part of your argument is also predicated on the belief that you could well be the next victim. (I am going off the abstract on Academic Search Premier, as the magazine is proprietary and I could not read the article online.) However, in your argument against same-sex marriage, you neglect this ethical paradigm. I assume you would not want to be told you could not get married. Why would you support a system where others are told they could not get married? You could very well be the next victim. Perhaps our government has a conservative backlash and decides that other classes of people cannot get married? (I know this last part reeks of the slippery slope fallacy.) Unless the abstract is not true to your actual article, or unless your article contains some caveats (treat others as you want to be treated, unless they’re queer), then your blog post does not adhere to your own ethics.

I could go on, but I think that is enough.

This entry was posted in Ethics, Queer issues and theory, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to the problem with engineering ethics

  1. Heather Ebba says:

    Great job! What a claim to make! My jaw drops every time I hear an argument like his.

  2. k8 says:

    Great response to a downright icky blog post! I have to say that one of the joys of studying rhetoric is the acquisition of tools that help us rebut others’ poor arguments. Good job!

  3. dawn says:

    Holy cow, Michael. Well-thought out and presented. I’m in awe.

    And good for you. He needs to hear this (and let’s hope that he does).

  4. Bowerr says:

    I wonder too if his knee-jerk reaction isn’t part of some larger xenophobia. According to an engineering colleague of mine, the US is primarily fueled (especially in research) by foreign engineers who must immigrate, who grow up in very different family structures than the American nuclear and must “destabilize” their lives by moving here.

    I agree with the other comments that this kind of “the sky will fall” scare speculation is too often taken up by some very smart and educated people. As Dawn says, hope he reconsiders his thinking.

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