Should engineering text books promote social justice?

A recent news release caught my eye when it began,

"Imagine you're an engineer charged with designing an SUV to sell in a third-world country. What sorts of questions might you consider before creating a prototype? This is a case study from Binghamton University faculty member George Catalano's latest book series, Engineering and Society: Working Towards Social Justice. The books .... encourage engineers to think about the long- and short-term implications of their projects."

Well, so far so good. But reading further, I encountered this passage:

“If people need things designed, we tend to just design them without giving a lot of thought to their applications. For example, in the SUV scenario, a typical engineer might consider gas prices, current supply and demand, cultural preferences and regional geography to make the product marketable. But Catalano, a professor of bioengineering, believes that it's not enough to consider only such practical factors.....In the case of the third-world SUV, the book asserts that a responsible engineer would ask himself, “Will having SUVs make the citizens more or less able to live their lives freely? Will SUVs affect native or other subpopulations? Will the increased congestion, pollution and dependence on fossil fuels be acceptable? And how will SUV production and use impact ecosystems?”

At least to my ear, this goes beyond social responsibility. It sounds more like arrogance. Folded into this argument is the unspoken idea that the engineer knows better about what potential third-world SUV owners need than the people who are interested in the SUVs. Also folded into this argument is the idea that people are incapable of dealing with problems that they themselves have created.

There a host of counterarguments here that beg to be made. Just to name a few: Shouldn't third-worlders themselves be the ultimate decision-makers about whether or not they should buy SUVs? And if SUVs cause damage that out-weighs their usefulness, shouldn't it be up to third-world governing bodies to make this determination and take action? And isn't it also the height of arrogance to suggest that a single group of engineers can, in fact, figure out all the consequences of societal trends and thus decide whether "SUVs make the citizens more or less able to live their lives freely?" Wouldn't these citizens themselves have a better shot at deciding this issue?

You can read more about this textbook here: http://discovere.binghamton.edu/news/catalano-3092.html

I hope the SUV scenario is just a bad example and not really what's billed as "creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people."

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Lee Teschler

Leland serves as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design. He has 34 years of Service and holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan, a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of...
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