Engineering Ethics and the Preface to Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil"

I feel like we live in an age where everyone reacts in blind panic if they sense their power is being challenged.

Engineering Ethics and the Preface to Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil"

The material my classes covered this semester sprawls, as if a city were overrun with people. Neighborhoods, you could imagine, forming less on function and more on "comfort," with "comfort" defined so loosely it would mean "living with an evil I barely know." This mirrors the problem of talking about engineering and programming in the world today. Ethical issues in engineering range from the intentional design flaws of a cheaply made car to the unintentional and massively consequential social engineering of our oil economy. Programming issues range from obvious manipulation to what might one day be viewed as flawed investment in the future. It's like anyone and everyone packed into a place, with no one knowing what's next.

How to unite so many disparate topics? It is tempting to apply traditional ethical stances for the sake of categorizing them. For example, utilitarian rhetoric can be used to defend desperate grabs at market share as well as the charitable ventures of cryptobillionaires. It is also tempting to assert a specific societal phenomenon as underlying all the issues encountered. Every abuse of labor, invasion of privacy, crass advertisement, environmental incident, and lack of caution traces back to an oligarchic or managerial class which always asserts but rarely listens.

In contrast, I believe "What does it mean to build?" serves as a unifying question. I admit the question is repulsive without proper context. Everyone knows what it means to build, no? You follow the instructions, put the Legos together, get an X-Wing fighter. You write some code and a math problem is solved. The meaning is the result. If we were just happy with those results, there would be no problems.

Of course nothing works like this. Insisting you can make something, be perfectly happy with it, and be left alone requires the entire world to be oriented in such a way as to allow that. To that end, Aristotle spoke of political science as chief in an architectonic structure. Social and political considerations indicate the priority of every other science if happiness is the goal.

In Engineering Ethics, we routinely encounter those who want to make sure the job is done well and those who want to avoid blame or chase glory at massive cost. That latter idea, that some are willing to do anything to have a reputation, is the theme that dare not speak its name. I think of the horror of the Challenger explosion, where people met the night before to say "don't launch, we don't have the data on what could happen" and immediately others formed factions to oppose their well-founded skepticism. You could say there's an instinct to protect one's name, but to protect it at the expense of others' lives? What strikes me as particularly noteworthy is how an action is taken to preserve power or honor with not one thought as to what the consequences are for oneself if anything goes wrong.

With that in mind, I believe Nietzsche's Preface to Beyond Good and Evil to be a fruitful text. The Preface concerns the largest matters of reputation. What if you wanted to build a system of thought for the ages? What if you believed your way of thinking ought to be emulated for generations? I feel like we live in an age where everyone reacts in blind panic if they sense their power is being challenged. There's the instinct to preserve a reputation, but no conscious thought that a reputation itself is at stake. We need to go back in time, to an older way of thinking, to see that not everyone lashed out like a paranoid bully at the presence of their own shadow.


Nietzsche opens with an incredible counterfactual. Suppose that Truth itself is a woman, with philosophers featured as seducers:

SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman--what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women--that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman?

If Truth is a woman, then all dogmatic philosophers have failed to understand the Truth. They're too serious and too needy. They have their dogma, an idea they want to govern all of us. Maybe they think we'd be better off if we pursued purity of heart (a sermon of Kierkegaard's) or that competition alone is effective at keeping the ambitious in check.

Nietzsche does not attack any particular contention of the philosophers. His argument is that they fail to recognize they are playing a dating sim (I guarantee you will not regret clicking that link). By implication, truth isn't about being right. It's really about desire, or to put it another way, what you will accept as Truth. Desire is only one degree away from reputation, i.e. the image you project.

One can say dogmatic philosophers are concerned with reputation, too. For example, Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" is immortal. It helped launch science as we know and feel it. "I think, therefore I am" emphasizes rational being at the expense of bodily or moral being. The goal in thinking is to build from truths that cannot be doubted, e.g. mathematical truths leading to an understanding of physics. Why can't we say Descartes wooed Truth successfully?

If you like what you're reading, please subscribe. And please spread the word about the newsletter! Your tweets & shares on Facebook help a bunch.

The trouble is that while he launched modern rationalism, he also launched the seeds of the confusion we see in Engineering Ethics. How did we end up with scientists and technicians who don't even realize when they're panicked, overreaching, or cruel? It helps to have a sense of honor to restrain oneself, but we ultimately treat honor as a superstition. That is not an accidental consequence of the literature which preached the practical benefits of science. Moral rhetoric and self-knowledge were implicitly deemphasized so as to introduce revolutionary ideas.

If Truth is about desire, then our approach matters. We do not win Truth by loudly declaring we're right or putting a demonstration on the blackboard. But I'm not sure the correct approach entails an updated wardrobe or a gym routine.


I surmise the correct approach, for Nietzsche, depends on a way of understanding history. That already sounds too remote for many of us, but history is really about how we conceive ourselves as a species, and that in turn is prerequisite for individual self-creation. To see this better, I want to look at a passage that can easily be thought ranting or a gross oversimplification:

But the struggle against Plato, or--to speak plainer, and for the "people"--the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity (FOR CHRISITIANITY IS PLATONISM FOR THE "PEOPLE"), produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals.

The infamous "Christianity is Platonism for the masses" does not appear to do justice to Christianity or Plato. "What is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one's God" is a powerful moral sentiment, as it takes into account not only the ups and downs of life, but even anticipates the claim that life is absurd. Moreover, doing justice and walking with God do not directly relate to a realm of Platonic ideal forms which establish reality and truth. They certainly do not engage "the unexamined life is not worth living."

I'm almost tempted to say Nietzsche oversimplifies for no good purpose. But if one needs to make history personal, if one needs to understand how the world has formed our very sentiments, then the "ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums" is readily visible. Christianity and our notion of rationality began reinforcing each other through Plato. We may not believe in ideal forms, but we want truth to be certain and useful. We learn because we trust in good outcomes. Do we really learn anything? The Greeks held life was ultimately tragic. A number of them did science out of wonder, not for the sake of improving the species. Our notion of rationality, on the other hand, is loaded with a providential outlook.

At this point, we're well beyond the cases of Engineering Ethics, but not the more fundamental problem. That is, we're trying to engineer our way out of making real decisions. If you implicitly hold that everything will work out because it has to, you open the door to greater tragedy. You're not seeing the world as it is. The irony is that to see the world as it is, you've got to grapple with other things than its material and effectual nature. Furthermore, history can't be replaced with the news, and the news can't be replaced with whatever is on cable. People make decisions. The only way to make good decisions is through people.


I am happy to teach applied ethics because I am happy to teach. Make no mistake that a number of the textbooks I've seen are horribly lacking, with no sense of what students need. College is an extremely rare, if not singular, event in our lives: a time dedicated to building one's mind. It is not possible to do this without an understanding of where our world came from. It is not possible without serious thinking about how everything could be radically different.

On that note, I can see exactly where the failures of Engineering Ethics have come from. The need for a labor force with credentials has taken precedence over creating thoughtful citizens who can rule and be ruled in turn. While I do not believe old books are always the right solution, I'm grateful for their weirdness. It serves as a reminder that the way we do things is just that, "the way we do things," and nothing more.