Category Archives: Ethics

Jefferson’s Declaration

Having completed the reading on the origins of World War I for the moment, I’ve turned next to a rather comprehensive collection of Jefferson’s writings. These start with his autobiography, within which is published his original version of the Declaration of Independence, with indications as to what was removed, and what added, by committee prior to its release to the world.

I want to narrow in on two changes that were made, which I believe indicate – even more than the final document – the magnificence of this man. The first is a single word change in what may be the most important line in the document. The edited version reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

The original version from Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

I do not believe these statements are identical. While the published version indicates that the rights of Man may not be separated from Man, and that these rights are not changeable with time or circumstance (my interpretation of the use of the word “certain” to mean absolute, not relative), Jefferson’s use of the word “inherent” suggests something significantly different. In Jefferson’s phrasing, it is in the Nature of Man to have these rights.The veryessential being of Man includes the existence of these rights.It is because he is what he is – a being capable of rationality, a fact from which no man can (or should try to) escape – that he is endowed (not by a creator, but by the way of being) with these moral securities against denial of his fundamental requirements for life by other men. The removal of this word then places the burden on the term “unalienable” to subsume this meaning. I do not believe that this term has the same connotation. By unalienable is suggested that there should be no attempt made to separate Man from these rights, but not that it cannot be done by the very definition of what it means to be Man.

I also notice that the word creator is not capitalized in the text. This could be simply a fault of the printing of the collection of papers that I have, while it is certain that in the final published copy this word is capitalized. (It is also true that several other words are capitalized in the published copy, and only words that we now consider proper nouns and the start of sentences are capitalized in the text I have).

The other significant change I saw was in the final paragraph of the document. The published version reads:

And for the support of this declaration, witha firm reliance on the protection of divine providence we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Jefferson’s version:

And for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Elsewhere in the document, God is mentioned only once, and this in the opening paragraph – this is the same in Jefferson’s and the published version:

…and to assume among the powers of the Earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…

Even here, note that the God described is “nature’s God”, not a God associated directly with Man. Of course I am aware of the fact that Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers were Deists – and this fits the description of a Deist quite well. What I had not realized was the fact that the plea for divine intervention (such as it is) is not from Jefferson, but from the committee.

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Engineering Bravery part II

It is proper for engineers to assess risk in the undertaking of any project, and to monitor the development and implementation of plans to mitigate the identified risks, to raise the probability of success in the endeavor. A standard approach to measuring risk is to evaluate the probability of the risk occurence, and the magnitude of the consequence on equal scales (for example, a scale of 1-5). The overall risk is then computed as the product of the probability score and the consequence score. Depending on the magnitude of the effort, and the nature of the identified risk, it may be appropriate for some risks to be accepted as present which are either impossible to mitigate, or for which mitigations may be prohibitively expensive or time-consuming to implement. (In this latter case, attempting to resolve the risk will create a new risk to the project in the form of a cost or schedule problem).

However, as discussed in a previous post, it is evident that there is an increasing resistance to the acceptance of risk across a large segment of industry. What is the underlying source of this increase in risk adversion?

One possibility is that risk adversion is driven by consideration of economic consequences. In a highly competitive market, the profit margin is steadily reduced for established products. Any error in the design or manufacture of a product will result in an increased cost, and will threaten the profitability of the manufacturer. Hence, it can be argued, any risk of error must be taken as a risk to profitability, and hence to the very survival of the firm. Although I can agree that this is a valid concern for risks with extraordinarily high consequences, such as risks which may result in liability, or those which could stop production entirely, I also perceive that the level of acceptable risk has been lowered much more dramatically than these increases in consequence can explain.

Considering the matter in more depth, I am lead to the conclusion that although the consequences of risks may be evaluated more highly in markets with narrow profit margins, it is in the evaluation of the risk probability that a greater overall increase has occured. What I have seen personally is a greater concern over whether engineers have an accurate understanding of the likelihood of a problem occuring. Particularly when an innovative approach to a process is suggested, with the goal of increasing profitability, there is a heightened concern over whether this innovation will fail. The level of proof required has risen dramatically. Although this is championed at times by managers as a sign of “maturity”, or as an approach more scientific than the former practice, I suspect what is really occuring is far different.

Where does the sense of greater probability of failure come from? It is based in the emotion of fear. And the source of the fear is very often stated bluntly – “how can we be certain? …we don’t know what might happen … you never know…”. The fear has an epistemological source. The quest for engineering certainty is found to be impossible to satisfy. It cannot be satisfied by any other means than through the application of reason, and reason has come to be doubted as a source of truth.

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Engineering Bravery

On January 27, 1967, fire swept through the cabin of the Apollo 204 spacecraft (later re-designated Apollo 1) during a countdown test sequence, killing all three astronauts on board. An investigation followed, completedin April, 1967, and modifications made to the design of the Apollo Command Modulecabin and life support systems (replacing pure oxygen with a more natural mix of nitrogen and oxygen, plus other modifications). Three unmanned flights [not including Command Modules] were launched prior to the next manned mission, Apollo 7, launched October 11, 1968, 21 months after the Apollo 1 tragedy.

The next mission, Apollo 8, was originally planned to test docking of the Lunar Module and Command Module in Earth orbit; however, the Lunar Module was not going to be delivered on time. In August of 1968 it was decided that the Apollo 8 mission would be altered, rather than delayed, to circumnavigate the moon – instead of simply attaining Earth orbit. The mission plan was reworked in three months, and the launch occured on December 21, 1968 (and was an amazing success). The timing is important here – this change in mission occured before the launch of Apollo 7.

Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970. Two days into the flight, an oxygen tank exploded, and there followed 4 days of high suspense, resulting in the safe recovery of the crew. A review board was immediately assembled, and its report finalized in June, 1970. The launch of the next manned Apollo 14 mission occured on January 31, 1971 – only 9 months after the Apollo 13 episode.

On January 28, 1986, the Shuttle Challenger was destroyed shortly after liftoff, killing all 7 astronauts on board. The formal investigation was completed in June of 1986, and the next manned flight launched on September 29, 1988 – 32 months after the Challenger disaster.

On February 1, 2003, the Shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon re-entry, killing all 7 astronauts on board. The formal report on the accident was released in August 2003. The next manned mission launched on July 26, 2005 – 29 months after the Columbia disaster. Also in response to this accident, the retirement of the Shuttle program was announced, with a termination date preceding the expected date on which a replacement orbital vehicle will be qualified for use.

I realize these facts are very narrow in scope, and therefore are not authoritative evidence of a trend; however, I use them to illustrate what I contend is a more general change in the role of risk assessment in some fields of Engineering.In the case of NASA, it is very clear that the level of acceptable risk to human life has decreased dramatically since the start of manned missions, to the point now where the presence of any level of significant risk may result in the end of manned spaceflight for a lengthy period of time.

In the pharmaceutical industry, Government regulation directly controls the rate of progress, by demanding ever more stringent levels of safety before new products can be released for public use. In other areas of medical science, a combination of Government and insurance industry controls limit the rate of progress. Similar effects on the rate of progress can be seen in energy technology, the transportation industry, civil engineering (think of building codes), and now we see the beginning of these effects in information technology, with the rising concern over “security”.A valid concern over malicious attacks against high-value targets (the military, banking systems, personal information databases) has spawned increasing paranoia over attacks against individual, personal machines.

Thegrowth of what I call the Quality Industry is another strong trend toward risk adversion. The response to the Far East threat to American manufacturing has been a fascination with improving product “quality”, which can be interpreted as lowering the rate of defects in products. This thrust has taken several forms over the past 30 years, migrating from buzz word to buzz word. I have had the perspective of watching this trend progress at a single company for 20 years. Where we now stand, any defect – whether in the manufactured product, the process of manufacture, or the verification of tolerances – results in a formal “Corrective Action Request”. Each CAR is reviewed by the Quality department (which, of course, has a vested interest in the CAR process). Upon approval by Quality (and I’ve never heard of a CAR being rejected by Quality), each CAR requires a response, including root cause analysis, and a formal corrective action to ensure that the defect cannot occur again. These corrective actions are invariably in the form of additional cross-checking, institution of more manufacturing controls, all targeting a reduction in risk – and once established, these new rules are not to be overturned. What results (in our company in particular, but I am willing to generalize) is a gradual slowing of the manufacturing process, steadily increasing costs, and only marginal improvements in product quality.

In a separate post, I will examine the philosophical source of this trend.

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