The Concrete Sumo


In practice, engineers often encounter decision-making situations said to be exigent. Such situations are so complex as to deny engineers the reflection required to invoke ethical theories, and so novel as to discourage engineers from appealing to case studies. What theory would enable systematic means of deciding morally exigent situations? Borrowing an African perspective, the rule "Do what a person of good character would do" is used to transcend Western ethics. What that person would do in a given exigent situation is expeditiously revealed via literary methods of story construction.

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William H. Vanderbilt once said, "The public be dammed! I work for my stockholders." And there was a time here in the United States when engineers held the view that the sphere of responsibility for their judgment extended no further than their employer's office or their client's telephone. There was a time when the codes of ethics of engineering professional societies supported that view. Though that view persists today, for most engineers today that sphere of responsibility is expanding. Even Roger Boisjoly was criticized for not informing the astronauts of Challenger about the O-ring dangers. (Broome 1986) This expansion has gone into the international domain, e.g. Bhopal, and into the environment, including the cosmic space environment viz SDI. And it has taken place in the wider contexts of abortion debates, in which the definition of human being is argued, and in gender, race and other human rights debates.

While the sphere of responsibility has been and remains a fast moving target for engineers, the body of scholarship now known as engineering ethics is likewise expanding, but trails at a distance. Questions about the moral status of the non-human environment, for example, and about technological decision making in free societies bifurcating into a techno-elite and a techno-peasantry, remain problematic for perhaps everyone. Assuming that, given enough reflective time, engineers can make technically and morally laden decisions that are defensible and have lasting value, by what means can they make such decisions in exigent, complex and novel situations?

Aristotle would advise engineers to develop good moral habits. Abraham Lincoln would advise them to listen to the "better angels of their nature." (First Presidential Inaugural Address, 1861) Few would rule out the possibility of moral savants, e.g. engineers who can make moral decisions that have lasting value, and who can make them in exigent, complex and novel situations. Many philosophers and engineers today would advise "Do the best you can with the time you have," i.e. attempt ad hoc an approximation of a defensible decision that suits the moment.

I shall consider a systematic alternative to moral approximation in exigent decision making situations. I am thinking about situations in which the decision maker acknowledges an imperative to act rather quickly (Ferguson 1979, and Whitbeck 1998), but which are sufficiently complex to deny the decision maker foresight into the consequences of his or her actions. Such situations are sufficiently novel, moreover, as are questions about the moral status of the non-human environment, et al., to deny the decision maker the reflective time needed to consider ethical theory or applicable cases. The motivation for this alternative is the notion of a "science praxistic."

A "scientifically" exigent decision making situation is one in which the decision maker seeks to make his or her decision with or without scientific certitude, but with the commitment of the parties to the situation. (Broome 1999) To get that commitment, engineers transcend science by means called "science praxistics." (Broome 1991) Simply put, a science praxistic consists of three things. First is a "heuristic," i.e. a statement having pseudo-scientific and/or pseudo-mathematical certitude. (Koen 1984) Second is an "assigned world," i.e. a state of mind in which scientific facts and heuristics coexist in a coherent plan of action. (Broome 1985) Third is a rhetorical argument for getting the affected parties to commit to the plan. (Broome 1989, 1995)

Let us define an "ethically" exigent decision making situation as one in which the decision maker seeks to make his or her decision with or without a defensible ethical rationale, but without loss of collegial status among other engineers. To maintain collegiality in such situations, engineers may transcend Western ethics by means called "ethics praxistics." This sort of praxistic can be understood in the context of The Concrete Sumo, a story previously studied for its heroic content. (Broome and Peirce 1997)

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The Concrete Sumo

The ink on my engineering diploma was but three weeks dry that early morning in the summer of 1966.

I had taken a job as a field engineer with a construction outfit, and was assigned to a site. I reported there that early morning clad in starched khaki shirt and pants, spit-shined ROTC boots, hard hat, and slide rule at the ready. As I arrived, the workmen, who were waiting in small groups at the entrance of the site for the whistle to blow, dressed me up and down, and immediately directed me to "the trailer." They knew, somehow, that this was my first day as a real engineer.

When I opened the door of the trailer, three important-looking chaps greeted me on their way out. First to greet me was the old superintendent, a walking example of dignity and wisdom. He wore a floppy hat of the Indiana Jones variety, puffed on a pipe, and apologized for leaving. It seemed that there was a failure on some other of the company's jobs across town that required his attention.

Second was the project manager, a younger version of the superintendent, but without the pipe, who clutched some important-looking drawings. He also apologized for leaving. Apparently there were some discrepancies between what was in the "hole" and what City Hall records said couldn't be there.

Finally, the carpenter foreman said "hello," then disappeared down into the hole. The whistle blew, everybody else and every machine got busy. I stayed in the trailer, made a cup of awful coffee, propped my feet upon a table, and began to fantasize about what it would be like to know what I should be doing. Then it happened.

He looked to me at the time like a sumo wrestler with a bad attitude. I couldn't even tell which end of the cigar in his mouth was lit. And he exhibited the aura of a man who had no regard for rookie field engineers. He produced a wad of what he called "trip tickets," ordered me to sign one of them, then demanded directions from me indicating where to pour the concrete that was churning inside the fleet of trucks he had waiting outside the trailer.

I politely informed him that this was my first day on the job and that my bosses were away, and suggested that he take the concrete back. As the last part of that suggestion came out of my mouth, I came to realize that my career and physical well-being lay in peril.

Pointing to the signed trip tickets, he said that his duty was to deliver concrete to this site. Pointing to the trucks, he said that he would either pour the concrete where I so directed, or that he would dump the concrete where the trucks stood. Pointing into my face, he said that this choice was my problem. Then he looked at his watch, mumbling something about concrete setting-up in his trucks and a delivery schedule. I said to him that I would have my decision presently.

In the Johnny-on-the-Spot, Tubby was the first to speak to me: "No court in the land," he said, "would blame you for letting the sumo dump the concrete in the entrance way. Its not your fault that they left you alone on your first day!" Then, Roebling began to speak: "You are an engineer, and engineers sacrifice all for their responsibilities to the business of engineering!" Finally, Uncle Roy, the engineer after whom I had patterned my career, spoke to me: "This job belongs as much to you as to anyone else. So, you have a duty to either move this project along, or resign!"

When I returned to the trailer from the Johnny-on-the-Spot, my nerves were in tact and I had conjured up a do-or-die attitude about the situation. I noticed the critical path schedule on the wall of the trailer and engaged it. The day's tasks were revealed, and among them was scribbled "pour elevator pit." On the table that dominated the furnishings of the trailer were some blue prints, and one of them clearly indicated the specifications for the elevator pit.

When oriented to North, the blue print showed the location of the pit in the hole. I looked down into the hole only to see the carpenter foreman sitting on the elevator pit, waiting. I called out to him, "Are the forms for the elevator pit ready to pour?" Agitated, he responded in the affirmative. Filled with courage, I then confronted the concrete "sumo" with my orders: "Pour that elevator pit!"

Upon returning to the job at the end of the day, the superintendent and the project manager made haste to the elevator pit, inspected it with much discussion, then came up to the trailer. They asked me how my day had gone, and I gave them a casual "O.K." I couldn't give them the satisfaction of knowing that the trouble they'd invented for me brought on any panic.

My last day on the job was occasioned by my acceptance to graduate school, and by lunch treated me by the superintendent and the project manager. We exchanged pleasantries before I recalled for them the elevator pit task left to me on my first day. I expected the superintendent to say that the carpenter foreman was alerted to the plot and instructed to prevent any catastrophe. Instead, he recalled for me that on his first day he was likewise abandoned and thus laid out a church, not only in the wrong direction, but also on the wrong lot! Without any apology at all he said: "When it comes to rookie engineers, it is better to pay early, than to pay later."

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The Ethics Praxistic

Like the science praxistic, the ethics praxistic consists of a heuristic, an assigned world and a rhetoric. The Concrete Sumo provides a context in which to explain them.

Heuristic: Roebling, the Mythic Hero

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men." -Joseph Campbell (1972)

From a Freudian point of view, the hero's journey is the process by which human society helps its individual members in the first half of their lives develop out of childhood into mature adulthood, adjusting thereby themselves and others to the outer world (Segal 1990). Like Oedipus, the Freudian hero is seeking a job and a mate. The goal of the myth is the strong ego, one enabling the individual to resist parents and instincts alike. Lingering attachment to parents for the satisfaction of instincts or to satisfy instincts in antisocial ways is to be stuck, or fixated, at childhood.

From a Jungian point of view, the hero's journey is the process by which society helps mature adults in the second half of their lives discover in their inner worlds their unconscious. Like Odysseus, the Jungian hero has a job and a mate, but is seeking the meaning and purpose of life. The goal of the myth is to achieve harmony between the inner and the outer world by raising the unconscious to consciousness. (Segal 1990)

The Concrete Sumo is a story that tells of a heroic journey. (Broome and Peirce 1997) Roebling's story about his building of the Brooklyn Bridge likewise tells of a hero's journey. And among engineers, Roebling is therefore a hero. The old superintendent in the story, having had his own hero's journey, was too a hero. So here are indications that the hero's journey is a rite of passage for engineers into the collegial realm of engineering. In the Johnny-on-the-spot, I resolved to complete my story with someone else in my role. Roebling would have served as an ideal role model or heuristic. However, in The Concrete Sumo, Roebling had the role of "hero helper," one who gives the hero advice and amulets for the journey. (Campbell 1972) But in bestowing boons upon humanity, heroes may alienate colleagues. Whistleblowers, often heroes, are often blackballed.

Heuristic: Uncle Roy, the Mutumin Kiri

Among the ten traits or virtues defining Mutumin Kiri are: hankali or the capacity for sound mature judgment; hikima or wisdom, which presumes a certain measure of age; and mutumci or the habit of treating others with respect. Only one of the ten, i.e. gaskiya or truthfulness, is a universal moral virtue. For the Hausa, the value of these traits lies in the person-to-person situation, in social emollient. This is not to argue that the Hausa good man is not a moral man. Rather, he is identified more by the approbative qualities of his character than by distinctions between right and wrong. (Kirk-Greene 1998) And being approbative, his character exists partly in the form of communal judgment, which has both objective and subjective natures.

At first a hero helper, Uncle Roy was a man of good character. (Broome 1996) Here was a man whose heroic journeys, in both the first half of his life and in the second, were well known. I remember him in the last season of his life: wise, able to maintain the respect of his colleagues even when he opposed them; a Mutumin Kiri. Tubby, another uncle of the same generation as Roy, never took the hero's journey; that adolescent gleam never left his eyes. I made the choice to obey Roy because I wanted to be like him; I did not want to be like Tubby. Whether I lost my job or career, whether men were hurt as a result of my actions, I knew that I could sleep with a clear conscience having done as Roy would approve.

The Assigned World

In the Johnny-on-the-spot I had used the "great books" approach to decision making. Specifically, I put Roy into the situation and quickly worked him through it. As I worked out the problem with the "concrete sumo," I felt as though I was in Uncle Roy's mind, moving with his mannerisms muttering to myself as he would. These were surreal moments. Looking back on that situation now, I see that I was doing what I was compelled to do. And I see that engineers can put characters, legendary, historical or living, into complex and novel situations and work them through these situations quickly, the result being a believable story that they themselves can act out.

The Rhetoric: Cultural Completeness

Let us consider the objective world of, say, Sherlock Holmes, the "scientific" detective whose arch adversary, Professor Moriarty, is known as the "scientific" criminal. Holms' deerslayer and Meerschaum bespeak of the British empiricist tradition handed down to him from Locke, Hume, et al., and he shared that heritage with professional scientists and the hosts of amateur naturalists who were the rage in Victorian England. The consequentialist approach to ethics handed down to him from Bentham, Mill, et al., is part of that tradition. And Holmes' magnifying glass assures us that he will carry on that tradition. Thus when reading Doyle and looking into Holmes' mind, we may see a different logic from our own; but knowing that his is part of a larger, perhaps more coherent whole than our own, we may become impressed with him, even disposed to defer to him.

Now let us consider the subjective world of, say, Inspector Clouseau, the "instinctual" detective. To catch his arch adversary, The Pink Panther, Clouseau says that he relies on his instincts - not reason. And this reliance explains his slap-stick approach to crime solving. To wit, Clouseau perpetuates the great French traditions handed down to him from Matisse, et al., who used the tools and methods of art - not reason, to discover truth, and from Jean Paul Sartre who applied literature and the medium of the play to discuss existential philosophy. Thus when looking into Clouseau's heart, we may perceive different feelings from our own; but knowing that his is part of a larger, perhaps more coherent whole than our own, we may become impressed with him, even disposed to defer to him. In Western ethics, the decision-maker is the subject, and the rightness or wrongness of his or her actions its predicate. Among the Nigerian Hausa, however, the community is the subject, and the decision-maker's character the predicate. If, in the morally exigent situation, we look into the character of Mutumin Kiri, we may anticipate different behaviors from our own; but knowing that his is part of a larger, perhaps more coherent whole than our own, we may become impressed with him, even disposed to defer to him. And in deferring to him, we may retain the respect of our colleagues and that of others.

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A year ago, I agreed to instruct an ethics workshop for undergraduate engineering students in preparation for the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination (FEE). The FEE is the first step toward licensure. The workshop was scheduled for ninety minutes. I convened the workshop by passing out a trial examination in professional ethics. Instead of lecturing on ethics as I had planned, it occurred to me to ask the students to take the examination. Fifteen minutes later, they had finished. Then I asked them to think of an aged, highly mature person: a family member or some legendary character; someone who exhibited great wisdom and caring for others. Then I asked the students to re-do the examination, but this time putting their sage in the position of test taker. Finally, I gave them the solution to the examination and asked them to grade both responses, theirs and the responses of the sages. The results were surprising: the first responses were either failures or marginal passes; the second responses maximized the examination! I then adjourned what turned out to be a forty-minute workshop.

The following semester, one of the students informed me that he had taken the FEE and passed it, and had done very well on its ethics portion.

Perhaps the literary approach to problem solving in ethics and deference to the old yet have places in engineering, in practice as well as in the classroom, today.

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Cite this page: "The Concrete Sumo" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/22/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Thursday, April 17, 2014 <>