This essay provides suggestions for teaching engineers about negligence, recklessness, and intended or unintended harm.
We cannot always predict the impact technology might have on society, individuals, or the environment. This impacts our ability to adequately control the technology we create. How does this fact play into our assessments of professional and moral responsibility? In other words, not all bad (or good) consequences of technology are intended. This fact affects our assessment of culpability or responsibility for those effects. This page offers pedagogical advice for teaching students the difference between negligence, recklessness, and intended/unintended harm and for thinking about the notion of responsibility or culpability in connection with these concepts.
Defining terms relevant to this issue is the first place to start. For more detailed definitions, see our Glossary. Legal definitions obtained from the 'Lectric Law Library' (see link below).
A person acts with intent when s/he acts with determination or resolves to do a certain thing, or has the state of mind with which something is done.
A person's conduct is reckless when that conduct is highly unreasonable and represents an extreme departure from ordinary care. Reckless disregard of another's rights is conduct that, under the circumstances, reflects complete indifference to the safety and rights of others.
A person is negligent when s/he fails to be sufficiently careful in a matter in which s/he has a moral responsibility. The legal definition of negligence is: failure to use reasonable care. Negligence involves engaging in an act that a reasonably sensible person would not do, or the failure to take some action, which a reasonably sensible person would do under like circumstances. It is a departure from what ordinary reasonable members of the community would do in the same community.
A person has a moral responsibility when s/he is entrusted to achieve or maintain a good result in some matter, and is expected to both have the relevant knowledge and skills, and to make a conscientious effort to achieve that result. There are a number of questions one must consider when determining whether a given engineer or group of engineers were negligent or otherwise morally responsible for something that has gone wrong.
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As the above definitions indicate, when we are considering whether a given problem was the result of negligence or recklessness, the first step is to consider whether this was a matter for which the person or group had a moral responsibility. We cannot determine whether the actions reflected a serious departure from ordinary care if we have no idea about the standard of care or responsibility for that particular group. So we must first determine what a person or group is responsible for achieving. This is often referred to as the forward-looking sense of responsibility.
Even despite all good intentions and great efforts, one may not achieve the expected result. This leads us to the second step. The fact that the intended result isn't reached is not necessarily cause for moral blame. There are two senses of responsibility: the sense in which someone caused something to happen (causally responsible) and the sense in which one is accountable for what happened (or morally responsible for it). The fact that a person is responsible for something in the causal sense does not mean she is responsible for it in the moral or accountable sense.
Often referred to as the backward-looking sense of responsibility, we must determine whether the person or group is responsible for the outcome in the moral or accountability sense. That is, does the person or group deserve moral praise for a good outcome or moral blame for a bad outcome? There are several issues of importance to making this determination.