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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 116–118 

Book Review

By Design: Ethics, Theology, and the Practice of Engineering

Brad Kallenberg. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013. 314 pages.

Reviewed by Paul C. Heidebrecht

This book is the fruit of the author’s lengthy experience teaching ethics to engineering students at the University of Dayton. It stands apart for two reasons: first, it provides an explicitly theological take on engineering; and second, unlike many ethics textbooks, the subject matter really matters. In other words, the fact that this is a book about engineering makes a difference for the way ethics is talked about at a methodological level, not simply for the selection of examples or case studies. The first strength shouldn’t be surprising, given Kallenberg’s scholarly identity as a theologian. Nonetheless, it makes the book unique. The second strength means that this book is relevant even for an audience that has no engineering training.

Kallenberg begins by distinguishing the terrain of engineering from that of the sciences. Engineering deals with the messy world of reality and thus demands that students go beyond—or even unlearn—the ideal-world thinking characteristic of the sciences. Less conventional is Kallenberg’s focus on design as the essence of engineering, and, even more significantly, his insistence that engineering ethics is best understood as an analog to engineering design: “ethical reasoning is already inside of, and everywhere within, the entire design process” (49). Some engineers will find this approach to engineering too confining, given the many other ways their work can be framed. And ethicists may find this approach to ethics too expansive in that it refuses to conform to precise moral calculations. After all, scientists are not the only ones fond of focusing on ideal-world problems.

The introductory chapters are helpfully reinforced when Kallenberg argues that professional codes of ethics should be understood heuristically rather than as stipulations. Indeed, heuristic is a key word that encapsulates the kind of reasoning Kallenberg is urging for both engineering design and ethics. A heuristic is a “time-tested tip,” a “rule of thumb,” or a “shortcut” (38) that requires skilled judgment to apply but at the end of the day remains “unjustified, incapable of justification, and fallible” (83). Treating ethical codes as heuristics makes it possible to rehabilitate rather than criticize or ignore them, and with a proper reading we may even “discover our moral imagination is awakened” (84).

The next three chapters build on this discussion of heuristic by comparing engineering design with practical reasoning, demonstrating how it both reflects and shapes the moral character of the engineer, and explaining why it is appropriate to draw on the language of virtue. Key concepts in this discussion include “satisfactoriness” (107), “tacit knowledge” (113), “synthetic reasoning” (117), “dynamic similarity” (136), “moral momentum” (147), and “phronesis” (164). {117}

The final three chapters then shift from considering the engineer as an individual to considering the social dimension of engineering. Parallels with medicine re-cast engineering more as a practice than simply a profession or discipline, and the concept of “cross-domain transfer” (209) underscores the potential contributions that realms outside engineering, including religion, can make to solving design problems. The connections between engineering and religion are extended in the concluding chapter, where Kallenberg discusses Hugh of St. Victor, a twelfth-century theologian who dramatically elevated the medieval view of the practical arts by insisting that they can contribute to the redemptive plans of God. Once again, readers are reminded that, in addition to needing to recognize the ways they should be shaped by God’s revelation, engineers can be the bearers of revelation: “there is a mechanical component of the Good that will only be rightly understood by those skilled at mechanical reasoning” (269).

There is much to appreciate in this book, including the numerous examples drawn from engineering concepts and historical cases that make it easy to forget that Kallenberg himself is not an engineer. In addition to his grasp of the practical side of engineering, it is refreshing to find an author of a book on engineering ethics who is also conversant with various philosophies of engineering. While Kallenberg certainly makes use of the reflections of philosophers like Wittgenstein, he also draws on the insights of philosophers of engineering, such as Louis Bucciarelli, Billy Vaughn Koen, and Walter Vincenti, important figures every engineer should be aware of. Furthermore, Kallenberg’s exploration of engineering would also benefit those interested in the history, philosophy, and sociology of technology. It is striking that broader reflections on the topic of technology so rarely grapple with the experience of those closest to its development.

As noted already, I appreciated the explicitly theological framing of this book as a work in Christian ethics and engineering. Given that the University of Dayton is one of many religiously affiliated universities in North America that have engineering programs, one could expect that there would be no shortage of classroom settings crying out for a text like this one. However, as I worked through the book I found myself wondering whether it would be possible to make use of it in a public university as well. After all, an ethics course is required in most, if not all, engineering programs in North America. Would the book hold together if sections discussing “heuristics from the narrative of Jesus” or chapters entitled “Engineering as a Christian Vocation” were left out? I think it would, perhaps because for Kallenberg’s overall argument philosophers like Aristotle and Wittgenstein matter just as much as, if not more than, theologians like Hugh of St. Victor or Herbert McCabe. Nonetheless, it would still present challenges because, quite apart from any explicitly theological biases, {118} facilitating conversations about the nature and importance of moral formation is not easy to do in a university classroom. Perhaps that is all the more reason to give this book a try.

Paul C. Heidebrecht, Director
MSCU Centre for Peace Advancement
Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario

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