"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants": Why Engineers Should Learn Philosophy

Why don't you do yourself a favor and integrate a little philosophy into your life?
Christopher McFadden

What has philosophy got to do with engineering? As it turns out everything

In fact, many early great engineers also happened to be philosophers.

Here we will discuss why philosophy is important in many aspects of engineering and your life in general. It might just be time for you, yourself, to "stand on the shoulders of giants". 


Why study engineering ethics?

First of all, it might be worth exploring what is actually meant by ethics. 

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, ethics is defined as: -

"The discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation."

In this sense, it attempts to provide a framework for individuals to help them make better moral choices when dealing with other individuals. To borrow a phrase, strong personal ethics "is doing the right thing even when no one is watching." - C. S. Lewis.

Ethical (and moral) principles are the foundation of trust in many industries, none more so than engineering. For engineers, like many other professions, ethics define the acceptable rules and standards that govern how we should conduct our roles as professionals. 

They help engineers to "do the right thing" based on a set of agreed principles and practices. Ethics, in this sense, will enable engineers to deal with colleagues, clients, employees, 'users', and the public throughout their career.

By learning, and integrating, ethics into your skillset you will be able to achieve at least five beneficial outcomes: -

1. You will have an increased overall ethical sensitivity as an individual,

2. You will gain an increased knowledge of relevant standards of conduct,

3. Your ethical judgment will be greatly improved,

4. You will boost your ethical will-power, and;

5. It will greatly increase trust between individuals within a working relationship. Whether they be a colleague or a client. More trust means more work and improved reputation in the long run.

Ethical decisions will be faced by many engineers at some point in their careers. You will likely face moral dilemmas in areas like: -

  • Public safety.
  • Bribery and fraud.
  • Environmental protection.
  • Fairness.
  • Honesty in Research and testing.
  • Conflicts of interest. 

For these reasons, and many others, it is important than engineers are ethically prepared to "do what is right" in the long run not what is expedient at the moment.

Especially when people's lives and wellbeing could be put at risk. 

How is philosophy relevant in business?

Philosophy underpins many aspects of our lives every single day. Whether you are aware of it or not, philosophy defines many of the ways we interact without even noticing it. 

But awareness of philosophy can also provide many benefits to an individual's life. It can also help you fortify yourself for the trials and tribulations of life. 

This is especially true for business. Ideally, a business will have a product or service that is so good that people will willingly throw money at it. 

But when all things are equal amongst competitors, philosophy can give you a serious competitive advantage. This is where the strong core values of a company can give an edge over its competition. 

"These core values become the business philosophy that your team and your clients experience. As a business leader, business core values start with your core values.

When you integrate your values into the business philosophy, your values become part of the company culture. A company that has a positive culture tends to be more efficient and productive." - the chron.com

A healthy, positive business culture will help customers and suppliers trust and like you, and allow you to attract and retain staff. In the long run, these factors will greatly improve a company's success and longevity. 

Why is philosophy relevant today?

Philosophy has, and will always, be relevant. It is, to put it plainly, the thing that underpins many aspects of our lives from how we treat one another as private individuals to the macro-culture of a nation.

While you may consider philosophy a "soft" subject, it is important to grasp that things like the sciences cannot provide meaningful answers on how to live your life. They are also not useful tools for determining what is "good" and "bad - -as some of the atrocities of the 20th Century speak volumes

But, that being said, they are not mutually exclusive. It is also important to appreciate that STEM and philosophy are inextricably linked together. 

When you begin to study and learn philosophy you will quickly learn to appreciate how little life has actually changed for individuals. Our struggles today, while different, are incredibly similar to those of our forebears. 

"What is the meaning of life?", "How do I live a good life?", "What is my life's purpose?". These and many other common questions you probably ask yourself in the privacy of your own home have been asked many times before for thousands of years. 

“Philosophy is not obsolete. Philosophy brings important questions to the table and works towards an answer. It encourages us to think critically about the world; it is the foundation of all knowledge and when utilized properly, can provide us with huge benefits.” - Alexander Leivesley.

Many of the great philosophers of the past have struggled with these very questions. By integration some of their teachings, you can learn to "hack" life. 

After all, you don't need to re-invent the wheel. 

But a very important note to make. Philosophy should only be used as a guide, not a dogma.

You and only you can learn to think critically and clearly to find the best course of action for your own life.

7 reasons engineers should learn philosophy

So, that all being said, here are 7 tangible reasons that engineers should learn, and integrate, philosophy into their lives. 

1. It will make you a better engineer

By integrating ethics and philosophy into your life, it will make you a better engineer overall. It will provide you with improved systemic methodology and with better conceptual clarity. 

Most imporantly it will help you develop your critical thinking skills.

2. You are already a philosopher

Every waking moment you are a practicing philosopher whether you know it or not. You are constantly making value judgments and other decisions based on some form of rationale. 

You might even be asking yourself some of the big questions, or feeling sorry for your lot in life. By integrating some understanding of philosophy, or the teachings of great thinkers of the past will improve your outlook on life.

ethics and philosophy in engineering
Source: 905513/Pixabay

It may even allow you to see a way through tough times that you never knew existed.

3. It will help you understand others' perspectives

An understanding of philosophy will improve your ability to interact with others. It will ground you in an intellectual tradition that is larger than yourself. 

This will help you attain an understanding, or at least appreciation, of others' perspectives. It will make you a better listener, and help you better interact with clients, co-workers and the general public. 

4. Philosophy will help you navigate troubled waters

Philosophy will give you the necessary skills to make better value judgments when things in your personal and professional life don't go quite to plan. You will be able to respond better to disorienting times. 

philosophy in engineering
Source: Stock Catalog/Flickr

It will also help you boost your confidence and become more self-aware. By understanding that you, and only you, have the power to change a situation in your life, it will give you the confidence boost you need to move forward. 

5. It will make you a better communicator

Philosophy will give you the ability to better articulate your thoughts and values. It will also help you analyze why you hold something to be true or not. 

Philosophy will challenge you to defend your presuppositions and force you to better communicate your ideas and thoughts. 

"In other words, to begin to put together your soundest arguments on what you care about—scientific, moral, political, or otherwise." - thoughtcatalog.com

6. Philosophy will help teach you patience

Some philosophical principles can be tricky to get to grips with. They are not always, black or white, right or wrong. 

By attempting to study some of the giants of the past, from Aristotle to Locke, you will begin to get an appreciation for thinking things through carefully and thoughtfully. 

engineering and philosophy
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

Such a skill is of great importance to many other aspects of your life. Professionally it will prevent you from rushing into things without planning ahead, for example.

But of course, you are already doing this. You are an engineer after all. 

7. It will make you a happier, stronger and more rounded individual

Philosophy, at its core, is an attempt to understand the human condition. You may well be tempted to pass this off as nonsense, but beware you are a mortal being. 

You will die at some point in the future. Your days are numbered, the clock is ticking. 

By getting to grips with this it will help you make every day count. You will gain a perspective on what is really important in life - - friends, family, and meaning. 

This will help you become more grounded and happier in the long run. You'll learn to appreciate the best life has to offer and cherish your short time on this planet all the more.

Who knows, it may even open a door to help you find that passion you've been longing to find! Good luck traveller!

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