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The virtue theory is an ethics approach that emphasizes moral character of an individual rather than the rules or consequences of actions. The theory posits that the character of the individual is the principal element of ethical thinking. There are many virtues applicable to the field of mechanical engineering. They include prudence, justice, benevolence, integrity, industry and so on. I will focus on the virtue of justice and its application in the field of mechanical engineering.
The virtue of justice entails the idea of “doing right.” Here, the individual is concerned with creating equality by giving others their due and receiving his/her due. “Right” is in relation to equality and, as a result, “right” means that which is equal. When an unjust state of things turns “right”, it means that there is a restoration of equality. Justice involves debts and obligations. One is to pay the debts in order to establish justice. Failure to do this will lead to the vices of greed, dishonesty, arrogance, pride, among others. A just person habitually maintains a relation of equality, consistently, always, wherever and whenever faced with a debt or an obligation.
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Justice corresponds to the three main relations that make up the structure of life in the society. The first one is the relation of one person to another. The second is the relation between an individual and the social whole. This is the legal justice. The last form is the social whole relating to the person. In all these relations, there are debts to be paid. According to the virtue theory, the individual pays these debts because of his/her moral duty, and not because of the laws of the land or consequences involved. The question that is pertinent to the individual is his/her moral standing as to the promotion of virtue. This brings us to the doctrine of the mean.
The goal of the doctrine of the mean is to maintain balance and harmony by controlling the mind to a position of constant equilibrium. Simply put, an individual should always seek to maintain a state of moral equilibrium when dealing with others. For instance, the mechanical engineer should not treat his/her juniors with contempt, but should always be cautious and likable. At all times, the mechanical engineer should pursue that which is natural according to his/her status in the world. The engineer who follows the dictates of the doctrine of the mean follows a duty that he/she should never leave. In the case of the virtue of justice, the mechanical engineer should uphold justice at all times. For instance, the engineer should give quality work in return of decent pay.
Swanton argues that virtues should be about what the individual does basing on the demands of a situation rather than the stature of the person. This is saying that the target of virtues should involve situational analysis and not, merely, what the society would think of the character of the person. For instance, in the field of mechanical engineering, the engineer should apply justice according to the dictates of a situation rather than to conform to societal stereotypes of the virtuous person. Let us take an example of a junior engineer who, after completing the installation of an escalator, is to uninstall it at no extra cost. However, uninstalling the escalator was not part of the agreement. The reason given for the removal of the escalator is that a new brand of escalators is in the market. The mechanical engineer refuses to do this extra work. The hiring company may think that the engineer is rude, unkind, or unjust. This is because the company defines virtues from the position of the individual character. In the contrary, Swanton advises that we consider the situation that led to the actions of the engineer. When we do this, we will realize that the mechanical engineer has justice in refusing to uninstall the bridge. The engineer did justice by sticking to the original contract and refusing extra work without pay.
In applying the doctrine of the mean, we need to take into account Swanton’s argument. This is saying that, in applying justice, the mechanical engineer should consider the situational variables. For instance, the mechanical engineer should not sacrifice his/her individual rights and privileges in order to satisfy the expectations of other people. The definition of a virtuous act is not complete without taking into consideration the background of the act. As a result, the virtue of justice should be about “doing” and not “being”. The engineer should not take into consideration the person he/she is, but his/her relationship to the situations. In the pursuit of the virtue of justice, the engineer should deem an action as meeting the threshold of justice if it realizes the end of justice, and if, overall, it is justifiable. This is the target-centered approach, and mechanical engineers should stick to it.
On the other hand, the pursuit of the virtue of justice (as above outlined) may fail to take into consideration the emotional and relationship dimensions (ethics of care). This is because, as Swanton noted, the pursuit of justice bases itself on logic and not feelings. The ethics of care demand that the individual takes into consideration the consequences of an act to relationships. For instance, in the above example, the engineer should consider the nature of his/her future relationships after the refusal to uninstall the escalator. A blunt pursuit of justice is rational and impersonal. However, the disadvantage of this is that it may bring strained relationships that, in the field of mechanical engineering, may translate to loss of customers. The mechanical engineer can guarantee healthy relationships while, at the same time, maintaining the virtue of justice by fostering communication. The engineer should endeavor to communicate in a polite way his/her rationale for decisions. For example, the engineer may write a letter explaining that he/she will uninstall the escalator if the company agrees to pay more money.
Let us take the case of a mechanical engineer who works for a steel company. This engineer’s exact work is to supervise the pickle line. In the course of duty, he develops a technique that welds stainless steel such that the welded joint easily cold reduces on the rolling mill. This was part of the engineer’s work, but it was on the evening shift. As a result, none of the supervisors knows about it. Now, the mechanical engineer has three dilemmas. First, should he patent his technique so that he makes a profit out of it? Secondly, should he patent the technique and give patent rights to the company? Lastly, should the engineer tell his supervisors and let them decide on what to do with the idea?
The engineer who uses a utilitarian approach would check up whether or not an intellectual property policy exists in the company. He will also consider if all parties agreed to that policy. If this lacks, the most viable option for the utilitarian will be the first option; that is, patenting the technique and making a profit. However, a virtue approach to this scenario would give rise to superior resolutions.
If the mechanical engineer uses the virtue approach to decide to patent the technology for his individual gain, the motive could be the desire for the virtue of justice. The engineer may argue that the idea was his own, and, as a result, it should belong to him. However, the same virtue of justice may demand that the idea belongs to the company as it came into being using company time and equipment. Nevertheless, the engineer, being an employee, belongs to the company. Besides, patenting the technology for his personal benefit is promoting the vice of greed in the engineer. This is because the engineer seeks to maximize his profit at the expense of the company.
The virtue of prudence may advice the mechanical engineer not to patent the technology. This is bearing in mind that the company will respond negatively to the proposition. In addition, there is a high probability of negative and severe reaction by the company. These may include firing the engineer. As a result, the virtue of prudence would advice the mechanical engineer not to patent the technology for individual gain.
On the other hand, the mechanical engineer may choose to patent the technique and give patent rights to the company. This action would reflect the virtue of justice. This is because the company has a claim on the engineer’s work as the idea used time and resources of the company. Besides, allowing the patent to be on the engineer’s name would reinforce justice for him. In addition, patenting the technique and giving patent rights to the company would enhance the virtue of prudence. This arises from the fact that the company is highly probable to respond positively to the decision of receiving patent rights. The company may even promote the engineer.
The other option is that the engineer may decide to tell his supervisors and let them decide on what to do with the technology. In this case, the virtue of prudence will support this decision. This is because the company will be happy with what the engineer has done. Besides, the virtue of generosity will demand that the engineer shares his success with the company. In addition, the virtue of patriotism would inform the engineer that giving the idea to the company is the only moral thing. The virtue of honesty would advise the engineer to tell the supervisors of the new technology. The engineer would think that the only honest thing to both himself and the company is to inform the company of the idea. This is because, if it were not for the time and resources of the company, the engineer would not have discovered the technology.
On the other hand, giving the idea to the company may not support justice for the engineer as he did all the work. This decision may also promote the vice of greed in the company officials, as they may decide to share the patent rights among themselves. This will compromise the virtue of industriousness as other staff in the company may lose the motivation of hard work and creativity. Thus, balancing out the benefits to the engineer and the harms makes the decision not to be the best.
In my opinion, we should look at the above scenario using Swanton’s ideas of the target of virtue, and the ethics of care. As a result, the mechanical engineer with exemplary professional character would consider the situation and relationships involved. This means that the engineer would take into consideration the personal effort involved in coming up with the technology. In addition, he will take into consideration the future relationships between himself and the company. This is saying that the best option for the mechanical engineer would be to patent the idea and then give the patent rights to the company. The decision would ensure that both parties emerge victors. From the above discussion, it is evident that the virtue theory is particularly crucial in the field of mechanical engineering.