Lujain Al Ali '20: Multidisciplinary Learning Competency

After taking a philosophy and ethics course, I assessed the ethical issues related to various infrastructure improvements; more specifically, I focused on the ethical implications of infrastructure projects on marginalized members of society.

Restoring and Improving Urban Infrastructure: Ethical Implications Associated with Marginalized Populations

From an ethical standpoint, infrastructure projects and improvements can be assessed through an ethical lens to determine whether the decisions to implement these developments are moral. In terms of infrastructure, we can tackle this issue by evaluating multiple scenarios to address the ethical implications of restoring and improving urban infrastructure. For instance, taking into consideration the impacts of specific infrastructure projects on the marginalized segments of society, we can reference the three major approaches in normative ethics;  

1) utilitarianism as theorized by consequentialists such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, 2) deontology as promoted by Immanuel Kant and others and 3) virtue ethics.  Finally, civil engineers are required to adhere to codes of practice, more specifically, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) code of ethics. This code is intended to give civil engineers guidance in the conduct and practice of the civil engineering profession.

Infrastructure projects often require the displacement or relocation of existing impoverish and marginalized populations and communities. In terms of how ethical it is to sacrifice the livelihood of this segment in society in order to benefit a much larger population, one may draw upon utilitarianism for guidance.  Utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.1” Two possible utilitarian scenarios can result in two very different conclusions. In the first case where these communities are dislocated without being guaranteed an alternative location to which they can relocate, then this scenario produces unethical results. Even though the consequentialist principle of utilitarianism claims that one should choose the course of action that creates the most good for the greatest number of people, this particular situation puts a minority group at a disadvantage resulting in negative consequences.

The Portland metropolitan area has a large population of homeless individuals living in unsheltered areas of the city as well as in ad-hoc encampments in public spaces. Thus, the addition of new housing and transport infrastructure in the city may require that the parcels of land occupied by the homeless population be remodeled so that the infrastructure projects can successfully be implemented. Individuals affected by these infrastructure improvements can no longer utilize that space. So, for this situation to be considered righteous, there needs to be compensation that guarantees the homeless population affected by infrastructure projects has an alternative area to live.  Not offering compensation violates the utilitarian principle maximizing well-being.

In the second case, where a marginalized community is displaced but at the same time guaranteed compensation, negative consequences are minimized.  This utilitarian approach is codified in the United States in the principal of eminent domain.  Eminent domain allows the federal, state and local governments to obtain property required for major infrastructure projects when public money is being used for the greater good of society, e.g., freeway or airport expansion, bridge replacements, etc. The government, however, is required to compensate displaced property owners “fair market value” for their property.  Aside from the legal issues of establishing “fair market value,” e.g., what is fair market value for a homeless encampment? eminent domain property seizures have negative consequences that cannot be remediated with simple reimbursement of the property value. In many situations, entire neighborhoods can be destroyed along with the historical, cultural, social and religious fabric associated with those lost communities.  These intrinsic values cannot be replaced with monetary compensation alone.  

Utilitarianism suffers from weaknesses that result in questions regarding ethical actions. One of them being, “How do you know you made the right decision”? It isn't very easy to come up with the exact answer to this sort of question since you can’t always be sure that the decisions made for major infrastructure projects will actually yield the expected results. Furthermore, not all people will have the same opinion. Some might think it is unethical to sacrifice the livelihood and culture of a segment of society for the greatest good of the larger population. In contrast, others might see it as beneficial, which makes it quite difficult to come to a final conclusion.

At the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum, deontology attempts to provide an ethical lens that emphasizes duties or rules.  One of the principal philosophers credited with this ethical theory is Immanuel Kant1.  Deontology requires that ethical decisions be based on rules or codes that establish actions that are morally forbidden or permitted without regard to consequences.  Several aspects of the ASCE code of ethics are deontological in nature.  For example, the first canon of the ASCE code states that “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.2

Deontological ethics can be applied to another ethical dimension related to urban infrastructure improvement that arises is connection to the appropriation of resources. The primary question, in this case, is how ethical it is to divert resources to infrastructure improvements at the expense of other societal needs.  A deontologist does not believe that the consequences of moral actions hold worth.  Thus, if the intention of diverting resources to infrastructure improvement is meant to improve certain facilities and services for a sector of society without intending to harm those whose needs are neglected, then it is ethical to do so.  In other words, “provided that your goal is worthwhile, you are permitted to act in ways that foreseeably cause certain types of harm, though you must never intend to cause such harms.3” This line of thinking is relevant to the scenario of resource allocation in which some societal needs are being ignored.  Although it is clear that negative implications can be expected, these negative effects are not the deliberate intention of the allocation policy and therefore cannot be judged as an immoral act. Taking another approach, the first canon in the ASCE code of ethics states “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public,” one could argue that significant resources be used on infrastructure improvements at the detriment of other crucial needs of society.

It is readily apparent that there are weaknesses in the deontological argument because the negative consequences resulting from these types of decisions. What sense would it make, for instance, to build or improve roadways when there are no houses, schools and medical facilities for society to utilize. In that case, many people will not make use of the new transport infrastructure since their basic everyday needs are not being fulfilled. Ultimately, fewer individuals will be able to use transportation infrastructure if they do not have proper housing, educational facilities, hospitals, etc. Therefore, to make infrastructure projects more functional and practical, an entire plan that implements infrastructure improvements and builds upon all the needs of society must be considered.

As opposed to merely following duties and focusing on the consequences of actions, from the standpoint of virtue ethics, developing morally virtuous character yields the most favorable outcome. Assessing the implications of infrastructure improvement at the cost of marginalized divisions in society through the lens of virtue ethics, asserts that actions are to be based upon virtue. Virtue entails character traits that are good for humanity. Hence, when considering the outcome of the addition of a freeway on a low-income community, a person of moral character will act out of wisdom, compassion, justice, etc. Ultimately, a virtuous individual will question whether it is fair to demolish the livelihood of an impoverished community and dislocate groups that inhibit such communities. According to Aristotle, virtues must be practiced consistently even in cases where it is hard and inconvenient to do so. In terms of implementing a freeway project, it may be that the most strategic method is to construct the freeway through an impoverished community, but a person of moral character will disapprove of committing such an action and instead find an alternative method.

Virtue ethics is a theory based upon character more than conduct. Hence, virtues must be practiced habitually such that they develop in character traits that come naturally. The ASCE code of ethics is structured on virtue ethics. It is a model that lays out a roadmap of acceptable character conduct in the field of civil engineering. In their professional practices, civil engineers must abide by the traits listed in the code of conduct. Most importantly, virtue ethics guides individuals to uphold morality and honesty. Similarly, the ASCE code of ethics asks that engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor, and dignity of the engineering profession2.

When it comes to restoring and improving urban infrastructure, assessing the ethical implications allow us to approach certain scenarios regarding infrastructure improvements in a more human-centered approach. Ethical analysis allows us to realize that there is more to infrastructure than the engineering and technical aspects, ultimately allowing for a more thoughtful and inclusive assessment of this critical challenge facing society.

Citations 

  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/
  2. American Society of Civil Engineers, Code of Ethics, https://www.asce.org/code-of-ethics/
  3. Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2rd Edition. New York: OUP, 2011.