I recall a conversation I had with a friend about the state of violence in South Africa. He was particularly shocked by a recent case where police men chained a foreign national to the back of their police van and dragged him until he died. His conclusion was that human beings are no different to animals, and our human nature is inherently violent and selfish. Now I agreed with him but for different reasons, the question I posed to him was, “Do you think there is something wrong with our nature then if we are no different to animals?” His response was yes, there is something wrong with our brutality. “But why” I pressed him further, “is brutal and violent behaviour wrong”? At that point he paused, and said well those are open questions we cannot answer. I have thought about the issue of ethics for some time, what is the basis for ethics? what makes something wrong or right? Is it evolutionary instinct or is it God? I thought of approaching it from an engineering perspective because it seems to me that design is an important category to enable us to account and explain our moral experience.

Working as process engineer part of the job involves determining whether equipment is functioning properly; finding out what’s wrong with a process and knowing how what actions to take to fix it. For example if I wanted to know whether something is wrong with a pump, I would look at how it’s currently operating and compare that to its design conditions. If the pump produces a lower discharge pressure than what it is designed for – I know something is wrong with my pump.In other words to be able to say something is wrong with the pump, I must first assume it was designed to work a particular way. And so when I compare the current behaviour of the pump with its design curve only then can I make a judgement whether the pump’s behaviour is good or bad, right or wrong.

So the required assumption to judge whether some action or behaviour is right or wrong is firstly design, purpose, and “teleos”. The design of the machine gives it meaning. What I mean in this sense is that because it has a design and purpose, all the parts are related in a specific way to achieve a certain function.

A pump is designed to increase the head or pressure of a certain volume of liquid. A particular part of this process is the shaft which rotates and increases the kinetic energy of the fluid. The rotation of the shaft has meaning because it is a necessary part of the purpose of increasing the fluid’s pressure. The connection and relatedness of the parts to achieve a function that each part on its own could not do gives meaning to the parts. If I took all the parts and threw them in a box, they have no relatedness and perform no function and would have no meaning. Similar to how letters give rise to words with meaning when arranged in certain ways. The set of letters (iefbaltu) is randomly put together, what does it mean? Its meaningless, however take the same letters arrange them in specific sequence such as (beautiful) and meaning emerges. It is because they have meaning that we can tell whether something is right or wrong.

Suppose I took all the components that make up a pump, but instead of connecting them together to form a pump, we put them in a box all jumbled up. Would it mean something if we looked inside the box and saw the shaft was not rotating? No, whether the shaft is rotating or not, makes no difference. The parts are not connected, they were randomly thrown in their current positions and so there is no meaning or intention to their current positions. It would not make sense if an engineer opened the box and said there is something wrong with this arrangement of parts. Only if there was a purposeful, intentional arrangement of the parts initially can we say whether something is wrong or right. If the arrangement is accidental and due to chance then there is no intention, or meaning to the arrangement.

Now the same analogy seems to illustrate how we often reason about ethics in our everyday lives.  If we say certain behaviour is wrong we are implying, just like that pump, that our behaviour is not what it was intended or designed to do. We are comparing our current behaviour to an idea of how our behaviour should actually be, an ideal, and we are saying it falls short. If there is no “ideal” or “how things should be” then it is meaningless to say anything is wrong or right. If it is true what Bertrand Russel eloquently states,

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms…”

then wrong and right lose their meaning.

Perhaps we could say although humans are products of chance and not designed, they have developed reason and the ability to create their own ideals and design basis for human behaviour. Now the problem with this, is the design basis becomes arbitrary, a convention. For example people in America drive on the right side of the road, whereas people in South Africa drive on the left. Who is right and who is wrong? No one really, it is just a convention chosen that could have easily turned out differently and had no more significance. Now to take a historical example, who would be right if America had slaves imported from African countries, and Africa didn’t? If the practice of slavery was a convention similar to which side of the road to drive, saying its wrong is rather strange and nonsensical. However we don’t think it is absurd to claim slavery is wrong which makes me conclude that we also do not think it is a convention. Which means the design basis for human behaviour cannot be a convention created by humans themselves.

To borrow an illustration adapted from CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, in order to say my views about Soweto are truer or less accurate than someone else’s is because Soweto is a real place which exists independently of what we think. We can discover more truths about it by exploring it. However if Soweto was a fictitious place created in our heads, I could not say your views about it are less true than mine because it only exists in our imaginations. There wold be no truth or falsity about Soweto. Similarly if the “ideal”, design basis for human behaviour is a creation of our minds there can be no truth or falsity to it.

It seems the best explanation for our moral experience would be that humans are not creations of chance, but are designed with the capacity to discover their design basis. And this design basis which we discover, tells us that we were not created and designed to behave in a way that violates other persons. As any design engineer will tell you, behind every design basis is a mind. A mind that lies outside of the world that transcends it. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein sums it up in a slightly different light:

“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were it would be of no value. If there is a value it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must be outside the world”