The Engineers Obligation
JANUARY 01, 1957 by BEN MOREELL
Admiral Moreell, Chairman of the Board of Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, was wartime Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and Chief of Civil Engineers of the Navy.
Having spent the last half century in the pursuit of engineering knowledge and the practice of engineering, I venture to offer some observations on the engineer’s obligations to society and to his fellow man.
In these days of ambitious striving for political preferment, it is customary to bid high for the voters’ favor. Candidates hold forth tempting bait in the form of promises of government "handouts" in return for votes. Any reference to the obligation of citizens to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States, or to their duty to strengthen the basic principles embodied in our Declaration of Independence is conspicuous by its absence. And were a candidate to couple his promises of "something for nothing" with an explanation that, since government produces nothing, it must take from someone else that which it gives away, he would surely raise grave question as to his sanity.
This appears to be an inversion of true values. There was a time when Americans looked upon their government as their servant whose duties are or should be restrained to the primary functions of protecting the life, liberty, and honestly acquired property of every individual. As is traditional in the master-servant relationship, the people were morally bound to support the government; but, in turn, the government was subject to the people’s commands.
Today, as we listen to eager aspirants for public office, we must conclude that this old concept has changed. It appears that many of our people now believe that the government is obligated to support them and, at the same time, that it should have authority to tell them how to conduct their personal economic and social lives.
Does this state of affairs have special significance for engineers? I believe so. No other profession has profited more from the work of those who have gone before than have engineers. Starting with the invention of the wheel and proceeding through the long ages which culminate in our present era of jet propelled aircraft, the record of material progress constitutes a revealing account of the debt which we engineers owe to our intellectual and professional forebears.
It is an established fact that the most productive periods of history were those when men had the greatest measure of individual freedom. During those periods they had not only opportunity for personal development, but also incentive for production, since they were permitted to retain a reasonable share of the fruits of their labor without fear of confiscation by private or public agencies or officials.
The Climate of Freedom
Since engineers are concerned with harnessing the forces of nature to serve the needs of man, it follows that they have a duty to foster the establishment of conditions conducive to this result, i.e., conditions which guarantee that man’s God-given rights to life, liberty, and the products of his honest labor are not impaired. This can be accomplished only if engineers participate in the processes of government, vigorously and in important degree.
Today the greatest threats to personal liberties arise, not from aggressions by foreign governments, but from encroachments by governments upon the rights of their own citizens. If, overnight, all governments throughout the world were compelled by some supernatural power to confine their activities solely to the protection of the lives, liberties, and honestly acquired property of their own citizens, the world would be transformed. We would enter upon a period of unbelievable productivity and prosperity. Even more important, all international tensions would disappear. It is only when governments coerce their citizens into supporting their ambitious schemes on the international scene that conflicts arise and wars ensue.
In general, engineers are prone to be more concerned with the discovery of facts than with the discovery of the meanings of those facts as they apply to the development of mankind. My plea today is that we engineers, who are so heavily indebted to our intellectual forebears, resolve to discharge that debt by contributing to the advancement of knowledge and the establishment of the climate which permits such advancement, the climate of individual freedom.
For from freedom, we can derive peace. And with freedom and peace we can go forward to achieve life’s richest spiritual and material blessings for all people, everywhere.