Assessing the Ethics of Building Unsafe Structures

While doing a Ethics for Engineer's subunit (a few months ago), I came up with the follow problem, and have been wondering about it since.

As an Engineer, you may be asked to build a water treatment plant, for a small town/region in a third world country. Because of the budgetary constraints, you are unable to build to the safety standards you would in a first world country.
The final design has a 1% chance each year that it will kill (or grievously harm) one of its 10 workers. (Expected: 0.1 deaths/year)
On the other hand if it is not built there is a 5% chance that one of ther 1000 people in the region it will serve will die form untreated water. (Expected: 50 death/year). You are locked into two options, either go ahead and build it, or do not. (ie, there is no option to redesign as this is the best our people can do, there is no more money to get from the client, we can not appeal to external aid as there is no money available, we can not afford give the client a loan etc)

Should you build the water treatment plant?

So that is the question I ran into in class, but what I want to know is how to handle these questions. (In the end I didn't get much of use in that Unit)

My basic attempt was to apply Utilitarian ethics, and say we must build the water plant because that saves the most lives. But there must be better ways to wok though this. I've heard that treating all human lives as being equally valuable is not nesc a good thing.

• Your math is probably wrong. If there is a 1% chance each year that it will kill one of ???, then 0.01 deaths/year are expected. If there is a 5% chance that one of ??? will die from untreated water, then 0.05 death/year are expected. Commented Oct 4, 2013 at 13:55
• Once you left school, you may face the same choice - without the numbers, instead with wishy-washy qualifiers "untreated water is not healthy, but the wwtp is a bit unsafe."
– mart
Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 10:31
• Indeed, and the fact that I can't make a strong enough case when i do have the numbers, is pretty worrying. Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 13:22
• The best tag and area of philosophy for this question is Decision Theory. Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 20:29
• ChristopherE: Edit the post, and then a mod (or 3k+ user) or myself will approve it. I won't deny you the credit for the edit, by doing it myself. Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 1:06

I will try to answer your question, I hope you find it useful.

Your actual question is "how to handle these questions". Questions where your actions turn a less-than-optimal situation into another less-than-optimal situation.

So, the answer, is a process of how to handle them:

1) Question the numbers you are given, be it statistics or raw data. Who is saying that there are 0.1 expected deaths a year for the plant? How do they figure that? Who is saying that the local population can expect 50 deaths per year? Did they figure that correctly?

2) Question the motives behind the people giving you the information. Is the same person giving you both the plant and population death estimates, or are they two different sources? What ulterior motives might they have in selling the story in a particular way? Do they have something to gain or lose other than purely the human losses?

3) If you decide you can trust either the new numbers or the old ones, then do the math. For this example let's assume that the numbers are right just so we can continue the discussion. "0.1 deaths/year" doesn't help anything, convert it: it's 1 death per decade stacked against 500 per decade. Now we get a real sense of contrast.

4) Consider what is likely to happen in each scenario. If you don't build it, and nobody else does either, 500 per decade will die indirectly because of you. If you build it, one person per decade will die indirectly because of you.

5) Consider whether the units are the same. In this example they are all human lives. However, one side has willing and informed employees working in a dangerous plant dying in order to provide clean water for their community; the other side has regular citizens and children unwittingly dying just by drinking water.

6) Additional considerations: workers can try to make it safer to work there and be extra careful, aided by practice and handed-down experiences. The general population cannot stop drinking water.

7) Finally, having a much stronger grasp of the situation, question the entire thing. Let's look into the situation. Why do they want to build a plant? Because the water is killing people. So the actual core problem is not the plant at all, but "why is the water killing people?" Is the community uneducated in disease control? Is waste being mixed with the drinking water due to negligence, ignorance, or otherwise? Would the community benefit more from the building of much cheaper facilities such as latrines to keep the water from getting dirty in the first place? We could learn that it's as simple as human waste being deposited somewhere and then having flies going from that place to where they keep their drinking water; in which case a 30 minute class a cheap plastic lid to go on top of water wells would be infinitely cheaper, faster, and less deadly than building a plant. It definitely merits an investigation before assuming anything.

I hope this helps your journey.

Yes, you should build the water treatment plant as benefits outweight losses.

Oxinabox knows that if he builds the water treatment plant less people will die, the only difference is that he perceives those deaths as his fault, since he's the builder. It should be noted that by inaction, if he chooses not to build the water treatment plant, more deaths will occur and since they could've been prevented by him, he should feel guilty as well.

• Please consider sharing a little more about why you might be suggesting this answer Commented Nov 28, 2013 at 3:43
• Yes of course. Oxinabox knows that if he builds the water treatment plant less people will die, the only difference is that he perceives those deaths as his fault, since he's the builder. It should be noted that by inaction, if he chooses not to build the water treatment plant, more deaths will occur and since they could've been prevented by him, he should feel guilty as well. Commented Nov 28, 2013 at 13:37