Every once in a great while I raise a philosophical issue in this space. Most people who have tried teaching engineering ethics know that a little philosophy goes a long way, at least with undergraduates. The subject has a reputation of being dry, abstract, and far removed from everyday considerations. And another count against it is that it never seems to go anywhere—philosophers today argue about some of the same things that Plato and his students argued about in the garden called the Akademeia near Athens around 400 B. C.

Nevertheless, I find that philosophers can clarify and put names to things that most of us deal with a lot, but have trouble thinking clearly about. One such philosopher I came across lately is the Canadian George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), and a question he asks in his book Philosophy in the Mass Age is one I’d like to raise here.

Writing in 1960, Grant was worried about many of the same things that bother us today: whether the products and effects of our technological smarts will carry us over the brink to extinction, for example. Back then, the big concern was nuclear war between the old USSR and the United States. Nowadays it’s climate change, but while the subject of the fear is different, the anxieties are similar.

Grant saw two worldviews or states of mind that were locked in a complex struggle—a struggle that continues today. He stated the terms of the struggle succinctly in this way: “To put this issue simply: are we truly and finally responsible for shaping what happens in the world, or do we live in an order for which we are not ultimately responsible, so that the purpose of our lives is to discover and serve that order?”

If we are truly in charge—if there’s no higher authority or source of guidance than our own wits and ability to work together—then you are likely to take a different view of the world and a different approach to life, than if you think otherwise. Later in the book, he poses a question, which I’m calling the Moral Limits Test. It’s not a question to be answered lightly or quickly. But your answer to it could tell you something about yourself and where you stand on the issue that Grant raised in the quotation above.

The question is this: “Is there anything that we should never under any circumstances do to another human being?”

Now we can get all tangled up in details—”Define ‘human being,'” you might say, or “What if the circumstances are unlikely and extreme, such as whether torturing one person will save the lives of millions?” Let’s not get too technical here. The intent of the question is to probe your own beliefs about one’s ultimate responsibilities to other humans, and whether there is some rock-bottom limit below which it is always forbidden to go. Not knowing what you’ll answer, I’ll take each of the two possible responses in turn.

Let’s say you answer in the negative. No, you say, I can’t think of anything I would absolutely rule out. You may argue that at any rate, they’ve all been tried over the bloody course of history, and you would not be far from the truth there. From genocides authorized by religious prophecies to the Nazi death camps, man’s inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds. That doesn’t make these acts right, of course, but despite all the terrible things that have been done, the species has survived. Other things being equal, you wouldn’t choose to torment two-year-olds with hot branding irons, but who knows what urgent technical or societal need will come up in the future?

I realize that the question is a little bit like trying to find out how many bigots there are in a population by sending out a survey that asks, “Are you a bigot? Answer yes or no.” Even if you are, you don’t want to admit it. So there’s a strong social pressure to agree that yes, there must be something that we shouldn’t do to other people, even though you may not be able to think of anything at the moment. The same bloody history I referred to a minute ago tells me, though, that a lot of people have answered that question to themselves in the negative, at least judging by their heinous behavior.

Now let’s say you honestly answered yes—there are things we should never under any circumstances do to someone else. You may even be able to think of a few—running death camps, or keeping slaves, or performing abortions, for example. Whatever your example, or even if you can’t think of one, by saying “yes” to that question, Grant believes you have admitted that, in his words, “we live in an order for which we are not ultimately responsible.” And in his view, this means that God has entered the picture: “. . . the idea of limit is unavoidably the idea of God,” as he puts it.

This is a problem for modern people, he admits, because the whole thrust of civilization since the scientific and industrial revolutions has been to pretend there are no limits, and to use nature as raw material for making the Earth into a place that satisfies our desires. One of the paradoxes of modern life is that in trying to make ourselves happy, we often cause tremendous distress and harm to others, which is really the problem of evil. And we’re not going to solve that one in a thousand-word blog.

But the point I would like to leave you with is this: if you really think there are some things that are “categorically wrong”—forbidden to do under any circumstances—then Grant thinks you have admitted that there is something, or Someone, higher than just humankind. And that limitation, that absolute of the moral realm, did not come from us, but from outside.

Working out the implications of that thought will be left as an exercise for the reader, as annoying textbooks sometimes say. But the implications are not trivial, and if you are honest with yourself, you may find out something about yourself and your beliefs that you had not suspected.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.