Engineering for God and Humanity
This past January, I had the opportunity to conduct field research on amputees through a partnership with two of India’s most impactful non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for people with disabilities. As a semester-long project for a course called “EC.722 Prosthetics for the Developing World”, our team designed a low-cost prosthetic knee adapter accessible for above-knee amputees living in resource constrained regions of the globe. While our research and class lectures supplied us with an intellectual understanding of some of the challenges faced by amputees in the developing world, very little could prepare us for the realities that sunk in through working first-hand with our patients. The experience was eye-opening, and for me raised important questions regarding varying perspectives on the treatment of people with disabilities, social justice issues, and humanitarian engineering as a whole.
1.1 Comparisons of Amputees in India and the United States
Amputees in India face a harsh set of economic, social, and emotional challenges. Most are unemployed and live off of less than $1 a day, unable to perform agricultural or manual labor that compose 75% of India’s jobs. Further, their situation is compounded by well-documented social stigmatization and psychosocial challenges[3,4] that are especially evident in developing nations, as defined by the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI). Perhaps due to the perceived shame surrounding their condition, my experience working with these people has revealed that they almost unanimously desire a prosthetic device that makes their disability as human-like and inconspicuous as possible.
The situation is quite different in the United States (and other developed nations) where there exist more progressive disability laws and a higher quality of healthcare. Furthermore, amputees in the United States do not face the same image problem thanks to the presence of famous amputee athletes, actors, models, and overwhelmingly positive sentiment for wounded military personnel—a significant portion of the nation’s amputees. While many people in the developed world still desire a human-like prosthesis, my work in the United States has also introduced me to all kinds of people with requests for various artistic socket designs—one particular example being a fashion model who identifies herself as a “Bionic Woman”. In short, as a reflection of the wider social acceptance of amputees in the developed world, there is less of an emphasis on artificial limbs with perfect human likeness, and in many cases, people actually view their prosthesis as a unique part of their identity that they are unashamed to display.
1.2 A Question of Worldviews
These stark cultural differences, though partially due to economic factors, also stem from varying worldviews and highlights just how different global perspectives can be. While equal treatment of people with disabilities may seem obvious to many MIT students, and to the Western world in general, it is evidently non-trivial to many living in India. But is a single view objectively correct on this issue? What are the merits and demerits of these perspectives? To answer such questions requires first a recognition that as humans, we each bring a worldview to the table—an intellectual framework through which we perceive the world shaped by culture, education, religion, or any number of other factors. In this article, I aim to present both the questions I have had during my experiences and my current understanding of how the topic of humanitarian engineering relates to the Eastern worldview held by many Indians, secular humanism subscribed to at least in part by many at MIT, and finally Christianity—which I argue presents an exceedingly satisfying solution that is consistent with both our intellectual and spiritual composition as humans.
2. Eastern Worldview
The cultural perspective of many Indians can generally be characterized as an Eastern worldview, with the majority of Indians subscribing to some variation of Eastern religious tradition. According to the 2011 census, 82.6% of the Indian population identifies as either Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, or Jains. Though all respectable beliefs in their own right, they all share belief in the idea of karma. This belief that one’s situation is influenced through a causal relationship from previous actions has been used as a justification for social inequality and disability, and has contributed to making India a historically socially stratified state with divisions along lines such as caste, gender, and disability. While a more secular government and influential social justice leaders such as Gandhi have banned the caste system and pushed for more progressive social legislation, old traditions die hard and caste discrimination remains a reality in today’s India. In place since as early as 1500 B.C., karmic tradition and the caste system is still ingrained in the worldview of many Indians and influences everyday life from the realms of marriage to politics. Analogous to this is the United States, where most people would not state they believe that African Americans are an inferior people; however, the nation’s long history of discrimination has proved tough to shake off, manifesting itself in systemic racism even to this day. Despite the fact that the social climate of India is certainly not what it used to be, these residual influences of the Eastern religious worldview give at least partial insight into the inequitable treatment of Indian amputees.
Although considering an Eastern religious framework may be useful in raising the question of worldviews, the truth of the matter is that such a worldview is relatively uncommon among the MIT community. Thus, this article will go on to consider a more widely held worldview here on campus—that of secular humanism.
3. Secular Humanism
As an MIT student and D-Lab participant, I would contend that the typical approach of my peers toward addressing social justice issues and alleviating global poverty can best be described as secular humanism. As stated by the Council of Secular Humanism, secular humanism “affirms an ethical system that is rooted in the world of experience, objective, and equally accessible to every human who cares to inquire into value issues.” Broader than atheism, which is a mere disbelief in the existence of a god, secular humanism is “comprehensive, touching every aspect of life including issues of values, meaning, and identity” – in other words, a worldview.
Secular humanism is admirable in its goals and has unquestionably been an incredible source of social good in tackling the serious problems of human rights, global health, and poverty alleviation. Secular institutions including universities like MIT and non-profit NGOs are some of the most effective organizations in the world when considering global impact. My own work with D-Lab, MIT’s Global Engineering and Applied Research Lab, the Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group, and various non-profits has introduced me to many people who genuinely love and have compassion for their fellow human. Yet, while the results that blossom out of a secular humanist worldview are good, I would argue that the foundations of this worldview are precarious on some points, and at best, dissatisfying on others.
3.1 The Source of Morality
The first point about secular humanism that I will address is the issue of morality and where it comes from. If one subscribes to a morally relativistic view of the world, each person is allowed to independently decide what is right and wrong. Consequently, there would be no objective basis to believe and judge Indians to be at fault for the unequal treatment of amputees in their country. Yet, for most of us here at MIT, I believe we would almost unanimously agree that it is morally “better” to love and care for all people equally. In other words, deep down we subscribe to some form of moral objectivity.
For this reason, as stated by the Council of Secular Humanism, secular humanists will agree with a view that there exist objective morals, but that we as humans possess “unique attributes of self-awareness and moral agency” that allow us to define those morals. This so-called consequentialist view of ethics espouses the belief that we can arrive at objective ethical principles “by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.” Yet this only raises more questions: On what basis of morality do we judge how good or bad these results are? Do we choose to go by the utilitarian ethics of Bentham and Mill, the categorical imperative of Kant, the contractarian ethics of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Rawls, or the ethical theory of Confucius? What happens when one’s choice of ethical system or one group’s societal interests conflict with another’s? Some very smart people have been thinking and arguing about ethics for a very long time, and yet it does not seem to have resulted in a set of complete, derivable, and objective ethical principles. Could it be that our self-arrival at objective ethical principles is just a bit more problematic than the Council for Secular Humanism suggests?
3.2 Human Rights
The next point about secular humanism that should be addressed is that of human rights. Although notions of justice and human rights have been around since the beginning of civilization, it took the globally shared tragedy of World War II for universal human rights to grow in recognition and become formalized into international humanitarian law through rhetoric such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In line with his or her view on ethics and morality, the modern secular humanist does not believe that such rights are God-given, but are reached through empirical determination by mankind.
Regardless of where one believes these rights may come from, I would argue that human rights are insufficient and unfulfilling in how they shape our worldview. Human rights can tell us what inalienable rights we hold; they can even tell us when an atrocity is in violation of those rights. However, what they cannot do is encourage us to go beyond just acceptance. It is one thing to not violate the rights of an amputee in a way that is “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” (UDHR Article V). It is another thing to have the empathy and love to go out of one’s way to proactively ensure his or her total wellbeing. Should a person who never does anything to encroach on others’ human rights be at fault for never going above and beyond to both advocate for the rights of others and sacrificially work for their flourishing?
After discussing such issues with an atheist friend and fellow D-Lab student, it seems unclear whether or not secular humanism demands a social responsibility to go beyond simply respecting human rights, but we could both agree such actions certainly make for a better way of life. In other words, while secular humanism tries to offer an ethical system upon which to judge the morality of an action, it is ambiguous whether there is a moral imperative to proactively do good. Some say it is enough to avoid bad actions; others believe that it is our human duty to do as much good as possible. Upon these shaky foundations, one finds that in the view of secular humanism there is a need for something stronger than human rights—something that transcends mere tolerance of our fellow human beings.
3.3 Finding Purpose
Finally, let us turn to the topic of finding purpose and meaning in humanitarian work and in life. Unless one believes in a futuristic utopia where issues of social justice and poverty will cease to exist, the secular humanist must believe that there will always be things wrong in the world. As stated in the Humanist Manifesto II (1973), “No god will save us, we must save ourselves.” But in the process of saving ourselves, what about the people who don’t get saved–is there any hope for them? Or the people who may never have the resources or opportunity to contribute to fixing the world–where does their purpose lie?
And even for the fortunate MIT student in a position to “change the world”, if we accept that as a species we are unable to solve all of the humanity’s problems, and as individuals even less capable of doing so, where should one turn to find purpose? And what about the innate satisfaction many people feel while doing humanitarian work—is it really just the traces of an evolutionary advantage of altruistic behavior built into our genetics and neurological makeup? From this perspective, our best hope is to help people in a way to maximize the utility of ourselves and others, trying to make our world as “good” as possible before the inevitable end of our own lives and the eventual extinction of the entire human race. In the end, the sum of all our hopes, dreams, and the meaning we subscribe to our lives would all amount to nothing. And while there is nothing necessarily wrong with this nihilistic view of the world and while it may still be productive in helping others, it certainly is quite depressing, dissatisfying and counterintuitive to humankind’s instinctive search for meaning.
4. The Christian Perspective
So what does a Christian intellectual framework have to offer to the way we perceive and approach humanitarian work? Taking the Bible to be the divinely inspired Word of God and the life and instruction of Jesus Christ as the epitome of the moral human life, the Christian too has a powerful impetus to work for social good—one that is built on a foundation that I have found to be more comprehensive and satisfying than either that of the Eastern worldview or that of the secular humanist. I recognize that the above beliefs can be quite a large intellectual leap for the non- Christian—all I ask is that the reader take a look from the other side to see how Christianity can answer the questions surrounding humanitarian engineering.
4.1 Treatment of People with Disabilities
Unlike many of the religions that influence the Eastern worldview, Christianity does not build its foundations on humans getting what we deserve. Rather, it relies on the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, which we do not deserve. As a stark example against karmic reincarnation, the Bible contains the following story. Upon meeting a man blind from birth, when asked by his disciples what this man or his parents did to deserve this, Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Contrasted to a karmic explanation of punishment, Christianity maintains that God is sovereign over disability and that “his power is made perfect in weakness.” This story removes the guilt from the person and puts the imperative on us to turn the suffering into God’s glory and the restoration of the individual. Instead of hoping for an escape from suffering, we “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Contrasted to the ban of the caste system and social stratification seen in Hinduism and other Eastern religions, Christianity is consistent and in need of no moral revisionism on this particular matter. Indeed, in looking at examples of Jesus’s interactions with social outcasts including numerous lepers and an unclean woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, Jesus was breaking social norms and touching the “untouchable” long before it was popular to do so. The Christian is expected to do the same, and this is a large source of the Christian’s compassion for the outcasts in society.
4.2 Moral Objectivity
On the issue of morality, Christians believe in an objective set of morals not defined by humans themselves, but by a transcendent God who reveals them to humankind in the Bible. This idea of command ethics leaves little room for moral relativism, gives authority to the morals Christians hold to be objectively true, and allows Christians to make humble, yet definitive claims about morality… including the fact that it is better to love our neighbor as ourselves, despite their differences. Thus, it allows for a justification of the morals humans often innately know to be true in a way that secular humanism is unable to do.
4.3 Divine Responsibility
Regarding the issue of human rights, a Christian worldview differs quite a bit from that of secular humanism. First, Christianity answers the question of the source of human rights not as self-evident rights that we are entitled to, but as a result of God-given dignity bestowed on us as humans. Furthermore, a Christian worldview fills the gap where human rights fall short with the concept of divine responsibility. Christians believe they are called to do more than respect others’ rights. Rather, they are called to “pour [themselves] out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted.” From this perspective, there is no longer a question of whether or not humans ought to help one another; it is a requirement that each person lives to the highest moral standard in showing compassion to others. Christianity does not require that we help one another to simply survive, but to thrive. To not do so would be a violation of the divine responsibilities given to Christians by their Creator.
4.4 Finding Purpose in Service
But let the reader not be mistaken into believing Christianity is a legalistic set of rules and responsibilities that the believer is forced to do with a begrudging heart. On the contrary, Christians believe that God, who has made humans and knows them so intimately, gives us these rules as a guideline for living the full life humans were meant to live. On this premise, the warmth and peace in our hearts we experience when doing humanitarian work is not purely a naturalistic result of our biological makeup. It is literally the filling of a God-shaped hole in the soul of every human being.
The thing is, a Christian who believes in an omnipotent God must also believe that He doesn’t need our help to ensure social justice in the world. He could conceivably do it all on his own. Thus, one can only come to the conclusion that his instruction to humanity to tackle these challenges is just as much for us as it is for those we are helping. Many humanitarians—both secular and religious—have alluded to this feeling of gaining more out of service than what they have given. What a Christian perspective does is give meaning to this paradox. In his Four Loves, C.S. Lewis classifies this selfless love of the benefactor as “Gift-Love”, and posits that the ability to show such love is a power given to men that brings us near (in likeness) to God. Jesus, after healing an invalid, said “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” So also, we, as followers of Jesus and children of God, repeat what we see our Father do, and through this receive a taste of nearness to Him.
4.5 Hope for the Future
Finally, the Christian worldview on humanitarian work is one of exceeding hope. Compared to a nihilistic view that all of our attempts to improve the world are futile, Christianity presents a different narrative. To the Christian humanitarian, there is no loss of hope in the recognition that he or she can’t solve all the world’s problems. While we are expected to do as much as humanly possible, Christians can take solace in the fact that ultimate hope does not exist in themselves, but in a God who will set the world right. In contrast to the Humanist Manifesto, we need not save ourselves because God saves. The Hebrew term for this concept in the Jewish tradition is tikkun olam, translating directly to “repair of the world”. Thus, to the millions who go unreached by humanitarian efforts, the Christian worldview allows one to say… “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come… he will come to save you… Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy… They will enter Zion27 with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”28
As a humanitarian engineer, considering the different approaches toward disabled people around the world has forced me to confront my worldview and evaluate what I hold to be true. To the typical Western citizen, an Eastern worldview can come across as harsh on the disabled due to a deeply ingrained belief in karma. On the other hand, the more familiar view of secular humanism has resulted in many incredible humanitarian actions, but remains shaky on issues of moral objectivity, falls a bit short on human rights, and is quite depressing in its purely naturalistic and nihilistic approach to discovering meaning. While this article is certainly no proof for Christianity, what it does emphasize is an intellectually viable framework that motivates a stand for social justice issues and humanitarian work, while providing a solid foundation of morality and offering a satisfying message of hope and meaning that resonates with mankind’s deep desire to find purpose.
1 S. L. Hart, “Low-income markets present a prodigious opportunity for the world’s wealthiest companies — to seek their fortunes and bring prosperity to the aspiring poor,” no. 48, pp. 1–23, 2008.
2 International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) and Marco International, National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06: India: Volume I., vol. 18, no. 7. 2007.
3 O. Horgan and M. MacLachlan, “Psychosocial adjustment to lower-limb amputation: a review.,” Disabil. Rehabil., vol. 26, no. 14–15, pp. 837–850, 2004.
4 J. P. Dormans, R. C. Fisher, and S. G. Pill, “Orthopaedics in the developing world: present and future concerns.,” J. Am. Acad. Orthop. Surg., vol. 9, no. 5, pp. 289–296, 2001.
5 U. N. D. P. UNDP, “Human Development Report 2015 Work for Human Development,” p. 288, 2015.
6 Ziegler-Graham K, MacKenzie EJ, Ephraim PL, Travison TG, Brookmeyer R. Estimating the Prevalence of Limb Loss in the United States: 2005 to 2050. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2008; 89(3):422-9.
7 This statement is written not to disparage any particular Indians and their values, but rather to point out the Eastern religious worldview as a contributor to vast differences of circumstance experienced by amputees in India and the developed world. I appreciate the fact that not all Indians subscribe to this worldview, and that the definition of a worldview is not how humans always
live. However, I argue that the Eastern worldview, whether or not it is explicitly subscribed to by individuals, has manifested itself through lasting effects on Indian society, and I will return to this issue in Section 2.
8 I hope to not present a caricature of any worldview and if you believe I have, my apologies and I would be grateful if you would open discussion with me.
9 Religion, Census of India 2011
10 Mehrotra, N. (2012). Disability , Gender and Caste : Marginality, Exclusion and Opportunities in Indian Economy, (June), 5–8.
11 Sankaran, L. (2013, June 15). Caste Is Not Past. New York Times.
12 Council for Secular Humanism. “What Is Secular Humanism?” Council for Secular Humanism. Center for Inquiry, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
13 Council for Secular Humanism. “What Is Secular Humanism?” Council for Secular Humanism. Center for Inquiry, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2016. Case in point: the conflicting views of political parties on how to improve the United States
15 United Nations. “History of the Document.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
16 United Nations. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” 1948.
17 Kurtz, P. and Wilson, E.H. “Humanist Manifesto II.” 1973.
18 John 9:1-12 (NIV)
19 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NIV)
20 Romans 5:3-5 (NIV)
21 John 8:1-11 (NIV), Luke 5:27-32 ; Mark 1:40-45 (NIV), Luke 17:11-19 (NIV); Luke 8:43-48 (NIV)
22 Luke 10 (NIV)
23 Zulker, A. (2015). Rethinking Human Rights. The Dartmouth Apologia, 10(1), 22–28.
24 Isaiah 58:10
25 Lewis, C S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
26 John 5:19
27 The Christian understanding of Zion in this passage does not refer to a geographic location, but rather God’s spiritual kingdom.
28 Isaiah 35 4-6,10 (See also Isaiah 40 esp. verses 28-31)
Matthew Chun ’18 is from Jericho, NY. He is majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Management Science. He hopes to pursue humanitarian engineering in the healthcare sector.
Photo taken while working with a patient in India.Tags: academia, Buddhism, CS Lewis, disability, education, engineering, ethics, Gandhi, grace, health, healthcare, Hinduism, Jain, love, medicine, MIT, nihilism, paradox, philosophy, racism, Sikh, university, utilitarian