XIX.2 March + April 2012
Page: 51
Digital Citation

Design and ethics

Leslie Becker

Designers of products and services, as well as the users of these products and services, think they know what is right. This assumption is largely tacit, which means it is also largely unexamined. Tacit implies that we have absorbed something through our daily living by observing and participating in routine activities that have socialized us and provided us with the kinds of practical knowledge that help us get through the day.

There is also a geographical component to how we think about what is right. Geography operates at multiple scales, from our immediate family, to social scenes (as ethnographers label them), to the choice of schools we attend and our majors of study, to employers, and ultimately, to the literal geographic location where we live. This observation does not imply we have complete control over each of these social groups we inhabit, but often there are subtle cues that tend to guide us toward certain life choices that turn out to be significant, especially if we look for them in retrospect.

Eventually, most of us find ourselves in the equivalent of a sealed plastic bag, or a set of sealed plastic bags, constituted by the various groups we inhabit. Within each group, though typically not explicit, is a large likelihood of a priori sensibilities and worldviews operating among the group that has drawn any individual member into it, or, in the case of family, has landed an individual into a psychologically powerful group without that individual having chosen membership. Therefore, when an action must be taken, a group will typically operate with a degree of efficiency when faced with the question, “What should we do?” We identify a typically shared problem. We decide what to do. And we do it. This kind of process mostly guarantees a general consensus because we have already situated ourselves inside of reinforcing groups—those groups that are based upon interests, needs, and goals coincident with our own.

Let’s say a problem arises and you know a decision about right action will need to be made. The group that ought to be involved in the decision seems obvious, and the problem is perhaps framed—articulated—in an expected way. The notion that everyone at the table knows what the right action is and understands its stakes in the typically tacit decision-making process generally is not questioned. We also have a tendency to assume that someone who does not agree with us is less intelligent than we are. All we have to do is look at our political landscape to see a stellar example of this. For, certainly, if they were of comparable intellect, they would arrive at the same worldview as our own.

Design practices can involve many genres of ethical problems. Some of these problems may be based in issues of representation or, more likely, misrepresentation. Others may be based in issues of sustainability and materiality, or the particulars of product or service development. Perhaps you feel a product or service, even a specific detail of its form or operation, is harming some community. Yet others may be financial, with serious political or social repercussions. You may even have reservations about the motives of the client.

Design professionals, along with the business community, have been discussing ethics for decades. These discussions have often resulted in rather superficial checklists. Designers may have codes of ethics, generally written by well-meaning people with expertise in design, not ethics. Often these codes protect the financial interests of the particular community (e.g., what constitutes pro bono work and intellectual-property issues). But no one talks about what method is being used to arrive at what constitutes a right action. As we vigilantly try to protect our design expertise from interlopers, many of us have unthinkingly stepped on the toes of philosophers.

If we look at the branch of philosophy that addresses ethics, we find multiple methods of ethics, and each of the primary normative methods has many nuanced and contested variations and various overlaps. Here is a fairly standard textbook scenario of an ethical conundrum:

Boat A and Boat B are sinking and you can rescue those in only one of the boats. Boat A has one occupant; Boat B has three. What do you do? Count the people and decide based upon quantity? Perhaps there is another competing and compelling consideration. What if Boat A contained your brother or sister or someone who was working on a cure for cancer? If Boat B contained three known pedophiles, without much thought, you would think it were obvious which boat’s occupants should be saved. You have tacit knowledge. You don’t have to think about what you ought to do because you have absorbed this form of knowledge through living. You just know. Everybody does.

How, exactly, do you know? You could develop some explicit knowledge. Because a large body of knowledge exists in the form of methods of ethics, here is the initial question for us. Upon which method do you base your decision about right action? From the many methods of ethics that constitute philosophical enquiry, a very abbreviated overview of a few of the more important ones follows.

Deontology states that right action is the result of examining duty and knowing one’s moral obligation. Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant described it as the categorical imperative. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” [1]. Contemporary Neo-Kantian philosopher Onora O’Neill, using the airline industry’s handling of crash incidents, pragmatically urges us to move from a culture of blame to a culture of investigation. In essence, she is requiring us to ask the essential investigative question (the what-do-we-have-here question), rather than ponder whom do we blame (the take-action-against question) [2].

In communicative (or discourse) ethics, 20th-century neo-Kantian philosopher Jürgen Habermas provided a method that relies on assumptions about rational speech and the use of discourse in resolving complex dilemmas. This means that if one is rational (using language rationally), someone else who is rational will understand the speaker mostly as the speaker intended. This pure condition of communication ought to help us decipher what is right action. Newer iterations of communicative ethics question who gets to sit at the table and perhaps even who gets to decide who sits at the table. It welcomes multiple voices and challenges the a priori explicitness of how we define rationality.

Virtue ethics emphasizes the development of one’s moral character. In this theory, someone of high moral character is assumed to choose right action. However, the set of virtues in religion are not necessarily the same virtues that are valued in non-religious virtue ethics.

Consequentialism is a method that is teleological (focused on outcomes rather than process). One looks at the consequences of an action to decipher its moral worthiness. Something is right if the consequences are optimized, yielding the greatest amount of human flourishing (eudemonia, from the Greek). Pushing this method to a hyperbolic extreme, we could even ask, if someone ends up dead, does it matter whether they died naturally or were killed? The results are the same: Someone is dead.

Casuistry is a case-based method that looks at the particulars of a problem. This method asks whether the case at hand is like other existing iconic cases. Decisions are made (cases are resolved) based upon comparison with those paradigmatic cases and emerge from examining the particulars of a case. A priori agreement upon ethical theories is not necessary in order to decide these cases. Casuistry fell out of favor for several hundred years because it was believed to have been used questionably by the church and based upon specious moral reasoning. However, it has experienced a revival as a useful method in complex biomedical cases.

What, then, will serve the pragmatic needs of design practitioners? A hybrid method of casuistry and communicative ethics might work well. A case study is helpful to better understand the mechanisms involved.

Let’s consider a product development team in Country A working on the design of an innovative, sustainable combination of hardware and software for worldwide distribution to consumers. If the consumers love the product and the company has a strong brand that reinforces design and innovation, does it matter if one of the key manufacturers of the product in Country B relies upon a child-labor force or employs its workers under conditions considered undesirable at best, illegal at worst, in Country A? [3] How might case-based and communicative ethics address the identified problem?

Forming the group. Rather than launch into threats of legal action, we might step back and assess those who have reason to be concerned and make a plan to bring them together. It is worth noting pure conditions for communication are almost impossible. For practical reasons it might be necessary to have someone be represented by someone else. Though hardly ideal, if we are to develop a practical set of conditions for designers and business people, we need to consider this possibility. Given more time here, we might begin to determine behaviors and procedures for those who are representing (speaking for) others. As we form a group, we need to decipher which individuals or groups are affected, positively or negatively, by the current situation. Who speaks for these constituents? Have we considered all the major players (those who are significantly affected)? Looking at the initial group, we can ask if any constituency has been overlooked. In this way, a more nuanced and inclusive group would be assembled to address the issues.

During this process of forming the group, we would need to be aware of our own biases that would tend to yield an overly like-minded group. (This is absolutely doable, but beyond the scope of this article.) In the process of gathering interested parties, we should pay particular attention to those who represent special interests on competing sides, and those who may be outside the dominant (often corporate) culture but who have clear reasons to be engaged with the vetting process.

The work of the group. For practical reasons, the group would need a parliamentarian to keep order and ensure that all were heard. The discussion might begin by having each person “situate herself or himself” for the group. Next, the leader should ask, “What do we have here?” reminding the group that, for the time being, no actions were being proposed. As each person spoke, the others would need to listen without preparing a rebuttal to what was being said while someone else was talking [4]. Rather, participants would attempt to understand another’s concern about the situation under investigation, but in a way very different from their own. A willingness to not automatically allow profit alone to drive outcomes must be established.

As finer-grained points of view emerge through discourse, people must learn to modify some behaviors that have become critical survival tools in an increasingly unreflective business world, one that encourages getting to the “innovation” finish line before anyone else does. Modifying the racehorse mentality has the potential to open up spaces for compromise, to really hear the concerns of others, to become open to modifications and gradual processes, and to acknowledge the complexities in many conundrums. If we return, for example, to the poor working conditions and reliance upon child labor found in Country B, we might decipher ways for generally high profits for Country A’s corporation to be increasingly returned to Country B to improve working conditions, to increase access to medical attention, and to improve living conditions (or local infrastructures that would benefit the workers and their families). The speed with which and degree to which these changes might be brought about may depend upon the answer to the question, “What do we have here?” If it is greed, there might be ways to accelerate the changes and help Country A’s corporation see “otherness” as a problem. This approach would require understanding the geographical scale of our group and its tendency to protect the familiar and exclude all that isn’t.

Collecting the cases and developing expertise in casuistry. The design and ethics project proposed would require keeping notes to decipher the nature of cases, the people at the table, and the ways in which the cases were resolved. In bio-medical ethics, which often involve life-and-death cases, professional casuists conduct investigations and rely upon comparisons with existing paradigms to understand what a case is like. Since design doesn’t yet have such case histories, a database would have to be developed over time, using explicit criteria. Wrapping discourse ethics into a case-based method means that design can begin to establish its own history fairly efficiently. Most important, it would be inclusive and reflective. Although most contemporary problems beg for an answer to the question, “What should we do?” this question positions us to jump into action—to do rather than to reflect before acting. In conclusion, even though the speed of the electron that governs our daily lives doesn’t seem to be slowing down processes, whenever there appears to be an ethical conundrum, let’s first change the question to “What do we have here?” and not forget to consider carefully, “Who is the ‘we’ in our question?”


1. Quote is from Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.

2. These comments were part of O’Neill’s talk at a New Hall College, Cambridge University, UK, “Architecture and Its Ethical Dilemmas,” March 2004.

3. This situation is posed in M. Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, CA, Jan.11-Feb. 27, 2011.

4. See Jacob Needleman, fora.tv, April 2007.


Leslie Becker, Ph.D. is a professor and former director of the Division of Design, California College of the Arts, San Francisco and an AIGA Fellow. In addition to teaching for the past 40 years, she is also a design practitioner. She is currently turning her Ph.D. dissertation, on methods of ethics for design, into a book.

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