Sunday, May 29, 2011

Aiding Someone in Distress

On the street outside of an architectural office, a woman gets her car stuck in the snow in the middle of the street in the midst of a storm. Several people in the office go to her aid, attempting to move her car out of the road. One person in the office, however, keeps working, saying that he doesn’t have time to help, while another person leaves to go home, saying that she needs to attend to her own family before she helps someone else.

Helping another person in distress remains one of the most common situations in ethics and one of the most basic responsibilities that people have for one another. The reciprocity at the very heart of ethics arises here: I need to help others as I would want them to help me were I in the same circumstances. But reciprocity is rarely symmetrical. More often than not, we help others without ever receiving the same kind of aid in return or assistance from the same people. There exists, in other words, few quid pro quos in ethics; the good we do may never get done for us.

In a commercial society such as ours, in which we constantly exchange one thing of roughly equal value to another – money for a possession, fees for a service – the lack of a direct connection between an action and the payback can make ethics seem like something for suckers. Why help someone, a committed capitalist might ask, if we receive nothing in return?

Ethics, of course, offers several reasons why. Virtue ethics argues that by doing good for others, we cultivate characteristics in ourselves that make us successful in other aspects of our lives. Commerce, for instance, depends upon trust, which in turn relies on virtues such as honesty, fairness, and prudence. Contract ethics argues that helping others remains central to our membership in a community. If we don’t come to the aid of others, we start to lose the mutual assistance that lies at the heart of a properly functioning society.

Likewise, Kantian ethics claims that we have a duty to do what is right regardless of the consequences or the inconvenience. Anything less than that begins to unravel the kind of behavior essential to civilized life. Finally, utilitarian ethics points out that the greatest good often comes from responding to fellow citizens in need. Moving a car stuck in the middle of the street allows the plows and other vehicles to get by, benefiting many more people than the one person stranded in the snow.

The office mates who responded to the woman stuck in the snow may have had these or other reasons in mind: they may have wanted to do good or simply to get out of work and have a good time. But what about the two employees who did not go to the woman’s aid? Were they unethical? The one who kept working felt that his duty to his job came first, while the other who left to go home likewise felt that her family came first.

Such thinking has an ethical basis. We must constantly weigh one duty against another and if it appears that more aid would not fundamentally change an outcome or that others may need our help more than the person right in front of us, then we have legitimate reasons not to come to another’s aid. Ethics, like design, is profoundly contextual, demanding that we see a situation from the broadest possible perspective before deciding what to do. It does no good to do no good.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Modern and Postmodern Ethics

We do not often think of ethics as a creative endeavor. As a branch of philosophy, ethics has had to adhere closely to reasoned argument and to logical analysis, which we typically see as counter to or at least different from the creative leaps of imagination that characterize the arts, for example. That was not always the case. Ethics and aesthetics once shared a close relationship, epitomized in the ancient idea that truth (philosophy), beauty (aesthetics), and goodness (ethics) had an inseparable relationship with each other. 

The knot that tied them together, however, slowly unraveled over the last two centuries. Truth increasingly became the purview of the sciences, which demanded experimental data to establish the truth of a situation or phenomena, rather than just the reasoned arguments of philosophy. As a result of this, by the early 20th century, philosophy, which had given birth to science, once called “natural philosophy,” had begun to emulate and even imitate science, using mathematics and logic to make a philosophical argument in much the same way that scientists used these tools to assess experimental data.

Meanwhile, the link between aesthetics and beauty came apart as well. Edmund Burke’s recognition of the sublime, with its fascination with the terrifying or overwhelming, as the complement to the balance and order of beauty as traditionally understood, marks the beginning of that coming apart. Art over the 20th century became increasingly obsessed with the sublime, to the point where beauty has become a term almost never mentioned in aesthetic circles or said with a degree of embarrassment.

Ethics followed suit with its two classical companions. Nietzsche’s argument that claims of goodness served as a cover for the will to power and G.E. Moore’s observation that the good remained a simple un-analyzable object of thought represent just two of many late 19th and early 20th century efforts to equate ethics with subjective, intuitive, or emotive qualities that set it apart from the increasingly objective, logical, and rational nature of modern philosophy.

Ethics became isolated, not only from the mainstream of early 20th century philosophy, but also from aesthetics. In other words, just as truth and goodness go through a divorce – the facts of science, after all, are neither good nor bad – so too did the relationship between beauty and goodness. This began with claims by 19th century artists and critics who advocated “art for art’s sake,” and who sought to protect aesthetics from moral analysis or from having to make a moral point. The goodness of a work of art must rest upon its own aesthetic merits and not upon some nostalgic or didactic attempt to depict “goodness.”

That sundering of truth, beauty, and goodness underlay the scientism and abstraction of early 20th century modernism, a period in which ethics seemed to go into a kind of temporary eclipse. Morality became associated with 19th century “Victorian” culture, while the “good” 20th century modernist faced up to the unvarnished and even sometime terrifying facts of life, finding comfort in the utilitarian functionalism of the machine age.

Late 20th century Post-modernism represented, in some sense, the revenge of ethics. While post-modernists questioned the actual objectivity of science and the covert moralism of modern art and architecture, they also made ethics newly relevant with the advent of feminist ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics, and applied ethics of all sorts. Such post-modern ethics did not reverse the divorce of truth, beauty, and goodness, but it did show how ethics offered a powerful way of revealing and questioning the will to power that underlay a lot of modern science, technology, and art.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Design Thinking and Ethics

What does design thinking – the practical imagination that enables us, as Herbert Simon put it, to turned existing conditions into preferred one – have to do with ethics – the assessment of good and bad behavior or right and wrong actions? What can ethics, an analytical field, contribute to a creative field like design, and what might design thinking, of increasing interest to disciplines searching for more innovation, add to ethical thought?

The practitioners of design and ethics have a core competency in common: both have an interest in understanding human behavior and in analyzing human needs and interpersonal relationships. Ethicists focus that interest toward determining what someone should or should not do in a conflicted situation, while designers direct that interest toward the creation of environments, products, structures, or systems that accommodate people’s needs and direct their actions.

In both cases, the question of what constitutes the good invariably arises. What, an ethicist might ask, defines a good character or a right action, and what, a designer might asks, determines a good resolution of the right problem? At the same time, both fields remain resolutely applied and particular to specific cases or circumstances. While design and ethics both have plenty of theories that seek to guide judgment, the test of those ideas inevitably comes through the analysis of a particular problem in a given space or time and what the most appropriate solution to it entails.

Likewise, both disciplines proceed to assess such things in similar ways. Ethicists and designers will typically gather background and contextual information to help them understand the nature and scope of a problem or conflict, look a the reasoning behind and consequences of various responses to the situation, and arrive at a conclusion or solution that seems to address the greatest range of issues or requirements in the simplest and clearest way possible. Often, the best resolution of a dilemma arises from the most thorough assessment and most creative response to it.

While ethicists do not have design codes, at least not anything enforceable, designers have codes of ethics. In that sense, the two fields have an asymmetrical relationship, in which ethics influences not only the nature of designers’ work, but the actions of designers themselves. Design, like all areas of human activity, thus has a subordinate role in relation to ethics, and designers’ behavior toward others – clients, communities, colleagues, contractors, and so on – comes under the regulation of ethical codes, much as their decisions often come under the restrictions of building, fire, and zoning codes.

Designers may, on occasion, gripe about the latter code restrictions. However, they know full well that such constraints also set limits that help define the nature and scope of their freedom to create. As Nietzsche, one of most nihilistic of ethicists, once wrote, great artists “dance in chains,” making their work look effortless despite – and because of – the restraints placed on it by the community and by the artists themselves. Creativity involves not only the search for the right problem to solve, but also the pursuit of the restrictions within which a good solution can emerge.

Codes of ethics, though, have a much different role and relationship to design than do the codes that seek to protect the health, safety, and welfare of people affected by what designers do. While human health, safety, and welfare all have moral dimensions and implications, ethics goes far beyond the minimum standards that designers must adhere to in building codes. Ethics asks of us to be our very best, to maximize our potential as human beings and as human communities. Just as aesthetics helps us achieve beauty, ethics helps us achieve goodness, and that is a beautiful thing.   

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pressure from a donor

An architecture school received an application for admission from the relative of a wealthy man, who had been talking about leaving a substantial gift to the university in which the architecture school stood. The admissions committee, upon reviewing the applicant’s portfolio and transcripts, decided to deny him admission, which angered the prospective donor, who threatened to rescind his promised gift. The university asked the school to reconsider its decision, although the admissions committee stood behind its choices.

Colleges and universities have become increasingly dependent upon wealthy donors in order to make up for such things as declining state support, dwindling grant amounts, or depressed endowment returns. Donors, of course, have long had a role in higher education. The medieval English universities, for example, arose out of the patronage of the nobility and the royalty. And virtually every North American campus has signs of donor largesse in the form of everything from named buildings to named bricks. Call it a kind of high-priced graffiti.

There remain limits, though, in how far that can go. Philanthropy, by definition, does not allow funders to have much control over specific application of their gifts. They can direct their giving to achieve a particular goal – to see a building built, research effort launched, or student scholarship established – but the details of how their funds get used or who benefits from their gifts lie beyond their purview. The tax deductibility of the donation demands it.

That does not mean that donors won’t try to influence faculty or university decisions. Rarely do those efforts become as blatant as the situation here, where the donor threatened to withdraw a planned gift when the school did not admit his relative. This shows that philanthropists, ironically, can have more control before they give a gift than afterward, given the voluntary nature of their donations. As a result, the university has to decide where to draw the line and when to walk away from the gift rather than sacrifice something of greater value.

In this case, that value lies in the ability of the faculty and staff to assess the quality of candidates for admission. That ability may seem elitist to some, but in the end, decisions about who to admit have a very practical purpose: to determine who can do the work required and who, among all of those seeking admission, will have the greatest likelihood of success. From that perspective, admissions committees do weak applicants a favor in not letting them in and setting them up to fail. That does not mean that errors in judgment do not occur. Sometimes, seemingly weak candidates can blossom in a program and excel far beyond anyones expectations.

However, that possibility does not negate the general rule that admissions should remain blind to any factor that does not pertain to the potential of the candidates to succeed in a program. In this case, if the school admitted the relative of the donor out of a sense of obligation to the institution rather than out of a belief in that person’s ability to do the work, it would have likely become even more of a problem later on. Would the donor be any less angry if his relative eventually failed out of the program, having spent tuition to no avail? The school has to support the faculty’s judgment as to the best candidates, since that judgment, in the end, has far greater value than any donation, however much it might be needed. Better to let go of a gift than to go after it and lose one’s self-respect in the process.