Saturday, June 25, 2011

Exploiting Student Labor

The new director of an architecture program discovered that some faculty members had used their own residences as the sites for students’ design/build studios. The director said that this practice had to stop because it constituted a conflict of interest, with faculty members using student labor to increase the value of their property, although the professors involved claimed that the use of their own homes enabled their students to make mistakes and to take risks that they could not otherwise do.

A central issue in the ethics of economics involves the proper use of human labor. Adam Smith saw the division of labor as a way of increasing people’s productivity and with it, their wealth. Through this collective activity, Smith believed, the material conditions of everyone would improve. Karl Marx agreed, although he argued that since workers “own” their labor, they should control the process and benefits the most from it. In Marx’s view, capitalists exploited other people’s labor by making them work more than they needed to in order to meet their needs and that of their communities.

Architecture, of course, has long had a division of labor at its core. Architects design a building, engineers size the elements necessary to make it stand and operate, and contractors build from the detailed drawings and specifications. And much of the tension in the construction industry arises from the ethical conflict identified by Smith and Marx. Who should benefit the most from the division of construction-industry labor: the architects and engineers who determine what contractors build without actually doing the work or the contractors whose labor is essential to realizing the building?

A whole system of contracts, codes and regulations has arisen to ensure some degree of fairness in this industry and to prevent the exploitation of people in the process. Contracts ensure that the design team gets paid for their work, codes ensure that the safety of people gets protected, and regulations ensure that, at least in public work, trades get paid the prevailing wage.

Almost none of these protections exist, however, for the design/build projects students engage in during school. In most cases, students work for credit rather than for pay and create structures as part of a class that rarely get inspected by code officials. On top of that, the faculty members involved often end up serving in the role of the client, determining the nature and location of the project and deciding upon the grades that individual students will get as a result of their effort.

While design/build projects can offer invaluable lessons for aspiring architects, such exercises also leave open the possibility of real abuse, as in the case here. However much it may give students greater freedom in what they build and more latitude to make mistakes, using student labor to improve professors’ own property constitutes the very exploitation that Marx cautioned us about. The faculty members involved not only control the application and extent of the students’ labor, but also benefit inordinately from the product of that effort.

The professors’ protests echo those of capitalists in Marx’s era. Smart people can always find reasons, whether economic or educational, to justify unethical behavior. That becomes particularly ironic in institutions of higher education when faculty, who often lean to the left politically, end up engaging in activities that characterize the most repressive, right wing regimes.

The new director has no choice but to demand that the faculty members cease and desist. Should they refuse, the director needs to report them, regardless of the personal consequences. Might, in this case, must make things right.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Professional Polygamy

A well-known consulting firm frequently joins more than one design team competing for the same commission. Each competitor wants the consulting firm on its team because of the expertise it would bring to the project. And presence of the consulting firm on several teams gives it an advantage, increasing the chances that it would win the commission. But the firm’s presence on several teams also raises ethical issues related to the privacy, confidentiality, and impartiality toward its multiple partners.

Monogamy or devotion to one sexual partner at a time has long had a central role in most ethical traditions. Anthropologists have observed that polygamy can arise in cultures where maximizing offspring has clear survival value or where there exist a small number of men in relation to women. Such situations, however, remain relatively rare and even in cultures that once accepted polygamy, like the Mormons, they often move toward monogamy once they have achieved a degree of security and relative equity in the number of men and women.

These relational issues, however, extend beyond those related to a sexual partner to include professionals teaming up to pursue a project. While jealousy, fear, and anger rarely occurs in work-related teams and they do in personal relationships, many of the same ethical issues apply to both our private and public partners.

That becomes most apparent in cases such the one described here, in which a consulting firm “plays the field,” with a similar relationship with several competitors for a project. In the business world, of course, contracts can address the problems that can arise from a consultant’s presence on several teams, requiring, for example, that the consulting firm have different staff members on different teams, that the firm treat each team equally in terms of staff time and support, and that the firm’s employees keep the conversations and activities of their teams confidential – all to ensure that each competitor faces a level playing field and that each has an equal opportunity to win a commission.

Despite such contractual agreements, however, there remain situations that can color the equanimity of the consultant. For instance, what if the consulting firm sees one team having a real advantage over others competing for the same project and a greater likelihood of winning the commission? Should the consulting firm put its best people on that team most likely to win? Or should the firm, instead, treat even a likely winner the same as every other team, with equally strong people on all of them?

Ethics may seem divided on such questions. Duty ethics urges us to treat others equally, as ends in themselves and not means to our ends, while utilitarian ethics asks that seek the greatest good for the greatest number, which if applied to the fortunes of this consulting firm, suggests that it should try to pick winners. The similarity of this situation to marital polygamy suggests otherwise, however. Those who live with multiple marital partners have spoken about the necessity of treating each partner as equally and fairly as possible in order to reduce the potential of jealousy, fear, and anger among them.

With that in mind, it seems wise that the consulting firm give each of its teams the same care, attention, and talent, especially since the firm cannot know for sure of who will ultimately win the project and antagonizing a future partner makes little sense. Ultimately, acting with reciprocity in mind provides the best course. The consulting firm should treat each of the teams it is on as it would want each of those teams to treat it: fairly. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Aesthetics of Ethics

A lawyer colleague, who wrote a book entitled Moral Capitalism and who runs an organization devoted to business ethics, wants someone with an architecture or design background among the contributors to an online journal he wants to start. While the journal seems needed in an era of one business-related scandal after another, having a designer among its writers raises the question of what an aesthetically oriented field has to contribute to ethics.

Western culture, said the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, cycles between periods of order and disorder, calmness and wildness, or as Nietzsche put it, between the Apollonian, referring to Apollo, the Greek god of reason and truth, and the Dionysian, referring to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy. That idea echoed the notion of the 18th century writer, Edmund Burke, that the West has embraced two opposite ways of thinking about aesthetics as either a search for beauty or the “sublime.” We sometimes admire the orderliness, proportion, and balance that have traditionally characterized beauty, and at other times, we like the messy, disturbing, and overpowering that Burke called the sublime.

Such theories say a lot about our own time. While we can find both Apollonian and Dionysian qualities in contemporary culture and both the beautiful and sublime in the current art world, it does seem as if the Dionysian sublime has had the upper hand over the last century. Just read the news, rife with stories of street violence, foreign wars, political scandals, and business swindles. Or look at contemporary art and architecture. From intentionally outrageous musicians and actors to emotionally raw paintings and novels to phenomenally twisted or shard-like buildings, our aesthetic tastes – like our ethical expectations – definitely tend toward the sublime.

Both Burke and Nietzsche recognized that cultures couldn’t maintain such an extreme for very long. We eventually tire of the sublime and start to see it not as inspiring, but as simply ridiculous. Many causes no doubt contribute to this turning away from the sublime, but certainly one has to do with the economic and material conditions of a culture. The sublime seems inherently wasteful and excessive, which in turn reflects a degree of confidence among people that we have enough excess to waste without worry about running out of things. While that may have characterized the 20th century, with its oil-fueled economics and its nuclear-powered politics, it does not mirror the 21st century. Ours seems, at least so far, to be a time of conservation rather than waste, of environmental and social concern rather than personal excess and outrageousness.

Many people, though, have not yet gotten that message. If anything, our world seems even more extreme than in times past, with politicians more polarized, businesses more powerful, and artists more personal than many commentators can ever remember. It’s as if we have to push excessiveness itself to such excess that we can no longer sustain it and find ourselves forced to change. To use Nietzsche’s allusion to Dionysus, the god of wine, we seem like an alcoholic who has gone on one last binge before becoming sober.

So what might a designer contribute to a journal about business behavior? What might aesthetics, in other words, contribute to ethics? Just this: the aesthetics of the sublime and the beautiful, of Dionysus and Apollo, offers not only a way of understanding art. It also helps us see why we find ourselves surrounded by so much excessive, unethical behavior on the part of so many people in positions of power in both the public and private sectors. It explains their ridiculousness.