Monday, December 26, 2011

Styles in Ethics

An architect, visiting Cambridge University on business, saw a poster announcing an ethics conference there, and he wondered what relationship the diverse and historic architecture of that university might have to the conversations about ethics at that conference.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell, once a professor at Cambridge University, wrote an essay in 1924 entitled “Styles in Ethics” that now seems almost quaint in questioning whether there exist any absolutes regarding sexual morality and the institution of marriage. Maybe most significant is Russell’s claim near the end of the essay that there is no “such thing as a ‘scientific’ ethics,” which, coming from a philosopher who admired science, shows how relatively little regard he had for ethics. He concludes that ethics is “the business of the mystic, the artist and the poet,” a matter of “style.”

We can dismiss style as something superficial or a matter of personal preference. However, style also tells us a lot about the people who create or work in a particular way, as Cambridge University itself shows, with its rich array of architectural styles ranging from the medieval to the modern. What, if anything, do these styles of architecture have to do with “styles of ethics,” as Russell put it?

Medieval ethics, with its emphasis on virtues such as faith, hope, and charity, may seem far removed from the Gothic architecture of Cambridge colleges like Kings, Queens, and Trinity. But when we see the monstrous gargoyles spouting water during storms or the names or statues of notable thinkers or patrons from the past in such buildings, they do bring to mind the focus of virtue ethics on the development of an individual’s character and on the inculcation of good habits, as Aristotle urged.

Likewise, when we look upon the Classical buildings at Clare College or Wren’s library at Trinity, much of them built during the wars and the political and religious conflicts of the 17th century, we can hear the echo of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. They argued for social contracts that would ensure our collective security and offer political checks against the excesses of others – a yearning for order evident in the strict symmetries and balanced proportions of those Classical colleges.

At the same time, we see in the colleges built and added to throughout the 18th century an architectural equivalent of Kant’s ethics, with its categorical imperatives against treating others as means to our own ends and for our acting as if everything were to become universal. Kant’s emphasis on our duty to do the right thing seems clearly evident in the deference that 18th century architects paid to each other’s buildings at Cambridge, continuing the language, materials, and cornice heights from one to the other.

The 19th century’s utilitarianism, with its ethics aimed at doing the greatest good for the greatest number, also has its parallel in Cambridge buildings. The University library, for example, with its vast scale and stripped down Classicism, seems to epitomize the utilitarian urge to bring as much benefit – in the form of books, in this case – to as many people as efficiently as possible.

And the 20th century skepticism of ethics that we hear in Russell’s essay, has its architectural equivalent as well, in Cambridge’s history faculty building, for example. There, floors of offices overlook the glass-ceiling history library in a building as inward looking and self-referential as the ethics of its time. By the late 20th century, architects had become as much mystics, artists, and poets as ethicists. Whether that is good or not is more than a question of style.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Ethics of Design

A designer in a lecture stated that, in addition to the obvious forces that influence a design – the needs of users, the strength of materials, the costs of production – there exist less obvious ethical ones that also affect design decisions. He then urged us to pay more attention to the ethical effects of our designed world.

While we often think of ethics applying to our individual actions, our notions of right and wrong or good and bad relate just as much to the larger economic and political forces that shape and constrain the designed world in which we live. In that sense, designers literally give physical form to the public policies that politicians have put in place, even though many designers rarely think of what we do in this way. We tend to judge a design according to its aesthetics and pragmatics: does it look good, function well, and meet our budget? But we can also assess a design in terms of the ethics of the codes and regulations, taxes and fees, and incentives and inducements that influenced the designer’s decisions and that defined the context within which the design evolved.

We may not talk as much about the latter because public policies can sometimes seem more like a force of nature, something beyond our control, but those policies actually arise out of a kind of design thinking. As designers do every day, elected officials devise policies in order to achieve a desired end or to address an unmet need. And the designed products and environments that literally embed those policies in their form, function, and material, provide one of the best ways of judging the merit of these policies. A design doesn’t have to have a reflective surface in order to offer us a mirror of what we value as individuals and as a political and economic community.

When we look in that mirror, we see a mixture of carrots and sticks. The social contract of most modern countries accepts the use of incentives as well as prohibitions and penalties in order to achieve what at least those in power at any given moment conceive of as good or bad. And the differing degree to which those in power use carrots or sticks depends upon their approach to ethics. Those who favor incentivizing good behavior, for example, implicitly embrace virtue ethics. If we believe almost all people have the capacity to be virtuous – honest, fair, prudent, and so on – then incentivizing people with economic carrots makes total sense.

Meanwhile, decision-makers who have a less sanguine view of human virtue may resort more to the use of sticks. Utilitarian ethics often underpins public policies that use the “stick” of taxation or fees. Such policies rarely prohibit certain behaviors or decisions, but instead focus on spreading resources in order to benefit the greatest number and on nudging people toward seeing their own good in the common good.

Likewise, the categorical imperatives of Kant’s ethics, based on his belief that there exist absolute and universal rights and wrongs, can lead politicians to enact laws that wield a big stick, proscribing certain behaviors or prohibiting the use of certain substances or materials. Drawing such a clear line between the legal and illegal echoes the Kantian advice to not do anything that we wouldn’t accept if universally applied.

Designers do not just respond to these carrots and sticks; we become agents in their enactment through what we design. And the more we attend to the ethics of design, the more conscious we will be of the values our work promotes. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Divided loyalties

An architect represents his wealthy, suburban district in a state legislature as a member of the Republican Party. His architect colleagues have urged him to advocate for issues largely supported by the design professions, such as more compact communities, better public transit, and greater incentives for sustainable development. His Republican colleagues, though, oppose all of those ideas and expect him to vote according to their principles and positions, forcing him to decide where his loyalties lie: with his profession or his party.

The philosopher Josiah Royce argued that loyalty represents the greatest virtue because it embodies our adherence to something larger than ourselves, to an ideal or even a noble or “lost cause.” Royce recognized that evil also seeks our loyalty, as the Nazi Party showed, and he made a distinction between the “true loyalty” of people who seek the good of others, and “predatory loyalty” that destroys the ability of other individuals or communities – the Jewish community during the Nazi era, for example – to remain loyal to their own ideals.

A paradox, in other words, lies at the very heart of the concept of loyalty: it is a good thing, unless it negates the loyalties of others, in which it becomes a bad thing. The context and consequences of loyalty thus become paramount in determining its value. We literally cannot say whether or not a person’s loyalty to something is good or bad without seeing what it stems from and where it leads to. Blind loyalty to something regardless of its intentions or its effects is, in that sense, no loyalty at all.

For this architect/legislator, or anyone for that matter who has divided loyalties, Royce’s ideas can help sort out what to do. Royce makes the distinction between loyalty to an ideal supported by what he called “genuine communities,” and loyalty to groups that have vicious or destructive intentions akin to the survival of the fittest in nature, which he called “natural communities.”

When we find ourselves with divided loyalties to different groups, Royce’s argument suggests that we need to look carefully at the intentions, methods, and consequences of each community to which we hold allegiance. You could argue that both of the communities in the case of the architect/legislator have genuine features. Both the architectural community and the Republican Party have adherents who no doubt believe that their view of the future will lead to the best outcomes. While architects can make the case that walkable neighborhoods, mass transit, and sustainable development will enhance the physical health, social vitality, and environmental viability of communities, Republican politicians can also portray these as counter to the personal freedoms, economic opportunities, and property rights of individuals.

But Royce makes a distinction that can help us decide between these two world-views. He argued that communities come before individuals and that the very idea of an individual is incoherent unless viewed within the context of a group. Language, for example, only has value if others understand it; a “private language,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, literally makes no sense. The same applies to other human activities as well: those that benefit only individuals at the expense of communities do not deserve our loyalty.

The causes that these architects urged their legislative colleague to support all had community interests and collective benefits in mind, while those advocated by his party had individual rights and personal freedoms as their goal. While both sought the loyalty of this lawmaker, only one deserves it. And while supporting his profession over his party might mean political suicide, it also represents the height of loyalty: to a noble cause.