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. 


  1. Dear Prof I am searching for your book:

    Ethics for Architects: 50 Dilemmas of Professional Practice

    if it is available e-book
    I would be greatfull if you could send it to me by email:
    (PhD student) and Lecturer "DAU University, Saudi Arabia)

    1. Dear Hind Abdel Moneim Khogali,

      My book, Ethics for Architects, can be ordered for shipment to Saudi Arabia from: