Saturday, April 28, 2012

Property Wrongs

A glass-roofed museum, with a roof-top sunscreen that blocks out all but the even northern light into the galleries, had a condominium tower built to its north with reflective glass that bounced light directly into the galleries, threatening to damage the artwork within. The museum wants the developer to alter the exterior of the tower to prevent the reflections, while the developer claims he has city approval to complete the tower as designed.

Property law upholds our property rights, while also recognizing that one owner does not have the right to damage the property of another. We typically deal with such conflicts through zoning regulations and the approval processes surrounding them, pre-empting the possibility of one property owner’s paradise becoming a neighbor’s problem. No law or regulation, however, can anticipate every possible conflict, and in such cases, ethics can offer one path to a resolution.

In the case of this new tower shining unwanted sunlight into a museum, no one did so with malice in mind. Indeed, the proximity of the museum made the tower’s location particularly appealing to the developer and presumably, the buyers of the condominiums inside. As so often happens, though, our desire for proximity to what we most value can end up damaging it in the process.

We have seen this with suburbia, in which the desire to live close to nature has largely destroyed the natural environment that drew us to the suburbs in the first place. This tower seems like a high-end version of the same paradox. The very act of wanting to overlook the museum and its adjacent sculpture garden brings with it the very reflections that threaten to burn the garden’s plants and fade the museum’s art. Yes, we can have, as Shakespeare said, “too much of a good thing.”

Like the law, ethics acknowledges precedent. The museum preceded the tower and so the onus remains with the architect and developer of the tower to fix the reflectance problem they have caused. The latter’s claim that city approvals give him to right to build the tower as designed remains, if not dishonest, at least disingenuous. The government’s approval to carry a fire arm does not give us the right to shoot an innocent bystander, any more than the government’s approval of a building gives its developer the right to damage a neighbor’s property.

The disingenuous aspect of blaming the government comes at a time when it seems popular to blame the government for almost everything, and then using that as an excuse to starve the government of the funds it needs to do its job, thus giving more cause for blame. No doubt at least some of the wealthy individuals involved in the construction and purchase of the expensive condominiums overlooking the museum have participated in the anti-government rhetoric of right-wing politics. To then blame the government for not doing more to prevent the reflectance problem seems like the height of hypocrisy.

If anything, the lack of reflectance on the part of the developer equals the excess of it on the part of his building’s exterior. Antagonizing the museum and its many patrons lacks both utility and virtue, damaging the public perception of the project to the point where fixing the window problem pales in comparison to the cost of fixing the tower’s reputation and thus its marketability. The tower might have met the letter of the zoning code, but it so violates the social contract embedded in zoning of not harming the property of neighbors, that no one would win such a case in the court of public opinion.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Applying Pressure

An architectural firm, seeking a commission at a university, contacted a major donor of the school that the partners in the firm knew, to use his leverage to get the firm hired, even though the building committee and the dean wanted to hire another architect for the job. The dean acquiesced to the donor’s wishes, but was furious at the firm for applying pressure like that.

In the competitive marketplace for services, enterprises often use whatever advantage they have to convince a customer or client to choose them over others. That often takes the form of persuasion, convincing the client in an interview, for example, that one’s firm will do the best job. But in cases like this, in which the partners know a donor who has some leverage with the client, the competitive advantage takes the form of pressure, a kind of quid-pro-quo in which the favor of donating money gets returned as a favor of hiring the donor’s architect.

In most cases, complying with a donor’s wishes turns out fine; the architect does a good job and everyone ends up happy. But in the situation here, in which the dean and building committee had already decided to go with another firm, the pressure applied by the donor at the request of the architects made the latter an unwelcome interloper in the selection process. The dean and faculty, of course, did not have to acquiesce to the donor’s wishes, but doing so would have harmed that relationship, which clearly the school did not want to do.

The dean and faculty also could have directed their annoyance at the donor for agreeing to apply the pressure in the first place. But, when the school’s leadership heard that the donor had done it as a favor to the firm, the dean focused her anger on the architects, even though she agreed to commission them to do the project.

There was nothing unethical in what the architects did. The commercial world works this way, sometimes pressuring clients when persuasion doesn’t work. But while not unethical, the architects’ actions put them in the unenviable position of starting a relationship with an angry and distrustful client. That raises the bar on what the architects have to achieve, proving that, despite the unfortunate start to the project, they will do the best job. And it also raises the bar for the client, in setting aside the initial anger to build a relationship of mutual trust with the architects and to remain open to what they have to offer.

This leads to what the philosopher H. J. N. Horsburgh has called “the ethics of trust.” The dean has to trust the donor’s judgment in accepting his recommendation of the architectural firm, the donor has to trust the architects in their doing a good job so as not to harm the school he has contributed to, and the architects have to earn the trust of the dean in going forward. Earning and keeping the trust of others requires that we act with the utmost ethical as well as professional care, being absolutely virtuous (fair, prudent, and honest, for example), attending to all aspects of our duty (to the client, school, and community), and weighing the consequences of everything we do (in terms of the budget, schedule, and the greatest good of the students and staff). Ethics, in other words, offers a roadmap for winning and keeping others’ trust. And if they can’t meet that bar, this firm would be better off declining the commission, for the anger and distrust of the client will only grow.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Trolley Problem

In 1967, the philosopher Philippa Foot wrote about a hypothetical situation in which the driver of a runaway trolley, unable to stop it but able to switch it either to one track with five men working on it or the other, with only one. This thought experiment has produced a lot of debate in ethics, but it also says a lot about abductive thinking and the role of design in such a dilemma.

When Philippa Foot first imagined this problem related to a runaway trolley or “tram” as she wrote it, it highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarian ethics. Arguing that we should always seek the greatest good for the greatest number, a utilitarian would switch to the track with one man on it in order to save the lives of five. But life rarely offers us such simple alternatives. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson offered a variation in which an observer watching from a bridge could push a fat man, also watching from the bridge, on to the track and stop the trolley. Most people would argue that’s wrong because it involves intentionally murdering someone as opposed to the unintended accident of the runaway trolley. (Why yelling from the bridge to alert the people on the track to their danger never seems to occur as a option, I do not know.)

Other variants of the situation have also arisen. One asks what should the driver do if the one person on the track is the driver’s mother? (Most people would argue that ethics sides with saving one’s own mother as opposed to five strangers.) Another variation has the one person tied to the track by the five on the other track. (Here, too, saving the one person and killing the five seems justified given the latter’s murderous intent.)

In each one of these cases, though, we see abduction in action. Abductive thinking occurs whenever we create a situation or idea that has productive results, which clearly applies to Foot’s trolley problem. She imagined a circumstance that has proven not only durable in its usefulness, but also provocative in the number of variations it has spawned. We can even frame that in utilitarian terms: the best abductive thinking produces the greatest number of useful consequences for the greatest number of people.

What, then, does this have to do with design? Abductive thinking underlies all good design. Not all design, since there exists plenty of design that we might more aptly call decoration, which mainly involves the expression of a person’s taste. Decoration, of course, has its uses in personalizing something and possibly creating something more pleasing to others, and if that leads to its greater use, then that, too, can have useful as well as tasteful consequences.

But usefulness and tastefulness, function and form, pragmatics and aesthetics – these constitute the poles around which we define good design. But the trolley problem suggests something more. Just as Philippa Foot used abductive thinking to create such an ethically productive problem, so too do designers use such thinking to anticipate problems like this and then put in place the precautions to ensure that they not occur.

In other words, designers work in the opposite direction of ethicists. The latter seek out conflicts that highlight the difficult dilemmas we face in life, while the former seek out those same conflicts in order to prevent those very difficulties and dilemmas from occurring. To the designer, the trolley problem offers a different kind of lesson: observing what went wrong and designing trolleys and tracks to prevent it from ever happening again.