Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Introduction to Ethics

I have been absent for several months from this blog, completing a book manuscript on ethics, which includes most of the posts here. Now that the manuscript has gone into the publisher, I want to resume posting here, including parts of the work that I wrote over the summer than hasn't yet appeared here. The following is a short introduction to the manuscript - and to the role of ethics in architecture.

Architects have ethical as well as professional responsibilities to protect the health, safety, and welfare of others. Those ethical obligations get addressed to a certain extent in the AIA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, although that document, which has gone through several iterations since its promulgation in 1909, largely focuses on business ethics: our obligations to clients, colleagues, the profession, the environment, and the general public.

Protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare, which provides the primary justification for the licensure of architects, has ethical implications that go beyond those of running a business to encompass the design, construction, and operation of buildings. Health relates to the well being of people as both individuals and groups, and it parallels the attention paid in virtue ethics to the development of character traits that that promote well being of each person and society. Indeed, leading a virtuous life can promote both physical and mental health.

Safety involves the related goal of having physical security and freedom from danger. While architects cannot protect people from every danger, building and zoning codes do guard against most physical hazards and the design process does help practitioners anticipate possible risks during the design and detailing of a project. The architect’s attention to public safety and assessment of the possible consequences of every design decision grounds the profession in utilitarianism, with its ethic of seeking the greatest good for the greatest number.

Of all the architect’s responsibilities, welfare remains a less well defined. Not to be confused with the system of governmental support for unemployed people, the welfare obligations of architects does share with those governmental programs the goal of helping people thrive and prosper. The areas of ethics most closely related to that goal are social contract ethics, which addresses the agreements that individuals enter into as members of a society, and duty ethics, which argues that we should treat others as we would want to be treated were we in their situation.

The architect’s responsibilities for the health, safety, and welfare of others makes the practice of architecture inherently ethical, in a profession that encounters ethical dilemmas almost continuously in the course of designing and constructing buildings. Understanding the basic systems and principles of ethics can help architects resolve those dilemmas by helping practitioners determine what is the right thing to do in a particular situation. A good grasp of ethics also enables practitioners to have greater success in meeting the needs and expectations of communities, clients, co-workers, consultants, contractors, and the whole range of people involved in and affected by architecture.