Designer as Moral Agent

Notes from discussions on ethics, politics, and organizations from Dick Buchanan's organizational design class:

The first formal discussions about ethics in design were in the mid-90s, but ethics has become a matter we just can't not discuss. It's how we can distinguish between well-done design and design that shouldn't be done. It's about what can be done when we're asked to do work that is questionable. It's about consequences; if there were no consequences to what we design, there'd be no need for ethics.

In discussing ethics, we need to make the distinction between preferences and values, although this can be very difficult. Preferences reside in us. They are personal choices that range from whether one likes chocolate ice cream to whether one believes in the death penalty. Most of the things we run into in the world are preferences, and they have their roots in psychology and culture. Values reside in things in the world. Values spring from two sources: faith and reason.

This of course, brings us to the problem of pluralism. We know there is a pluralism of preferences, but is there a pluralism of values? Is there one truth with many ways of saying it?

Values and preferences gives rise to judgments, and design is about making judgments. Not judgments after the fact, but before. To be a moral agent means to make choices informed by ethics. Thus, designers should be moral agents.

There are four parts to being a moral agent as a designer:

  • Personal Morality. In other words, the personal preferences of the designer.
  • Performance Integrity. Obligations to other designers, clients, users, research subjects, and to the art itself. Acting professionally, in other words. Codes of ethics are about Performance Integrity.
  • Product Integrity. Usability and safety in the structure/form. Is the product dangerous to use or can we use it at all? Aesthetics also play a role here: the place of feelings in products is an ethical matter. Designers need to be sensitive to the people and the culture they design for.
  • Ultimate Design Standards. This is about where and when we should practice design, and there's great debate in the design community about this. Some think all products should be Good, Good meaning help affirm our place in the world. Other designers think the role of design is to affirm human dignity. Others think that products are morally-neutral: people can use things how they want; it's not up to designers to make these choices, society should. (All these approaches to design have political overtones.)

How does one talk about or evaluate a moral act? By looking at three things: the nature of the act, the circumstances of the act, and the motives for the act. Motives can be personal or ethical.

How do designers deal with the clients they serve? Do designers adopt the client's preferences? Nazi design was both exquisite and horrible. How then do we relate to clients and the organizations that hire us when we have a responsibility to create a world that is better and does less harm? There needs to be a balance between the designer's personal ethics and the company's ethics. And if a balance cannot be struck, a designer may have to change the values of an organization.

One of the roles design can play is to draw out operating values. Designers can encourage conversations that help identify what values the group really holds. When a value is held collectively, it's no longer a preference. How do you find the common values between people? You can do what designers do: visualize them with diagrams, images, words. Seeing them makes people less cynical and can help facilitate the workings of people.

Ethics is about how we deal with emotions in the workplace: how we handle our own emotions and the emotions of other people. What emotions are appropriate, and when and why. Emotions are a central part of our work.

Originally posted on Saturday, April 23, 2005

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