Ethics in design: What is ethics?

Photo by Delila Ziebart on Unsplash

In recent times, ethics has become something of a buzzword in the tech industry, and for a good reason. Bad design decisions can lead to devastating personal, organisational and societal consequences. But what do we mean when we talk about ethics?

A common answer is that ethics has to do with what is good, bad, right and wrong. Another answer is that ethics is about our conduct towards other people. However, music can be good or bad and answers to maths questions can be right or wrong. Neither of those things are what we mean when we talk about ethics. Moreover, my conduct toward other people might involve talking about the weather or the results of a sports game, neither of which have moral significance. We will need to introduce a couple of technical terms if we want to do a better job of answering our question.

Moral status

If I smash a rock with a hammer you probably won’t accuse me of doing anything wrong. The same could not be said if we swapped the rock with a cat or a person. So what is the difference? The difference is that cats and people can feel pleasure and pain, and can be benefited and harmed. In ethical philosophy, this difference is called ‘moral status’.

If a being has moral status, it means that there are reasons that count in favour of respecting its wellbeing or importance. For example, the cat’s ability to experience pain may constitute reason not to cause it to suffer unnecessarily (unless the pain is caused by something that it will ultimately benefit from, like an operation). Likewise, the cat’s ability to experience good health may constitute reason to feed it and look after it.

It should be noted that there is quite some debate in ethical philosophy over exactly where and how the line should be drawn on moral status. Others draw the line at: having the ability to think rationally; being able to make and work towards goals that are important; having an objective purpose to fulfil; or possessing certain rights. However we draw the line, moral status is important to understand because it filters out cases like the rock example that do not count as ethical scenarios.

Moral competence

What if the person with the hammer in this situation didn’t know any better or lacks the ability to understand their actions? Say, if they were a young child, or lacked mental capacity? Yes, it would still be very upsetting if a child or person with severe brain damage harmed another being with moral status, but it wouldn’t strictly count as an ethical scenario unless the person with the hammer has the ability to rationally reflect on the reasons for their actions, their significance and consequences. This is called ‘moral competence’ and is another important condition of an ethical scenario.

What is goodness?

(Skip this section if you don’t care about theory)

There is debate about what good is. Here are some of the main schools of thought:

Moral objectivism — there are objective facts about goodness, independent of personal views. According to this theory, when people disagree about what is good or bad, at least one person is wrong.

Moral subjectivism — goodness is purely subjective. All it amounts to is an individual’s beliefs or preferences. In this case, something is good purely because I believe it to be so. Disagreements occur because there are not objective facts about what is good or bad.

Moral relativism — goodness is rooted in the beliefs and practices of different cultures and time periods. What is good for one culture might be bad for another.

Moral non-cognitivism — goodness is completely meaningless. When people disagree about what is good or bad, no-one is right or wrong.

Other views are also available. Despite the disagreement about what goodness is, all can agree that:

To say that something is ‘good’ is to express that it has positive value or that there is reason to care about it.

It is worth pointing out that, while people may hold wildly different views about what we mean when we use words like good, bad, right and wrong, this does not necessarily mean that they will disagree on how we should behave towards one another. Each point of view may just have a different motive or reason why they would act that way. For example, a moral objectivist and a moral subjectivist might both agree that we should not cause other humans unnecessary pain and that we should promote equal rights. The moral objectivist might believe these things to be objectively right regardless of differences of opinion. On the other hand, the moral subjectivist would hold these things to be right in their opinion (according to their own beliefs and preferences) while disagreeing that there is an objective fact about the matter.

Which things are good?

For the purposes of simplicity, here are some values that people tend to agree on:

  • Happiness
  • Wellbeing
  • Autonomy
  • Truth
  • Justice
  • Equality
  • Security
  • Sustainability

So, for our present purposes, we can call something ‘good’ or ‘right’ if it promotes one or more of these values without conflicting with others, thereby negating any benefit to individuals or society. We can call something ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ if it obstructs, ignores or conflicts with these values. Now let’s try answering the question ‘what is ethics?’ more precisely.

What is ethics?

I define ethics in the following way:

Ethics is concerned with the good, bad, right or wrong actions of morally competent persons that ultimately affect beings that have moral status.

I appreciate that this isn’t the kind of slogan you could put on a t-shirt and it depends on the terminology I introduced above. However, it gets at the essence of what we mean when we talk about ethics.

What is design ethics?

All we need to do to answer this question is amend the previous definition to:

Design ethics is concerned with the good, bad, right or wrong actions of designers that ultimately affect other beings that have moral status.

Design is carried out by morally competent beings (humans) and will ultimately affect other beings that have moral status (other human and non-human animals). Therefore, any ethically important considerations will most likely relate to whether the action is good, bad, right or wrong (according to the values listed above).

Examples of good and bad design

There has been recent press coverage of bad design, including:

  • face-recognition software that discriminates based on skin-tone
  • recruitment tools that discriminate based on gender
  • designs that exploit vulnerable people into gambling or voting for a political outcome

Ethical design is not limited to high-stakes examples that make it into the public eye. If we are not inclusive when designing and developing technology, it will negatively affect the group we exclude or will not meet their needs. In this case, our design would be unethical by the standards I’ve outlined.

Trade-offs

Design ethics becomes particularly relevant when there is a trade-off between two or more incompatible goods or evils. Here are some examples:

Speed of delivery vs. inclusivity

Speed of delivery might not be compatible with inclusiveness. If we prioritise fast delivery over inclusivity, we risk being unethical by leaving out — or at worst discriminating against — groups of people.

If we make sure our design is as inclusive as possible, we risk taking longer to meet anyone’s needs. It’s possible that delivering value to some people quickly outweighs the cost of not being inclusive from the start. However, without moral justification, we have have fallen short of ethical design.

Cost vs. sustainability

A product might cost a lot less in the short-term if we use the cheapest and most accessible materials. But by taking this option, we might damage the environment, wildlife and ourselves in the longer-term.

Efficiency and privacy

If everyone had access to my personal data, my life might become easy in many respects, but it also means that I become vulnerable to being exploited.

For example, if I land on a website that shows only the products that I care about, it could save me a great deal of time and effort. To achieve this, the business or organisation needs information about me. If the organisation has free access to my data, then they have an opportunity to manipulate me.

Final thoughts

Doing ethics is difficult, especially when we define good differently and prioritise different values. The ethical road is usually not the easy road, but that’s precisely what makes it commendable. We need to make sure we allow ourselves the time and space to ask questions like:

  • Is this ethical?
  • What unintended consequences might there be?
  • Who is responsible if this goes wrong?

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from reading this article, it’s that you should take time to ask these questions. Give ethics a place at the table when important decisions are being made.

This isn’t about being perfect, but what is the point in design if not to create a better world?

Designers are rational, morally competent beings. We know which things we want to promote, enable and facilitate, and which things we want to avoid. Moreover, we have the ability to factor this rationale into our designs.

As designers, we create products and services for other beings with moral status. They will be affected by our actions for better or for worse. We know what good and bad look like and which values are important to our organisations and users. If we do not, we need to take a step back and think about these things, even if the project has a tight deadline!

I believe designers are applied ethicists (whether they know it or not) who are in a unique position to affect individuals, society and the planet. We can choose which future will become reality, or more aptly, which products go from BETA to LIVE. With this comes a great deal of responsibility, and the responsibility is ours.

UX designer | Ministry of Justice, UK