What designers can learn from ethical philosophy
In this article, I will explore the three main theories of normative ethics and show how we can bring ethics into our practice as designers.
Consequentialism is the view that consequences are what make things right or wrong. For example, the reason why stealing from the poor is wrong is because it brings about a bad consequence. The discomfort that the victim experiences, plus the fact that they will struggle to get their needs met is what makes it wrong to steal from them.
An interesting consequence of consequentialism is that stealing might not always be wrong. For example, imagine someone that is so rich that they wouldn’t notice you stealing £1000 from them. In that case, they won’t experience any discomfort because they won’t notice, and they won’t struggle to meet their needs because they are rich. Therefore, there can’t be anything wrong with stealing from them. Suppose you donate the money to provide food for children that would have otherwise starved. This consequence then implies that you did the right thing.
Bear in mind that this is only a simple sketch of consequentialism, which comes in a number of flavours.
In consequentialist theories, ‘the good’ has priority over ‘the right.’ The evaluative (goodness and badness) of consequences is primary, and the normative (rightness and wrongness) is secondary.
Deontology (or deontological ethics) is the view that conforming to a moral rule is what makes something right. Deontology focuses on what is obligatory, what is permissible, and what is impermissible. For example, according to a deontologist, stealing from the poor is impermissible because there is a moral norm or rule to that effect. That is to say that, in the deontologist’s view, there is a moral norm that forbids people from stealing from the poor (or perhaps any kind of stealing).
Unlike consequentialists who believe that consequences can justify certain actions, deontologists disagree. It doesn’t matter if they are rich, if they notice or even if you give all the money to charity. It is wrong to steal.
Immanuel Kant was an influential deontologist who had a view called the categorical imperative. This view stated that there are categorical moral rules that apply to all people in all circumstances. Kant believed that moral rules can be derived from a more general principle of logical consistency. He expressed his view in four formulations. Here are his two most straightforward formulations, stated in my own words for simplicity:
- Act as if what you do were to become a universal law
- Treat people as ends and never just as means
The first of these is about asking the questions, what would happen if everyone did what I was about to do? For example, if I was about to lie to someone, I could first imagine a world in which everyone lied to each other. As I imagine this world, I begin to realise that I would not be able to trust anyone. No one would be able to trust me either, so lying or even speaking to anyone would be pointless. This shows that lying can’t be universalised without a contradiction. Therefore, we ought not tell lies.
The second is about treating people as people rather than as a means to get what you want. Yes, you might go to your hairdresser because you want a haircut but this does not mean you can treat them like a razor or pair of scissors. Instead, you must recognise them as an end in themselves — a person with their own will and autonomy. It’s okay to get what you want from them as long as you don’t just use them as a means.
In deontological theories, ‘the right’ has priority over ‘the good.’ The normative is primary, and the evaluative is secondary.
Consequentialists build their theories from the evaluative. Deontologists build their theory from the normative. Virtue ethicists disagree with both of these starting points. Instead, they believe that a moral theory should start with virtue and vice, and that other moral concepts can be derived from them.
Virtue and vice are seen as character traits exemplified by people. So virtue ethics starts with how one should live and what kind of person one should be.
A virtuous person isn’t just someone who follows the rules or brings about good consequences. Instead, they are someone who has gained moral wisdom over time from trial and error. They reflect on their actions and those of others to build up a rich picture of how one should act and what kind of things one should pursue. They are motivated not by pride, fear of consequence or fear of breaking the rules, but by a recognition that goodness is worth pursuing for its own sake.
For example, a virtuous person wouldn’t steal from the poor purely because it wouldn’t be virtuous. They probably wouldn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor either, but they might be generous to people in need, because generosity is a virtue.
There are different approaches to virtue ethics. Some start with concepts like ‘the Good life’ and ‘flourishing,’ harking back to the writings of Aristotle. Others start with virtues themselves, like love, generosity, justice, honesty, bravery and so on, which can be found in the writings of Plato.
It is worth noting that these three approaches to ethics are rivals, so if one of them is true, the others must be false. This is not to say that consequentialism only cares about consequences, deontology only cares about rules and virtue ethics only cares about virtue. Any robust ethical theory will have something to say about all three of those things. The disagreement is about whether consequences, rules or virtue serve as the best foundation for ethics.
What can designers learn from normative ethics?
For our present purposes, we don’t need to worry about which approach is the correct one. Instead, I’d like to focus on what designers can take from each approach, and for that we can take a bit from each of them.
In my opinion, the easiest of these to borrow from is consequentialism. Since we live in a world of cause and effect, we are well aware that our actions have consequences. I’m sure that everyone has experienced the phenomenon of doing something with good intentions, only to discover that someone got upset or hurt. Unintended consequences happen. And why would things be any different in our professional lives?
As humans, we don’t know all the facts of the universe, past or present, let alone future. As designers, the same applies. For this reason, we need to work extra hard to forecast what might happen as a result of the decisions we make in the safety of our workplaces or homes.
This is why exercises like ‘consequence scanning’ exist. You can find off-the-shelf workshop formats for this online. Whether you use a pre existing workshop format to do this or not, make time in every project, or even in every sprint, to scan for unintended consequences. Think about how to maximise the good and minimise the bad, much in the spirit of consequentialism.
Another exercise that you can do is to map out your values as an individual, team and business/organisation. It is necessary to map out these at each level rather than choosing to focus on one level. The purpose of the exercise is to rule out inconsistencies between personal and organisational values.
Prior to running this session, see if your business has a set of values already. These might be easy to find or might take a little work to get hold of. It might be that the business doesn’t have any or maybe they are impossible to find. Whatever situation you find yourself in, don’t worry. This exercise is all about setting and challenging existing values in the name of progress.
- Set a 5 minute timer and work as individuals for this first step.
Make a list of your values by asking yourself, ‘if I was a perfectly virtuous person, then what would I value?’ It is worth including both your values as a person and your values as someone with your job title. This is to get as many on the table as possible. Values can include how you interact with each other as a team (e.g. patience, willingness to listen and collaboration), but attention should also be given to the work that you produce (e.g. accessibility, sustainability and equity). I like to write these as nouns but you can also write them as adjectives. When you hear the timer, join back up with your team.
- Set a 10 minute timer and make a list of your values as a team. Ask yourselves ‘if we were a perfectly virtuous team, then what would we value?’ Use your individual values to help flesh out your team values list. Not all of them will be relevant but the longer your team values list, the better.
- Agree to a set of team values. The team can vote by placing their initials or a dot next to each one they wish to keep. If the team agrees to all of them, great but some might be too specific for you team—your team shouldn’t have to subscribe to your worldview. If you are worried about these values being arbitrary or subjective, you can bring in a little objectivity by checking them against this list of ethical design virtues that I distilled from various philosophers and designers.
- Make a plan for your team by noting some actions that need to happen to in order to get to where you’d like to be. For example, what processes do you need to adopt in your working patterns to incorporate and exemplify these values? What can you do as individuals? What can you do as a team? What can you do as a business? How can you incorporate these processes without making too much extra work while ensuring they happen? Can they be incorporated into other team activities that are already in the calendar?
- Make a plan for your business. If you were able to get hold of some business values, you can see if your team values are consistent with the business’s values. If not, you need to decide whether you need to get in line with your business’ values, or if you need to push to update them. Who do you need to speak to in the organisation to push for positive change?
- Work these actions into your team roadmap. This may benefit from an additional session. If someone needs to sign off on the updated roadmap, that action can be added to step 4.
- Start ticking off your actions
If possible, involve someone from senior management in the session. The more buy-in you can get from higher up in the business, the more chance you have of driving positive change.
In order to achieve organisational change, I believe change needs to happen at three levels. Individuals need to build processes into their own working patterns to make sure time is carved out for thinking about how their work meets the team values. The team needs to build in opportunities to review work against these values so things can be seen and challenged by others in the team. The organisation also needs to buy into the team values and processes, and ideally champion them. Without embedding ethical practices at all three levels, it will be hard to move forward with harmony, and opportunities might be missed.
Another activity you can try as a team is as follows.
In the spirit of Immanuel Kant, ask yourself two questions to see if your ideas or designs are consistent. Spend 10 minutes discussing and canvassing your answers:
- What if every product was designed like this?
- Are we treating people as people or merely as numbers?
On the first of these, if this question doesn’t work as it is, try adapting it. For example, ‘what would happen if every [insert product] had a [insert feature]?’, or ‘what would the world be like if all [insert product type] worked like this?’
On the second point, have people become numbers in your organisation? Or are they just a means for your business to get what it wants? These are hard questions to ask, and may be uncomfortable to dwell on. The long and short of it is that if you answer yes to any of these questions, you are not doing ethical design.
On a more subtle note, have people become mere ‘users’? If people (ends in themselves) are only seen in relation to your product or service, this degrades their true status. Users only exist when they use your product, but people carry on being people before, during and after. Remember that people have their own will, goals, desires and emotions. A practitioner of ethical design never forgets this.
With your team, spend 20 minutes writing down some rules. The beauty of rules is that they are prescriptive and demand action, where values can be quite abstract. These can be rules about ways of working to ensure the team are treating each other as people and that ethics are followed in the workplace. They might encompass rules of what to do when there are tough decisions to make. They might be rules about how to work with senior management and how senior management works with you. They could also be rules about processes that need to be followed. Remember that this is not an exercise done so people can point fingers and assign blame. This is about borrowing from deontological ethics by seeing ethics as rules that can be used and applied to how teams operate and how processes are followed. The rule making is only about making this explicit, rather than glossing over and taking things for granted.
Spend 10 minutes reviewing all of the above. If you were unhappy with your answers in step one, you will need to make a plan of what needs to happen so you can change those answers. Use a voting system to agree on a final set of rules that the team is happy with. If there is any disagreement, factor some more time into your diaries so an agreement can be made.
I previously mentioned you should run these sessions as early as possible in a project. You should also run them throughout the lifecycle of the product. This can be done on a much more granular scale too. It doesn’t have to be in the context of a big group workshop. Techniques I have discussed could be adopted into success criteria and definition of done. If you work in an agile team, some of these techniques could be applied at sprint review. You could even add a new column to your Kanban board that each ticket needs to pass through.