Sunday, July 23, 2006

On design ethics

A Plow For Mexican Peasant Farmers: A Challenge for Designers

"There is a tendency on the part of professionals to overlook value issues in their work...Professionals are predisposed to appraise issues from the standpoint of their own fund of technical knowledge. This is for the most part entirely proper, and it is what they have been trained to do. There is a weakness in this approach, however, namely that it tends to obscure the fact that some issues are not most appropriately dealt with from the perspective of their professional knowledge... [S]ome decisions are primarily matters of values. This affects not only the criteria appropriate for a decision, but also the decision as to who should make it..."

Part of Texas A&M's Engineering Ethics curriculum, I think this case study is quite good at illustrating the social, cultural and ethical dimensions of design. In addition to being expected to understand the broader contexts of what they design, I was most impressed when engineers were asked to seriously consider whether or not the object should be designed at all:

"Technology makes such a profound impact on a culture that there is always a question whether a particular technological artifact should be created at all. Some technological innovations have clearly been more destructive than constructive...The question about the ultimate value of a technological innovation is often difficult to answer, but it is one which an ethically sophisticated designer should consider..."

This relates to problems of technological inevitability, but what can an engineer or a designer do?

"First, a designer cannot answer all of the questions we have posed here. In order to do so, she would not only have to do an enormous amount of research, but she would have to know the particular social group for which the plow is being designed. Many of these questions would be answered in different ways for different social groups. Since the plow is presumably being designed for a large number of cultural groups, the designer cannot design the plow so as to accommodate only one such group. Perhaps, though, the engineer could design the plow so that it would be as adaptable as possible to the demands of different groups.

Second, the purpose of this discussion has not been to cause an engineer to be so obsessed with the cultural and ethical aspects of her work that she loses sight of more narrowly engineering considerations. Rather, the purpose has been to broaden the horizons of students, so that they will be more aware of the fact that design work does have social consequences. Engineers, like most of the rest of us, tend to forget the wider implications of what they do.

Third, this discussion also serves to raise the issue of 'problems of conscience' as they arise in engineering work. Engineers sometimes object to working on a project for moral reasons. Some engineers do not want to be associated with military projects. Others object to working on projects (such as dams or projects that involve draining wetlands) that they believe are destructive to the environment. Similarly, an engineer might believe that this plow should not be produced because it would have a negative impact on the culture of those who would use it."

I appreciate the acknowledgement here that professional expertise has limits, and that we might not want to make decisions on matters outside our expertise - this kind of scenario lends itself very nicely to multi-disciplinary collaboration. And although the article maintains an unfortunately strict distinction between engineering and ethics, it leaves us plenty of room to acknowledge the ways in which social, cultural and ethical values are at play in the design of new technological objects - from the forces of globalisation right down to individual value judgements and decisions made. After all, technology is designed by people making all sorts of decisions and these decisions aren't any more neutral than the technologies they create.

And finally, the article poses these killer questions:

"[Should] engineering more active in promoting the rights of engineers to object to work on the basis of a problem of conscience. Should engineering codes have a statement that at least encourages firms to provide alternative forms of work for an engineer who has a problem of conscience in working on a particular project?"

Um. Yes! And yes! I learned very quickly that outside the university you're not really able to refuse to work on something because of "problems of conscience" and I think that sucks. First of all, if you think that, say, Nike's labour practices are unethical, why the hell would you want to design their new website? But more importantly, why the hell should your boss be able to force you to? I mean, personally, I could never work for the military but that's something rather easily avoided. But what about a job where everything was going great and then a new project used my research to create "new market opportunities" that I believed were unnecessary at best, and potentially harmful at worst? Should I not be able to refuse to work on that project without penalty?


Blogger Chris said...

As I see it, the problem here lies partly in employment law: an employer (in the US, and many other countries) can make an employee do whatever they wish, up to and including violating rights to privacy it seems.

As an employer, I would never ask anyone to participate in work that they had moral or ethical objections to, but I recognise that I'm in the minority in this regard.

Although changing employment law is an uphill battle, it would be theoretically possible to create an ethical template for employers to adopt on a voluntary basis. It'd be a small step, but it'd be a step at least. Tricky in the US, perhaps, where employees seem largely to be treated as a commodity.

Anonymous anne said...

Right - in Canada a pro-life pharmacist does not have to fill a prescription for RU-486, but is required to find someone who will. It's an interesting way to accomodate opposing values, I think.


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