Essay

Ethics into Design

On the Struggle for the Right and the Good

Von Carl Mitcham


Ethics con­sti­tu­tes an attempt to arti­cu­la­te and reflect on gui­de­li­nes for human acti­vi­ty and con­duct. Logic is the attempt to arti­cu­la­te and reflect on gui­de­li­nes for human thought. Both ethics and logic fur­ther deve­lop theo­ries about the most gene­ral princi­ples and foun­da­ti­ons of their respec­ti­ve gui­de­li­nes. But what is it that arti­cu­la­tes and reflects on gui­de­li­nes for that inter­me­di­a­ry bet­ween thought and action cal­led design?[1]

As an Eng­lish word, “design” is a modern deri­va­te of the Latin desi­gna­re, to mark or point out, deli­ne­a­te, con­tri­ve, by way of the French dési­gner, to indi­ca­te or desi­gna­te, and can be defi­ned as plan­ning for action or minia­tu­re action.[2] It is remar­kab­le, howe­ver, that neit­her Greek nor Latin con­tains any word that exact­ly cor­re­sponds to the modern word “design.” The clo­sest Greek comes to a word for “design” in the modern sen­se is perhaps hupo­graphein—to wri­te out. Much more com­mon are sim­ply enno­ein (en,in + noein, to think) and dia­no­ein (dia, through + noein, to think).

For the Greeks, human con­duct can be orde­red toward the pro­duc­tion of mate­ri­al arti­facts or non­ma­te­ri­al goods, through ποίησις (poie­sis, making), acti­vi­ty with an extrinsic end, or it can be taken up with πραξις (pra­xis, doing), acti­vi­ty with an intrinsic end. The pur­su­it of what is fit­ting in the domain of making is dis­co­ve­r­ed through τέχνη (tech­ne); in the domain of doing, through φρόνησῐς (phro­ne­sis). In a nar­row sen­se phro­ne­sis is only one among many vir­tu­es; more broad­ly, it is the foun­da­ti­on of all vir­tue and thus coex­ten­si­ve with ethics.

Bey­ond the Greeks, plan­ned making or doing—as dis­tinct from sim­ply inten­ding to act, con­si­de­ra­ti­on of the ide­als reflec­ted or inten­ded by dif­fe­rent makings and doings, or the deve­lo­p­ment of skills (tech­nai) through practice—involves the sys­te­ma­tic anti­ci­pa­to­ry ana­ly­sis of human action. With regard to making, espe­cial­ly, such sys­te­ma­tic anti­ci­pa­to­ry ana­ly­sis ent­ails minia­tu­re or mode­led tri­al-and-error or expe­ri­men­tal acti­vi­ty. In the modern con­text, this plan­ning for making or ratio­nal­ly anti­ci­pa­to­ry minia­tu­re making, which was once severely restric­ted by both tra­di­tio­nal frame­works and metho­do­lo­gi­cal limi­ta­ti­ons, has beco­me the well-deve­lo­ped and dyna­mic acti­vi­ty of designing or design. The lat­ter term can refer as well to the for­mal cha­rac­te­ris­tics of the arti­cu­la­ted plan or the sta­tic com­po­si­ti­on of the pro­duct brought forth by the sca­led-up pro­cess that emer­ges from what has also been cal­led “acti­ve con­tem­pla­ti­on.”[3] An alter­na­ti­ve might be “con­tem­pla­ti­ve (theo­re­ti­cal) action.”

The modern attempt to reflect on designing or design has engen­de­red pri­ma­ri­ly stu­dies of the social or aes­the­tic qua­li­ty of desi­gned pro­ducts and ana­ly­ses of the logic or metho­do­lo­gy of design pro­ces­ses. The the­sis here is that both aes­the­tic cri­ti­cism and the logic of design must be com­ple­men­ted by the intro­duc­tion of ethics into design stu­dies, in order to con­tri­bu­te to the deve­lo­p­ment of a genui­nely com­pre­hen­si­ve phi­lo­so­phy of design.