Ethics into Design
On the Struggle for the Right and the Good
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?
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. 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.” 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.
-  For a different but related notion of the intermediary character of design, see Mills, C. Wright (1963), Man in the Middle: The Designer. In Horowitz, ed., Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, New York: Oxford Universtity Press, pp. 374—86.
-  Aspects of this definition are previously developed in Mitcham, Carl (1978), Types of Technology, Research in Philosophy and Technology, vol. 1, pp. 245—48; (1991), Engineering as Productive Activity: Philosophical Remarks. In Durbin, ed., Critical Perspectives on Non-Ascademic Science and Engineering, Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, pp. 96 ff.; and (1994), Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, pp. 220 ff.
-  Buchanan, Richard (1989), Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice. In Margolin, ed., Design Discourse: History, Theory, Criticism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 98,103.