But devi­sing and devices escape the reach of any full-bodi­ed con­se­quen­tia­list cri­ti­cism becau­se of the appar­ent­ly amor­phous neu­tra­li­ty or ambi­gui­ty of com­mo­di­ties, of deon­to­lo­gi­cal restric­tion becau­se of the appar­ent­ly inherent mora­li­ty of its inten­ti­on merely to make avail­ab­le without pre­sup­po­si­ti­on, and of the ethics of cor­re­spon­dence becau­se of their princi­pled rejec­tion of cor­re­spon­ding to anything. Devices are neu­tral com­mo­di­ties. How, in them­sel­ves, could they be con­si­de­red law­ful or unlaw­ful, right or wrong, good or bad, sin­ce they are desi­gned to be not­hing but pure recep­ti­vi­ty to any law, right, or good? The ther­mo­stat, the light switch, and the plastic bowl are sim­ply avail­ab­le for use. The­se so-cal­led neu­tral devices are through their neu­tra­li­ty the non-neu­tral har­bin­gers of a new world.

But if neit­her tra­di­tio­nal cor­re­spon­dence nor deon­to­lo­gism nor con­se­quen­tia­lism has any immedia­te purcha­se on designing, how is one to address the pro­blems mani­fest in the new techno-lifeworld?

Two Ver­si­ons of an Ethics of Design

Pre­sc­in­ding from any fun­da­men­tal ques­tio­ning of designing as a way of being in the world, it is still necessa­ry to inqui­re about the pre­sence of ethics in design. The modern sys­te­ma­tic mode­ling of making that is, design—has taken two dis­tinct forms. One of the­se is tech­ni­cal, the other aes­the­tic. The for­mer focu­ses on inner ope­ra­tio­nal or func­tio­n­al rela­ti­ons wit­hin mecha­ni­cal, che­mi­cal, electri­cal, and other arti­facts and pro­ces­ses. The lat­ter takes exter­nal appearan­ce or com­po­si­ti­on as its con­cern. One eva­lua­tes its pro­ducts in terms of an ide­al of effi­ci­en­cy, stri­ving with some mini­mal pos­si­ble input of mate­ri­al and ener­gy for a maxi­mum (pre­spe­ci­fied func­tio­n­al) out­put. The other seeks a for­mal con­cen­tra­ti­on and depth of meaning.

To use less, engi­neers design incre­a­singly com­plex but spe­cia­li­zed objects devoid of deco­ra­ti­on, alt­hough pre­cise­ly becau­se of their inner com­ple­xi­ty the inner workings must be cove­r­ed with some kind of orna­men­ta­ti­on. To mean more, to beco­me “char­ged and super­char­ged with mea­ning” (Ezra Pound), artists and archi­tects ren­der incre­a­singly rich, ambi­guous arti­facts, tex­tu­red and deco­ra­ted in detail. In the modern capi­ta­list con­text, the design of mea­ning almost necessa­ri­ly implies the new pro­fes­si­on of advertising.

Each design tra­di­ti­on also deve­lo­ps its own pro­fes­sio­nal ethos, which con­sti­tu­tes an impli­cit ethics of design. In engi­nee­ring the­re has been a stress upon sub­or­di­na­ti­on, if not obedience and sameness.[26] In the arts the com­mit­ment is to inde­pen­dence and dif­fe­rence. Each brings to the fore com­ple­men­ta­ry aspects of the modern design expe­ri­ence: on the one hand, its aut­ho­ri­ty and power: on the other, its revo­lu­ti­on and inde­pen­dence. Extre­mes on both sides are rei­ned in with appeals to responsibility.

The selec­ti­ve ethi­cal respon­ses to the pro­blems sum­mo­ned forth by the pro­ces­ses unleas­hed through modern design activity—from social dis­rup­ti­on, dan­ge­rous machi­nes, and over­sold con­su­mer pro­ducts to crow­ded and pol­lu­t­ed urban environments—further reflect the­se two tra­di­ti­ons. One stres­ses the need for more effi­ci­en­cy and argues for pushing for­ward toward incre­a­singly exten­si­ve and sys­te­ma­tic expan­si­ons of design, from time-and-moti­on stu­dies to ope­ra­ti­ons rese­arch and human fac­tors engi­nee­ring. The other calls atten­ti­on to ano­mie, alie­na­ti­on, over (or under) con­sump­ti­on, and cul­tu­ral dete­rio­ra­ti­on and calls for eit­her a turn toward the arts and crafts, sexua­li­zed design, or the crea­ti­on of post­mo­dern bri­co­la­ge. The pro­blems of “bad design” are view­ed as cau­sed eit­her by insuf­fi­ci­ent design or by too muck and the wrong kind.[27]

One tra­di­ti­on thus pro­mo­tes metho­do­lo­gi­cal and empi­ri­cal stu­dies of engi­nee­ring design pro­ces­ses; the other deve­lo­ps broad inter­pre­ta­ti­ve stu­dies of the aes­the­tic and cul­tu­ral dimen­si­ons of arti­facts.[28] Aes­the­tic sen­si­ti­vi­ty meets the engi­nee­ring men­ta­li­ty in adver­ti­sing, indus­tri­al design, and func­tio­n­a­lism.[29] Engi­nee­ring reaches out toward aes­the­tic cri­ti­cisms with pro­po­sals for more social­ly con­scious or holistic design pro­grams.[30]

Both tra­di­ti­ons depend on what may nevertheless be descri­bed as incom­ple­te phi­lo­so­phi­cal reflec­tion. They uncri­ti­cal­ly seek eit­her to export design methods across a who­le spec­trum of human acti­vi­ties or to import extra­ne­ous ide­as into design. The pro­po­sal here is for the cul­ti­va­ted emer­gence of ethics wit­hin design as an effort to deepen the two tra­di­ti­ons by moving from par­ti­al reflec­tions and pos­si­ble reforms to deeper under­stan­dings of the chal­len­ge of tech­no-life­world design and more com­pre­hen­si­ve assess­ment of its problems.