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. 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.
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. Aesthetic sensitivity meets the engineering mentality in advertising, industrial design, and functionalism. Engineering reaches out toward aesthetic criticisms with proposals for more socially conscious or holistic design programs.
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.
-  For more on this tradition, see Mitcham, Carl (1987), Schools for Whistle Blowers: Educating Ethical Engineers. Commonveal, vol. 114, no. 7 (April 10), pp. 201—5.
-  For a good brief survey of the literature of these two traditions, see Margolin, Victor (1989), Postwar Design Literature: A Preliminary Mapping. In: Margolin, ed., Design Discourse: History, Theory, Criticism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 265—287.
-  See, for example, in the first instance, Vries, Marc J, de, Nigel Cross, and D. P. Grant, eds., (1993), Design Methodology and Relationships with Science. Boston, MA: Kluwer; and in the second, Thackara, John (1988), Design after Modernism: Beyond the Object. New York: Thames and Hudson.
-  See, for example, Lindinger, Herbert, ed. (1991), Ulm Design: The Morality of Objects. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
-  See, for example, Papanek, Victor (1983), Design for Human Scale. New York: Van Nostrand; and (1984), Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand.