Notes toward an Inner Ethics of Design

Accor­ding to Aris­tot­le, the stu­dy of ethics depends on the prac­ti­ce of ethics (Nicho­ma­che­an Ethics I, 4; 1095 b4—6). One can­not arti­cu­la­te and reflect on what one does not alre­a­dy have. Ethics can­not come from on high, as it were, to arti­cu­la­te gui­de­lines for action. The attempt to cul­ti­va­te ethics within design thus beg­ins with the attempt to arti­cu­la­te and express the gui­de­lines for that minia­tu­re action cal­led desig­ning such as they alre­a­dy exist. Only from here is it pos­si­ble to move toward con­side­ra­ti­ons of their ade­quacy, begin­ning per­haps with a reco­gni­ti­on of spe­cial problems.

The fun­da­men­tal ethi­cal pro­blem of design is crea­ted pre­cis­e­ly by its prin­ci­pled sepa­ra­ti­on from the inner and the outer worlds. It is not pure inten­ti­on and part of an inner life, some­thing that can be exami­ned by means of self-reflec­tion. Nor is it sim­ply an overt action that rea­di­ly calls for con­se­quen­tia­list eva­lua­ti­on. It is more like a game or play.

Inde­ed, in the pre­mo­dern world, models func­tion­ed pri­ma­ri­ly as toys. Mayan toy cards and Alex­an­dri­an steam engi­nes were never recast into the quo­ti­di­an world as con­s­truc­tion tools or indus­tri­al machi­nes. With models one crea­tes a pro­vi­sio­nal­ly self-con­tai­ned or minia­tu­re world rather than thoughts that can be inte­gra­ted into an inner life or actions that are part of ever­y­day human affairs.

Models and their making thus easi­ly take on a kind of inde­pen­dence, to con­sti­tu­te a phe­no­me­non that demands eva­lua­ti­on on its own terms, whe­ther tech­ni­cal or aes­the­tic. The inher­ent attrac­ti­ve­ness of modern design acti­vi­ties lies not just in their poten­ti­al uti­li­ta­ri­an results but just as much in their tech­ni­cal beau­ties and beau­tiful tech­ni­ques. Johan Hui­zin­ga, vul­ga­ri­zing Fried­rich Nietz­sche and anti­ci­pa­ting Jac­ques Der­ri­da, speaks for the modern attempt to find new values in the midst of the des­truc­tion of the old when he descri­bes play as segre­ga­ted from all “the gre­at cate­go­ri­cal anti­the­ses”: “Play lies out­side the anti­the­sis of wis­dom and fol­ly, and equal­ly out­side tho­se of truth and fal­se­hood, good and evil. … (I)t has no moral func­tion. The valua­tions of vice and vir­tue do not app­ly here.”[31]

The game, pre­cis­e­ly becau­se of what it is qua game, that is, a break from or set­ting asi­de of the world, asks not to be sub­ject to the rules or judgments of the world. Child­ren with dolls or with guns can behave in all sorts of ways that would not be accep­ta­ble were their toys real peo­p­le or wea­pons. A game of cards has its own rules, which are all that must be obey­ed in order to be a “moral” card play­er. Clay mode­ling needs only to keep the clay wet enough to mani­pu­la­te but not so wet as to run; other­wi­se it is whol­ly wit­hout rules.

Pre­cis­e­ly becau­se of its inde­pen­dence from and poten­ti­al oppo­si­ti­on to tra­di­tio­nal mora­li­ty, ethi­cal reflec­tion from Pla­to to the Puri­tans has argued for cir­cum­scrib­ing and deli­mi­ting the world of play. Play at work, for ins­tance, limits pro­duc­tion and cau­ses acci­dents. Playful sex can dege­ne­ra­te into the pro­mis­cuous and pornographic.

Yet play need not be whol­ly rejec­ted; it can also be deli­mi­t­ed and preserved—perhaps in ways that main­tain, even enhan­ce, its very playful­ness. Cut whol­ly free from any refe­rence to the world, play can actual­ly cea­se to be inte­res­t­ing. Pure play with words or num­bers, as in Fin­ne­gans Wake or the hig­her rea­ches of mathe­ma­tics, attracts fewer and fewer play­ers and less and less of an audi­ence. Under such situa­tions it is appro­pria­te to call for a revi­val of the rela­ti­onship bet­ween play and life. And inso­far as play can be taken as a meta­phor for design, this inner obli­ga­ti­on that would pre­ser­ve the acti­vi­ty from its own inter­nal dis­in­te­gra­ti­on might be for­mu­la­ted as the fol­lo­wing fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple: “Remem­ber the mate­ri­als.” “Return to real things.” Do not let minia­tu­re making beco­me so minia­tu­re that it cea­ses to reflect and enga­ge the real world.