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.”
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.