Morals and ethics in design

My daughter is expecting a baby. I remember when I was expecting her, I was very taken with a Louis MacNeice poem Prayer Before Birth. I read it again last week. The stanza

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine ..

made me shiver. We're dangerously close to designing a future where if we are not exactly cogs in machines, machines may increasingly be cogs in us: for example, we already have brain implants used to help manage Parkinson's disease, and an artificial retina to help people with retinitis pigmentosa.

This rapidly developing field of designing human performance enhancement (HPE), that makes use of the 'convergence of nano-technology , biotechnology , information technology and cognitive science is creating a set of powerful tools that have the potential to significantly enhance human performance as well as transform society , science, economics and human evolution.' (James Canton)

Advanced technologies like these change the relationship between humans and the way we interact with the world, (described well in this short video). Read Never Let Me Go or some of the many other dystopian sci-fi novels that describe the various worlds our yet-to-be-borns will live in. All chillingly touch moral and ethical issues that we are still far from getting to grips with. (If dystopia is not for you there is a list of utopian sci-fi novels too).

It's not just HPE that has moral and ethical implications for society. Anything and everything designed does. Each time we design something – product, service, organisation, etc. It comes, as Sebastian Deterding says 'with certain values embedded in it. And we can question these values. We can question: Is it a good thing that all of us continuously self-optimize ourselves to fit better into that society?'

I had this in mind, when I got an email asking me to 'share your insights on the topic "Designing for the future: trends we need to consider now".

In my view, the design trend that is most pressing for us to consider now is that which explores, debates, and confronts the moral and ethical dimensions inherent in both our designs, and in our methods and approaches to designing.

Some say that 'ethics and mores are being established on the fly' rather than through considered societal discussion. But I see a distinctly emerging trend suggesting that morals and ethics are rising up the design agenda.

Look, for example, at the Reilly Centre's annual top 10 list of ethical dilemmas and policy issues in science and technology. They span many design fields: this year's includes: brain hacking, automated politics, and the self-healing body. The Centre invites people to participate in the moral and ethical debates on these and offers tools and resources to generate discussion.

Or look at the relatively recently established (2003) Oxford University Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics with its mission to help guide people to make good choices about 'novel problems and challenges, for which our traditional institutions and norms were not developed'.

Designers are beginning to acknowledge that designs are 'moral mediators' and ask what can we do with that knowledge as a designer?' Educator Peter-Paul Verbeek suggests three possibilities:

  • You could simply anticipate the mediations that are involved when you design … , just to make sure that nothing might happen that you would not want to happen.
  • You could systematically assess the mediations by going through all the potential mediating effects, and do an ethical assessment of them.
  • You could actually really try to design (moral) mediations into the design.

These three points are relevant to organization designers. We could use them to help us determine how far we wanted to go in designing moral and ethical organizations.

Suppose we wanted to consciously design organizations for 'good work' i.e. work that is "fair and decent, with scope for development and fulfilment". What moral and ethical dimensions would we have to consider? They would have to include the discussions of the automation of work, the organizational structures that inhibit or foster ethical and moral behaviours, the use of HPE in the workforce, the use of big data, surveillance and monitoring of employees, and so on. How far would we go in designing good work amidst the tensions and competing voices of stakeholder value, efficiency, and customer expectations?

We haven't come anywhere near to addressing the moral and ethical dimensions that the accelerating technologies, combined with new designs of societal and organizational interactions that the technologies facilitate, could have on our future. But we can, and must, participate in the trending groundswell of discussion on this. Without doing so, we will not get to designs that yield a future where we can provide those not yet born:

With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

What's your view on the moral and ethical dimensions of organization design? Let me know.

Note: "This blog post is a part of Design Blogger Competition organized by CGTrader"