Design ethics: The good life and the art of inquiry

I’ve been invited to write two chapters for a forthcoming collected volume on design ethics. The first chapter will be concerned with philosophical inquiry and the good life, the second with three different conceptions of ethics: conviction, responsibility, and attention.

In my first chapter, I’ll be arguing, at least in part, that (a) philosophical inquiring is a more basic mode of thinking than design process thinking and that (b) inquiring about the nature of a good life is a more primitive, and vital, aim than asking design questions in order to complete a specific project or set of projects.

The following are my first thoughts for the opening chapter.

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We might inquire why we design anything at all, and, were we to begin in this fashion, we might come up with a number of candidate answers:

  • To supply the user with what has, so far, been missing in his or her user experience.
  • To improve a product or enhance a service that is already existing.
  • To ‘optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer.’ (from IDSA.org).
  • To improve the quality of somebody’s life.
  • To allow some group to do something with greater efficiency or ease.

Our answers, so far, include satisfying certain preferences or desires, refining product or service quality, brokering mutual benefits, improving personal well-being, and increasing efficiency. From here, we might go on to consider whether this project is feasible. Feasibility might draw us into considering

  • the logical possibility of bringing the idea into being;
  • our capabilities and competences;
  • whether the materials and tools exist;
  • whether these materials, given the tools available to us, can be shaped in the desired fashion;
  • whether we understand the process of design (which tends toward an empirical, quasi-scientific method);
  • whether the possible design is cost-effective, in many sense of the word.

Were it to be disconnected from the first question, the second question on its own might might lead one to believe that so long as the design can be made it has sufficient reason for being made. But this may not be true: a well-designed weapon may be created, but it may bring about needless suffering as a result. A novel toothpaste dispenser may be feasible and marketable but may also be of trivial importance.

This last consideration entreats us to reconsider the first question in hopes that it may provide a justification for the feasibility of the project. For if a product may be designed with the aim of increasing manufacturer or consumer efficiency, then, the argument runs, the question of its feasibility will been warranted. Yet this approach, it turns out, also founders. Consider one of the more compelling reasons from the opening list. Even if a design could improve the quality of a person’s life, this still begs the question of whether that improvement is ‘significant’ or ‘trivial’ (recall the toothpaste dispenser) and whether ‘quality of life’ is a good enough reason for working on the project in the first place. If, in one case, someone’s quality of life is objectively improved in virtue of her greater range of motion, it is nonetheless still unclear how ‘greater range of motion’ necessarily counts as a final answer to the question initially posed. The person may be more mobile but still suicidal.

It seems as though we are brought to a state of confusion, since most of the answers commonly given to the first question do not seem, on further considerations, to pass the test of justifying the process of making. Before we conclude, however, that perhaps we would be better off not designing products or services at all, we could try to come to a better understanding of the ‘nub’ of the question.

In the first list, all of the answers point in the direction of further questions which, if the process of inquiry is run out far enough but indefinitely so, will yield a final answer. That final answer is what Aristotle called eudaemonia, which has been translated, variously, as the good life, human flourishing, or living and faring well. Eudaemonia, the final aim of human life, may seem, just inasmuch as it is overly vague, broad, and abstract, to not be of much help in one’s design deliberations unless we recast the good life in our everyday language:

What, really, do we care about? What is it that is worth caring about?

What does one regard as being not just of some importance of of the greatest importance?

When we think about what matters in human affairs, what is it that matters most?

This entire line of thought, leading from the first set of questions to this last set, can be called the ‘art of philosophical inquiry’ or ‘inquiry’ for short, a mode of thinking we’ll hope to learn more about in what follows. At this point, it is important to hold onto our provisional conclusion: only designs that are made in accordance with the good life an have a good enough reason for being. It may turn out that the way in which we determine this is through the art of inquiry itself.

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