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.


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
  • 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.

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A brave man and a coward

‘[For Socrates,] courage is a virtue particularly connected with keeping a clear sense of what one regards as most important.’

–Bernard Williams, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’

‘If my soul could only find a footing, I would not be assaying myself but resolving myself. But my soul is ever in its apprenticeship and being tested.’

–Montaigne, ‘On Repenting’

A brave man ventures forth, sticks out his neck, is willing to make a fool of himself. Most calculate and play it safe, hence are not like the brave man. A brave man uses his own judgment, tests himself. Most are ’empiricists,’ basing their expectations for the future on their experience of the past. Boring, dull, boredom. Most are weak-tongued, saying what is ‘on their minds,’ as opposed to exercising restraint, as opposed to saying the right things and nothing but. Most lack a clear view of what is most important, thus what is most important can never grab, never shake them, ripping the self apart, shaking the new self free of trivialities. Most are weak-willed, incapable of remaining committed to an idea in the face of possible challenges. A moment of exuberance, of feverishness, the slightest opening dissipates once the hardness is conceived of and is deemed, too soon, ‘just too hard.’ Steadiness and forbearance accrue only to the brave ones who have pressed and bent themselves, who have assayed their souls in the apprenticeship of living. They are like clear-eyed drunks. Prosoche, therefore: no needless speech. Prosoche: no flimsiness of character. Prosocheno wateriness of spirit, no shilly-shallying about.

Radiance in the key of graceful action

I define radiance as virtue manifested in the ‘keys’ of natural eloquence, a gentle demeanor, and graceful action and resonating throughout the entirety of one’s being (Episode 1. Manifestation Thesis). Dissonance is the name I use to designate the lack of harmony evinced when one has become naturally eloquent but lacks of gentle demeanor, etc.

Each ‘key’ is in need of definition. Today I define graceful action. By ‘graceful action,’ I shall mean that an act exemplifies (i) the appropriate virtues in (ii) a beautiful manner with (iii) a sense of self-surrender construed as second nature (Episode 12. Self-Abandonment as Second Nature).

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Blowing your house in

Do you remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? The wolf warns, ‘I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in!’ He was outside our house last night, woke me and the crinkling chimney up in the early morning, and I can tell you he has been repeating his blustering warnings throughout the course of the morning. With each of his huffing blows, leaves are picked up and turned end over end, sticks are kicked up and flung downhill, trees cling apologetically to their toenails, and horses’ manes are twirled, straw-like, hither and thither, up and over. Our home is made neither of straw nor of sticks, but is it as sturdy as bricks?

The effects of another’s demeanor: Draining and diminishing

I argued yesterday that a demeanor just is the manner in which one ‘conveys’ or embodies a specific form of life. By saying this, I sought to clear a space for the consideration of demeanor, quite apart from that of behavior, conduct, action, and discourse. In the final paragraph, I suggested that this definition gives us a few clues concerning why simply being around a certain someone–in an office, on a train, in an elevator–may be at once draining and diminishing. Below, I want to show that ‘draining’ and ‘diminishing’ refer to two separate, but related, phenomena.

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