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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