Philosophy, Ethics and Design

Lately, we hear a call for more ethics in design. Ethics is a philosophical notion that allows us to rationally question a highly irrational dimension of our lives: the morality of what we do. As a philosophical discipline, ethics it doesn’t solve problems, it makes us think about them without too quickly falling for what we feel. Ethics won’t solve problems it will clarify them and offer unexpected paths forward. Ethics can give us some hints when it comes to philosophical questions. Ethics will make us see freedom of will, freedom of action or freedom of speech in a different, brighter light. Philosophy is unsettling. It makes you realize how little you understand of what you think you know. Yes, you are human and you enjoy freedom, but few people have something enlightening to say about it. Philosophers like Plato, Kant and Jaspers have thought more and deeper about freedom than you and me. But reading Kant is like reading Einstein’s Relativity theory. It may be full of light, but for the untrained it stays dark.

Surprisingly, aesthetics might have more answers to that than it seems. In everyday language aesthetics is a treated as superficial meaningless quality of pleasing objects. Economically, aesthetics are a characteristic of luxury. Aesthetic objects communicate: “I am expensive!” But when you focus on philosophical depths of what we call beautiful, it may at times reveal that is is related to what is good. Somehow, what is truly good is also beautiful and what is truly beautiful is good. It’s not a direct relationship, it’s a deeper connection, or a relationship higher up, outside the platonic cave, in the stark light of the blinding sun. It may very well be that aesthetics and not the magic belief in artificial intelligence will turn out to be the key to a more humane design.

WDS18 Day 2

(A few quotes unattributed as I couldn’t see the cite from my particular seat)

This talk is about…

  1. ethics as a trend
  2. ethics as a bridge
  3. shaping action
  4. forming thought
  5. connecting the dots between design and philosophy

Ethics has been coming up a lot in this industry. Mark Zuckerberg said some pretty stupid things about not taking down holocaust denial posts from Facebook… Apple’s ethics have been in the spotlight too, having launched the iphone, then the ipad, then the iwatch to enslave us…

We believe that privacy is a fundamental human right. – Tim Cook

The UN believes that too, not just Apple.

Then you discover that Salesforce is the biggest employer in the bay area… it’s not actually Apple!

What really got Oliver worried is when ethics was included in a list of trends. It was only #9 so not too bad, but give it a year and maybe it’ll be the new blockchain.

He never thought someone could make money with ethics… but now people are predicting that business consultants, book keepers and IBM will stop selling design and sell ethics instead. Unicorn has become a symbol for money these days!

What is the difference between morals and ethics anyways? – Cennyd Bowles, Future Ethics

This question bothered Oliver as it went on to broadly lump the two together, which is bad.

When we look at the roots of the words it makes sense…

Morals: latin “mores” (what are we used to, what is allowed, what we accept)
Ethics: greek “ethos” (custom, norms, traditions, character)

…so the words are similar. And ethics is often called ‘moral philosophy’. But we deal with many other words that seem similar, but are different.

What is the difference between dude and mate anyway? They have a similar meaning too…

Different people, different context and different use makes the words different, but you have to really dive into it to work that out.

Ethics are often taught formally, by experts… but morals are everywhere, by everyone. They have a very different use.

Ethics makes you think and ask questions of yourself. Morals give you answers and are mostly directed at other people.

You can discuss ethics at a very high level and still be an arsehole. You shouldn’t, but it’s possible! But if you’re moralising to people and you’re an arsehole, that’s a different story…

Morals are emotional but ethics try to contain emotion in a system. Ethics is a philosophical term, and ethics ultimately don’t know; they don’t judge. You can say ‘Facebook sucks’ but it’s not an ethical statement.

So what’s the use of ethics then?

Good design makes a product understandable… – Dieter Rams

From a forthcoming documentary he also says:

The times of thoughtless design for thoughtless consumption are over. – Dieter Rams

Much as there’s an element of literally old man shouting at cloud, there’s definitely an element of thoughtlessness in much of what’s happened until now.

Rams thinks of things and shapes them into real products. Turns thoughts into things. And we use these things. Because we use these things, design shapes action.

What does it mean when we use something? We see it, we think about using it, then use it… via its interface.

Reference: book, Moral Interfaces by Jef Raskin

The interface is how we achieve tasks with a product. – Jef Raskin

This is a powerful statement when you consider the interface as a how not a what.

[The interface is] what you do and how it responds. – Jef Raskin

There are many axes to think about all this.. Interfaces respond to a need, there are expectations, perceptions…

When you use a really nicely designed product, you feel a connection with the designer that put their hard work into it, it’s really nice. But when it goes wrong we also have a bad experience. The connection doesn’t only happen for nice products.

Something philosophers could learn from designers:

  1. interface, don’t preach (Oliver notes he’s preaching now..).
  2. don’t speculate
  3. engage in dialog

There’s a laziness to philosophy, once it’s written down it’s done and they don’t really care if others don’t understand it. Which would be terrible with design! Speculation is also a dangerous thing if people don’t understand it.

What can designers learn from philosophers?

It isn’t too hard to get into philosophy, wikipedia does in fact give a pretty good overview. Don’t dive straight into the hardest, weirdest stuff though.

Slide: As designers we work on interfaces. And through them we premeditate and predefine action. … That’s ethics, not morals, right there mate!

Plato formed things into thought, following Socrates for 20 years… flipping this around from thought into things.

This is the original philosophical mindfuck:

World ⟷ Mind

Is the world in our mind, or is our mind in the world?

‘Idea’ used to mean ‘form’, from the greek ‘eidos’. Ideas are shapes.

There are three big ideas, according to Plato:

  1. goodness
  2. beauty
  3. justice

These ideas are the same. What is good is also beautiful, there is more than simple aesthetic pleasure in a really great design. And justice is beautiful too. The reality of justice billionaires can buy is awful, but the pure idea of it is beautiful.

There is a connection between ethics and aesthetics.

A lot happened between Plato and Kant… not going to explain it all…

Kant formed thought into structured thought. He wanted to be the Newton of philosophy. Newton worked out how the world worked physically, Kant wanted to do the same with philosophy. In reality he did a lot of it in a rush (he believed he was going mad and had to write everything before it happened), leading to some sloppy writing.

Kant stated a variation on the golden rule of ‘do unto others’, instead saying ‘do as if that action would become the universal law’. He was trying to get to the underlying reasoning behind decisions, the spirit and intention.

If you want to act ethically, it’s not a matter of your heart. If you follow your heart you might fall into traps and do terrible things. To do what’s right we have to follow what we know, to switch off the heart. In order to be free, we need to first guarantee there is peace that allows freedom. Without law there is no freedom, which would be very difficult to explain to people in the White House these days. We have to accept some duties along with freedom.

If you see someone who needs help, your knowledge of ethics creates a duty to help them. Action needs freedom, and freedom needs duty. Duty is good.

“Never lie” is an ethical principle that is really difficult to argue against. People can argue there are situations where you could lie to protect someone from evil… but if nobody could lie, the big evils would be difficult to perpetrate in the first place.

How does it work that when we do good things, something magical happens? It’s a sort of universal magic, that we struggle to explain. Kant did go on to suggest there must be a god bringing all of this together.

The magic of experience is something we can use as designers. It is everybody’s duty to make people free. We can ask not just ‘is this beautiful?’ but ‘is this good?’.

If we ask ourselves if what we do makes people free, rather than encage them, that is good.

Philosophers form thought by observing the inner and outer world, and shaping emotion into language.

Designers shape thought into action.

Both can learn from each other.