Design Ethics: The Social Ethics Paradigm

Richard Devon
Engineering Design, School for Engineering Design, Technology & Professional Programs
Pennsylvania State University State College, PA 16802, USA

Ibo Van de Poel
Philosophy Section, Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management
Delft University of Technology, P.O. Box 5015, 2600 GA Delft, The Netherlands

Technology is human behavior that transforms society and transforms the environment. Design is the cornerstone of technology. It is how we solve our problems, fulfill our needs, shape our world, change the future, and create new problems. From extraction to disposal in the life-cycle of a product, the design process is where we make the most important decisions; the decisions that determine most of the final product cost, and the decisions that determine most of the ethical costs and benefits. It is quintessentially an ethical process. Ethics is not an appendage to design but an integral part of it, and we advocate using the moral imagination to draw out the ethical implications of a design. We will stress and develop the social ethics paradigm, because design is an iterative social process for making technical and social decisions that may itself be designed at each stage with different people at the table, different information flows, different normative relationships, different authority structures, and different social and environmental considerations in mind. Despite the considerable recent growth in the literature and teaching of engineering ethics, it is constrained unnecessarily by focusing primarily on individual ethics using virtue, deontological, and consequentialist ethical theories. In contrast, the social ethics method requires an examination of the social arrangements for making decisions that is particularly relevant to the iterative, decision- making, design process. Different social arrangements may be made for making any decision, each of which arrangement embodies different ethical considerations and implications. Dewey argued in much the same way for a scientific and experimental approach to ethics in general: `What is needed is intelligent examination of the consequences that are actually effected by inherited institutions and customs, in order that there may be intelligent consideration of the ways in which they are to be intentionally modified in behalf of generation of different consequences.’ The social ethics paradigm that we will unfold owes much to the pragmatist thought of John Dewey.


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