Design problems are problems of making (or repairing) things and processes to satisfy wants and needs.

Design problems are problems of making (or repairing) things and processes to satisfy wants and needs.

This is the reason for

calling them “agents.” Scholars and popular writers alike

often confine themselves to the judge’s perspective, for example, when phi- losophers working in professional ethics take the making of moral judg- ments or criteria for praising and blaming to be the whole of their sub- ject matter, or when the press, report- ing on some accident or miscarriage

Caroline Whitbeck, “Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems,” Hastings Center Report 26, no. 3 (1996): 9-16.

of science or engineering, takes the main question to be “Who is to blame?” In these cases the restriction of per- spective is fairly explicit. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, it is also implicit in the representation of mor- al problems as dilemmas to which the only solutions are those given with the problem itself, so that the only task is to judge which of the proposed solu- tions is the best (or least bad).2 It is not enough to be able to evaluate well-defined actions, motives, etc., be- cause actual moral problems are not multiple-choice problems. One must devise possible courses of action as well as evaluate them.

Suppose my supervisor tells me to dispose of some regulated toxic sub- stance by dumping it down the drain. In this case part of my problem is that I have been ordered to do something that is potentially injurious to human health and, furthermore, illegal. As- suming that my supervisor knows, as I do, that the substance is a regulated toxic substance (an assumption that I should verify), then my supervisor’s order is unethical and illegal. This is an example of a moral judgment that I make in describing the situation.

In the case I have just described the question is what can and should I do? It is not enough to say that I should not dump the waste down the drain. My problem is not the simple choice

of answering yes or no to the question of whether I should follow the order.

I need to figure out what to do about the supervisor’s order. Shall I ignore it? Refuse it? Report it to someone? To someone else in the company? To the Environmental Protection Agency? Should I do something else alto- gether? Is there any place I can go for advice about my options in a situ- ation like this? What are the likely consequences of using those channels (if they exist)? Where could I find out those consequences? Also, what do I do with that toxic waste, at least for the present? These are questions with important implications for fairness to others, including people in my or- ganization, and for the health and safety of the public, as well as for my relationship with my supervisor and for my own position within the com- pany. Answering the question of what to do will depend on a variety of fac- tors. Learning what factors to con- sider and how to assess them are com-

ponents of responsible professional behavior.

The importance of finding good ways of acting (and not merely the ability to come up with the right an- swer to a “whether” question) may be brought home by reflecting on when you or I last poured paint solvents, petroleum wastes, acetone (nail pol- ish remover), motor oil, garden pes- ticides, or other household hazardous waste down the drain (or put spent batteries in the trash). Was it only be- fore we were in a position to know that these were environmental haz-

ards? That is, was it only before we could answer the “whether” question correctly? Or was there a time when we knew it was not a good idea to pour it down the drain but did so be- cause we did not know what else to do?

The need for a response is what makes moral problems practical prob- lems. The similarities between moral

problems and another class of practi- cal problems, design problems, are in- structive for thinking about the reso- lution of moral problems and correct- ing some common fallacies about them.

Practical problems may or may not have solutions. Of those that are mor- al problems, some call for coping

rather than for solving. The perennial



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Hastings Center Report, May-June 1996

problems of human vulnerability, suf- fering, and mortality are such. Ethical problems that call both for solving and for coping have their counterpart in design problems, although good ways of coping count as “solutions” in the case of design problems. For example, design of a system of drain-

to them. Analysis is important but it is not sufficient to devise responses.

Design Problems

Engineers recognize the ability to analyze the designs of others (that is, being an astute judge of designs) as

Denying that there is a uniquely correct solution goes against some common ways of speaking about ethics, such as “doing the right thing” in a situation.

age ditches to cope with (that is, to prevent damage from) periodic flood- ing of a nearby river counts as solving the problem of how to cope with pe- riodic flooding, although the drainage ditches do not keep the river from flooding.

Design problems are problems of making (or repairing) things and processes to satisfy wants and needs. The analogy with moral problems holds for a variety of design problems, from designing or repairing a book- shelf to devising a rotating work schedule, to designing or redesigning an experiment. The analogy between moral problems and problems of en- gineering design is especially instruc- tive, however. Like ethics, design is a

subject in the university curriculum. Therefore, much has been articulated about the design process in engineer- ing. Furthermore, engineering design stands out among college subjects in giving sustained attention to the syn- thetic reasoning necessary to con- struct good responses to practical problems. Because engineering rec- ognizes the importance of engineer- ing design as well as engineering the- ory, it appreciates the importance of practical as well as theoretical prob- lems and of synthetic as well as ana- lytic reasoning. Devising a good re- sponse requires synthetic reasoning. Ethics has paid more attention to ana- lytic reasoning and the analysis of ethical problems and possible answers

a useful skill for designers to possess, but not sufficient to make a person a good designer. For this reason, most engineering schools offer courses in engineering design that are markedly different from the engineering the- ory courses that teach students to un- derstand theory and how to apply it to solving problems with mathemati- cally exact and usually uniquely cor- rect solutions.

The products of design may be sin- gle objects (for example, a bridge at a given site) or a type of object (for example, a new type of toaster) or process (for example, a cost effective way of making newsprint from recy- cled newspapers or a process for making weather-resistant paint). This characterization applies to many types of design outside of engineering and science, but engineering design (and experimental design) are especially instructive for present purposes not only because the design process is well studied in engineering, but be- cause engineering design problems are typically highly constrained, as are challenging ethical problems. The de- sign process, especially in the ways in which it differs from merely analyzing the designs of others, highlights the very aspects of the agent’s response to moral problems that philosophy and applied ethics have had difficulty illuminating.

To develop a good response to a moral problem I must typically take

account of a variety of considerations. In situations like the one just de- scribed where there is a question of either negligence or intentional wrong-doing, one prominent consid- eration is how to be fair to everyone. There may be some tension or con- flict between the moral demands or values associated with some pairs of these considerations, but it is often possible at least partially to satisfy most or all of these demands simul- taneously. Indeed, it is a mark of wis- dom to be able to do so. This seem- ingly commonsense observation about ethical problems has been ob- scured in recent years by a preoccu- pation on the part of philosophers with construing ethical problems as irresolvable conflicts between oppos- ing principles or obligations. Al- though such conflicts are occasionally irresolvable, to assume so at the out- set is misguided because it defeats any attempt to do what design engineers often do so well, namely, to satisfy po- tentially conflicting considerations si- multaneously.

The Design Analogy

To illustrate the characteristics of a design problem, consider the design of a mechanically simple object: a child seat to fit on the top of the suit- cases with wheels designed to be wheeled on board an airplane and stored under the seat or in the over- head bin. When removed from the suitcase, the seat must double as a comfortable child seat that will strap into a vacant airline seat, if one is available, and the seat must also fit easily into the overhead compart- ment. Several manufacturers make such suitcases. Most have similar fea- tures, making it possible to design a child seat that fits most of the ones

in use. This is a design project in which I directed three Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering students in spring of 1994. One student, Colleen, focused her work on investigating what the potential user would require in such a device-such as ease of cleaning, having a place in the seat to carry a bottle, a pacifier, and similar para- phernalia. Two other students, Lisa and Kimberly, investigated standards and safety requirements and built


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Hastings Center Report, May-June 1996

rough prototypes. These prototypes demonstrated that there are solu-

tions to the design problem and de- veloped some of the features of such solutions.

Lisa’s and Kimberly’s designs are significantly different solutions to the suitcase child seat design problem. For example, in Kimberly’s design the long suitcase handle snaps into a clip at the back of the child seat, and a handle that is part of the child seat is used to pull the seat and suitcase. In Lisa’s design the long handle on the suitcase continues to be used to pull the bag with the seat attached. The horizontal crossbar that holds the

child in place pivots around its per- manent attachment to the end of the

right armrest and secures into the end of the other armrest. In Kim-

berly’s, the crossbar and armrest form a single U-shaped piece that lifts over- head like an old-fashioned high chair tray, pivoting from two attachments to the back of the child seat. (Both designs have the advantage that they do not detach from the rest of the

chair, so they cannot be lost.) Kim- berly’s design is larger in dimensions. It would lead to a larger seat that might better suit a heavier child, but would be more expensive to manu- facture. Lisa’s seat would accommo-

date most children under two years old, the age at which infants fly free with an adult.

The first point about design prob- lems that is important for moral problems is that:

For interesting or substantive engi- neering design problems, there is rarely, if ever, a uniquely correct so- lution or response, or indeed, any predetermined number of correct responses.

There may be no solution, how- ever-no way of making a thing that answers a given set of specifications. For example, it is not clear that there is any design of the child seat that would both be small enough to make a reasonable suitcase seat and strong enough to satisfy the additional speci- fications for a child’s automobile safe-

ty seat. However, if there is one solu- tion to a design problem, there are usually several.

Both problems of engineering de- sign and moral problems may be triv-

ial in that the specification of the

problem leaves little leeway in an ac- ceptable solution. The question of what to do about a promise that one has freely made, in circumstances where no morally compelling coun- terclaims exist, is trivial in this sense: one should keep it. So is the design of a bolt to fasten the housing of the radar for a large commercial aircraft. In both cases devising an appropriate response is not demanding, so the principal moral question is whether one is sufficiently conscientious in carrying out the action to accomplish the goal.

It is for nontrivial moral problems that the analogy with problems of engineering design is most impor- tant. It may not be a great surprise that if there is one course of action

that provides an ethically responsi- ble resolution of a moral problem, a somewhat different one may also be acceptable. However, denying that there is a uniquely correct solution does at least go against some com- mon ways of speaking about ethics, such as “doing the right thing” in a situation.

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