Ethics as Design Doing Justice to Moral Problems

Ethics as Design Doing Justice to Moral Problems

Solving actual moral problems is not simply a matter of choosing the “best” of several possible responses. It is also a matter of devising possible responses. Design practice in en- gineering affords important lessons about addressing practi- cal problems.

uppose I face a moral problem, how ought I go about figuring out what to do? The question is not

simply how I should evaluate pro- posed courses of action, but how I go about devising such courses of action, a subject on which, as Stuart Hamp- shire observed in 1949 and again in 1989, ethics has had little to say.’

Ethical judgments are important in devising responses to moral prob- lems, of course. These judgments come in many forms, from “What is being proposed is morally wrong” to “This safety factor (or margin) is suf- ficient for the circumstances in which

this object or process will operate.” Yet people confronted with ethical problems must do more than simply make judgments. They must figure out what to do. 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.

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