16. Dec 2021
What Does 2500 Years of Philosophical History Have to Do With Digitalization?
How does one make ethics interesting and engaging for designers who could not care less about 2,500 years of philosophical debates between dead white men?
By Peter Svarre
This article is published in connection with The Digital Ethics Compass project.
How does one become a good person? What is good and evil? What is free will?
These are questions that humanity has been trying to answer for centuries, and often the discussions end up being extremely cryptic and the ideas are formulated in difficult to understand mega-books written by now deceased white men. For most people, ethics is either a really boring or completely incomprehensible subject, as it is often associated with a distant historical context and dead classical-era Greeks and Romans. However, ethics can actually be a really fun and engaging subject that is great fun to debate for everyone – also digital designers who live in a hyper-modern world with smartphones, AI and talking digital assistants.
Our experience in The Digital Ethics Compass project is that ethical questions can be brought to life by basing the discussion on specific dilemmas from people’s everyday private or professional lives. Instead of starting by discussing the great thinkers of philosophical history and their ideas and then slowly moving from theory to practice, in our workshops and interviews we have observed how it is possible to very quickly get people to ‘discover’ the major schools of thought in philosophical history on their own if you start with a specific dilemma and keep the discussion on the right track.
Let us take one specific example from one of our workshops where we started by asking the participants to speak about a specific ethical dilemma that they had faced.
One of the participants – let us call him Jens – had been working as a partner in a successful nightclub and this had been lots of fun. Subsequently, however, he had begun considering the ethical problems associated with how the club treated its guests – particularly at the entrance, where attractive guests were given preferential treatment to unattractive guests.
Jens had no doubt that the nightclub’s entrance policy helped the club, but how did it impact the guests who were not let in? Did they feel inferior? And how did it impact the lucky ones who were let in? Were they validated in an unhealthy superficial culture where appearance, status, money and power give access to a privileged world?
First, we asked Jens to think about whether there were fundamental principles, commandments or rules that could help him understand the ethical dilemma. On this point, we agreed that in Denmark we have some fundamental norms that state that it is unethical to discriminate between people – and sometimes it is outright illegal. We also asked Jens to consider how he would feel if he was not let into a nightclub. In other words, he began to consider the consequences of his specific actions as he imagined them impacting himself or anyone else.
We did, however, also agree with Jens that it is difficult to run a popular nightclub if you do not in some manner discriminate between people. After all, a hot nightclub is precisely characterised by exclusivity and the sense of belonging to a certain select group of people who have more fun than others. If you want to run a nightclub therefore, you do have to violate fundamental ethical rules (such as discrimination) and find a balance where you might behave slightly unethically in order to get a successful business up and running. In other words, this is a calculation where you assess the business value of being unethical and then comparing it to the harm you inflict on customers and society. It is probably only a tiny minority of nightclub owners who make this calculation, but unconsciously, it is precisely that kind of ethical calculation that forms the basis for the design of a nightclub’s door policy.
Finally, we discussed with Jens how he felt ‘in his gut’ when he reflected on his years as a partner in the nightclub. We ended up talking about how the nightclub’s policy conflicted with his personal values – and particularly, values that had become more important to him after he began working at a new job. When he was a partner in the nightclub, his personal values were more undefinable, and it was first and foremost about having fun – but with age and maturity, his personal values had become clearer to him. He now understood the importance of being a decent person that cares about other people and might be willing to put one’s own immediate below the need to consider the wellbeing of others.
Without Jens thinking about it, the discussion about the nightclub had touched upon three major ethical schools of thoughts: the ethics of duty, consequence and virtue.
The ethics of duty that we know from philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Rawls claims that ethical problems can be tackled by the use of universal rules such as, for example, ‘You should act in a manner that allows your actions to become a universal principle’ or ‘People are always an end, never a means’ or ‘We must design systems as if we might one day become victims of these systems ourselves.’
The ethics of consequence that we know from philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham argues that you can figure out what the right ethical choice is by calculating the utility of a design and comparing it to its harmful impacts. This approach might seem very cynical, but all societies and all people are constantly doing these kinds of consequence-based calculations because the ethics of duty are often too rigid to live your life by (lying is wrong, but yet we all lie).
The ethics of virtue that we know from Greek thinkers such as Aristotle and the Roman Stoics are based on human values or virtues. Here, it is not about following rules or making calculations, it is about being a decent human being that can get up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror. It is also about being a company that does not reach the front pages of newspapers due to some scandal.
There are other schools of ethics and other approaches, but in our experience with this project, these three schools and their approaches really encourage good discussions about ethical challenges. The participants in our workshops understand the dilemmas and they understand the three schools, but they are generally pretty indifferent about the old philosophers.
If you want to change how companies approach digital design to incorporate more ethics, we can conclude that the three schools of ethics (duty, consequence and virtue) allow for making abstract dilemmas more concrete and manageable. The purpose is not to get people to choose one school of thought over another. On the contrary, it is about making people understand that the three schools of thought are in eternal conflict with each other and that the ethical decisions are based on deliberately considering how the schools of thought are weighted in relation to each other.
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