Design Ethics Primer

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What is Ethics?

Ethics can be understood as a practice to determine the moral integrity of our actions. In simpler terms:
Is what we are doing right?
Ethics is about how to do the right thing, that is: how we can make and decisions on a moral basis. Ethics is primarily a social concern in how the decisions we make affect others.

Ethicists debate how to determine what is more or less ethical. And ethical decisions are considerate of the impact on moral issues, including directly impacting as well as enabling others to have impact. Ethical issues include affecting any of the following:

  • physical or emotional health/wellness/safety
  • ability to learn/gain knowledge
  • ability to create economic benefit or support oneself
  • perception of reality
  • identity
  • privacy
  • freedoms or choices

What is Ethics to designers of technology?

Practices of Design, architecture, and engineering all include significant levels decision making throughout the process. This influence and power over a situation comes with it the responsibility to acknowledge and understand the scope of the impact.

Opportunities for ethical consideration in design

  • What work to do (or not do) including taking a project and framing, or reframing of the problems
  • What is the intended effect (and no effect)
  • Who and what are meant to change in the use and experience.
  • Who is left out?
  • How are the effects achieved
  • By what process will it be realized or constructed
  • What resources as systems will be needed to achieve and maintain it
  • Is there an intended end?
  • and How is it intended to end?
  • and How much we invest to learn about each of the above
  • Critiquing (or giving a pass) to other projects that may have dilemmas of their own

How we choose to affect Others

The method and diligence by which you come to understand others will affect your ability to think ethically.

  • Self
  • Local groups: Social ties, Professional, geographical
  • Our culture/nation/organization
  • All of human civilization
  • Throughout the natural environment

Core Concepts in Ethics


We encounter Ethical Dilemmas when the general principles above cannot easily be reconciled into a clear decision of which path is more ethical.

Common examples of dilemmas might be
  • The infamous Trolley Problem
Common causes of dilemmas are:
  • direct trade-off without a comparison (e.g. sacrificing one’s privacy to improve our national security)
  • Indeterminate outcomes (e.g. risking ones safety to help guarantee another’s)

Methods and Courses of Action

Limitations of ethical thinking

Examples of Ethical Design Questions in Pop Culture

Additional Resources