Ethics – what is better? (4/4)

In this series I’ve tried to highlight a range of ethical issues that underpin design activism. At the start I referred you to my colleague, Tim Jordan. He says that whatever activist do, their underlying motivation is a sense of what is morally better than the status quo. Often activists even put forward a vision of what constitutes a “good” life, for example, a life without waste (Jordan 2002).

morally better: a life without waste…


Design activism, similarly, is based on a vision for what is morally better than the status quo. As we’ve seen, in design terms this might concern materials, production, program (in architectural terms), function, users and consumers. However, there are a number of tensions inherent in our ethical choices, and some of these have surfaced in the examples I’ve presented. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • If you “boycott” places where there is child labor, do you then further marginalize families with no other options, taking away the little livelihood they have?
  • Given the grave nature of the climate change problem, should you prioritize environmental sustainability, at the risk of supporting the status quo in unfair labor or trade practices?
  • Local versus global–should you always prefer local, even if you’re in an industrialized country and people in developing countries need the investment more?

local and global ethical tensions. Image courtesy NorthSouth Projectcraft worker image from the North South Project


  • Does inclusive design synergize or compete with fair trade and ecologically sustainable initiatives in design? At least one example shows a synergism between inclusive design and sustainable design, but what about further examples dealing with a range of issues?
  • Vulnerable populations and work – older people working after retirement age, people with disabilities working as a way of developing self esteem, prisoners working in order to learn a useful trade for life after prison–Are there downsides to this, potential abuses or exploitation of vulnerable populations?
  • “Community trade” links designers in the North with craftspeople in the South to help these craftspeople gain access to Northern markets. But does this contribute to greater environmental consequences born of transporting globalized products?

fair trade lable

These are not easy issues to resolve, and at this stage the reality is that few design opportunities allow us to hit all the right social, environmental and economic notes.  Yet the fact that they’re not easy doesn’t mean we can ignore them. Ignoring them is arguably what has gotten us into our unfair, unsustainable systems in the first place.

As a basis for strategic activism, designers should analyze ethical issues explicitly, whether or not this analysis is shared with the wider audience. You need to be able to answer to yourself, at least, what your vision is for an approach that is morally better than the status quo, and why it is better. In addition, recognize that ongoing campaigns are more effective in bringing about change than one-off actions. But either approach, if done strategically, can help us move society’s troubling issues forward toward solution.

Jordan, Tim. 2002. Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society. Edited by B. Bullen and P. Hamilton, Focus on Contemporary Issues. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Leave a reply