What is ethics? What values or the right kind of values? How do we decide the right kind of values?

Contributed by Meena Krishnamurthy

I think yesterday we ended with this note of...first there’s been this broad question of what is ethics. That’s just a question as an ethical theorist, political theorist, philosopher, this is just my bread and butter kind of question. What is ethics? What values or the right kind of values? How do we decide the right kind of values? Who decides what those values are? Then it really raises this question of even if we can get the right answers about what the right values are, how do we implement these values?

That for me then raises all these questions about politics, philosophy, and economics, actually because ultimately if we think about who implements—let's say we come up with a code of all the right values for design ethics—the people that would implement it aren't us in the ivory tower. Maybe they’re out teaching, but predominately we’re thinking about a code of ethics to be implemented in design. Designers that are on the ground, but they often end up in the least likely position to implement ethically code or values because a lot of the time the choice is “Do I take a stand for my values and opt out of, let’s say some sort of technology for military” or “Do I feed myself and my family?”

That then just raises the question: Can we actually resist? Can we actually act ethically given the economic circumstances that we face? Which then raises the question if we all just had the access to economic security then maybe could we take these ethical stands and would it eliminate some of the risk that’s inherent?

One of the other questions that we came up with too was this question of how to incentivize ethical behavior on the part of manufacturers or corporations. One of the examples addressed in the Salon was landmines. We have the technology to detect and remove a land mine safely, why isn’t somebody just putting this technology into production? What aren’t we just using this?

One of the things that just kept coming up for me was what's the economic incentive? Sure, there’s a humanitarian incentive obviously. It would be really a just world if we actually took care of these problems, but without profit, there’s no incentive for a corporation to do that. That then raises the question again, what kind of economic system? Is there an economic system that would actually give incentives to corporations to do this? Then maybe that also brings us back to individuals’ hearts...changing hearts and minds.

Now as we see among millennials this desire for ethical production, ethical products more broadly, maybe there’s a push, maybe there’s a way to make money out of doing something good for people. Maybe you could recreate an app that somehow raises money to do these sorts of things. It’s hard to know, but I think fundamentally these questions for me come to questions about the design of the economic system and distributive justice, the distribution of wealth, and the accumulation of wealth and why that’s problematic, and how it actually makes an ethical lifestyle. Whether you’re talking about design or just other things, it makes it very difficult when there’s so much economic inequality.

This content was created as a direct result of an interview with Meena Krishnamurthy. Her answer was edited for clarity and to fit this format.

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