This question of the ethical stance is an interesting one. It’s one that I try and pass on to people when I’m training or mentoring them.
It’s very much a personal position.
As you say the question often becomes, “if I don’t do the design work someone else will”. The key here is not the design work but the influence of the design into a more ethical direction to promote and foster an ongoing ethical conversation in terms of business outcomes.
The real problem becomes when there are no negatives to the business outcome by using a somewhat grey ethical behaviour. This becomes the difficult problem. You can remain and continue to uphold the torch of what you consider ethical, just do the job and shut up, or step away.
The idea that you can make the difference and design your way out of the problem in one I run into all the time. I have found requires a great deal of not just raw design ability, but more the softer side of people management and understanding of the real personal issues and biases coming into play. Now the kicker question — is it ethical to use various biases against clients or stakeholders and psychologically manipulate the situation to your gain to promote the overall ethical stance. Is this persuasive approach a lesser evil for a greater good. Or should it be “speaks no evil” at all approach?
The simpler question of to do the “right thing or not”. In the past, I have found, this really comes down to my personal financial position at the time.
Yes I have done questionable things, in an environment where roles are limited one has to take the work one can find. It is true this is when ethics does slide, when the money dries. I’m not a fan of Mike’s, by the way, I find he appears to be speaking from the position of privilege.
That said I have rejected contracts because there were too limited and didn’t allow for any improvement to a better (ethical) level of design. In all these cases, someone else would have done the work the way it was dictated. Do I feel bad about this — no. There was no scope for any change, no improvement, yes I could have taken the money and delivered a product. My time and effort would have been wasted. Interestingly in each case the client was surprised I rejected their work (or just over priced it) on ethical grounds.
We all have a limited number of hours, use them wisely.
One thing I do is ensure that the client is the right fit, is open to change, and can even see their own ethical problems, from the start. I’m very picky on this one. This I find avoids the 3rd option — walk away after engagement.