Where are the ethics in design ethics?

Kayla J Heffernan
Aug 4 · 9 min read

There are so many blog posts, think pieces, tweets and conference or meet up talks popping up about “design ethics”. Many of them are great, but most of them aren’t actually about ethics at all. They are more “how not to be evil” guides which, while absolutely necessary, is not what ethics are.

One of the only places we are beginning to see actual ethics come into things is in thought experiments where self driving cars are facing the trolley problem.

You’re just being pedantic

Semantic bleaching happens I hear you saying (well, probably not, but it helps the narrative along so let’s pretend). Semantic bleaching is where the meaning of a word is weakened or altered over time based on its popular use.

But by definition ethics, at the most fundamental level, is enquiry into what is right or wrong. Ethics are meant to guide judgements — they are not black and white determinations. Philosophy is about questioning things that you take for granted.

So when we claim “doing this is unethical” we really aren’t applying ethics to make that claim. We might be saying “I think this is wrong, so doing this is against my ethics”. When you do this you are declaring that all people should apply the same moral principles, values and ways of determining right and wrong as you do.

Calling someone, or a business, unethical is not the way to fix things. Particularly when they can push back and show that they are not (wasn’t that the entire point of The Good Place?).

Yes, we should push back on dark patterns and ‘evil’ designs that intentionally trick and deceive. But being told what society thinks we should do does not settle moral quandaries.


So, what is ethical?

Well, that depends on your ethical framework.

Because we are asking the question of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ then we are talking about Normative Ethics. There are three main branches of normative theories — Deontology, Virtue and Consequentialism. What is ethical depends on which you follow, and which theory under that branch you follow.

Deontology (Duty)

“If the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good” — Plato

In Deontology we have clear obligations as humans and morality is based on these principles — our duty. Actions themselves are right or wrong, based on a series of rules.

Different theories focus on different duties humans have — duties to a God, duties to oneself (developing our skills and talents) or duty to our bodies (by avoiding gluttony, drunkenness and suicide) and duties to others (avoiding wronging others and treating people as equal). Humans have prima facie duties which are part of the fundamental nature of the universe. These are:

  • Fidelity — a duty to keep promises
  • Reparation — a duty to compensate others when we harm them
  • Gratitude — a duty to thank those who help us
  • Justice — a duty to recognize merit
  • Beneficence — a duty to improve the conditions of others
  • Self-improvement — a duty to improve our own virtue and intelligence
  • Non-maleficence — a duty to not injure others.

Rights theories claim that ethics are a set of rules, which are correlated to the duties — you cannot harm someone’s natural rights (life, health, liberty or possessions) for duty. Natural rights are believed to be inherent and not invented or created by Governments. These theories state that we have universal rights which do not change from country to country, and that everyone has equal rights regardless of gender, race or ability. These rights are inalienable thus cannot be given (or sold) to another person.

Another branch of Deontology is Immanuel Kant’s theory where we have a single duty. That duty is to the Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative is what we must do — we ought to treat people as an end, never a means to an end. Kant wrote it is out duty to improve ourselves. Kantians believe that the Categorical Imperative (not your personal desires) mandates actions. We must treat everyone with dignity and never use them for personal gain. One ought to behave in a certain manner, regardless of whether it contradicts with their own desires.

Virtue theories

“Do to others what we would want others to do to us”

Virtue theories, advocated by Aristotle, focus on the character of the person performing the action, rather than the specific actions themselves. The ethics of the person carrying out the act determine whether or not it is ethical. If an action is performed by a ‘good’ actor, or out of a good virtue, it is a good action.

People should develop good characteristics in line with the Cardinal virtues — wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Other important virtues include fortitude, generosity, self-respect, good temper and sincerity. Bad habits, and vices, such as cowardice, insensibility, injustice and vanity should be avoided. People should undergo moral education to develop these virtuous character habits, to then regulate their emotions and decisions. With this education a virtuous actor will naturally act morally.

Consequentialism (teleology)

“An action is right if it produces more happiness for all affected by it than any alternative action, and wrong if it doesn’t”

Under consequentialism, ethics are determined based on the consequences or outcome of an action. The most ethical choice is the one that produces the greatest good (or least harm) for the greatest number of people.

There are different consequentialist theories, based on what they are trying to minimize or maximize. For example, utilitarianism focuses on happiness and takes into account all the actors that are impacted by the decision to calculate this. There are also 5 different types of utilitarianism (act, hedonistic, rule, ideal and preference) but these are well out of scope for this blog post.

Put simply, the greatest good is a calculation based on the outcome of the said action:

Net happiness = Happiness of some — Suffering or misery of some

The action which is morally right is the one which has more favourable than unfourable consequences. When evaluating multiple options, if they result in the same amount of good, either is right. Everything needs to be judged within the circumstances. Sometimes an action is wrong, sometimes it is right, depending on the consequences.

Ethical altruism takes into account only the impacts to others (i.e. everyone except for the agent making the decision) while ethical egoism determines an action as right if the consequences are more favourable than unfavourable only for the agent making the decision.

These are not the only theories that fall under teleology, but the rest are out of scope too.


Unethical Tech

Let’s look at a handful of things People on The Internet have cried as unethical and see if they actually are.

Find It, Fix It

The “Find It, Fix It” app by the City of Seattle allows you to report a tent (Source). This essentially allows a citizen to report breaches of the law (i.e. no camping) which will likely disproportionately impact the homeless. What happens to the homeless person once they are reported is not clear. There’s not enough information to determine if this is unethical or not. If it seeks to find them appropriate shelter (as the poster suggests) then it can be argued to be doing more good than harm (ethical under consequentialism), and ethical under duty theories beneficence.

Google Glass teaching autistic children social skills

Researchers are using Google Glass to teach autistic children to make eye contact and read emotions better (source). The researchers doing this are trying to make it easier for these children to operate in greater society. Is this ethical?

Well, the researchers at Stanford will literally have ethics clearance to run this clinical trial. Given the intentions of the researchers, it passes under Virtue theories , Consequentialism and Deontology. Now, whether or not that is right or wrong to force neurodiverse children to ‘pass’ is a different matter.

Babylon Health

Babylon Health’s AI chatbot told a woman having a heart attack her symptoms can be managed at home by applying ice and taking pain killers (i.e. it misdiagnosed arm pain as an arm injury). (Source)

Bad? Yes. Need to be fixed? Definitely. Unethical? Well…

It’s probably ethical under Virtue ethics. The company is genuinely trying to help and provide more structure to people who Google their symptoms already. They aim to guide them by saying “Yup go to the doctor” or “You might be OK”. There are multiple warnings at the start that it is only a guide and they tell users to go to the emergency department and not use the chatbot of this is an emergency. If this patient had Googled her symptoms instead of going to the ED (ER, A&E, whatever it’s called in your country) would we blame Google? It’s possibly also ethical under consequentialism (did they save more people than they harmed?). But, yes we could argue this is unethical under deontology (maleficence).

Facebook manipulating emotions

The old chestnut of the Facebook feed manipulating our emotions in 2014. (source). Just one of the unethical claims about Facebook.

This is oft misreported. It was actually a Facebook, Cornell and the University of California study that manipulated the Facebook News Feed to prove the hypothesis that this impacts our emotions .

Once again, this literally had ethics approval from the Universities, so I’m going to wager it passed muster. It was research proving the hypothesis (that the news feed content impacts viewers emotion). They ran a controlled experiment for one week so show this. Now, if Facebook were to go ahead and actually manipulate the feed for this purpose, it would probably be unethical under consequentialism and deontology, but that’s not what actually happened.

Siri recordings

Apple contractors analysing Siri recordings to improve the Voice Assistant reportedly hear confidential details, people having sex etc. (source). The recordings are anonymised so what harm is that really causing to any one individual? The benefit of improved recordings is likely to outweigh this harm, therefore we can argue it’s ethical under consequentialism.


The bottom line

We can see that things are both ethical and unethical (Schrödinger’s ethics?) depending on your stance.

I have focused on normative ethics, and the three main branches of this, and barely scratched the surface in this post. I’ve left out some of the theories that fall under Duty, Virtue , and Consequentialist theories and haven’t even looked at other ethical theories. Ethics are complicated. There are so many different ethical theories. Some of them overlap, some of them contradict.

The bottom line is — should we try to do good in the world, making things better than they are and helping others? Does tech need to change how it is behaving? Yes, yes, yes and YES!

Call out negative practices. Humane design is needed.

But, are current behaviours unethical? It depends on the ethical frame. Moral judgements reflect the society in which they are made. Marxism tells us that morality always reflects the interest of the ruling class, and that appears to be the world we live in today.

We tend to think that we are right, and that everyone thinks the same way we do but this is not the case. Ethics is a grey area. Calling someone, or a business, unethical is not solving our problems — it’s not going to make them suddenly act better. They’ll get defensive. They can very easily argue that what they are doing is ethical, as shown in this article. Using improper language doesn’t help this.

Let’s actually call out what is wrong about the latest tech scandal, and what should be different, rather than just claiming something is ‘unethical’ when it can always be argued it isn’t. Using the proper language is the first step to getting these companies to pay attention. This is wrong because {x}. Have you considered {y}. This is negatively impacting {group} because of {reasons}. Instead we should {blank}. Should we do this.

Changing the conversation may be the first step to improving behaviours.


I haven’t provided references for the ethical definitions. They come from some of my old university notes (circa 2008) before I was good at noting down references.

This video summarises the three theories I’ve discussed nicely (and funnily).

If you want to learn more about ethics, pick up a text book or watch The Good Place.

Related Reading

Thanks to kristen hardy

Kayla J Heffernan

Written by

UX Design Lead. PhD’ing @ The University of Melbourne. Advocating for the voice of all users. www.kaylaheffernan.com

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