‘Ethical Design’ is a Dangerous Term

A caveat: Concepts such as freedom, equality & justice are very loaded terms. They cannot — nor should they —be accepted as definitive, clear-cut concepts. Forming your own intepretation of these concepts is key to promulgating what you believe ethical action to constitute. To avoid getting too stuck in the theory, I have simplified my dealings with certain concepts. I have also added further reading at the bottom of the article for those willing to spend the time reading into the history & various interpretations of ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ & ‘justice’. A caveat to the caveat: Unfortunately many of you will realise that this subject is not a quick ‘2-minute read’. To actually understand the problematic, multi-faceted nature of concepts like ‘freedom’ you’re going to have to put some work in. However, what would you rather do? Spend your limited time on this planet naïvely creating unethical products, because you couldn’t be bothered to educate yourself? Or educate yourself in order to enable positive change in the world?

 WTF is ‘freedom’?

To coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom — freedom from what? Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, the meaning of this term is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist. — Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Freedom Western political thought holds the concept of ‘individual freedom’ as a core tenet.

The French Revolution, the nascent manifestation of modern democratic values, was founded upon “Liberty, equality & fraternity” for all men.

The 1st Amendment of the US Constitution holds the right of individual liberty as a core tenet of US society, manifested in one’s right to be free to exercise one’s religion, to enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly & to petition government regarding any grievances.

These formal recognitions of the right to individual freedom are, furthermore, not only codified in law, but are also strongly entrenched in modern culture.

The existence of organisations such as Amnesty International, stories of wrongful convictions making front-page news, protests at any perceived injustice — all of these are representative of a culture that, in general, finds any case where individual freedom has been violated as deeply disturbing.

The majority of citizens in Western democracies are, in fact, active proponents of the idea that each individual in society should be able to live their life as they want, with as few external, arbitrary forces impinging upon their life as possible.

Yet, despite this, we never stop to think about what ‘freedom’ actually is & how it may be defined:

Is somebody free only from external forces, such as an oppressive government? What about if they are affected by addiction? Victim to informal racial prejudices? Unknowingly manipulated by product designers when using tools like Facebook?

Unfortunately, it is precisely because of this lack of examination — & our failure to ask such questions — that we have found ourselves in a crisis of ethics in the design world.

“Can you clarify what you mean exactly, Mel? Freedom from the English? From the violent tribalism of the Scottish clan system? From our own internalised sense of honour, identity & masculinity?” An Evolving Conception of Individual Freedom

Common consensus in society has tended to accept — & focus upon — a slightly simplistic definition of freedom:

That an individual is free in that he is able to do what he wants in life without being prevented from doing so by some external (usually physical) force, such as the state or other people.

Physical suppression of individual freedom: Police brutality against peaceful student protesters at the Maidan, Kiev, Ukraine (2013) Power enacted upon us, from such a perspective, is tangible. It is physical force, it is state repression, it is the lack of freedom of speech, of clear discrimination based on race & gender.

More recently, however, with the advent of subtle forms of manipulation in product design in the spotlight, we are waking up to the reality that freedom is, in fact, much more nuanced a concept than we may have thought.

The Example of Fast-Food Advertising

A few years ago, many people would have argued that, however many adverts of McDonald’s Burgers we may be subjected to, it was still fundamentally our decision — our agency — that led to us over-consuming & becoming obese.

We were free to make the choice to eat junk food from a rational, independent standpoint.

Yet, as the affects of such advertising insidiously spread throughout the world, the consequential obesity crisis demonstrated a clear link between advertising & our eating habits — for adults, as well as children.

For example, Hedy Kober, head of Clinical & Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Yale University concluded that there were “very, very strong relationships between reactivity and cues [i.e. adverts] and weight and eating” when studying this link.

As a result of such studies, there is evidence supported the belief that fast-food adverts are highly effective at influencing our behaviour, designed to target specific people at specific times they will be most vulnerable to being triggered to order fast-food.

And this is related to individual freedom because of the following problem:

If we started our day with the intention to eat healthily, yet are triggered by an advert of a Big Mac to buy that product, then to what extent are we free?

It seems to me that, if action does not follow intention, then we fall victim to regret. And that regret is a universally negative sensation to have. And we have, therefore, despite our supposed ‘freedom’, acted against our own interested by unintentionally consuming too much fast-food.

To what extent, therefore, is the powerful influence of fast-food marketers impinging upon our individual freedom?

Product Design in 2018 = Tobacco Advertising pre-1970

Whereas a child will see 3–5 fast-food adverts a day on TV in the US, the average Apple user will unlock their phones 80 times per day, exposing them to a near-constant barrage of manipulative product design techniques.

Rather than discussing the dangers of social media & smart phone usage, which I have written about elsewhere, my point is this:

Habits are formed by repetitive action. If opening our smart phone is an almost unconscious — yet such a powerful — habit, repeated 80 times per day, then to what extent are we free from our devices?

If we regret using our smart phones so much, then to what extent are we free from them?

If 60% of American adults report experiencing stress when their phone is off or out of reach, and 4/10 would rather lost their voice for a day than lose their phone for 24 hours, then to what extent are we free?

Regardless of how much you “need” your phone to survive 24 hours in the modern world, are these not the same symptoms of addiction? And would we not call a drug addict trapped by their addiction? And therefore not free?

Yet to examine this as a problem of individuals would be to ignore the very deliberate nature of this addiction crisis on the part of tech companies.

The use of addictive design techniques, backed by behavioural psychology, empowered by big data, is not only predominant in product design, it is openly discussed & lauded.

As a result, the argument that we are free from external forces to make our own decisions is an ever-more tenuous statement to make in the digital world.

Is the behavioural psychology used by product designers to manipulate us not a direct, prejudicial influence on us? If we regret using Facebook, for example, yet still use it, then is Facebook not impinging upon our freedom by manipulating our thoughts & actions?

If, as scientific studies suggest, humans want to avoid the negative sensation of regret, then surely by using products we do not want to use — yet still do due to their addictive mechanisms — means we are trapped? That we are, in fact, not free to make independent choices?

Is manipulative product design any less a threat to freedom as the direct oppression of dictatorship, just because it is less tangible & we struggle to perceive or understand it?

Modern oppression: The tech giants threatening individual freedom With the gradual recognition of the threat posed to individual freedom by manipulative product design, the argument is starting to shift in this direction.

And the time has come to say, “enough”. To say that the anxiety, the unhappiness, the social breakdown caused by manipulative design practives are unacceptable.

It is time to say that the Mark Zuckerbergs, Evan Spiegels & Jack Dorseys of this world are as bad as the tobacco barons of the 1960’s. That, in the face of overwhelming evidence, they continue to pedal a myth — one existing somewhere between shocking naivety & outright lying — about “connecting the world”, when in fact it would be more accurate to suggest they are “dividing the world”.

Defending Individual Freedom in the Digital World

If we accept the compelling, evidence-based argument that many tech companies have put individual freedom under siege, then, as believers in the institution of individual freedom, it is our responsibility to take action against this threat.

Evangelising about the threat of “the attention economy” in product design is one way to help. Informing friends of how addictive mechanisms such as a newsfeed & notifications work should encourage them to reduce screen time.

However, this only works to alleviate the symptoms of the problem, rather than addressing the problem itself.

To truly defend individual freedom from the digital threat, it is necessary to neutralise the problem: you, the product designer.

Without product designers willingly — or even unconsciously — engaging in the application of behavioural psychological to encourage user addiction, there would be no addiction.

There would simply be a healthy level of user interaction with a platform, one which would engender authentic, meaningful interactions for users & between users.

Whatever product you may be designing, you hold a position of great responsibility in defining the relationship a user will have with that product. Being ignorant to this reality — whether deliberately or not — is to be reckless & unsympathetic towards the individual freedom of your customer.

What Does it Mean to Be Ethical

Yet ethics are inherently problematic because of their subjective nature.

One person’s definition of ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’ can be radically different from another’s.

A white, racist American in 1960’s Alabama would most likely be a staunch defender of the Constitution & the right to ‘equality for all men’, yet that ‘equality’ would likely have only been extended to other white males.

It would therefore be valid to suggest that we are ill-equipped — and have no right — to determine what is & is not ethical for another person.

However, I think this is not a helpful argument, as regardless, we as product designers inevitably have influence over other people & must therefore attempt to define what the nature of that influence will be.

So, how can we minimise imposing our individual views on others, whilst attempting to have a positive influence upon them?

To be ethical does not necessarily mean we need to impose our view on others. To be ethical it is only necessary to not be unethical.

That is because, if we define actions that are unethical in nature, then being an ethical product designer is to aim for neutrality, whilst avoiding these unethical actions wherever possible.

Definining What is Unethical

If we assume that humans want to maximise their own happiness, then any interaction that can, as objectively as possible, be proven to work against an individual’s happiness is unethical.

This could include phenomena such as the regret felt from using Facebook for more time than you intended, the jealousy felt from viewing too many beautiful people on Instagram, or being triggered to buy more than you intended to on Amazon.

As with everything related to design ethics, this obviously throws up some problems. What makes one person happy may make another unhappy. The ‘likes’ generated by posting photos of your six-pack may in fact boost your motivation to keep going to the gym, but it may make an overweight person viewing it feel bad about themselves.

There is therefore no right or wrong answer, from a moral perspective (although Sam Harris’ compelling argument against moral neutrality may also be applicable here).

A Framework For Ethical Design Decisions

However, to help us in this endeavour, we can apply a framework to judge such decisions from as neutral a perspective as possible.

John Rawls, a leading thinker & political theory, approaches the concept of justice from such a perspective.

“The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.” — John Rawls, A Theory of Justice Rawls suggests that, in order to judge what is just & what is unjust, the only effective way to do so neutrally is to approach the problem from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’:

In such a scenario, if it were unclear whether you would be born into society as rich or poor, you would logically structure society to neutralise inequality as much as possible, to avoid the possibility of being worse off than others.

A just society, therefore, is one that provides as equal a level of freedom for all as possible:

“[E]ach person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”

In terms of thinking about design ethics, this framework can help us to frame the problem of avoiding unethical design practices:

Imagine you intend to use a digital product based on the promise it makes you within its vision statement.

What would lead you aware from your intended use of that product? What actions would make you feel deceived? How would you feel if you understand the behavioural psychology used to manipulate you? In this case, would you feel deceived? Or would you see it as in your interest?

If, in such considerations, you would feel deceived, regretful or unhappy about your interaction with the product, then you are most likely designing unethically.

Product designers laying down a metaphorical Smackdown on unethical design practices (& Mark Zuckerberg) Fighting Back

Threats to individual freedom used to come in the form of tyrannical rule. From dictatorship, from military repression, from entrenched inequality.

Ironically, in a world where we profess to be more free from such threats to our liberty than every before, such unquestioning belief has made us blind to the insidious forces of unethical design in the digital world.

The new threat of manipulative design practices may be less tangible, but it is no less of a threat.

The smiles & worn trainers of Silicon Valley executives are deceptive.

The longer it takes us to re-examine our conception of individual freedom & what a threat to it constitutes, the stronger the forces ranged against us by unethical technology companies become.

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer when considering whether your actions are ethical or unethical, but by applying Rawls’ approach to justice in your product design decisions, you can at least start to more carefully consider those design decisions.

Remember that you, the product designer, are responsible for shaping the way this battle goes. Are you going to keep wreaking havoc on the chemical make-up of our brains? Or are you going to take responsibility to defend our mental independence?

 Further reading:

Two Concepts of Freedom by Isaiah Berlin Power: A Radical View by Steven Lukes A Theory of Justice by John Rawls The Social Contract (Summary) by John-Jacques Rousseau

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Henry Latham

Henry Latham

Founder, Prod MBA

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