Featured selection: Responsibility and Ethics

From his essay “Professional Responsibility and Ethics” in the Public Interest Design Practice Guidebook

Ethics has sometimes offered designers too blunt a tool. Historically, ethicists have tended to seek one, all-encompassing way of assessing the right or wrong of a situation, judging everything according to its intentions or its consequences. In contrast to these “monists,” other ethicists have offered so many specialized tools that it becomes difficult to know when to use what. These “relativists” have emphasized cultural difference to the point where they claim that we cannot make ethical judgments about a culture if not already a part of it.

For public interest designers—and indeed for anyone working in another culture—both of these extremes do little good. The monist’s singular approach often gives too little credence to cultural differences, and the relativist’s emphasis on particulars often gives too much. A relatively recent development in ethics offers a more useful middle ground. Called Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), its advocates argue that there exist a relatively small number of foundational ideas—five or six—that guide people’s judgments about right and wrong across many different cultures (Graham et al 2012).1 Whatever other merits this approach may have, MFT also offers those who work in other cultures a set of tools that they can use to assess the ethics of situations that may differ dramatically from what they might encounter in their own culture. As such, it seems perfectly suited for public interest design.


To read the entire essay, see Chapter 3: Professional Responsibility and Ethics in Public Interest Design Practice Guidebook: SEED Methodology, Case Studies, and Critical Issues, edited by Lisa M. Abendroth and Bryan Bell, 35-44. New York: Routledge. 2015.


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