Is there a tension between ethics and aesthetics in design? BA Design Yr2

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Is there a tension between ethics and aesthetics in design?

BA Design Yr2

Goldsmiths College

Adam Coward

Ethics are a fundamental element of any functioning society, essentially providing the codes of conduct that must be followed by a majority to ensure social survival. These, often unspoken rules, give us a sense of right and wrong but are not common to all cultures and are often subject to temporal change. This is evident if we examine the historical change in attitudes towards a subject such as suicide. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans considered suicide as an honourable and heroic act, whereas in early Christianity it was pronounced a ‘mortal sin’. In fact, in England suicide was considered a criminal act until as recent as 1961, perhaps due to the social importance of maintaining the family unit up to this point in time.

This would suggest that ethics are not pre determined by our nature but rather are rationally constituted by a specific culture for its continued existence, depending on the conditions by which that society is to survive. Ethics can also be defined as moral ideals belonging to a culture and also those belonging to the individual. There is often much overlay concerning the two instances but it is important to recognise that every individual will inevitably put his or her unique spin on the dominantly recognised set of ethical values.

So how does this relate to design? Firstly it would seem that there is a personal ethical responsibility on those involved in the production of objects, such as designers, material engineers, manufactures, business people, etc. Such elements for ethical consideration in this instance may include sustainability, socio-psychological well being, and a concern for the dehumanisation and cultural reduction that might result from mass production and globalisation. In the case of sustainability, it is only logical, at least in developed countries where our basic needs for survival are met, that there is a moral goal for ecological sustainability, which if unrealised threatens the current cultural way of life. As such I believe that the majority of designers hold this ethic even if they fail to practice sustainable design. One way a designer might achieve a level of sustainability comes from Victor Papanek’s idea of ‘Design for Disassemble’ (DFD). As such Papanek proposes that an object be designed so that it is easily and cheaply disassembled after use and the individual components can be recycled, thus providing a functional ethical solution. In addition to creating a sense of moral fulfilment in the designer, should a product that has been designed for disassemble be marketed as such, it then allows for the consumer to be ethical through choice and therefore translates on a cultural level, which might also increase the products commerciality.  

Often ethics are considered as an alternative to function and beauty in design, as though we have to compromise between these supposedly conflicting values. This assumes that there is a hypocrisy between what people consider to be ethical and the things they do and buy. Because consumer choice is based on our sense of what is beautiful and what is not it therefore becomes important to understand this mediating factor of aesthetics.

According to the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant there is a fundamental relationship between ethics and aesthetic experience. It is indeed obvious through observation that there are certain formal aspects that a specific cultures might label as beautiful and as a result will aspire to own objects that exhibit these design choices. It is also apparent that the phenomenon of an aesthetic generally occurs culturally, which renders void notions such as individual taste. Kant explains aesthetics as ‘the symbol of the morally good’ (Cooper, 293). In other words cultural ethical values are embodied in objects through semiotics and therefore an object that comprises elements that best translate to convey the ethics of a particular culture, will hence be considered the most aesthetic and desirable. In effect Kant is claiming that aesthetics, as do ethics, come from a purely rational subjectivity. Schiller adds a further level of complexity when he suggests a third element to the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, which is play. The freedom of play that aesthetics permit, as Schiller suggests, essentially allows us to negotiate between our ‘sensual drives’ and out ‘formal drives’, or what we might term our emotional and rational tendencies. Playing through aesthetics is essentially our means of objectifying our rationalised thoughts and concept. ‘There is no other way of making sensuous man rational except by first making him aesthetic’ (Schiller, 1967, letter 23, p.2).

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One of the earliest considerations of an ethical involvement in design is evident in the mid-19th Century British Arts and Craft Movement, headed by William Morris. Morris believed that he could evoke social change via the embodiment of certain ethical ideals within his works such as classless equality and a concern with the dehumanisation and environmental damage associated with a modern industrial society. These morals eventually manifested themselves in a style that was fascinated with traditional ‘handicraft’, valuing the quality and expression of true craftsmanship over financially driven mass production. Morris also recognised that by employing an ethical concept based ...

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