jump to navigation

Virtues, Rules & Consequences: The ethics of designing buildings February 15, 2013

Posted by jennibarrett in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,
The everyday practice of design in the built environment is one of trade-offs and compromise. Quite frequently, these are presented as ethical dilemmas which challenge our ability to make easy judgements about how we should proceed in a way that will be defendable within law but also to the wider profession, the public, our clients but more importantly, to ourselves.   Typically, we do not set out to be ‘unethical‘ but find ourselves doubting the moral calibre of our work and its ability to withstand the test of reasonability made so famous by that man on the Clapham omnibus.
How do you justify your involvement in development that has long term environmental impacts?
Have you done enough to design out the possibilities of accidents caused by the construction of your proposal?
Whilst philosophers are usually only let loose in architectural history and theory lectures, they are quite handy here too.  The field of philosophy has distilled for us, three normative ethical responses.  These are really useful, because they essentially give us the three basic standpoints from which we can develop our argument with clarity and direction.  Given this grounding in accepted wisdom, the man on the Clapham omnibus should be pleased (and so will your insurers).  These three standpoints are:
1.  Virtue ethics
These relate to your personal character and emphasise your moral virtue.  Perhaps they are personal qualities that you have conciously set out to live by, such as fairness, generosity or honesty.  We might translate these into professional practice through equity, excellence and integrity.  We might also incorporate particular industry virtues into our practice ethos.  For example, a practice might focus its efforts on environmentally sustainable methods of building or principles of collaboration and co-operation.
The Virtuous Building?
Oundle School Science Technology Block
Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios
Source:  RIBA
2.  Utilitarianism
This is a system of ethics that is related to the normative ethical theory of consequentialism.  So, a utilitarianist would argue that the moral worth of an action is measured ultimately, by its consequences.  You consider your actions in the context of the likely outcomes.  In this case, the end justifies the means.  If you are faced with a choice of actions, you would select the action that satisfies the most people.  This is frequently the ethical system applied to justify acts of war, for example, but it’s also prevalent in Victorian social reform.  You may even go so far as arguing that the utilitarian ideal underpins the modern public sector and as such, any discussion of public sector building procurement needs to address this purpose.  Best not to get started on that one….
3.    Deontological ethics (rule-based ethics)
From the Greek, ‘deon’ meaning ‘obligation’ or ‘duty, this system of ethics’ may also be called ‘duty-based’ or ‘rule-based.’  We all live by some form of duties or rules.  We are all subject to the law of the land, and professionally we subscribe to the rules inherent in construction and contract law.  Some of us derive our code of behaviours from the ancient books associated with our religious faith.  And unless you have ever been described as a sociopath, you tend to follow the rules inherent in our society.  We frequently feel a sense of duty to ‘help people’, for example, and many successfully integrate this with their professional lives.
via Architecture for Humanity
As a professional, we follow the codes of conduct set out by our professional institution.  We also follow rules and codes published via statutory documents such as planning policy or building regulations.  There are non-statutory rules too.  A plethora of codes exist which we may use to justify our professional actions, such as the Code for Sustainable Homes or local design guides.  We don’t have to follow these, but a deontological response would advise us to recognise and follow the expertise they profess to extol.
Whichever ethical response feels more pertinent to your personal approach to life and work, there will always be a point where you find yourself between an ethical rock and a moral hard place.  You will be damned if you do and subject to a public inquiry if you don’t.  When this happens, note down the words of Albert Camus….
“Integrity has no need of rules.”