Design's Thin Line: The Discipline's Failure to Reconcile Aesthetics With Ethics
This presentation examines the relationships uniting and the tensions dividing the two branches of value theory common to design practice: aesthetics and ethics. First introducing three aesthetic traditions that routinely influence the profession — Autonomism, Utopianism and Platonism — this discussion then scrutinizes the following: how, by giving palatable form to questionable content, designers fail to recognize the moral culpabilities intrinsic to their aesthetic prowess; how, by privileging aesthetic evaluation over all others, the practice ignores and often suborns the strictures of commonly held ethical systems; and finally how, by claiming aesthetic distance, the profession attempts to shield itself from public condemnation. Some would argue that these moral lapses are slowly becoming less pronounced. And, it would seem that while not all, more than a few designers have begun to acknowledge (publicly as well as privately) the ethical culpability of their professional activities. This growing recognition among practitioners is encouraging. However, with the increasing number of interconnected human endeavors subject to design initiatives, it is essential that more individuals — designers, their patrons and consumers — begin to recognize the need for a sharper understanding of the ethical attitudes and beliefs informing the discipline. Holding the beautiful in one hand and the good in the other, design needs to reconcile the immunities aesthetics offers with the duties ethics prescribes.
Keywords: Moral Responsibility, Design, Aesthetics, Ethics, Autonomism, Utopianism, Platonism
Prof. Keith Owens
Assistant Professor, School of Visual Arts, The University of North Texas