Ethics and Creativity

Imagine you’re the parent of a teenager, Alex.

It’s Saturday morning, 8 AM. As you walk outside to grab the mail, Alex is getting dropped off at the edge of the driveway. Surprising, because Alex was in bed when you went to sleep the night before. As Alex exits an unfamiliar car, it speeds off towards the end of the road. Avoiding eye contact while dressed in what looks like yesterday’s clothes, Alex darts inside the house.

You have a discussion and hear what Alex is saying, but you don’t necessarily believe it. You want to read Alex’s phone. Alex refuses.

Assuming the role of the parent in this situation, you are conflicted.

You want to protect your child, exercise control over your household, while maintaining trust and respect as an integral part of your relationship. You prioritize your values of order, trust, and security, but they are in direct conflict. With the goal of maintaining and upholding these values, you find yourself in an ethical dilemma.

Creative Problem-Solving

In this post, I suggest ethical dilemmas are at the root of almost all the wicked problems facing modern society. With this assumption, I aim to use creativity when attempting to solve them. Edward De Bono proposes the problem-solving method of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is a way to suspend judgment in order to arrive at creative solutions. He argues that creativity and judgment are in opposition to one another. Where judgment forces us to maintain routine patterns of thinking, lateral thinking allows us to disrupt those patterns, so we can discover new and unexpected ideas.

Lateral Thinking

In an effort to suspend judgment, we must adopt new perspectives. In this example of parent and child, we can begin to question what values are also driving Alex when refusing to hand over their phone. These values might include self-autonomy, freedom, justice, fairness.

Alternating Thinking Patterns

De Bono also introduces tools for alternating our thinking patterns. In this example, we can weigh out the logical negatives and positives of both actions – reading through the phone or leaving it with Alex. Where negatives introduce caution and risks, positives look forward to the proposed solution and find something of value.

We can then begin to identify the benefits and risks of taking and leaving Alex’s phone. The benefits of taking the phone might include maintained control, with risks including compromised trust and retaliation. Alternatively, by leaving Alex with their phone, you, as a parent, uphold mutual trust but risk future manipulation.

Recontextualizing the Problem

Author, William Buchanan, also describes placements as a tool for establishing temporary boundaries when considering complex problems. Placements effectively build a frame around a problem to help the problem-solver see the problem in a new way. Using placements, designers can re-contextualize each problem to establish new hypotheses. Placements should be dynamic and interchangeable, so we can find the strongest frame for each unique problem space.

Viewing this example through the frame of power and privilege, we can ask questions concerning freedom, autonomy, and access. This allows us to isolate how power influences the relationship operating in this problem space.

  • Who creates the rules? Parent?
  • Who enforces rules? Parent?
  • Who must follow the rules? Child?
  • Who regulates the rules? Child and parent?

Inspecting privilege in this example, we look to find difference in privilege between parent and child. What changes if Alex is a boy, girl, or non-binary? Does it make a difference if the relationship is between father and daughter? What if Alex is 12, 15, or 18? What else might change the discussion?

After answering these questions, we can begin to generate ideas. What are actions we could take to reinforce existing positions of power? In what ways, might proposed actions be adapted? What are actions we could take to share power? What if the parent handed over their phone as a trade?

The greater the number of ideas generated, the more opportunity to discover options that better suit the problem without costing you your values.

Larger Implications

This type of thinking can be scaled to approach larger, more wicked problems. Exploring parental relationships between governments and their citizens, we can look at the recent example of surveillance and censorship in India. How do the answers in this example reflect what is happening between the Indian government, Facebook, and the crimes incited by the spread of fake news generated through WhatsApp?

A Third Option

Ethical decision-making requires a problem-solving approach with the same rigor and creativity as design problems. Viktor Papanek says, “In a fast-accelerating, increasingly complex society, the designer is faced with more and more problems that can be solved only through new basic insights.” Ethical dilemmas are interwoven into each of these complex problems. Creative problem-solving and design thinking can help us to approach these dilemmas in new and unexpected ways – without having to sacrifice our values in the process.

As designers, we can both uphold our values and solve complex problems by finding a third option, a compromise.

 “…We normally go along the main track without even noticing the side track. But if – somehow – we get across to the side track then, in hindsight, the route becomes obvious.” – De Bono