Strong Opinions Loosely Held
For the past eight weeks, our class was challenged with building a personal ethical framework, a guidepost for responding to ethical dilemmas in our life and work. The goal of this framework is to offer direction when faced with decisions that feel at odds with our identities and the values that inform them.
As a design student, an ethics course feels relevant. I will have to make choices to about what kinds of products, services, and companies I want to create or be a part of. And as a person, I make ethical choices every day, whether consciously aware of them or not. For me, this class offers a tool for making intentional decisions and having meaningful ethics-driven conversations in both work and everyday life.
Loosely to the path.
Throughout this course, one idea particularly resonated with me: Hold tightly to your values, but loosely to your path – Hold strong opinions, loosely held.
How can my values withstand a change in opinion? A change in action?
My ethical framework must be grounded in the strength of my values, but flexible enough to realize many different paths to uphold them.
The value of flexibility.
I was reminded of a creative problem-solving study where 1,000 students, one at a time, were tasked with retrieving a ping pong ball from the bottom of a six-foot-long steel pipe. A number of miscellaneous objects were placed in the room. Students tried to saw the pipe. They dripped steel fillings on the ball and went fishing for it with a magnet. They even tied gum to a string. There were many failed attempts. Eventually, students found a mop and a bucket of water, poured the water into the pipe, and floated the ball to the top.
This example had me thinking. What do we do when current options compromise our values? How can we think creatively and flexibly enough to discover the bucket of water when faced with an ethical dilemma? These questions laid the foundation for my framework.
My ethical framework moves me from uncertainty in the face of an ethical question, towards clarity around my values, and into flexibility, where I hold loosely to my path in search of a better way.
Uncertainty. Clarity. Flexibility.
These three phases are further broken down. I am motivated to action when core values are put into question. I identify my immediate response and assess if it should be accepted or challenged. I look to tools like the Courageous Conversation Compass to evaluate that reaction and reflect on the values that inform it. I isolate myself in this problem space and address the power and privilege I carry with me as an able-bodied white woman in the United States. These reflections are critical to maintaining self-awareness in the face of uncertainty.
Moving from clarity towards flexibility, I rely on divergent thinking to explore the many facets of this ethical question. For this phase of my framework, I lean into the readings of Edward de Bono, Richard Buchanan and Viktor Papanek to support creative thinking. I suspend judgment in an attempt to hold space for different perspectives. I alternate ways of thinking by exploring the unknown effects of time and scale, the role of power and privilege, and the weight of benefits and risks. These exercises allow me to generate new approaches to this problem, ultimately letting me question what my blind spots are and if there is a better way.
Into flexibility, I begin to act by making something or taking a stance. In doing so, I seek the advice and counsel of diverse voices and experts. Feedback and iteration create space for improvement and new direction. Taking accountability and maintaining ownership is key. If this new way doesn’t support my values in practice, I must move back through uncertainty and start over.
As part of my research with JUST, I have spoken with sex workers in Austin to better understand their experiences surrounding financial inclusion. As a question to test against my framework in this blog post, I explore the FOSTA-SESTA bills. These controversial bills were intended to make it easier to cut down on sex trafficking online but have had immediate repercussions for sex workers, increasing the violence against them.
With mutual goals of preventing the online sex trafficking of children and protecting the safety and agency of sex workers, I used part of my framework (clarity > flexibility) in search of a different approach – one that does not compromise my values.
In examining the landscape of these bills, I first identify some of the people or entities invested in this space. Isolating the relationships law makers and sex workers, I articulate the values I perceive these parties might have when considering these bills. I include my own values when addressing decision-making around them. Leaning into shared values, I generate ideas that don’t force me to choose between protecting children who are sex-trafficked online and maintaining the safety and agency of sex workers who rely on digital tools. I examine some integration points and generate ideas informed by values I identified in the last exercise.
Together, these exercises form part of an ethical creative toolkit to help imagine something better.
Without creativity, we are less flexible in our approach to ethical dilemmas. By not exploring all facets of a problem space, we risk overlooking our blind-spots, we risk less ethical decisions, we risk our values.
As I move into quarter three of ac4d, I look forward to exploring the role of making and prototyping in this process. I wonder how stakes and urgency affect the rigor of creative and divergent thinking. When is it too much? When is it not enough? When will we know when to act and start making?
As both a person and designer, I will continue to break and adapt this framework in the search of this balance.
To talk ethics and challenge our frameworks, please reach me at email@example.com.