Seminar #4: Design, ethics, and the naturalistic fallacy

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A wonderful thing about the Spring studio we have here is a weekly seminar in which the students (a mixed group from MSU, UT, and BAC) and many of the GCCDS staff talk about architecture. This year, we’re also carrying into the seminar some ideas from our conversations about values. The discussion is built around readings from this book:

Tools for Survival" by Thomas Fisher

Thomas Fisher is dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, and in this book, he asks us to imagine a future in which the assumptions that our stable society depends upon — that every new building, for instance, will be connected to a reliable infrastructure providing electrical, water, and sewer — are no longer guaranteed (A possibility put forward in works like Jared Diamond’s Collapse).

Read on for a look at Fisher’s arguments and our discussion:

Fisher makes a number of arguments (many of them, of course, debatable):

Design and ethics are two sets of tools that we use to deal with specific, everyday problems. Fisher argues that if our problems change in nature or worsen, our tools may need to change as well. In particular, he argues that ethical design needs to begin taking into account the costs that have often been ignored as “externalities” (for example, environmental costs).

Efficiency vs. resiliency. According to Fisher, as an ecosystem becomes more efficient, it also becomes less resilient. He points to our efficient but fragile communications networks and our dependence on global trade for the goods we need to survive.

Globalism vs. localism. Fisher has some conflicting ideas. Does looking inwards (favoring local production over globalization, for instance) really foster the most productive future? Shouldn’t we ask how our interconnectedness could strengthen our resiliency?

The prisoner’s dilemma: Fisher uses this example to argue that collaboration is more productive than competition and uses it as a metaphor for the human situation, saying, “we humans are, in a sense, prisoners on this planet” (43).

Moore’s naturalistic fallacy: Philosopher G. E. Moore questioned attempts to prove ethical claims by defining good as, for example, natural or more evolved. This builds upon David Hume’s earlier formulation of the is-ought problem: the tendency to leap from statements of facts (observations of what is) to statements of values (judgements about what ought to be). Fisher points out ways in which designers have made these errors in the past, but ultimately argues that:

Facts and values have always been connected, if not ‘naturally,’ then through the hard work of making arguments, finding connections, and resisting all claims for there being value-free facts or factually determined values. (50)

Among the many good points people brought up in our discussion:

Using the metaphor of power tools, the more advanced and specialized a tool, the less useful it is without the infrastructure it relies upon — usually electricity.

People will begin to change the way they live (choosing to live in smaller houses, for instance) when social and economic forces compel them to.

You have to design the future based on an understanding of the present; if that understanding is faulty (a mistake Alan Greenspan admitted to making), question the design.

Few of the systems we create (free markets, building codes, covenants) are so perfect that they can regulate themselves; the balance between order and chaos takes hard work to maintain.

When thinking about progress, there are two traps we can fall into: Nostalgia for the imaginary “ideal past”, and pursuit of the perfectly evolved utopian future.

Focusing on the ‘local’ — shopping locally, etc. — may help the local community and society in some ways, but it may also ignore the benefits of being part of a global economy.

This was our fourth seminar of the spring and we have plenty more to look forward to as we go through the chapters of Fisher’s book and into many different areas. I doubt I’ll continue posting about individual seminars, but I certainly expect that some of the ideas we’re kicking around will show up in this blog.

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