Articles  |  ,   |  January 15, 2020

Designing Ethics in Large-scale Socio-technical Systems

Book chapter by Jeffrey Chan. Published in Ethics in Design and Communication.


Ethics and design are connected in many ways. First, the discovery of a genuine ethical problem often prompts corrective design activities, what Caroline Whitbeck refers to as “ethics as design”. Second, moral features could be built into design, or what has been recently discussed as “designing in ethics”. Third, ethics itself could be designed through modifying, if not completely overhauling, the moral ecology of any artificial system. In this chapter, this idea of ‘designing ethics’ is discussed through two cases of large-scale socio-technical system, namely, the dockless bikeshare program, and that of the autonomous vehicles. While the former suggests the possibility of transforming the moral ecology of the sharing system, the latter however indicates the urgent need to think about pitfalls of designing moral algorithms. Especially for the case of autonomous vehicles, this case questions how a morally imperfect human designer, relying on an essentially evolving and incomplete body of ethical knowledge at a certain point in the human civilization, can be expected to produce a more superior artificial moral agent.