Articles  |    |  July 12, 2018

Why value sensitive design needs ethical commitments

Article by Naomi Jacobs and Aandlina Huldtgren.
Published in Ethics and Information Technology.


Currently, value sensitive design (VSD) does not commit to a particular ethical theory. Critiques contend that without such an explicit commitment, VSD lacks a methodology for distinguishing genuine moral values from mere stakeholders-preferences and runs the risk of attending to a set of values that is unprincipled or unbounded. We argue that VSD practitioners need to complement it with an ethical theory. We argue in favour of a mid-level ethical theory to fulfil this role.


Value sensitive design (VSD) is an approach to the design of technology “that accounts for human values in a principled and comprehensive manner throughout the design process” (Friedman et al. 2013, p. 55). The unique opportunity that the VSD approach brings to the fore is a proactive integration of ethics in the design of technology (Van den Hoven 2008).

Although VSD draws on ethical theories to identify values that are relevant for technology design (Friedman et al. 2013), VSD makes no explicit commitment to particular ethical theories. This gives rise to multiple critiques to VSD.

Manders-Huits argues that VSD cannot provide a “methodological account for distinguishing genuine moral values from mere preferences, wishes, and whims of those involved in the design process” (2010, p. 281). And without such a methodological account, VSD practitioners risk attending to an unprincipled or unbounded set of values. Albrechtslund (2007) points out that although VSD draws on ethical theory, it is not clear “what theories and which values this includes” (p. 67). Borning and Muller (2012) argue that VSD practitioners, via the rhetorical move of using a disembodied voice, claim more authority and impartiality than is warranted in areas in which the practitioners’ own normative assumptions may limit exactly those qualities of authority and impartiality.

Therefore, we argue, VSD practitioners should make use of an ethical theory complementary to the VSD method. Such an ethical theory can provide sources of justification and argumentation for moral claims and considerations, which are needed to make principled judgments, to attend to a set of bounded and principled values, and to legitimize value trade-offs during the design process.

The article proceeds as follows: first, we argue that VSD practitioners’ explicit use of an ethical theory to complement the VSD process can resolve the critique that the voice and values of researchers and designers engaging in VSD is often insufficiently explicit (Borning and Muller 2012).

Secondly, we turn to the much-debated topic of whether or not VSD can rely on a set of universal values (Borning and Muller 2012; Friedman et al. 2013). We argue that by relying too much on empirical studies of universal values, VSD runs the risk of committing the naturalistic fallacy, and that an explicit commitment by VSD practitioners to ethical theory can resolve this.

Thirdly, we turn to the central question of this paper: what kind of ethical theory is best suited to accompany VSD practitioners in the VSD process? We argue for a mid-level ethical theory, and discuss several desiderata that are necessary for such a mid-level ethical theory to successfully accompany VSD. [ . . . ]