Some thoughts on what we need to make and how we should make things

Though quite different questions, the “what” and the “how” of making must be considered at the same time.  What we need to make is a short form of “what we need to make in order to sustain the way we wish to live”.  This should be a considered, holistic and long-term view rather than merely the expedient and improvised management of desires, fads and addictions.

 How we might make things cannot be divorced from the form and content of the material things themselves.  Any objective view of manufacturing and its impacts will show that there is a price to pay for everything we make that, though not necessarily accounted in monetary terms, is real in terms of environmental impact and resource depletion. The benefit and value of the made things themselves consequently needs to be viewed in balance with this price.  These are difficult areas to deal with at a time when the conventions of our society are amoral, since a large part of this discussion is about responsibility and restraint i.e. moral issues.  In contrast, our current attitudes and the messages from our politicians, the purveyors of the goods and services we consume and the media, pander basically to selfishness and indiscipline.  If there is to be a serious consideration of the “what” and the “how” of manufacture, we need to be clear from what standpoint we are arguing.  Five possible standpoints come to mind, though of course there are many others, some of which such as Marxism, have had significant influence in the past, but have now waned. these five seem most current and relevant:

1) Liberal hedonism

2) Market driven economics

3) A holistic view of weal

4) A reverential perspective

5) A just eco-democracy

These were not necessarily all going to be seductive standpoints, since some challenge the vision of an easy good life that we have become accustomed to expect as only one aspect of the human condition and not necessarily the most important.  To suggest valid standpoints other than liberal hedonism or the demand, supply and growth equation of market economics is to court the opposition of the consumer, voter and shareholder. The consequence feared by anyone who adopts a more challenging view, but needs the support of these groups, is the loss of votes or customers or financial support.  The designer may also loose clients, but the risk may be worth taking!

A holistic view or a reverential perspective is not what our political and commercial communities are currently about and increasingly anyone who takes a moral stance is charged with nannyism, utopianism, doom mongering or worse.  However, these more accommodating points of view lead us increasingly to reconsider the roots of human well-being and suggest that ethical and moral issues are an important part of what constitutes meaning in life.   It may be that we need to remind ourselves of the value of norms: what the majority might expect not only for themselves and but also of themselvesThere will always be those who deviate from the norms and are tolerated, but there will also be limits to what is tolerated.   What I am discussing here however is a shift in the norms themselves: the need for a new conventional wisdom.

Determinist explanations of physics and evolution, explanations of the origin of humankind and our world, suggest a mindless, purposeless and amoral force behind reality that knows only mathematical law and pure chance.  Many books have been written to prove that physical and biological processes can be explained without the need for any driving or underlying purposefulness or capability for choice.  This may well be so but, even if purpose and ethics are purely inventions of the human mind, they remain real aspects of experience that cannot be disregarded.  They are a part of reality that, like colour and sound and thought, appear to exist in an apparently non-physical realm and seem only to become manifest through the agency of human experience and activity.

Objective science struggles with such ideas, just as it struggles with the validity of belief, but I shall argue here that the notions of both ethics and aesthetics represent areas of human experience, value and choice that are both real and unavoidable.  It is a part of our nature and evolutionary state that we wrestle with obligation and restraint as well as need and desire.  It will follow that these human values should be brought into play, even when dealing with entities that themselves appear to operate under different or unknown motivations.  This includes other life forms and earth systems.

Liberal hedonism: 

Liberal hedonism would appear to be a major component in the orthodoxy of current western societies.  It has replaced cultures of restraint and honour.  The presumptions of this stance are that the principal objectives of human endeavour are self-preservation, enjoyment and happiness. Progress is also an important element of this view and is seen as a quest to increase the scope and availability of all possible means to achieve happiness and enjoyment.  The corollary to this is absolute freedom of human activity except where one person’s or an institution’s activity endangers other people’s health or security, or unacceptably curtails another’s ability to achieve happiness and enjoyment.  Liberal hedonism can take a prudent, well-informed and long-term view and can be compassionate when considering human relationships, but the morality it eschews is measured wholly in terms of anthropocentric values.  Liberal hedonism does not demand a particular economic and productive system though it is likely to tend towards industrialism and a free market economy since these systems seem to deliver the objects of happiness in abundance.

Market economics:

The demand, supply and growth philosophy is the basis of the market economics based stance.  There is no doubt that, in the guise of capitalism, it was one of the factors that underpinned the wealth of the Western nations through the twentieth century even though it was also accompanied by widespread human exploitation.  It is a development of liberal hedonism, though conceivably not the only one.  It presumes that the engine of our society and consequently the source of its dominant values is the creation of material wealth.  It has come to be based on impersonal “mass” or statistical human behaviours, relationships and ambitions that derive from a combination of the division of labour, economies of scale and capital-intensive industrialised production methods.  This ethos almost crept up on society as a result of the aggressively commercial goals and values of the industrial revolution.  It is also inextricably tied up with the culture of the joint stock market that financed industrial growth.  The art of the industrialist is to identify demands and then find a wealth generating way of meeting them.  The supply of goods and services to the public is a means to another end, the generation of wealth for the industrialist and his shareholders.  The financial market, by now driven by the demands also of investors (many of whom of course are ordinary citizens looking for a secure pension), requires increasing value from shares as well as profit in the form of dividends and consequently looks all the time for growth in its investments.  The ideal of an equilibrium between demand and supply is shattered by the need for growth.  This creates the guiding myth that overall growth within the state economy is essential and an important measure of economic health.

Closely associated with the free market philosophy is the notion of competition.  In a competitive economy it is essential to sustain public awareness of a given product, its importance to the consumer and the fact that it is better than or cheaper than its rivals.  Advertising is thus a fundamental part of the equation.  While any modern economy is likely to incorporate these elements, the demand, supply, growth philosophy specifically places these systems at the core of society and their values are written large as the essential and unassailable drivers of our society.  Ultimately culture and morality become subservient to them.  The strength of this stance is its capacity to demonstrate how seductive improvements to the quality of life are a result of the application of its beliefs and principles. Nevertheless its seductiveness should not be allowed to cloud its self-sustaining circularity (virtuous or vicious though it may be), its increasing triviality, its aggressively anthropocentric values and the often hidden paradox of wealth creation through wealth deprivation.

A holistic view of weal:

A holistic view of weal would offer a more rounded view of human well-being and equilibrium with nature.  Such a perspective would not necessarily be in contradiction with liberal hedonism, since it is still essentially anthropocentric, but it might go a long way towards putting human activity into a better relationship with the earths systems while at the same time curing some current cultural, social and political ills.  Weal is an old word, probably actually archaic, but one that has a greater depth in describing the human condition than does the concept of wealth.  Wealth is really about material things, essentially about purchasing power.  Weal encompasses spiritual, cultural, social and political, as well as economic and material values.  It deals with the whole human being and his or her rights, expectations and relationships as well as the extent that these conditions facilitate self-fulfilment.  It promotes a world-view that can challenge the demand, supply and growth philosophy by questioning both the quality of life it delivers and its effect on the whole living world and its natural resources.

A reverential perspective:

A reverential perspective is often a crucial part of traditional religions.  In today’s climate of freedom and independence for the individual it seems to many people to be an anachronism.  The liberal hedonist stance is a great leveller of people and once we regard everyone as no more than our equal and with the modernist challenge to the idea of a deity, to whom or to what should we ever owe reverence?  This is, perhaps a central problem of our current culture.  In Christian religion, which I know most about, and others too, I believe, the individual is thought capable of establishing a personal relationship with God.  This is a reverential relationship, which varies from a simple respect for a sentience more wise and powerful than ones self to a placatory or plea-full activity.  For the agnostic or atheist this personal relationship with a deity is one of the central difficulties of the religious concept of God along with the closely associated cultures of anthropomorphism and interventionism, notions now seemingly undermined by science.

But, if one were needed, the only antidote to hedonism must be the acknowledgement of a power and therefore a morality beyond humanity and its enlightened self-interest.  Religion is based on belief and faith, not scientific proof, and while this does not (as many scientists, often fighting old battles, argue passionately) undermine its legitimacy it does leave traditional theistic religion as a partisan culture since agnostic and atheist views are also tenable and not of necessity amoral.  In a world culture we need a morality that allows individual or partisan religious beliefs, but which also allows an overarching reverence.  If one cannot help but feel awe in the face of the magnificence of the universe and the intricacy of biological phenomena and evolution, then reverence of a kind must surely follow, whether one believes in a metaphysics or not, whether one believes in a teleological universe or not.  Such a reverence would place human activity back within the context of a greater power, albeit possibly ultimately one that is impersonal and non-sentient.  It would also allow us to enter back into a personal, spiritual relationship with nature and the cosmos.

A just eco-democracy:

A just eco-democracy provides a perspective that is perhaps more immediately powerful than the last two stances considered above because it springs from the heart of our human existence, experience and relationships.  It does, however, embody a moral code, but because it is to do with human and social relationships and inter-human justice, it should be easy for fair and liberal people to accept and can thus sit more comfortably with current economic, scientific and political convention.

In a just democracy any human activity that is to be allowed to affect nature (the more than human world) would need to offer a legitimate benefit to at least one sector of humanity while demonstrating that:

1) It would not compromise the right of humanity as a whole or any other sector to avoid its effects

2) The benefit cannot be achieved with less impact

3) The manipulation will not result in the irrevocable loss of any biological species or irrevocable change to any earth system

4) It involves neither overt nor covert violation of accepted human values of justice, stewardship, compassion and aesthetics with respect to the land, biota, sentient creatures and other members of humankind

In a just democracy, the first principle of behaviour would be that no one sector of society would be allowed to destroy the absolute freedom of opportunity of another.  There are two difficulties with the practical achievement of a truly just democracy and they are nothing to do with morality or ethics, one is to do with the limits of human knowledge and the other with differences of value.  Because of this the other important cornerstone of a just democracy should be the precautionary principle.  There is also the difficulty of cumulative or scale effects of human activity, where for instance, while fishing is in principle not wrong, fishing to the extent that the balance of a given species is threatened with extinction is.

What stance should the designer adopt to secure a just democracy?  I would advocate the rebalancing of the designer’s stance in favour of the last three of the principals described above.  Clearly the human condition is complex and simplified ideas such as these are partial interpretations of the human condition.  Over emphasis or over simplification of stance leads to ideologies that can become unhealthy. Neither is evangelicalism attractive to the majority.  In a world driven by the twin ideologies of liberal hedonism and market economics I suggest that it is essential that designers (and indeed all purveyors of professional services) face squarely and honestly both the world they perceive and the stance they adopt in response as the basis of their practice.  This alone would raise the level of any debate about design principles or design quality.

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