Great websites should aspire to be:
- Accessible to folks with varying cognitive and physical abilities and disabilities
- Secure and reliable for storing, manipulating, and transferring information
- Performant on average devices and in constrained or unreliable network conditions
- Inclusive to diverse audiences and produced by diverse teams to create better experiences
- Responsive in adapting the user interface contextually to any screen
- Ethical in how users’ preferences and data are handled
I’m interested in the last one: E for Ethical.
What constitutes “ethical” web practice?
While we have pretty well established standards and practices for the first five; Accessible, Secure, Performant, Inclusive, Responsive; we have yet to establish what “Ethical web design and development” means, what it looks like and how it is practiced.
Part of the problem is the term “ethics” is often equated with statements like “do no harm” or practices to avoid legal issues. In reality, ethics refers to the principles and practices we agree upon as a society to judge the goodness and rightness of acts. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics describes it like this:
“ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.”
In short, ethics is about practice, how we conduct ourselves and how we judge our actions.
Ethics cannot be summed up as “do no harm” because that leaves the door open to moral relativism: what is harm, to whom is this harm being done, who decides this is harmful, etc.
So what then is ethical practice in relation to web work? Here’s my rough draft to start a conversation about a definition:
Ethical web design and development practice: Work focused on human flourishing through ethical practice and methodology and centered on the rights, capabilities, and agency of the end-user.
What is “ethical practice?” Design and development practice rooted in ethical principles.
What are “ethical principles?” Principles derived from well-established moral philosophies including Consequentialism (specifically Utilitarianism), Duty Ethics, Virtue Ethics, and Capability Approach. I wrote a huge article for Smashing Magazine about how to use these in web design, and also done some talks on the topic:
Bottom line, ethical practice is about the doing and being of the practitioner, whether they see their users as ends or means to an end, whether they put “ought” before “can”, and prioritize the agency of those they act upon. It’s about how we judge the goodness and rightness of our work.
I’m really excited about this conversation, and I hope we can get together as a community and figure out what ASPIRE means to us, and how we want to define Ethical web design so we can come together around shared principles and practices and carve meaningful paths into the future for other people and for ourselves.