Empathy: The Foundation of Moral Design

Seth Godin delivers a hilarious critique of poor design in this 2006 talk titled ‘This is Broken.”

In it, Godin lists the seven different ways he says that design can be “broken”:

  1. Not my job.
  2. Selfish jerks,
  3. The world changed.
  4. I didn’t know.
  5. I’m not a fish.
  6. Contradictions.
  7. Broken on purpose.

Excepting the last category, each of these issues demonstrates a lack of empathy — i.e., the ability to understand another person’s perspective. Sometimes empathy is confused with sympathy, but they mean different things.  Empathy requires us to use our imagination to cognitively understand the thoughts, feelings, perceptions or experiences of another person, without necessarily having those ourselves.  However, sympathy requires us to actually share the same feelings.  So we can exhibit both empathy and sympathy at the same time, but they are also separable.  For example, we might share feelings that we do not understand.  Alternatively, we might understand another’s perspective, but still not care.

Godin doesn’t point this out specifically, but the point of his talk seems to be that empathy for the user is the key to good design.  For example, in “I’m not a fish,” Godin points out that a culvert designer unable to see the culvert from the perspective of the fish may unwittingly fail to design a culvert that the fish can swim through.  Because the engineer specifying the culvert cannot actually BE a fish, or feel as a fish feels, only the engineer’s imagination could allow thinking like a fish.

Empathy is also one of the foundational pillars of morality, because moral issues only exist in the context of relationships.  Moral issues arise only because our actions have consequences for others,  When we consider these consequences in our own behavior, and consider the extent to which we might put our own well-being at risk for the sake of others, then we are thinking morally.  To understand those consequences, moral thinking requires us to be able to imagine them from the perspective of the person that will experience them.  Godin seems to be suggesting that every design constructs a relationship with the user, and where the designer imposes costs or hardships on the user (especially without the consent of the user!), then the design is immoral — and therefore subject to ridicule.

Nonetheless, Godin excepts the final category, “Broken on Purpose” from such harsh judgment.  Here, he recognizes that design sometimes can appeal only to a small niche of users that appreciate unique design characteristics that others would consider “broken.”  In this case, Godin claims, breaking the design on purpose sends a clear signal to users that correctly communicates the purpose of the artefact.

One implication of understanding empathy is a re-examination of the so-called “Golden Rule” that suggests we treat others as we expect others to treat us.  Nothing in this heuristic rule demands empathy.  That is, it requires only an understanding of ourselves — not others.  If society were entirely homogenous (all perspectives and experiences essentially the same), then perhaps the Golden Rule would work fine.  Obviously, society is not homogenous.  Therefore, the lack of empathy evident in the Golden Rule makes the rule itself amoral — i.e., lacking in moral substance.

One thought on “Empathy: The Foundation of Moral Design

  1. Pingback: Science is Personal | QESSTion

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