Ethics can’t be a side hustle

In the last few months I’ve had a lot of designers ask me “Where can I do good work?”And they don’t mean “good” as in quality. They mean good as in “on the side of the angels.” They look at the world, they see a garbage fire, and they wanna help put it out. That’s commendable. If there’s been a shred of a silver lining lately, it’s been seeing so many people rally to activism. It gives me hope.

Where can you do good work? The answer is so obvious as to be painful. Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.

Last night I found myself at a meetup for tech people wanting to help non-profits. It was a seriously commendable endeavor. I applaud the people who threw it, and the people who attended it, but since I’m about to dump ice water on their dreams I won’t mention their names. Because I’m sure everyone meant well. (And they’re certainly more commendable than people who ain’t doing shit.)

But here’s the thing. You can’t help Uber build Greyball during the day, or help Palantir design databases to round up immigrants as your main gig, and then buy ethics offsets by doing a non-profit side hustle. We need you to work ethically during that day job much more than we need you working with that non-profit.

You can’t buy ethics offsets for the terrible things you do at your day job.

As designers, developers, engineers, or whatever you call yourself these days, you need to realize that there is an ethical component to what we do. And it’s more important than ever to exercise that judgement. It’s not optional. It’s not something you adapt to the ethics, or lack thereof, of your employer, and it’s not something you can save for a side hustle.

Every Uber employee who touched Greyball, a tool meant to deceive people working for the public good, failed an ethics test. They were either told exactly what the tool would be used for, or they didn’t do their due diligence in finding out. But every designer who touched the tool failed an ethics test. Every engineer who touched the tool failed an ethics test. Every project manager who touched the tool failed an ethics test. Every one down the line failed an ethics test. And passing those tests during your day jobs are infinitely more important than helping a non-profit for a few hours a week.

Ethics in design: Should the poor behavior of big businesses concern the designers that work for them?

A recent tweet by the AIGA.

How is this even a question? How is ethics in design (or tech) even debatable? Can you imagine any other industry debating whether they needed to consider ethics? Can you imagine doctors debating whether ethics are important? Actually, they do. They debate ethics every day. But they’re far beyond debating whether they’re important, and on to deliberating the more interesting fine points. Where, honestly, is where we need to be if we’re writing software for self-driving cars and smart vibrators.

Can you imagine a doctor not telling you about a dark spot they found on an x-ray because they didn’t want to upset you? Can you imagine an auto mechanic not telling you your brakes are shot because they didn’t want to deal with the problem, or telling you that your good brakes were shot so they could hustle you out of a few extra bucks? Both are unethical. And when other industries behave unethically we get upset. Yet, many of us seem to have no problem behaving unethically ourselves. We design databases for collecting information, without giving a second thought what that information will be used for.

As a community have we fallen to the level of debating the importance of ethics that’s usually reserved for politicians, bankers, hedge fund managers, pimps, and bookies?

A process flow put together by a designer at Palantir to round up immigrants.

A process flow put together by a designer at Palantir to round up immigrants.

If you want to do good work, and I really hope you do, start doing it at your day job. Start asking questions about what you’re building. Start asking questions about who benefits from what you’re building. Start asking questions about who gets hurt by what you’re building. And take a look at your team. Does it look like the audience you’re trying to reach? Especially if you’re building something in the social sphere, where trust and safety is paramount.

Ask your managers these questions as well. And if you’re not satisfied with their answers stop working. Designing something without understanding the ramifications of what it does is as unethical as designing something you know to be harmful.

But, won’t somebody else make it? I get this question a lot too. And the answer is yes. They might. And holy shit that can make you feel powerless. It really can. But here’s the thing. Just because the person next to you might be an asshole, that’s not a very good excuse for you to be one. I get that you don’t want to lose your job. I get that you have rent to pay. But earning your living at the expense of someone else’s livelihood is not a good way to live.

So rather than ask yourself “won’t somebody else make it?” ask yourself “what if me saying no is the inspiration for other people to stand up?” What if me saying no is the first step in a movement? What if me saying no is the first step to making things right?

We can debate whether tech or design are neutral in nature for weeks. And it’s a conversation I look forward to. But whether they are or not, I know that people are not. You cannot afford to be neutral. Right now, more than ever you need to reach down deep into your core, find your ethical strength, and bring it to your day job with you every day.

Then we can talk about helping non-profits in the evening. And hurry up, because they do need your help.