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Ethics in design: Pluralism and the case for justice in inclusive design



The growing recognition of ethics’ relevance to design fuelled the development of ethics- and value-centred design approaches. Despite their potential to address ethics in design proactively, they are criticized for failing to clarify their goals and explicate their theoretical basis. Since any ethical theory recruited in design must take seriously the fact of pluralism, only principle-based normative theories – as contrasted with value-based theories – seem fit. We explore what such a principlebased approach might look like in the context of inclusive design, where the issue of pluralism gives rise to an apparent paradox between the aim of designing for the widest possible audience and that of taking difference seriously. We show how this paradox can be addressed by applying John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. In addition, we demonstrate that, without being explicated, elements of this theory are at work in existing inclusive design techniques, be it not always consistently. In doing so, we seek to contribute to a general framework for addressing the challenges related to ethics in design.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0
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Ethics in design: Pluralism and the case for justice in
inclusive design
a Università di Milano-Bicocca
b KU Leuven, Dept. of Architecture, Research[x]Design
* Corresponding author e-mail:
doi: 10.21606/dma.2017.221
The growing recognition of ethics’ relevance to design fuelled the development of
ethics- and value-centred design approaches. Despite their potential to address
ethics in design proactively, they are criticized for failing to clarify their goals and
explicate their theoretical basis. Since any ethical theory recruited in design must
take seriously the fact of pluralism, only principle-based normative theories as
contrasted with value-based theories seem fit. We explore what such a principle-
based approach might look like in the context of inclusive design, where the issue of
pluralism gives rise to an apparent paradox between the aim of designing for the
widest possible audience and that of taking difference seriously. We show how this
paradox can be addressed by applying John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. In
addition, we demonstrate that, without being explicated, elements of this theory are
at work in existing inclusive design techniques, be it not always consistently. In doing
so, we seek to contribute to a general framework for addressing the challenges
related to ethics in design.
ethics; inclusive design; justice; pluralism
1. Introduction
Ethics and values are increasingly recognised to be highly relevant to designers and design activity.
This relevance follows straightforwardly from the definition of artefacts in the context of design as
“objects embedded in use plans” – a use plan being an action plan that involves manipulating some
object in order to achieve the intended goal (Houkes & Vermaas 2010, p. 137).
This definition holds
for both everyday items like tea bags and television sets, and technologically complex objects like
bridges and microchips. All these artefacts are individuated by the properties agents attribute to
them in the context of an action plan in which they serve to achieve the intended ends. These ends
can either relate to agents’ preferences, or respond to what agents value.
As a result of this growing recognition, several design approaches have been advanced as explicitly
focusing on ethics and values (Vermaas, Hekkert, Manders-Huits & Tromp, 2015), ranging from
“value-sensitive design” (e.g., Friedman, 2014, Davis & Nathan, 2015) to “design for values” (Kroes &
van de Poel, 2015), and targeting values as diverse as
human dignity, justice, welfare, human rights, privacy, trust, informed consent, respect
for intellectual property rights, universal usability, environmental sustainability, moral
responsibility, accountability, honesty, and democracy. (Manders-Huits, 2011, p. 275)
The potential of value-sensitive design, for instance, is well appreciated (Manders-Huits, 2011, p.
it recognises the importance of designing in a way that is conscious of human and moral
values rather than considering value retrospectively, i.e., after artefacts have been
introduced in society;
it seems especially appropriate in dealing with potentially diverse users and the values they
Despite the praiseworthiness of these approaches, several scholars have criticized them for being
underdeveloped: they fail to clarify their goals and explicate their theoretical basis (Albrechtslund,
2007, Manders-Huits, 2011, Davis & Nathan, 2015). Starting from this critique, we argue in this
paper that, since any ethical theory recruited in design must take seriously the fact of pluralism, only
principle-based normative theories contrasted with value-based theories seem fit. Subsequently
we explore what such a principle-based theoretical approach might look like in relation to design.
To this end, we focus on inclusive design, a context where the design challenges resulting from
pluralism are particularly apparent. After justifying this focus, we investigate to what extent these
challenges can be addressed by a principle-based theory in inclusive design, and how this theory
aligns with other approaches advanced in this context. We conclude by highlighting the broader
relevance of our exercise and outlining directions for future research.
2. From values to principles in design
In analysing whether value-sensitive design can meet the requirements associated with a
(normative) methodology for implementing values in design, Manders-Huits (2011) convincingly
argues that it falls short in a variety of interrelated ways. Of the shortcomings she identifies, the
following are particularly relevant in the context of this paper.
The first shortcoming concerns the methodology proposed by value-sensitive design, which
encompasses empirical research (c.q., surveys) to expose the values of stakeholders involved in the
design. This implicitly assumes that, once one knows what stakeholders value, one knows what to do
in a normative sense. “This,” Manders-Huits (2011) contends, “is where [the approach] runs the risk
of committing the naturalistic fallacy, i.e. of reducing an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’” (p. 279). Indeed, collecting
stakeholders’ values does not solve any normative issue, as the collected values only describe what
people prefer or value; they do not prescribe how one should design for them. In a normative sense,
value-sensitive design can thus be said to be a case of a value-neutral approach.
A second shortcoming is that, while the concept of values is central to value-sensitive design, its
proponents remain descriptive regarding their conceptualization. As such they “avoid the meta-
ethical question about the nature of values just as much as the normative ethical question
concerning which values matter, why, and to what degree” (ibid., p. 281; see also Albrechtslund,
2007). This is problematic, since different people tend to hold different values which may conflict.
Indeed, they can be expected to disagree about the priority different issues should be accorded as
they diverge in their interests and needs, and the conceptions of the good to weigh these. This
condition is what political philosophers commonly take to be characteristic of modern, pluralistic
society. Although different readings exist of what pluralism amounts to, the common view is that
people in a democratic society tend to be committed to different and conflicting ethical beliefs,
values, and conceptions of what it is to lead a good life (Rawls, 1993; Habermas, 1996; Gutman and
Thompson, 2004). Prioritizing between these conflicting perspectives requires a normative
Third, and directly following from the condition of pluralism, is that value-sensitive design is missing
an explicit ethical theory that outlines how to make and justify decisions in situations where values
conflict or are incommensurable. Moreover, such a theory is needed to be able to make sense of the
distinction between values and preferences without which anything people value can be taken to
be merely the expression of a preference and sort out what is morally relevant. Without explicit
commitment to an ethical theory, approaches like value-sensitive design are ethically neutral tools
that might as well be used to operationalize harmful values (Albrechtslund, 2007).
The latter points at a fourth shortcoming which Manders-Huits briefly mentions that relates to
the issue of autonomy. In value-sensitive design, it is unclear who makes the final decision on how to
prioritize these competing values:
is this left up to the majority of stakeholders to decide, i.e. when a certain value is
ranked as important by a certain percentage of people, or is it left up to the designers?
(Manders-Huits 2011, p. 283)
On the one hand, exposing what stakeholders value through surveys seems rather limited if
stakeholders are not given voice in actually deciding about which values are given priority. On the
other hand, if decisions are left up to the majority of the stakeholders, what about minorities? In
either case, what is otherwise stressed as an important value namely, autonomy seems to be
ignored by value-sensitive design.
More in general, the discourse about values in design is often cast in rather vague and indeterminate
terms. Design approaches that explicitly focus on ethics and values give the impression of a
moralizing attitude, yet often fail to articulate what issues are at stake in that they do not distinguish
(moral) values from preferences. Normative and descriptive issues seem to be conflated, while little
attention is paid to the autonomy of those who will use what is being designed. Manders-Huits
(2011) therefore advocates complementing value-sensitive design methods by clarifying and
explaining the overall (ethical) goals and explicating the ethical theory to be used, not only to
demarcate moral values but also to provide a basis on which to make principled judgments about
which values are most important to support.
While we agree with Manders-Huits’ analysis and critique, we would like to add that starting from a
theory of values (instead of from describing people’s value beliefs or judgments) as such does not
necessarily solve the problem. Indeed, if a designer settles the value theoretical issue first and
assesses stakeholders’ view accordingly, she may find herself either being liable of paternalism if
designers’ moral knowledge is normatively privileged – or in the same condition as the people
observed if designers’ moral beliefs are descriptively taken as just one among other views. Within
the specific context of ICT design, van den Hove (2010) therefore stresses that “there is no other way
for moral thinking in the field of ICTS than to embrace a robust conceptual and value pluralism” and
that “the conception of ethical theory or ethical thinking must accommodate the pluralist condition”
(p. 61). More in general, we suggest that any ethical theory that is recruited in the context of design
must take seriously the fact that people differ in their conception of the good and therefore only a
principle-based normative theory set against value-based theories can do.
3. Zooming in on inclusive design
In exploring what a principle- rather than value-based theoretical approach in design would amount
to, we focus on the context of inclusive design. Based on the premise that human abilities
considerably vary and are strongly affected by design (Clarkson & Coleman, 2015), inclusive design
seeks to “ensure that […] products and services address the needs of the widest possible audience,
irrespective of age or ability” (Design Council, 2009).
The reason for choosing this focus is that, while the issues outlined above hold for design in general,
they are particularly outspoken in inclusive design to the extent that they give rise to a paradox
(Bianchin & Heylighen, 2017): inclusive design prescribes to address the needs of the widest possible
audience in order to take into account human differences, yet taking human differences seriously
seems to imply that nothing can be designed that meets the needs of everyone, so that “the widest
possible audience” may turn out to be severely restricted.
This paradox is naturally connected with the condition of pluralism sketched above in that it results
from the need to answer different and potentially conflicting needs. More specifically the very
purpose of designing for the widest possible audience faces two connected problems, insofar as a
moderate scarcity of resources can be taken to be common in human affairs:
1. “many users with severe functional impairments require solutions that would hamper other
users” (Keates, 2015, p. 392);
2. “[i]t is often hard to prioritize which issues are the most important to fix and, occasionally,
which ones may actually harm the overall usability and accessibility of the product” (Keates,
2015, p. 398).
A classic example used to illustrate these problems is that of sidewalks flattening into the street:
while required by people in a wheelchair, these curb cuts may hamper vision impaired pedestrians
who rely on a sharp curb to detect the edge of the sidewalk. Which of both is more important is not
immediately clear.
Addressing conflicting needs and prioritizing issues is difficult enough where users are
homogeneous, yet in the case of inclusive design, they are often very heterogeneous. Keates
therefore concludes that organizations and designers need assistance to help prioritize issues (ibid.).
This acknowledges that in a condition of pluralism issues do not order themselves according to a
naturally shared system of priorities since people tend to disagree about the priority different issues
should be given.
A moderate scarcity of resources and the fact of pluralism prototypically design the conditions under
which a conflict of interest raises questions of justice: they require fixing some principles for
distributing goods in situations where conflicting claims arise about the priority to be accorded to
satisfying specific needs and interests.
4. Exploring a principle-based approach
In addressing the questions of justice raised in the context of inclusive design, we are investigating to
what extent a solution is offered by the theory of justice as fairness advanced by John Rawls
(Bianchin & Heylighen, 2017, 2018). Rawls’ work for the first time gave rise to talk about design in
ethics (van den Hoven 2010, p. 76). The main reason to look at this theory in the context of this
paper, however, is that it is principle-based: it explicitly aims at justifying the principles of justice
that govern the distribution of benefits resulting from social cooperation among agents differing in
their capacities, social position, and conception of the good. Below we introduce Rawls’ approach
and summarize how some conceptual tools it provides may offer a way out of the paradox of
inclusive design.
4.1. Justice as fairness
Rawls conceives society as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage marked by both identity and
conflict of interest: agents share an interest to cooperate because social cooperation “makes
possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely with his own effort”, yet
they conflict because
persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their
collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger
to a lesser share. (Rawls, 1999, p. 4)
Choosing among different social arrangements thus requires fixing principles that determine how to
distribute the burdens and benefits of cooperation. Those are the principles of justice.
The conceptual tools Rawls advances to confront the task are provided by the idea of the original
position, conceived as the hypothetical initial situation in which agents collectively choose the
principles for arranging basic social institutions. The assumption here is that social institutions
crucially rest on acceptance, as no system of cooperation that is supported by coercion or
“persuasion” can be stable over time (Rawls, 1999, p. 295, 1993, p. 142; Freeman, 2007, chap 3; see
also Searle, 1995, 2010). Such stability requires that the principles regulating the relevant social
arrangements be justified to those bound by them.
Rawls suggests that the principles of justice are justified to all if they are chosen under conditions
that constrain what counts as a good reason in the deliberation process to the effect the outcome is
recognizably impartial and fair. The idea is that, in order to achieve this result, agents are to choose
these principles under a veil of ignorance that blinds their knowledge of their own natural assets and
abilities, social position, and conception of the good, amongst others, but not the general knowledge
about psychology, society, economics, and human life provided by both scientific theories and
personal experience. As a consequence, the veil of ignorance screens out only the information that
would lead to arbitrarily favouring a specific party since
“we cannot reasonably expect our views to fall into line when they are affected by the
contingencies of our different circumstances. (Rawls, 1999, p. 517)
Rawls calls this situation “the original position” to indicate that it designs the conditions under
which social institutions are designed to be fair. Agents are taken to be rational in that they are
endowed with a conception of the good and the capacity for instrumental reasoning and they are
assumed to be motivated to agree on fair terms of cooperation and to comply with them once they
are in place. The principles of justice are the rational choice under impartial and fair conditions
they are what rational agents would choose if their choice were constrained by a veil of ignorance
that removes contingent bias and motives to the effect that reasons of each party are weighted
fairly: no party is granted a privileged position.
Rawls understands the original position as a “device of representation” (Rawls, 1985) designed to
convert a question of justification into a deliberative problem. The original position models the
conditions under which agents that regard themselves as free and equal are supposed to reach an
agreement, and therefore constrains what can be put forward as a good reason in deliberating the
principles of social justice. It constrains deliberation insofar as it conveys an impartial and fair point
of view that expresses agents’ self-conception as free and equal rational beings (Rawls, 1999, 1985;
Freeman, 2007; Barry, 1995). In other words, it conveys the idea that we cannot expect others to
accept principles that favour those in our position regarding natural or social advantages and a
specific conception of the good (Rawls, 1993, p. 24).
The expected result is that, under these conditions, rational agents choose principles that maximize
the position of the worst off while protecting individual freedom and a fair equality of opportunity.
Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic
liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings
(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of
(Rawls, 1999, p. 266, see for comments Freeman, 2007, Part 1)
A first important point to notice here is that justice is defined in purely procedural terms, since what
counts as the principles is generated by a procedure of choice that is constitutive of the correct
output. Justice, that is, is defined not independently from the procedure adopted to choose the
principles, but rather as the output of a procedure designed to tackle the problem of justification in
a situation where we cannot count on an independent standard for the output to meet and design a
procedure to meet that standard (Elgin, 1996).
A second point, relating to the issue of autonomy, is that this procedure is set up such that any
rational and reasonable actor accords with the outcome. Thus, if we asked who is to decide on how
to prioritize competing values according to this theory, the answer would be ‘everybody’.
4.2. Fairness in design
If we return to the paradox of inclusive design, the vantage point Rawls’ theory of justice offers is
rather obvious: there is no need to expose the values of all stakeholders involved through a survey,
as the methodology of value-sensitive design foresees. Instead a procedure is provided from which
can be derived whether a design is just according to the general structure of justice as fairness
(Barry, 1995; D’Agostino et al., 2012), i.e., by deliberating under a veil of ignorance that blinds
agents’ knowledge concerning their own capacities or limitations. Once the procedure is in place,
agents are expected to run their rational choice capacities. Therefore, while attention is paid to their
own view in that they endorse a conception of the good and act upon values, fixing the principles of
justice requires neither specific knowledge about their conception of the good, nor an assessment of
the connected value judgment in terms of a normative theory of value.
Fairness, however, can hardly be applied to inclusive design issues for single artefacts. Given human
differences, designing an artefact such that usability for the worst off is maximized, may severely
restrict the usability for other users. Indeed, if we focus on the design of single artefacts, either
fairness or inclusivity seem to fail: designers going for fairness, in the sense of maximizing usability
for the worst off, may compromise the usability for other users; on the other hand, designers going
for inclusivity, in the sense of addressing the needs of as many people as possible, might end up with
a solution that is not fair.
A possible way out, we suggest (Bianchin & Heylighen, 2018), is considering the overall distribution
of usability within a relevant social context, instead of the usability of single artefacts, as the
application domain for fairness in design. Counting as a relevant social context can be any group,
institution, or social relationship: a state, neighbourhood, or city, but also a transport system,
hospital, or the audience of a movie theatre.
We suggest that the framework of justice as fairness
applies not to the problem of designing specific artefacts in ways that maximize usability for the
worst off, but to a different problem: that of distributing usability within a social context taken as a
whole in a way that does so.
Considering fairness as a problem concerning the overall distribution of usability rather than
usability of single artefacts may thus involve accepting some difference in usability. Differential
access to usability can be accepted, provided that the distribution maximizes usability for the worst
off. In this sense, just design does not rest on whether everyone can use an artefact in the same
way. On the contrary, it can manage the fact that some will get more than others by considering a
solution just if and only if relative differences go generally to the advantage of the less able or most
disadvantaged. This in fact just mirrors in design the role of the second principle in Rawls’ theory of
This seems to provide a solution to the paradox of inclusive design. Addressing the questions of
justice raised in relation to design in a procedural way, and focusing on the social distribution of
usability rather than on usability of single artefacts, allows for a non-paradoxical understanding of
inclusive design. According to this understanding, the apparent contradiction between the aim of
designing for the widest possible audience and that of taking difference seriously can be treated as
raising a question of justice, and confronted by a procedural conception of justice as fairness.
As we have argued (Bianchin & Heylighen, 2018), this helps clarifying the relationship between
Universal and Inclusive Design. We can define design as “universal” if it accords with the sketched
procedure, and “inclusive” according to the people who are involved in the relevant decision-making
and thus whose autonomy is respected.
5. An ethical theoretical X-ray of inclusive design methods
So far we explored to what extent the theory of justice as fairness could be applied to address the
paradox of inclusive design, which is exemplary for a more general problem related to ethics in
design. To conclude our exercise, we analyse to what extent this approach aligns with design
techniques that have been advanced to support designers in designing inclusively. The techniques
discussed below both aim at assisting designers in dealing with conflicts. Although they do not
explicate which principles or theories they adopt, a closer look reveals that in the background, one
or more principle-based approaches are at play.
5.1. Statistical requirements prioritization
A first technique (or set of techniques) aims at assisting designers in prioritizing design requirements
by calling in statistical methods. In the context of inclusive kitchen design, Afacan and Demirkan
(2010) propose to prioritise requirements by combining factor analysis with existing techniques for
requirements’ prioritization in engineering (c.q., the planning game technique and the analytic
hierarchy process using a cost-value approach). In the context of home design, Demirkan and
Olguntürk (2014) combine factor analysis with multiple comparison tests to determine group
differences in each prioritized factor for diverse users.
Although at first sight the authors do not explicitly refer to a particular normative theory, underlying
their approaches at least some elements can be discerned. To start with, both approaches identify
design requirements by eliciting user needs through a survey asking participants to score items on a
5-point Likert scale from ‘least important’ to ‘most important’. Interesting to note is that, in the
recruiting of participants for this survey, special attention is paid to include those who are expected
to experience most difficulties with the design at stake. In a kitchen, for instance, able-bodied adults
may experience minimal difficulties, while children, pregnant women, older people and people with
a physical, vision and/or hearing impairment face diverse challenges when gaining access to cabinets
and storage areas, reaching counters, using appliances and operating controls (Afacan & Demirkan,
2010). This seems to suggest that these approaches, at least implicitly, use a conception of justice as
fairness. Indeed, by focusing attention on those who are expected to experience most difficulties in
a kitchen or home, the mentioned approaches focus on maximizing the benefit for the least
A second aspect that points in this direction, is their outspoken attention for differences in the
degree to which a certain requirement or factor is prioritized by diverse user groups. For instance,
although all user groups agreed that kitchen appliances like cook-top, oven and refrigerator should
be used easily, design solutions to provide ease show some varying details depending on the user
group (Demirkan & Olguntürk, 2014, 96). This suggests an awareness that addressing the needs of a
particular group is likely to introduce costs for others that must be considered. Although further
elaboration is absent, this implies that differences in usability can only be allowed as long as they
turn out to be justified that is, as long as reasons are provided for them that flow from some more
general principles, according to what justice as fairness predicts.
The way the issue is confronted by these techniques, however, entails that addressing the needs of
disadvantaged groups can only be allowed provided that it does not impose costs on all others:
Designers should not change their priorities according to a single user group, but
concentrate on designing for all people. (Demirkan & Olguntürk, 2014, p. 99)
Confronting the issue according to the theory of justice as fairness would entail precisely the
reverse, however: difference in usability can be allowed as long as the position of the least
advantaged is improved that is, differential usability is justified if and only if it goes to the benefit
of the worst-off, whatever the costs (or additional benefits) it involves for other users. By contrast,
stipulating that designers need to concentrate on all people seems to suggest that such difference is
not allowed and, as a result, that the paradox remains unresolved.
5.2. Exclusion calculations
A second technique is called exclusion calculations. It has been advanced in the context of product
design as particularly helpful “not just to identify usability issues, but also to prioritize them so that
redesign efforts can be allocated appropriately” (Goodman-Deane et al., 2014, p. 892). Exclusion
calculations enable designers to specify the capability demands placed on users by each stage of
interaction with the product, and display how many people cannot meet those demands and thus
would be excluded (Keates, 2015). To this end, the technique relies on a dataset produced by the
Disability Follow-up Survey (Goodman-Deane et al., 2014, p. 892).
Calculations are considered helpful in prioritizing issues for two reasons:
they help identifying where improvements may fail to have the expected impact because
other aspects of the design are still problematic. For example, in a comparing the usability of
three autoinjectors (medical devices delivering medicine through the skin using a needle),
exclusion calculations revealed that changes to the device only reduced exclusion slightly
because people were still excluded by the demands of cleaning the injection site (Goodman-
Deane et al., 2014).
they allow ranking product aspects by how many people they affect, e.g., how many people
cannot see a label (Keates 2015). This ranking is then used to decide where to allocate
further design efforts:
The population exclusion figures […] are useful for assessing the numbers of people
affected by design issues and determining if changes are worthwhile. (Goodman-Deane
et al., 2014, p. 893)
When looking at this technique in more detail, we notice that it focuses attention on those who are
excluded by one or more design aspects of a product. As such, exclusion calculations too seem to
start from an implicit conception of justice as fairness. Indeed, they concentrate on those who are
the least advantaged by a product design even to the extent that they are excluded by it.
At the same time, however, exclusion calculations also seem to hold elements that resonate with a
very different principle-based approach known as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism comes in many
varieties, but for the sake of this paper can be taken as resting generally on Bentham’s “fundamental
axiom” that "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and
wrong" (Bentham 1977, p. 393, 440 footnote). Notwithstanding the (implicit) Rawlsian starting point
of exclusion calculations to focus on the least advantaged, the criterion for deciding where to
allocate design efforts to confront conflicting demands within the target group is the number of
people affected. That is possibly conflictual demands are answered not by relying on the second
principle of justice, but by prioritizing issues according to the proportion of people who are affected
among those included in the exclusion calculations. This seems to align at least implicitly with an
utilitarian approach in that it focusses on the aggregated output: the number of people whose needs
are addressed sets the standard against which the resulting design is assessed. In a Rawlsian
framework, by contrast, issues would be prioritized according to the position of the worst off in
terms of the capability demands placed on users not by the number of people affected.
5.3. Discussion
In exploring what a principle-based approach in design might look like, we considered two
techniques that explicitly aim at supporting designers in dealing with conflicting claims in inclusive
design. Striking about both is that they set out to offer (part of) a solution to the paradox of inclusive
design without recognizing it as a paradox. First, although these techniques aim at offering a solution
for dealing with conflicting claims, they do not seem to acknowledge the paradox raised for inclusive
design. Second, and by consequence, they do not make explicit that any solution of the paradox
entails making choices that implicitly involve ethical assumptions.
At the same time, some elements do hint at certain ethical assumptions. In particular, both
techniques clearly reflect an ethical claim to take care of the worst off. These assumptions are not
pursued consistently, however, and end up being combined with assumptions that may in fact be
Rawls characteristically contrasts his conception of justice as fairness with utilitarian conceptions
precisely because the solution offered crucially differs from maximizing aggregated utility. The
reason is that in the original position individuals are represented as distinct bearers of interest and
unanimity is required, so that the rational choice of the principles is sensible to how goods are
distributed among individuals. For a utilitarian view of justice, by contrast,
“[…] it does not matter, except indirectly, how this sum of satisfaction is distributed
among individuals any more than it matters, except indirectly, how one man distributes
his satisfaction over time.” (Rawls 1999, p. 23)
Applied to inclusive design, we could say that an utilitarian approach does not take into account how
usability is distributed among users, while a Rawlsian approach does.
Notwithstanding these techniques’ praiseworthy aim to support designers in addressing conflicting
claims in inclusive design, our analysis of their underlying assumptions illustrates the importance of
clarifying and explaining of overall (ethical) goals and explicating the ethical theory to be used.
6. Conclusion
Starting from a critical reading of ethics- or value-centred design approaches, we argued for a
principle-based normative approach to design and set out to explore what this might look like. To
this end, we zoomed in on the paradox of inclusive design and tried to address it by presenting a
broadly Rawslian approach. Subsequently, we analysed to what extent this approach aligns with
other methods and techniques advanced in this context.
In doing so, we showed that what several scholars raise as a problem in the relationship between
ethics and design in general i.e., the problem of dealing with pluralism is a matter of fact in
inclusive design. By focusing on this context, we framed the problem as a paradox, and, looking for a
way out, confronted it as a general question arising from the demand to meet people’s needs that is
placed on inclusive design. By comparing the approach we propose with techniques advanced in
inclusive design, we moreover demonstrated that it partially aligns with them, but also that
underlying these techniques multiple ethical assumptions are at play that are not necessarily
Several challenges remain to be addressed, however. One challenge relates to fixing the metrics of
justice: once the principles of justice are in place, the question arises what is to be distributed
according to them. Rawls’ theory focuses on distributing primary goods, i.e., income and wealth,
basic rights and liberties, the powers connected with offices and positions, and the social basis of
self-respect. In design, however, there may be no purely instrumental features of artefacts that play
the role primary goods because there may be no way to abstract teleology away from usability, i.e.,
an artefact’s instrumental value from what it enables. Thus, while the standards of justice still can
possibly be fixed by the tools a broadly Rawlsian approach provides, considerations about its metrics
likely may need to undergo some revision (Bianchin & Heylighen, 2018).
Another challenge relates to identifying the worst off in applying justice as fairness to design. Given
the specific capacities and limitations affecting users in the context of design, this identification will
likely require taking into account the first person knowledge to which users have privileged access
from their own experience or perspective (Bianchin & Heylighen, 2018). In this respect, it has been
argued that inclusive design requires a deliberative component, which allows users to participate in
the design process (Heylighen and Bianchin, 2013). This moment should be fed into our account to
address the problem of gathering reliable information about the relative position of the addressees.
It should be seen as complementary rather than an alternative to the theory of justice as fairness in
this sense, as it addresses the question of how the standards of justice are to be implemented, when
the veil of ignorance is lifted and the information about specific personal, social, and environmental
conditions is provided for them to apply in a specific context. While involving users’ first person
knowledge is not new in design it is at the core of endeavours in participatory and co-design
justice as fairness offers a way to frame their involvement by fixing the standards and specifying the
question to be answered in the deliberation.
In addressing these challenges, we are exploring a set of real-world design examples as a way to get
a grip on the conceptual tools a Rawlsian approach provides and the ways it may open for empirical
analysis (Heylighen & Bianchin, forthcoming). By focusing attention on its empirical relevance, we
seek to help designers in making sense of the approach as a viable way to think about design rather
than as a piece of theoretical work or philosophical speculation about design. In addition, we hope
that the approach we came up with in the particular context of inclusive design by the same token
may be relevant for the discussion on ethics and design in general, and contribute to a general
framework for dealing with pluralism in design.
7. Acknowledgements
This work was supported by the Research Fund KU Leuven in the form of a Senior Fellowship [grant
N° SF/16/005] and by the Academia Belgica.
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About the Authors:
Matteo Bianchin is associate professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca. He was
DAAD research fellow at the University of Cologne and Marie-Curie Fellow at KU
Leuven. His research focuses on the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of social
sciences, and political philosophy.
Ann Heylighen is research professor at KU Leuven and co-chairs the
Research[x]Design group. She studies how space is experienced, how space is
designed, and the relationship between both. She received two ERC grants for her
work on architectural design and disability.
Vardouli (2015) categorises attitudes towards human-artefact relations in design-centric, communicative, and
use-centric ones. Houkes and Vermaas’ definition seems to be compatible with all three.
Buwert (2017) describes this intimate relation between ethics and design as follows: design is by nature an
activity which extends and transforms potentiality and that therefore, because of this, it is always an ethical
activity. This foundational ethicality does not guarantee that design will always be good, but rather that it
always possesses within itself the simultaneous potentiality for both good and evil (p.1).
In this paper we use ‘inclusive design’ (with lowercase) as an umbrella term for several design approaches
(with uppercase) that aim at inclusiveness. Depending on the continent or region, they are called Universal
Design (Mace, 1985; Preiser & Ostroff, 2001), Inclusive Design (Coleman, 1994; Imrie & Hall, 2001) or Design
for All (EIDD 2004). While differences exist in how these approaches have evolved, the similarities are more
apparent (Ostroff, 2011). In particular, all three share the same purpose.
Moreover, in aiming at inclusiveness, inclusive design seems connected with an attitude according to which
design processes should include all who are affected by their output, which is consistent with a deliberative
approach (Heylighen & Bianchin, 2013) and with paying respect to stakeholders’ autonomy.
The idea of moderate scarcity in this context is not meant to suggest a condition in which resources are
subject to especially severe limitations. Instead it is meant to convey the rather uncontroversial view that
human agency is constrained by the fact that resources are insufficient to satisfy all possible needs and/or
desires. This is paradigmatically the condition under which a demand for justice arises (Hume, 1738-49; Rawls,
For a more elaborate discussion, including concrete examples, see (Bianchin & Heylighen, 2018).
Identifying the relevant social context may well be a pragmatic matter: depending on the issue at stake, the
relevant target of design justice may be a certain group, association, or institution, as well as the whole
For the time being we would argue that usability measures the degree in which agents can convert a design
into a functioning. These conversion factors have to do not only with functional aspects such as affordance
(e.g., accessibility), but also with meaning making (e.g., hominess, stigma) (Heylighen & Bianchin,
... Another stream of research conducted by Bianchin and Heylighen [43] explores the relationship between ethics and values in inclusive design. There exists a paradox in inclusive design philosophy between 'addressing the needs of the widest possible audience' and 'considering human differences' [44]. ...
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Inclusive design approaches like universal design prescribe addressing the needs of the widest possible audience in order to consider human differences. Taking differences seriously, however, may imply that “the widest possible audience” is severely restricted. In confronting this paradox, we recruit Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. Applying Rawls’ principles to universal design implies that users derive which design allows for equitable use by deliberating under a veil of ignorance concerning their own capacities or limitations. Rather than addressing everyone’s needs, being designed universally then means matching what everyone would choose under the condition sketched. Since this can hardly apply to single artefacts, we suggest considering the social distribution of usability as the proper domain of fairness in design instead. Under this reading, just design concerns how usability is distributed across relevant users. Differences in usability are acceptable if overall usability for the worst offs is maximized.
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A major barrier to designing inclusive built environments is inherent to the very idea of inclusive design: this idea prescribes designing environments that address the needs of the widest possible audience in order to consider human differences, yet taking differences seriously may imply severely restricting ‘the widest possible audience’. Inclusive design thus faces a paradox that is naturally connected with a question of justice. In confronting this paradox, we are investigating to what extent the theory of justice as fairness may apply to design. According to this theory, whether a design allows for equitable use is to be deliberated by users under a veil of ignorance concerning their own capacities or limitations. Since this can hardly apply to single artefacts, the social distribution of usability seems the proper domain of fairness in design. Under this reading, differences in usability are acceptable if overall usability for the ‘worst off’ is maximized. What this means for built environment design is explored in this article: how to understand usability, how to socially distribute it, and how to identify the ‘worst off’ in this context? In considering these questions, we seek to contribute to strengthening the theoretical basis of inclusive design, while offering built environment professionals a hold in confronting its paradox.
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