Ethics in Design / Development

Striking a balance between Ethics and Profits.

I’m a freelancer.  I’m a consultant.  I guess sometimes I’m a specialist.  Often, I’m just the guy that you call when you don’t know what exactly needs to be done and you want to apply a creative approach to any deficiencies or gaps you’re seeing in what you do.  I use a MacBook, an iPhone and occasionally some paper, but change the set of tools, some of the skills and essentially, I’m a mercenary.  If that sounds like a negative statement, I apologize, it’s not meant to be derisory. It’s really just all about ‘ethics’.

I only evoke the ‘mercenary’ tag since it’s a career title so often associated with a lack of, or perhaps just ‘looser than average’, ethics.  My past experiences as an employee were occasionally spotted with ethical dilemmas that I had to navigate my way through.  Those concerns were, however, few and far between and often with much less reach in the outside world.  Not at all like the sort that I, as a freelancer, find myself fumbling with.

To be clear and to put at ease any concerns about my character as an individual, let me first explain that I’m specifically referring to the ‘grey areas’.  Ethical issues that are ‘black and white’ in their composition, that’s not up for discussion.

Is it ok to over-charge a client?  Bleed them dry and maximize profit as much as one can by fudging hours, lying, providing them with services they don’t need, phantom charges, exorbitant rates, add-on service fees, etc?  Well obviously the answer there is NO.  Not only is that ‘wrong’ but anyone with any common sense will tell you that, as a business model, that doesn’t make any sense at all.  But this isn’t the sort of ethical dilemma I’m trying to broach either.

What about accepting a job with a client whose intent it is to defraud people?  Phishing scams, selling bootleg knock-off goods, scraping email addresses to sell on to spammers and marketing companies?  Credit card fraud?  Well, NO, that’s not acceptable either.  Helping your client steal, commit a crime or defraud anyone, like stealing from the client yourself, is a no-brainer.  You don’t do it.  As a general rule of thumb, just don’t be an asshole and you’re in the clear.

For most of us though, thankfully, the above examples have obvious answers.  This isn’t the case with some of the more personal dilemmas.

There is a fine balance between your personal ethics and profits.

Striking a balance between Ethics and Profit.

What about your opinions, beliefs, ideals, principles?  How does a designer/developer deal with any individual conflicts that arise within oneself that the client often isn’t even aware of?

I refuse to entertain the notion that I’m the only ‘designer-turned-wannabe-developer’ who got his start as a writer for small run local magazines, where one’s primary responsibility was to have an opinion and find a clever and entertaining way of expressing it several times a month.  So I’m confident that I’m not the only ‘writer-turned-designer-turned-wannabe-developer’ that often finds himself with a very steadfast opinion on any number of topics.

To be clear, I’m not actually struggling with some all consuming moral dilemma; the sort that occupies every spare thought I can muster anywhere between lines 800 and 1200 in the CSS file that’s currently open.  I will admit that on many occasions, while being spared the outright difficulty of having to make an actual decision about a job based on an ideal or belief, I have approached meetings and discussions with a concern that it could crop up.

To know me at all is to know that I’m not too concerned about people being offended by a strong opinion I hold because it just so happens to be diametrically opposed to theirs.  I am the sort that does worry about paying his mortgage however, because as good as a freelancer’s business is at any moment in time, a dry spell could be lurking right around the corner.  And it’s this specific fear that pulls my thoughts into a constant internal debate as to where I should be drawing the line.

For example; just yesterday I was in a store that was selling “Brand Name” perfumes and colognes.  “Versage”, “Hogo Boss” and “Barberry”.  The packaging was nicely designed and very true to the real brand names that it was attempting to mimic.  Despite finding it a bit funny, I knew then and there that were I the individual approached to design something of that sort, a blatantly deceptive copy of another brand, I’d have declined.  Everyone has their price, as the saying goes, but I can’t even begin to imagine what sort of money it would take for me to cross that particular threshold.  (I know, I know, I’m scum.)  But even here we’re still looking at a dilemma that has a clearly defined set of laws that can be used as guidance;  you don’t infringe on trademarks and copyright.  You just don’t.

But here’s a trickier example;  let’s say an individual from a small business organization I’m part of gives me a stellar referral to a the Imam at a local mosque.  This glowing referral results in an opportunity for me to develop a complete identity and web site for this local mosque.  However, I am strongly opposed to a large number of the tenets of islam; do I take the job?

Maybe?  Ok.

What’s if it’s a christian church?  I’m as opposed to a vast number of christian tenets and tomes as I am to anything islamic.

Or what if it’s a christian based charity like World Vision?  While I do believe in aiding less-fortunate individuals, I am very stringently opposed to any aid money being used for the sake of religious conversion.  If you’re raising money to provide food or clean drinking water, then I want every cent being used to provide food or clean drinking water.  Not holy texts.

I imagine that for a lot of designers/developers this wouldn’t be a dilemma at all.  More often than not these organization’s beliefs and doctrines may be close enough in-step with an individual’s so that it isn’t an issue – but what about when it is?

I’ve used religious examples here, but they’re just that, examples.  (I’m not going to pretend I’m not an ardent atheist, because I am, but atheism isn’t the point of this post.)

For a different spin on the same dilemma, let’s suggest that a naturopathic or homeopathic ‘doctor’ has asked someone who is vehemently opposed to alternative medicines to help them develop a lucrative site selling ‘miracle’ remedies; does the individual designer in question accept the job for the sake of profit or do they take a stand against something they firmly believe is wrong because they can not in good conscience profit from aiding in the dissemination of false information and profiting from what they ‘believe’ is a basic defrauding of others?

One can make any number of arguments for or against either decision in any myriad of scenarios and I don’t propose to have any answers.  I’m simply elaborating on something that I contemplate regularly and that, thus far, I’ve had the good fortune of not having to deal with myself.

I welcome any debate or discussion regarding this ‘question of ethics’ in the comments – however, I don’t want this to become a debate about any specific religion or alternative medicine or subject that isn’t specifically dealing with a freelancer’s personal ethics and where one should draw the line.

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