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Ethics Lab: Harnessing Design Methodologies for Translational Ethics


Philosophy is traditionally understood as a theoretical, abstract, and foundational discipline. This is not to say it does not care about the world. In an important sense it cares deeply, asking some of the most profound questions about the human condition, the nature of reality, and the normative architecture of ethics and epistemology. These include questions with pressing importance for the “real world”—the conditions of political legitimacy, the moral status of various creatures, our obligations to future generations. That said, it’s certainly true that much of the discipline’s work focuses on leveraging the conceptual clarity achieved by abstraction and idealization, and examining internal relations among concepts and systems of thought. This freedom from empirical constraints is essential for expanding our conceptual possibilities, but if philosophy stops here it risks limiting the richness—and reach—of the discipline. Elizabeth Anderson, for instance, has eloquently warned of the dangers of a philosophy insufficiently informed by the world and insufficiently motivated to take important advances to inform and improve the world (Anderson, 2015).

In a healthy response to such challenges, philosophy has begun opening its borders in a variety of important ways. It’s increasingly common for philosophers to join inter- and trans-disciplinary partnerships to try to solve empirical puzzles about the world, with philosophers of mind, for instance, on research teams with neuroscientists and psychologists seeking a better understanding of consciousness. Public philosophers work to communicate with or teach those outside the academy, writing philosophically grounded op-eds or teaching philosophy in prisons. Philosophical practitioners embed in working contexts to provide direct guidance and advice—for example, trained philosophers working as bioethicists in hospitals to provide consultation services at the bedside.

This volume is concerned with another, arguably less well discussed, extension of philosophical work: harnessing philosophical inquiry and labor to develop real-world interventions. It is what this volume calls “field philosophy,” but we call—for reasons we will explain—“translational philosophy.” As philosophy looks toward this kind of work, we share the work of Ethics Lab. Launched in 2013, Ethics Lab has been developing a novel approach to collaborative ethics projects and ethics education by merging robust ethical theory with approaches borrowed from the field of design thinking. While it may seem like an unlikely pairing, we have found a deep affinity between philosophical ethics and the methodology of human-centered design. We believe our approach provides a helpful method that can activate philosophy, in general, and ethics, more specifically, to make an impact in the world.

In the following section we begin by describing Ethics Lab and its work in more detail, with a particular focus on the work with direct impact projects. We then pull back (in good philosophical fashion!) to address the theory behind our practice. In section 3, we explain what we mean by “translational philosophy”; in section 4, we explain what we mean by the field and concept of design as a methodology; and in section 5, we explain why we believe the latter can be so helpful to the former.

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