Some Thoughts on Ethics | ideology in an unideal world

A lot of my thoughts so far have been based in an assumed aspiration towards ‘ethics’ and ‘justice’. They are values that have always underpinned both my creative work and my personal life and I only imagine continuing to explore and unpick them throughout future thoughts! It feels a good moment to take a step back and think through what the term ‘ethical’ actually means to me, when it comes into play and the complications of trying to put ethics into practice within a complex and compromised reality.

Illustration by Vita Sleigh, pencil drawing of hugging women

- cover art by Vita Sleigh

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a well-known model used in psychology to describe the varying needs we have throughout life and their relative priorities. He organises them into five categories, ranging from the basic needs for physiological survival at the base, up to the need for self-fulfilment, expression and reaching our full creative potential at the top.

Though he recognises this ranking is overly simplistic, that our needs exist simultaneously at multiple levels, it does provide a powerful image to understand the relative immediacy of our rights and needs, the hierarchy of how those manifest and the actions we can take to address them.

Hand drawn sketch of our spheres of influence and power

However, our needs and actions are not constrained to an individualised ‘path to self-actualisation’ as could be read from this model in isolation. As explored earlier via the idea of individuality vs. collectivity, our lives and actions are all interrelated and the impacts of our choices extend to affect everyone around us.

Though we have the most influence, control and power over ourself; once our own basic needs are met, we become freer to consider the impacts of our decisions upon those around us. Our power with/over others comes into play.

At this point we have an element of choice and it is here that I see our decision as becoming ethical. If our own basic needs are met and we are able to consider our impacts upon others, without endangering our own rights, we are free(er) to choose whilst they are (relatively) not. It is no longer simply a question of “well it is my right...” (to eat meat, to wear dreads, to own that dress), but whether our rights can still be met without impacting the needs of another.

Unlike Maslow's model, our spheres of influence and power do not imply a hierarchy of our own needs as greater, more deserving than another - it does not require a superior self or an oppression olympics. It instead recognises the degree of influence we hold as hierarchical. Ultimately, our thoughts, behaviours and actions have the most impact on ourself - we are best placed to understand our own needs and behavioural change has the most reliable power in our own life. Yet every decision we make, whether for ourselves or with the collective in mind, will affect those around us. We can and do affect others and we stand to be affected.

Bringing these two frameworks together highlights the simultaneous needs of caring for ourself and caring for others. The satisfaction of our own needs – reaching our full potential – and awareness of our impacts – our power with and over others - feels like a tricky balance. It is in constant flux, dependent on social dynamics, context and environment, even our own wellness.

This relative or scalar aspect of ethics, dependent on individual experience, makes it very complicated to define, discuss and advocate for. However, at its core, for me ethics lies at this intersection between the self as a bounded individual and the self as part of a wider collective.

In an ideal world, meeting my own needs would simultaneously meet the needs of all others. In an unideal world however, wherever my own needs are met, at least to the same level or above those of others who are impacted, I have a choice to make and my decision becomes a question of ethics.

Ethical Ideals | utopian visions

“if we cannot imagine the world we want to live in, we cannot see it, how can we build it?”

– Sisters Uncut, 2017

Three examples of Utopian Architecture by Bruno Taut, Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin and La Citta Nuova

Ideologies are often immediately critiqued as unrealistic, unachievable and are therefore dismissed. But I think of an ideal in the same way I think of perfection. Though I agree that it may be unattainable, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Infinity is a concept used in the abstract, particularly in mathematics, to help us imagine something which continues forever – such as the idea that there is no biggest number, or that space can be divided into ever smaller pockets with no smallest volume of space. However, despite much of what we experience relying upon the idea of infinity, we have never actually been able to evidence it in reality - within a tangible example

Infinity is mind-boggling for humans to try to visualise, unproven and not yet experienced, but it provides an essential context for many concepts we do use and accept every day, such as exponential growth, cosmology and 'the monkey theorem' (the idea that, given a typewriter and an infinite amount of time, a monkey could write a Shakespeare work - representing the concept that nothing is impossible, merely highly improbable).

If we consider ideals and perfection in analogy to the notion of infinity, perhaps we can arrive at a more useful way to use them. A ‘perfect’ ideal not as an absolute eventuality, fully formed in concept, superior and only acceptable if 100% achieved; but as the logical conclusion of where we could get to if all constraints were removed. A murky vision in need of design and imagination, something to constantly work towards and a framework to understand the trajectory of the growth we engage in day to day.

When it comes to issues of social (in)justice, I am often confronted with arguments along the lines of “but true equality is impossible”, or “it is unrealistic to expect everyone to...” or simply "it sounds a bit idealistic". To me however this completely misses the point. Whether or not it is possible to reach infinity as a destination, or even whether it is desirable to, the realities and processes we do experience today are reliant on envisioning infinity, regardless of whether or not it is ultimately and immaculately achievable. Ideologies give us a marker to aim towards, perfectionism allows unconstrained vision – they are not a reason for all or nothing, superiority or defeat.

Ideological thinking can liberate us from the restrictions of our current reality (or perhaps from our probabilities?!) and allow us to be creative. It is a way to explore ideas in their purity and to their full conclusion.

Utopian architecture can be a powerful tool in harnessing the freedom of creativity and power of the imagination. Often stemming from a need to reject the old and embrace an unknown new, utopian visions are rarely a realistic suggestion, but a critical and evaluative journey, a mechanism to imagine a new way to live and a different world.

Take ‘Alpine Architecture’, Bruno Taut’s post-war expressionist architectural utopia. In a time of crippling destruction and recession for Germany, he drafts visions of brand new cities, ‘an Earth clad in jewellery of brilliants and enamel’ (Taut, 1917). Powerful images dipict a world of glass metropolises perched high upon the mountaintops of the Alps, refracting colour onto the citizens and lifting their mood.

Or La Cittá Nuova by Antonio Sant’Elia – a futurist city allowing us to ‘break free from tradition’ (Sant'Elia, 1914) and embrace the wonder of the machine. Rejecting the unhygienic sprawl of 19th century metropolises, industrialisation would bring raw materiality, vertical conurbations linked by aerial walkways, exterior elevators and urban landscapes in constant renewal. Architecture would extend beyond the elaborate classicism of the upper class to cater for production, labourers and urban society as a whole.

Though they were clearly unachievable, these visions of Utopia are still important today, both in their critique of what came before and in their exploration of how we might overcome them. Though we may not live under glass metropolises, we place great value on daylight, mood, colour and glass. We avoid unnecessary decoration and classicism and live in ever more connected and efficient cities, celebrating and exposing their materiality.

When it comes to building a new society, an ethical and equitable world, we must also have a vision of that ideal. What would an anti-racist world look like, if race did not impact access to capital, to power and to freedom of choice? For feminism, what could emancipate women from unwanted childbearing (such as our invention of contraception, family planning)? For veganism, what would it look like to survive without using other animals, to create plant-based foods, reject ownership of other animals and co-habit space across species? Envisioning these worlds often requires both a critique of the current systems that construct our present reality, along with the inventions that could change this - new systems, communications and worlds to live in.

Though ideologies and utopias provide a tool for this critique, evaluation and reimagining, I am more than aware that we don’t exist in abstraction, but within a compromised reality: a world full of nuanced and varied constraints. In reality, cities are bounded by mountains, not striding atop and glittering. But sometimes the grounded reality of a mountainside city is no less beautiful for its constraint...

Ethics in Practice | ideology vs. reality

"Architecture happens where the imagination meets life."

- Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa

Small hamlet lines Scottish beach, seen from above and built into cliff

Whilst utopian thinking can be a powerful tool for evaluation and critique, it cannot provide a perfect answer to roll out across the world. We tend to either latch on to ideas of perfectionism (when we agree with the change) or fear them and challenge them. But the ‘healthiest diet’, the ‘greenest product’ or the ‘most ethical purchase’ is not a fixed absolute (no matter how much it is marketed that way!). It depends upon the body it is serving, the context of its production and the holistic environment it is part of. The ‘ideal’ Mediterranean diet is far from perfect for someone with an allergy to tomatoes, just as a carbon neutral solar cell is not neutral for those who quarry the conflict minerals it relies upon.

Expecting a ready-made, perfectly worked out endpoint before contemplating any change is not only unrealistic, but serves to maintain the dominating role of the status quo - it asks anyone advocating change to provide some 'omniscient truth' (Melanie Joy, 2019). An ideal ethical solution cannot be a fixed haven - a real-life, perfection that works immediately for all. It is a constant process of aspiration, evaluation and adaptation; listening to others, tweaking our designs and taking constant steps towards infinity. Allyship is a work in progress, a verb not a noun.

It is this stage, the creativity and problem solving of designing for contextualised reality that I love the most - both in architecture and in activism. We must search for solutions that are designed to be temporal, reflective and adaptable. That respond to the needs of the particular but with the overall concept constantly in mind.

Just like in architectural design, designing an ethical framework for a cultural reality requires a critical site analysis. What are the current processes in play? What is working and what is not? For whom and how? Where could we design change to bring rebalance, to introduce new behaviours, new connections or new experience? Whilst social justice can be described in terms of ideology - an ethical endpoint and vision, social change must be discussed in terms of means. What is the psychology of our relationship, why do we relate as we do and how could we relate in a more constructive way?

Some of us clearly have far more privilege, and therefore more availability to make conscious decisions, than others. Perhaps this is why ethics are so often passed off as a fad or trend, as a White middle-class, hipster, millennial ideal. But rather than belittling ethics as something ‘only the privileged can do’, stereotyping activists and therefore upholding the power of the current system (Melanie Joy, 2019), perhaps it is better to understand why this is and to expect it. Those who can could embrace the power of privilege and use it for those who cannot, making a change for us all.

Privilege is innately difficult to recognise and uncomfortable to feel, but it is also something that the vast majority of us hold in some (if not many) aspects of our life. It can be empowering rather than shameful when used carefully and intentionally. Not only are we in danger of further compromising the rights of those around us by ignoring it, but we miss a key chance to make progress. Those who have an opportunity to take some of the financial, emotional, cultural burden can contribute to lowering prices, raising wages and diversifying opportunities to an achievable level for others.

The complexity of translating perfectionist ideals into a slippery, moving reality has a lot of gray areas and so requires clever navigation. In understanding ethics as relative and changeable, as something bound up within individuals and relationships, the question of how to advocate for ethics can be challenging and divisive. Activism can sound scary, it can be perceived as preachy, telling others what to do or even constraining freedoms. It is certainly difficult to advocate change, tricky to navigate and highly relational; but surely this ability to share, to gain collective knowledge, is the power of our connectedness?

Individual vs. Collective Action | responsibility and empowerment

So what can we do? What should we do?

How much difference does one person actually make among billions?

Birds flocking in display of flight as one super organism against the sunset backdrop

Should is a hard word to use and perhaps unproductive, leading only to shaming.

A lot of today’s issues are societal, global in nature. Their scale is huge and incomprehensible, far too much when taken on as an individual. Climate anxiety, activist burnout and poor mental health are all reportedly on the rise as we become more aware and conscious of the impacts our behaviours are having. The systems we live under today are complex and opaque, our choices are not clear to make and it can be exhausting to navigate such an unideal world.

We are clearly no use to ourselves nor anyone else if we burn out and need help. Perhaps at this point we even go backwards on the hierarchy of needs and must attend to our own basic needs again – it is no longer an ethical decision?

Instead of expecting ourselves to be an isolated, perfect example of a citizen, stoically paving the way to a perfect community; perhaps we acknowledge that an imperfect system creates imperfect choices. Choices within a system are not choices and it is the system that needs to change. Are we really best placed as an individual or can we instead rally, lobby and mobilise for systemic change?

Could, however is full of hope and opportunity.

During the winter months, starlings are often seen in beautiful displays of flocking, where hundreds or even thousands of birds will all take flight together, twisting and turning as if they are one. It is an example of collective animal behaviour, seen in many species from shoals of fish, to insects, to herding mammals. It is thought to be the result of many individuals, all following a set of simple rules, rather than something which is centrally co-ordinated. By respecting the rules of separation (avoid overcrowding neighbours), alignment (follow average direction of neighbours) and cohesion (head towards average position of neighbours) (Reynolds, 1987); a very simple but highly effective form of communication allows the behaviour of many individuals to come together as one 'super-organism'.

Humans too are social animals and we also collaborate in this way, learning from each other and making decisions via collective consensus. In fact, homo-sapiens are thought to be the most co-operative species on the planet (Raworth, 2018). We rely on our communication and our ability to trust others, we value democracy greatly and are heavily swayed by majorities. We have created systems of trust and shared beliefs that allow us to collaborate far beyond the social networks of our family and friends. Our common belief in the value of money allows us to trade with strangers across the world, in science to build common knowledge and to learn across generations, in human rights to value each individual as a deserving member of society (Harari, 2011). Societies are incredible feats of collective power, flocking together as one 'super-organism' far greater than the sum of their parts.

But a society is a collection of individuals. It can be far too tempting to see the impossibility of perfection, the challenges of individual change, and to dismiss the ideal altogether. To sit comfortable and tight, knowing no-one else is doing ‘it’ either. If we all change nothing, then nothing changes, if we all make one person's changes then 7 billion changes happen.

It is not just a responsibility or burden to know our choices have an impact, it is also empowering - it brings us agency. It can be such a powerful feeling to know that we are making a change. What we envision, design and fight for today will carve one more slice of daylight into that mountain. It doesn't need to solve the entire societal or global issue, or visualise the entire utopia at once; but I believe that most of us can make changes in some aspects of our life, many more than we realise. Changes that will alleviate others and hopefully also bring light into our own. When everyone changes, or at least when enough people change, the whole collective moves.

Conclusions | ethical empowerment

So I seem to be arriving at another conclusion of complexity, relativity and unfixed terms of ethics. Not so much a universally definable utopia, but a constant process of discussion, self analysis and collective contextualisation. But just because ethics are complicated - idealistic, slippery and hard to reach - it doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned. In fact I don’t think they can be abandoned if we hope to survive and thrive.

We can be active in so many diverse ways, towards a combination of individual, collective and societal change. We can learn to be literate in our relative privileges and to know how we are most effective in any given situation. We can relieve ourselves and others from the pressures of the ‘should’s, but walk powerfully into the ‘could’s.

We can live in search of those sweet spots whereby our own self-actualisation, reaching our full individual potential, is also our collective full potential. And if that seems too utopian, then maybe we can start by carving one manageable step along the way...

Photograph looking out over the unbelievable architectural feat of Machu Picchu, nestled in the mountains

"There is no social-change fairy. There is only change made by the hands of individuals"

- Winona Laduke

Llamas peering at the camera at Machu Picchu, Peru

For more, take a look at: - Maslow's hierarchy of needs Infinity Actually Exist? - 12 Ideal Cities - a satirical critique of urbanism by SuperStudio - Collective decision making in honeybees

Powerarchy by Melanie Joy - on the psychology of power systems and how to navigate them relationally

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari - on the evolution of Homo Sapiens and how we have developed so dramatically as a species

Cover Art by Vita Sleigh

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