Some References for “Architecture Ethics”

I am waiting to obtain some consensus from my IASA peers with regard to the course outline.  Until then, I will talk obliquely about the content as it seems to be shaping up.  For now, let me give you a list of some of the references I will include these below.  I will also include references to some of the other classics, like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, and Hume, but here are some interesting readings from modern times.

Architecture Ethics

I am now developing an online course on “Architecture Ethics” for IASA.  Currently, I have defined the course objectives as follows.  The target audience are information technology architects and architects-in-training, primarily in North America and Europe although I hope that Asian students will also find it informative.  (My recent experience in China has provided me with a number of good examples for all students.)

My current introduction:

What do Love Canal and Barclays have in common?  In these very public cases, improper ethical planning arguably encouraged opportunities for immoral action.  As a professional architect you are in a position of leadership and trust, and are responsible for the ethical implications of your decisions and the morality of your actions.  You are responsible for the ethical planning of your daily work and long term career including the proper selection of projects, the identification of collaborative environments that can enable or hinder success, avoiding moral risks to employer and customer, meeting the challenges of regulatory and legal frameworks, and even for the determination of proper compensation for your effort and risks.  This course will introduce you to concrete skills that will help you recognize potential ethical failures in the practice of computing-associated architecture, strategies to mitigate or otherwise compensate for those failures, and ultimately, simply put, how to architect well.

After completing this course, you will be able to:

  • Identify some of your highest risk factors to project and career success, and strategies to counter them.
  • Identify financial impacts of ethical decision making in architecture.
  • Identify and communicate additional ethical considerations for your particular community, industry, employer, and job.
  • Effectively communicate the value of professional architecture.
  • Develop an ethical context, or “Collaborative Viewpoint” for your Architecture Description.
  • Understand why the ethical context is the proper frame within which you should understand everything you do as a professional architect, and why IASA exists.

Target audience:

  • Information technology architects, solution architects, and enterprise architects
  • Students training for a career in computing-associated architecture
  • Potential employers and clients of computing-associated architects


Your ethics are that set of abstract principles and measurable standards you use to enable you to think and act as rationally as possible. To purposely thwart your ability to think and act rationally, or to allow allow that through neglect,  is unethical.

One can derive an ethic by first understanding what beliefs, behaviors and other factors thwart rational thinking in yourself, and then second determine, by experiment, the principles and standards which allow one to manage one’s roadblocks to rationality. Ethics has nothing to say about the content of your rational thought, for that is the realm of morality.

It is Always a People Problem. Always.

There are no such things as technology problems, only people problems.

No technology can build itself, nor use itself, nor correct its own problems.  Even self-replicating machines, built using any technology in use (or even in conception) today, would merely execute the delayed choice of their builders.  Consider the case of a man, eager to protect his home against theft, who installs an anti-theft device which would kill any unwanted intruder, perhaps with a bullet to the head.  The homeowners’s device is commonly called a booby trap.  One day, while the home owner is away, an intruder enters the home and is killed.  Is the home owner responsible?  You betcha!  The home owner may claim they are not responsible because they did not pull the trigger directly, but in the end they made a choice to apply extreme prejudice to any intruder and they developed a device to execute that delayed choice.  The homeowner’s booby trap did not kill the intruder, the home owner did.  Every action of any technology, including any act of construction, any act of repair, or any act of use, is ultimately the extended action of human beings.

No technology is a perfect fit for any problem and all technologies come with trade-offs associated with their use.  Even survival comes with its own set of trade-offs.  It is the responsibility of human beings to understand their problems to the best of their abilities, to understand the trade-offs associated with the technology options before them, and to choose appropriate technologies wisely.  Trade-off balancing does not happen on its own.  Humans are the ultimate arbiters of which technology problems they choose to live with.

If all humans were to vanish from this Universe tomorrow, there would be no human problems of any kind.  Human technologies would instantly cease being human technologies and would merely exist as artifacts of matter like any other.  At the same instance of Universal human extinction, all “problems” would also similarly vanish.

This is not merely an academic exercise in ethics.  The implications of failing to understand this point can be tremendous.  If the home owner in my delayed choice example would have understood his culpability ahead of time, would he have been so eager to create his intruder-killing device?  The lack of understanding of the concept of delayed choice leads, in business, law and in politics, to a class of problem called moral hazards.  Failure to understand this critical point about technology, in particular computing technology, can cause some people to impart “magical” qualities to technologies which the technologies do not have, which can skew expectation, and can lead to project and business failure.

No, no, no.  The only kinds of problems which exist in this world are people problems, by definition.  If you doubt that, then find a way to kill all of humanity right now and watch all problems simply vanish away the moment before you and I cease to be.

Two Books, Two Audiences

For my two books, I have two audiences in mind:

  • potential and current I/T architects, and
  • those who would hire them

For the I/T architect I will provide them a way of integrating business, economics and law into computing system designs. I will teach them a little about legal theory, contract theory and transaction cost economics in a concrete way they can incorporate into their models.  In the end, the I/T architecture will be in a better position to predict business impact than they have traditionally been.

For those who would hire the I/T architect, this will be a book recap a little business theory and the role of computer systems in relation to transaction economics.  Nothing new here, but the twist will be to educate that employer on how to discuss these important business issues with the I/T architect in a way that is mutually understandable for the both of them.  I will also introduce “I/T thinking” to the employer who hasn’t a clue.  There is a great cultural divide between the “business” and “technology” worlds which I believe can be breached by thinking in terms of concepts every human can relate to, that is the ethics of architecture.

Architecture: the Normative Art

Architecture is the normative art.

To be normative is to occupy the “ought” side of David Hume’s is-ought divide.  A positivist, focusing on what is, has no rational method for arriving at what ought to be.  In ethics, for instance, the positivist can document the evidence for the existence of murder throughout human history but can they arrive, through purely descriptive and deductive means, to the conclusion that murder is unjustified?  What is justice?

To describe an “ought” is to architect.  Regardless of the problem domain and placing the concept of professionalism aside, the architect is the person who ultimately makes the very human decision of what to value and what is “good” in design.  Though the concept of architecture is, and should be, associated with the act of creation, adherence to ideals, models, standards and virtues have always been the defining aspect of architecture.

To live an ethical life the individual must relate to human ideals, virtues and associated (measurable) standards. It also requires the ethicist to have identified and communicated those virtues — usually by identifying standards which people can relate to — and to have defined principles and rules for adhering to those virtues. The ethicist, in human affairs, is a “cultural architect”.

Each of us in the United States are taught to value the virtues of our Constitution. We expect those in power to embody those virtues described within that document.  Our best measure of that embodiment is the degree to which we notice those in power upholding the principles and rules also described therein. We rightfully consider James Madison the “chief architect” of the United States since he was the critical agent who determined the virtues, or qualities, which would make a good country and then designed the legal structure (principle and rules) which would best institutionalize those virtues.  The U.S. Constitution is the architectural description for the United States.

The physicist Freeman Dyson once said,

The bottom line for mathematicians is that the architecture has to be right. In all the mathematics that I did, the essential point was to find the right architecture. It’s like building a bridge. Once the main lines of the structure are right, then the details miraculously fit. The problem is the overall design. [iWise,, retrieved 2011-06-01]

What did Freeman Dyson mean by “right”?  Mathematics is essentially a deductive/positivist/descriptive exercise.  I have seen some physicists waste their lives in cherished theory which “penciled”, “made sense”, “without mistake”, “was going to overturn Einstein” and all that, yet never predicted new phenomena let alone reproduced the values of known phenomena.  The problem with the life work of these people was never their math, which was deductively correct, but the initial set of axioms the they chose as valuable.  Freeman Dyson, in my opinion, was referring to the “right” choice of axiom and basic principle with regard to the “architecture” of a scientific theory that works.  Once must choose axioms which help the theorist conform to experimental reality, or not.  The choice of initial axiom is not a deductive exercise however, but an inductive choice of “ought”.  Those whose life’s work leads to naught chose wrong.  For Freeman Dyson’s part however he, along with Paul Dirac, Hans Bethe, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger, and Richard Feynman are properly known as the architects of quantum electrodynamics (QED).  They came to be the architects through their identification of axiom and principle which not only enabled the development of a cohesive set of mathematics, but also led them to conform, par excellence, to real world experiment.  In short, they identified the “oughts” of QED.  They chose well.

Regardless of the problem domain, the architect is always that person who breaches the is-ought divide.

Important update from Professor Dyson, here