What Role Do Ethics Play In Your Choice Of Projects?

The latest season of the Boagworld podcast has been set up in debate format with Paul and Marcus each taking a side. One recent discussion was about the role ethics play in the web design industry and one question from that discussion was whether or not you would take on a project you were opposed to ethically.

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.

It made me wonder if it was even possible to take on a project you’re ethically against. Don’t your actions in taking on a project speak more about where your ethical line is than anything you might say?

What are Ethics

Ethics are a set of moral principles that govern the behavior of an individual or group. They help guide decision making and give us something to fall back on when we’re not sure what to do.

Ethics are always in the eye of the beholder. Despite what some might wish, there is no single set of morals or ethics for everyone. We define our ethics for ourselves. Only we can set our own ethical line.

In a sense they’re constraints we place on ourselves. Much like a conscience, ethics keep us from doing just anything. However, I’ve observed over many years that the ethical code of most people is a lot more malleable than they care to admit.

Ethics aren’t black and white, but rather shades of gray. They work in a hierarchy with some things having more priority than others. Ethics depend on each other and get defined in context more than they are in the absolute.

There are certain things I hope we’re all in agreement are ethically wrong. Killing another human being for example. However, is it that hard to imagine a scenario where you’d be ok with one person killing another?

How about in self defense or to protect family, friends, and loved ones? The more you think about it, the more shades of gray you can find in something that on the surface we’d all agree is ethically wrong. Placed in different contexts, it’s not that hard to imagine scenarios where it’s ok for one person to kill another, even as we’re ethically against the idea.

Ethics in Design

Let me offer a couple of examples more specific to design.

You’ve likely noticed I often use images toward the top of posts here on the blog. You can’t just use any image you find online though. I certainly want to avoid using copyrighted images.

I look for public domain images first and fall back on those that are under a creative commons license, but sometimes it’s hard to find a good image. Sometimes the perfect image is published under copyright. What do you do?

You might look to fair use. Fair use laws are on the murky side. I don’t think there’s a clear line about what’s acceptable under fair use and what isn’t in many cases. It’s pretty easy to rationalize that many images you’d like to use fall under fair use laws.

Some might also decide they aren’t likely to get caught using the image so why not use. Right or wrong it’s unlikely there will be any consequences. I wouldn’t use an image just because I wouldn’t get caught using it, but some people do.

In the past though, I probably have used some images that I shouldn’t have. I’ve probably convinced myself it was fair use or found some other justification. About a year and a half ago I started thinking my practice for using images had come too close or even crossed my ethical line and so I changed my practice. Since then I’ve moved toward public domain images first and cc license images as a fallback.

Another example is how we draw inspiration from other sites. While I don’t always look to websites for inspiration, I usually ask clients to send me links to sites they do and don’t like and sometimes I’ll seek inspiration in one or more of the sites they like.

Naturally, I don’t want to copy the designs I see, but I would like to take some inspiration back to my design. Where’s the line between inspiration and copying?

For example say you like the color scheme of a site. Some might grab the exact hex values used and it might not even be an issue if everything else in the design is different. Lifting hex values exactly is on the other side of my ethical line. At the very least change the hex values to some degree.

I’d sooner try to understand what I liked about the color scheme. Was it

I’d seek out the core reason why I liked the scheme and use that instead of using the colors directly. That to me is being inspired and places me well within my ethical boundaries.

Would You Take on a Project You’re Ethically Against?

The decision to take on a project is based on many things, most of which have little to do with your abstract ethical code, yet they form the context under which your ethical code might bend. You take on a project or reject it in the context of many other questions.

  • Do you need the work?
  • Will the project be good or bad for future business?
  • How will the project impact your brand?
  • How do others in your company feel about the project?
  • Are you interested in the project for some reason?

Take the example of a porn site. It’s easy to say we’re ethically opposed to pornography, but some might choose to work on a porn site because the pay is very good or because they see some challenge in designing a site in such a crowded market. You might also reject the site despite the pay and challenge because your ethical opposition outweighs the benefits of the pay and challenge.

Can you really take on a project you’re against ethically? Doesn’t the act of accepting the project suggest you’re fine with it ethically within the context of everything else that led to your decision? If you take on that porn site how ethically against porn are you? Always or only when the money isn’t right?


No one can define our ethical line. Only you can decide what’s ethically acceptable for you and you do that less in the abstract than in the context of making decisions that call your ethics into question.

An ethical line is not a clear and straight line where on one side sits the ethically good and the other side sits the ethically bad. Your ethical line is more a curve that changes and adapts to forces (context) acting on it.

Where your ethical line is located at a given moment is something you and only you can answer. There’s no clear right or wrong and what’s right in one context might be wrong in another.

Your action in the moment defines your ethics in the context of that moment. You really can’t take on a project you’re ethically against, because the act of taking on the project says you’re not opposed to it within the context of your decision.

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