In the recent StackOverflow Developer Survey, over 100,000 developers were asked a series of questions reflecting their experiences working in the industry.

On the subject of ethics, two questions were asked:

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I was quite surprised that when posed with a hypothetical situation where they are asked to write code for a product or purpose that they consider clearly unethical, over 40% of the developers say that it would depend on the situation.

I think one possible scenario could be if it is relating to the health and well-being of the user but it forces them to do something against their wishes, but even that's a pretty difficult to say is clearly unethical.

Considering their response to another question about AI, the responses regarding ethics is a bit worrying, especially if designers work closely with developers to implement solutions:

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If faced with the same question, what situation would it be acceptable for designers to take part in a design process for a product or purpose that they consider clearly unethical?

  • 1
    I'm assuming here you're not talking about issues of general philosophical disagreement. Such as a Pro-Life person coding a site for Planned Parenthood (or the opposite). If it's clearly an ethically wrong scenario (such as an AI that will subvert the will of the population) then ... this sounds like a question relating to emergency ethics.
    – Mayo
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 22:18
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    To the downvoter - could you explain why the down vote? This may be unanswerable in the stackexchange Q/A format but it's still a very interesting question.
    – Mayo
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 22:19
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    @Mayo I am happy to try and change the question so that it is suitable for the StackExchange format. I think designers all have different ethical / moral boundaries that we try not to cross and it might depend on certain situations (or maybe not?) I just don't think we address this topic enough on UXSE and the survey from StackOverflow was a wake up call for designers as well I think.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 23:23
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    Also, it is quite strange to think that even though many developers are more than happy to code something that they think is clearly unethical, they also feel that they should be responsible for considering the ramifications of AI...
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 23:25
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    What developers say about themselves and what they do aren't necessarily aligned. Do developers, for instance, understand the difference between ethical behaviour and legal behaviour? Are they experts in cooking? Do they understand the ramifications of the software they're working on when scaled with significant success. Do they understand the power of database analysis in the hands of someone responsible for marketing and/or policy? Are moralistic considerations more or less prevalent in the consciousness and awareness of coders than the average member of society? Why the difference?
    – Confused
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 0:13

3 Answers 3


To answer whether you should design something that could (note my change) be considered unethical, first: know thyself.

Or as Socrates put it:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Some folk choose to be vegans. Others choose to work for humanitarian aid organizations. These choices are based on personal values. What is your "north star"?

Let's examine the phrase "designing something that could be considered unethical" in three different ways:

1. A designer with a possibly unethical company.

A UX designer may decline to work for online gaming / gambling firms, for ethical reasons. But how far should she go with that rationale? Should she refuse to work for companies that, for example, create any addictive behaviours or create wealth inequality?

2. A designer with an ethical company, asked to produce unethical designs.

This may be a tricky situation for a designer, and it is one where the individual's core values come into play. Designers may be asked to produce "dark patterns": When does a persuasive pattern become a 'dark' pattern?

This kind of request may be difficult to resist however, particularly if the designer starts off doing non-dark patterns, and then is asked to design sort-of gray patterns, and then darker gray patterns, and so on. Change is harder to resist when it is introduced gradually, as described by the frog in boiling water fable: https://www.moralstories.org/frog-hot-water/

3. A designer with an ethical company, choosing to produce unethical designs.

If a designer knowingly chooses to use dark pattens, this may seem obviously unethical to others. But maybe she saw competitor sites/apps operating similar patterns, and felt her actions were justified. It is not easy to take a principled stand, when the "herd" is behaving differently.

As with all moral/ethical questions, there are many gray areas, and while there are societal norms, the answer may lie within.

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    +1 It is a good way to look at the question that I hadn't considered... of course you could be doing ethical work for an unethical company or unethical work for an ethical company (and anywhere in between), but that's probably why the moral compass is something that we need to hold to ourselves and not to other people. But if we don't think about the question at all then we are likely to get lost, and hence the purpose for asking the question in the first place :)
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 11:37
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    @MichaelLai And that's probably why the "it depends" category is so big in the responses. There are some low-level shades of grey that I wouldn't want to design/implement, and would try to "kick back" against if asked to, but – if push came to shove – over which I probably wouldn't quit my job.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 12:46

Here is an example of unethical design from Amazon. "Continue ordering without performing the additional action of purchasing premium" is in small text and hidden besides other text. The most prominent element is "pay immediately" -button.

enter image description here


Is this unethical? Certainly, you are tricking your users. Would designers proudly refuse designing this kind of things when their bosses ask? Hardly.

Marketing, advertising etc. are full of this kind of standard practices that are in gray area in ethics. Developers and designers are low-level workers who don't make the business decisions. Therefore many feel it's acceptable to leave the grey area decisions to the higher-ups.

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    If I as a customer could not find the option I wanted I would just bail. If a system seems to be forcing me to take action that I don't want, that system would lose. But maybe I am just pigheaded. I will force my ethics on the choices I am presented with and do what I can to make it work my way. Hopefully I am not the only person who does this, and so such practices will cost the companies more than they want to lose. If I was the developer in this scenario, I would expect my company to fail and so I would ethically... find another job. (If I could.)
    – user67695
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 15:22
  • What about people who are in positions such as Chief Experience Officer, Head of Design or Lead UX Designer? Often they hold important positions in companies and have to make key decisions like this. Should they be the ones held responsible for these decisions then?
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 8:53
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    @nocomprende Your attitude is fine when you're aware of what a company is doing. The bigger problem with screens like that are that many people won't realise they're being pushed into buying something they may not want. They'll see lots of "small, usually unimportant text" and one big, clear, yellow, obviously "GO" button and click that (as they've learnt to do on the 2 or 3 previous screens) without realising they're (re)signing to Prime. Sure they should pay more attention, but it becomes unethical when a company knows they won't and exploits that.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 11:17
  • @TripeHound In middle school, about 40 years ago, we were taught about false advertising and being sceptical of anyone we were giving money to. Aren't people still taught that? Why ever not? If one was taught but decided not to take it seriously, well...
    – user67695
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 11:47
  • @nocomprende That and "if it looks too good to be true, it probably is". I can only assume people aren't taught this (enough), otherwise phishing emails/websites wouldn't still work.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 12:42

Ethics are always about given people in given situations. There's always a context. "It depends" is always true about ethics.

Conversely, morals are universal. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the survey respondents were less than clear about this distinction between ethics and morals. I also think there was some wishful thinking involved. "What, me? I'd never do anything bad!"

That said, it's in the nature of a great many workplaces that individuals are removed or shielded not just from the decision-making process, but also from reliable data about the consequence of their actions, and the actions of their employers. Are the designers and developers at major web retailers informed about the notorious working conditions in the warehouses? Are they being unethical if they ignore reports about those conditions? Shouldn't the ethical employee keep an eye on such things?

The guy who drove the train to Auschwitz was 'just' a train driver, very likely a peaceful family man. He didn't decide the 'cargo'. It's easy for us to say he was behaving unethically, but maybe he was just not told what happened to that cargo after delivery. It's also possible to frame any dissent on his part as 'unethical' because it would be 'unprofessional' to refuse to do the job you're trained and paid to do. (I have no doubt this kind of coercion happens often to silence complaints about ethics).

If developers are organised in trade unions, they have far greater power to steer and inform the ethics of the workplace. It's interesting that the developer survey did not mention this possibility. IT-related trade unions local to me are amongst the fiercest critics of (e.g.) mass surveillance, sloppy security and other unethical practices.

An important prerequisite to being an ethical developer is to make sure that ethics are as much a part of 'the professional conversation' as preferred languages, libraries, frameworks, paradigms, methodologies.

An ethos is what makes a profession, rather than just a job. Doctors, Lawyers and Teachers are good examples, each profession with concrete ethical guidelines whose transgression can cost an individual not just their job, but their professional legitimacy and ability to continue practice.

No such guidelines for developers yet exist, so regardless of the survey results, I expect unethical development to continue just as before.

  • +1 I guess this makes it interesting that there is a need for someone to be a 'Certified Ethical Hacker' but nothing exists for designers and developers...
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 22:00

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