Values, Choices and Consequences
Phillip H. Gerou, FAIA
The Colorado Fellows Book, 2008
A few years back, I was asked to mentor a younger architect, the head of a small practice in Denver. At our first meeting, he explained that his was a “design-oriented” firm. I told him I thought that was great, and, in fact, we should all consider our practices to be guided primarily by providing quality design. However, as we spoke further, he mentioned that both he and his firm had a difficult time making ends meet. Although he and his employees were proud of their work—and, in fact, they had produced some very interesting projects—the firm was continually having financial difficulty.
It became apparent that they were a “design firm” to the partial exclusion of any other objectives or aspirations. Although we didn’t get into details, I have no doubt that the firm was a good one; by that I mean they were founded and guided by sound principles—morally and ethically, if not financially. But the idea that an architectural firm could, and should, make a profit elicited an uneasiness and was perceived as conflicting with his firm’s primary goals.
The failing in the young architect’s position was not in establishing design as a noble goal or even elevating it to the highest aspiration of his practice. Just as there is no nobility in financial deprivation, there is certainly no disgrace in turning a profit. Design and financial gain are just two objectives of our profession; there are countless more. Good design delights, inspires, educates; it comforts our emotions and stimulates our senses. Good design is a professional requirement and even a moral imperative. But any one goal cannot stand in isolation to the expense of our other obligations.
We are all drawn to this profession because we feel design can make a difference in people’s lives. But design is just one of our many obligations, duties, aspirations, allegiances and responsibilities. We owe our clients good design and a high quality of service. But we also owe our families our love, time and financial support. We owe our colleagues fairness, honesty and ethical behavior. We owe the public safe and healthy buildings. We owe the environment sustainability. We owe our conscience and our God moral conduct. None of these objectives is mutually exclusive, and none should be satisfied at the expense of the others.
In any given set of circumstances, one or more of these duties will be in conflict with another. Creating sustainable design could be contradictory to a client’s financial goals or the project’s functional parameters. Our personal morality could be at odds with an office policy or a prevailing law. Daily we are presented with situations requiring the balancing of priorities and critical judgments. Often, these competing values are equally valid although , on the surface, they seem mutually exclusive. We have almost limitless alternatives available. It sometimes seems that our obligations encompass so many variables that the situation borders on complete chaos.
Equipped with rational thought, social imperatives and a conscience, why would we not always choose the right course of action? Is there always a “right” course of action? Your decision in any given set of circumstances may be different from mine. The death penalty, abortion and other contentious issues defy universal agreement. But in most situations we can arrive at a consensus.
We usually make correct decisions, but not always. Perhaps as fallen—or at least flawed—beings, we are naturally inclined towards the easiest path or the most personally rewarding solution. We often justify our decisions as being the best or even the only choice available. As rational, moral individuals, it is ironic that most often immorality or bad decisions can be the result of rational thought. In a situation of conflicting values, we tend to “rationalize” our decision by establishing one of the competing values as holding a more prominent position, a superior status, out of sheer convenience or indolence. The person who justifies a wrong action by assigning a higher priority to a more convenient value is simply taking the easy way out, resolving the situation to their best advantage at the expense of others.
It is a constant battle to define “right” behavior and to make “correct” decisions in the face of so many conflicting values. As architects, we are confronted daily with moral choices, competing loyalties and ethical dilemmas. Often, ethical situations are ambiguous or paradoxical, but there are core values that are held in common by our profession.
LAWS & MORALITY
Some decisions are easy. In fact, they’re already defined for us by our legal system. Laws are based on historical precedent and commonly accepted interactions between individuals or legal entities. The rights of individuals are protected by mutual acceptance of this legal structure. Legal and contractual responsibilities and their consequences can be well defined in law and written agreements. But what if the regulations
imposed prove difficult or impossible to legislate because they are specific to a given profession? Many social conventions, moral codes and ethical constructs are not addressed by our legal system. They are less easily defined and are established under a different authority. Separate from legal restrictions, morality prescribes correct or incorrect behavior intended to be universal. Morals are a collective imperative that we all share, even if some are locally refined by social convention.
To train a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.
– Theodore Roosevelt
MORALITY & ETHICS
Ethics is traditionally defined as the study of morality. Today, the terms morality and ethics are sometimes used interchangeably, and to many, there is no distinction between the two. The definition of ethics has also evolved to express a set of values held by a unique set of individuals, be that a corporation, a legislature, an industry or a profession. Ethical standards for doctors or priests will be different in their details from those of architects or engineers although the core beliefs and the moral guidelines on which they are founded may be nearly identical. The distinction in ethical standards originates in the specific practices of the particular group.
Ethical codes are derived from common values and moral laws such as religious doctrine, social conventions, secular beliefs and traditional philosophies They may incorporate the values of courtesy, civility or mutual respect. To train a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. – Theodore Roosevelt
Individual ethical constructs are established to prescribe conduct for standard practices in specific situations. Ethics also defines fairness and equity and quite often relates to issues where two parties hold opposite but equally valid arguments. An individual may be torn between two compelling positions. For instance, speaking the truth could breach a confidence entrusted. A dedication to friendship might result in injuring others. An obligation to protect the public or the environment could be at odds with a commitment to a client’s goals.
There may also be certain situations where ethical standards take precedence over other important standards. For example, life-safety issues are usually perceived as a primary concern in comparison to obligations to employers. Although a solution that positively addresses competing issues is preferred, occasionally a choice is necessary. Ethical codes address these situations, but it is often left to an impartial observer to make the final, informed and impartial judgment.
It seems simple enough to be honest, but even principled professionals from time to time are presented with competing obligations, such as family responsibilities or religious convictions that may make total honesty seem impossible. For example, an employee may decide to work outside the office to build a client base, take advantage of opportunities, demonstrate design talent or simply make money. In doing so, they may unwittingly expose the firm to liability and compromise their own ability to perform adequately for the compensation they are receiving. An employee may use the firm’s software for personal use, believing that no harm is done by making a copy of it. Usually, the architect is honorable, sometimes not, but almost always he or she feels justified in his or her actions. It is human nature to determine that our actions are defensible even if they are incompatible with widely held values.
Within every project, there are decisions to be made about the quality of materials versus budget constraints, weighing owner-prescribed requirements against building codes or architectural review committees, or preserving confidentiality at the expense of full disclosure. Resolving these conflicts does not require decisions about right and wrong, but rather decisions to resolve situations in which competing principles are equally valid. The problem lies in maintaining and being responsive to all our self-defining virtues in difficult situations. Although doing the right thing is never easy, there is no excuse to consent to the easy and safe solution at the expense of other values. That is simply a failure of ingenuity or duty or just avoiding requisite diligence.
Don’t pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.
– John F. Kennedy
There are some ethical situations that cannot be suitably determined, defined or regulated. For example, the profession of architecture as a whole may aspire to contribute to the preservation of historical and cultural resources by helping to develop appropriate building codes or formulating aesthetic guidelines.
Some architects are more suited to such tasks than others but making this a requirement of all architects is not practicable. For instance, participation in this effort may not be a reasonable requirement for an architect whose expertise lies in financial management or graphic design. Similarly, although a noble aspiration, it should not be a requirement that all architects provide pro bono services, as some may choose to support causes or organizations by other means. A code of ethics cannot embrace every aspiration of a profession. Rather, it must exhibit restraint in defining actions to which all architects may reasonably submit.
Free will, the opportunity to make choices in any given situation, is our most precious gift and defines our greatest obligation. In the end, it establishes our very character, our very soul. Of all our gifts, free will is also by far the most susceptible to exploitation and squandering and so vulnerable to temptation. We easily recognize waste, neglect or deceit in others. It is far more difficult to see these flaws in ourselves. We are experts at convincing ourselves that we’ve done our best when we could have done better, That we have given enough when we could have given more.
That we deserve rest when we’re exhausted. That we ought to be cared for when we’re destitute. That we somehow deserve something better. That we have used our God-given talents to their best effect.
We have no control over the hand we’re dealt—only control over what we do with it. With very few exceptions, we can each reach our full potential and attain almost any goal without sacrificing fundamental values. We have the resources and the means. The only obstacle to success, however you define it, and with very few exceptions, is ourselves. Failure to meet goals and obligations almost always means we have failed in our commitment and determination. And it is the results that are essential. Without quantifiable results, grand promises and noble intentions are nothing more than self-delusional rhetoric.
Our choices are ours to make, with no excuses. Decisions today will have a lasting impact well beyond any immediate consequences, well beyond a chaotic ripple in distant places and times, even beyond our current comprehension. May we all choose well.
Born in Natick, Massachusetts, Phil lived on Cape Cod until the age of 12. His father was a custom home designer and builder who had been stationed at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver during World War II and had always been drawn to Colorado. In 1964 the family moved to Aspen and, in 1966, to Steamboat Springs where Phil graduated from high school. He received his Bachelor and Master of Architecture degrees from the University of Nebraska and returned to Denver to begin work. After ten years working for Anderson-Mason-Dale, HDR, DMJM and Downing-Thorpe-James, Phil started Gerou & Associates, Ltd. with his wife, Cheri, in 1986. The firm continues to design custom homes, small-scale commercial projects, and historic preservation projects.
Phil has been involved with AIA since 1977, holding a variety of local, regional and national offices including national vice president in 1995. He was elected to the College of Fellows in 1993 for Service to the Profession. In 2002 he was honored with the AIA Western Mountain Region Silver Medal, the highest honor awarded by the six-state region. With the AIA, he chaired the National Ethics Council and presented programs on professional ethics to AIA’s national conventions, AIA’s Grassroots Conferences and to a number of universities and AIA components. In addition to the AIA, Phil has volunteered his time and services to Selian Hospital in Arusha, Tanzania, various schools educating youth about architecture, the board of directors of Humphrey Museum in Evergreen, Rockland Community Church on Lookout Mountain and other scholastic and community organizations. He continues to present programs on ethics each semester to the graduate students at the University of Colorado and has written the chapter on professional ethics in the upcoming edition of the Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice.