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Ethics and the Built Environment

This is the first part of a two-parter on ethics in the built environment sector. This first part will look at where I believe the debate on ethics in the sector is currently while the second will start to reflect on particular ethical issues and determine how some of the great western philosophers would have considered them.

As those of you that have met me may know, my background is in philosophy, and specifically in ethics. I somehow ‘landed’ in construction around ten years ago. I have always described it as such deliberately as if I were somehow a visitor from another planet. And quite a distant one at that.

Over the last few years, however, ethical considerations have become more prominent in construction although the use of ethics as a term is still rare. Instead, moral judgements are ensconced in the language of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, fair payments, procurement, collaborative working and elsewhere. I would like to argue that, at present, the built environment sector is only addressing a limited part of the ethical agenda and that a significant widening of that agenda is required if construction can be considered as an industry that is behaving ‘morally’.

What struck me immediately when looking at our industry is that strong parallels exist between how ethical considerations of war and how an ethical framework for construction could be developed. This is not, by the way, because I’m suggesting that construction is inherently a battleground! We’ll have none of that reverting to type round here thank you. Just War Theory is traditionally divided into two main constituent parts. The first, Jus Ad Bellum, is concerned with the decision to go to war; the second, Jus In Bello, considers conduct once hostilities have started. The two areas are not interdependent, i.e. a just war can be fought unethically.

I would argue that the same holds true for construction and would like to posit that there should be a ‘Just Wall Theory’. (No groans at the back please. Trust me, it gets worse). At present, the discussions about ethical behaviours in construction largely consider what happens after a decision has been taken to construct – the Jus In Buildo stage if you will. (Told you). What is missing is consideration of that former stage – the question asked is “can we build it”, but not “should we”. This seems to chime with our view of the world – that there are some things that simply shouldn’t be built. I mean, can any of us really morally defend snow domes in Dubai?

If one agrees that in some cases the act of construction is in itself unethical it leads to the question of how we make that decision. I will move onto that discussion in Part 2 which will come at a later date.

In the meantime, for those of you within the sector that are interested in this topic, I would recommend you seek out Ethics for the Built Environment by Peter Fewings. I was delighted to be able to share a stage with Peter at last year’s Construction Ethics Symposium in Bristol, which I believe to be the first such event in the country. Hopefully more such events will take place in the future to take this debate forward.