A Recursive Ethics for Systemic Complexity

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


Conventional approaches to normative ethics are ill-equipped to cope with systemic complexity. There are various reasons for this, notably the challenges presented by the incommensurable criteria and uncertain boundary conditions that typify systemic contexts. In this paper, I focus on one particular difficulty, the entanglement of the processes of ethical discourse with the situations that it looks to address. In contrast to the way that normative ethics has tended to assume a position outside of the events it considers, a systemic perspective suggests we see ethical deliberation about a situation as also being a part of it. It follows that the manner in which ethics is invoked and debated is itself something to which ethical considerations apply. Consider, for instance, the tendency for contemporary ethical debates to descend into the assertion and counter-assertion of incommensurable first principles, and the conflict and moralization that can follow from this.

It is difficult to address these second-order ethical questions from within conventional frameworks. As normative ethical theories and moral codes are put forward on the basis that they give definitive guidance as to ethically good actions, it is easy to assume that the question of how they are enacted should be thought of primarily in terms of effectiveness. This assumption is undercut by the difficulty of resolving conflicts between ethical frameworks, which is especially the case in systemic contexts.

In response, I put forward a way in which to understand ethics as being recursively applicable to itself. As a starting point, I draw on cybernetics, a field concerned with both ethics and recursive processes. Cybernetics is notable for its recognition of ethical considerations within epistemology. Our claims to knowledge are intertwined with the purposes that we pursue and with our relationships with others and the world. In this paper, I locate this argument within ethical discourse itself, applying it to the epistemological questions that arise within meta-ethics, such as between ethical realism and subjectivism. In this way, cybernetics may help formulate ethical considerations nested within ethical discourse itself.
Period1 Jul 2019
Event titleNature's Enduring Patterns - A Path to Systems Literacy: 63rd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences
Event typeConference
LocationCorvallis, United States, OregonShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational