Applying ethics to itself: Recursive ethical questioning in architecture and second-order cybernetics

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Purpose: This article puts forward a way that ethics may be applied recursively to itself, in the sense that how we speak and reason about ethics is an activity to which ethical considerations and questions apply.

Design/methodology/approach: The article builds on parallels between design and cybernetics, integrating elements of ethical discourse in each field. The way that cybernetics and design can each act as their own meta-discipline, in the design of design and the cybernetics of cybernetics, is used as a pattern for a similarly recursive approach to ethics. This is explored further by drawing parallels between Heinz von Foersters’ criticism of moral codes and concerns about paternalism in designing architecture.

Findings: Designers incorporate implicit ethical questioning as part of the recursive process through which they design their design activity, moving between conversations that pursue the goals of a project and meta-conversations in which they question which goals to pursue and the methods they employ in doing so. Given parallels between designing architecture and setting out an ethics (both of which put forward ways in which others are to live), a similar approach may be taken within ethical discourse, folding ethics within itself as its own meta-discipline.

Originality/value: The article provides a framework in which to address ethical considerations within ethical discourse itself. Recursive ethical questioning of this sort offers a way of coping with the incommensurability of values and goals that is commonplace given the fragmented state of contemporary ethics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)805-815
Number of pages11
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2019


  • Design
  • Ethics
  • Architecture
  • Second-order cybernetics
  • Recursion

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  • Activities

    • 1 Editorial work
    • 1 Invited talk
    • 1 Oral presentation

    A Recursive Ethics for Systemic Complexity

    Ben Sweeting (Presenter)

    1 Jul 2019

    Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation

    Radically Constructing Ethics

    Ben Sweeting (Invited presenter)

    22 Sep 2018

    Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk

    Kybernetes (Journal)

    Philip Baron (Editor), Delfina Fantini van Ditmar (Editor), David Griffiths (Editor) & Ben Sweeting (Editor)


    Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial workEditorial work

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