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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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3.7 Being ethical

As outlined in Table 3, ethics within systemic practice are perceived as operating on multiple levels. Like the systems concept of hierarchy, what we perceive to be good at one level might be bad at another. Because an epistemological position must be chosen, rather than taken as a given, the choice involves taking responsibility. The choices made have ethical implications. Within systematic practice ethics and values are generally not addressed as a central theme unless the practitioner is aware of the choice they are making. If there is no awareness, they are not integrated into the change process because the practitioner or researcher takes an objective stance that excludes ethical considerations. Recourse to objectivity can be a means of avoiding responsibility (see also Maturana, 1988).

My concern is with the ethics of systems practice. Heinz von Foerster (1992), citing philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that ‘ethics cannot be articulated’. Further, ‘it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the usual sense of the terms. Nevertheless, there must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and punishment, but they must reside in the action. Von Foerster goes on to consider the epistemological choice I outlined in Table 3 in terms of the following questions:

  • Am I apart from the universe? Whenever I look, am I looking as through a peephole upon an unfolding universe? Or

  • Am I part of the universe? Whenever I act, am I changing myself and the universe as well?

He then goes on to say:

Whenever I reflect on these two alternatives, I am surprised again and again by the depth of the abyss that separates the two fundamentally different worlds that can be created by such a choice. Either to see myself as a citizen of an independent universe, whose regularities, rules and customs I may eventually discover, or to see myself as the participant in a conspiracy [in the sense of collective action], whose customs, rules and regulations we are now inventing.

The ethical way forward, von Foerster argues, is to always try to act to increase the number of choices available. By this he seeks in his own practices to act in ways that do not limit the activities of other people: ‘Because the more freedom one has, the more choices one has, and the better chance that people will take responsibility for their own actions. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.’ (von Foerster and Perkson, 2002, p. 37).

A practical tool for acting ethically is to be aware of the language used in a conversation. For example, by turning away from statements that begin with ‘That is the way it is’! To enter a conversation convinced you are right or that your perspective is the only valid one limits the choices available to those who wish to pursue a conversation. Of course this does not mean you have to agree with the perspective on offer!


List the ways the available choices could have been increased in the child support case study. State any other ways of being ethical you would like to apply.


There are many possible answers to this question. I am going to focus my answer on the choices available to the professional staff within the agency. My reading of the case study suggests the initial legislation was tightly drafted and highly prescriptive. This suggests those managing the agency probably felt constrained in allowing staff to make a judgement based on circumstances; a type of case-law approach based on practice.

The prescriptive legislation may have been a product of the ideological position of the party in power together with a perhaps unhelpful perspective on accountability.

At the time of writing this, the decisions I am being asked to make about named-degrees of the Open University seem to be constrained by the capacities of the OU's computer set up and the data-handling arrangements for the various options. The same may have been the case in the Child Support Agency; the CSA information system may not have been readily adapted to its changing context.

From my perspective, the other ethical principle I want to apply is to encourage maximum stakeholder participation as this has the potential to maximise the choices available.