Can Systems Thinking Engender Ethical Behaviour?

IFSR Newsletter 1997 Vol. 16 No. 1 April
Cecilia Tagliaferri
A.I.R.S. – Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sui Sistemi
Via Pontevecchio, 16
40139 Bologna (Italy)
Systems thinking means to look at the world searching for systems, to enlarge perception of the context, to clarify the comprehension of complex and integrated dynamics. But, we wonder, does this expanded perception, this deeper and more effective comprehension of causality lead itself to a greater reciprocal respect and to more ethical behaviours?
Feedback loops, systems concepts and archetypes can somehow help us to perceive the nonseparation which lies behind individualities. It can be said that this deeper comprehension has two components: a behavioural component and a spiritual one. The two elements normally coexist and merge at different degrees at any moment. Depending on the dominant component, systems thinking can sustain different kinds of human interactions tending to manipulation or participation (see table).

Manipulation Participation
  • Object: to reach one’s goal
  • Profit needs care of global needs
  • Global improvement is function of one’s own gain
  • Emphasis is put on systems mechanisms (behaviour)
  • Competition prevails over co-operation
  • Object: to reach one’s goal
  • Goal is function of people well-being
  • Profit too is needed to fulfil global needs
  • One’s own gain is function of global improvement
  • Emphasis is put on systems insight (vision, design)
  • Co-operation prevails over competition

What is the difference between the two contexts (manipulation and participation)? Assuming that life is the self parting from the universe, we could say that life itself is egotism. Thus wishes always express a tendency of the self to bring the whole together again. There are two ways to do that:

  • to join the self with the other (to participate)
  • to join the other with the self (to control and manipulate)

This original quality of wish makes the difference between a manipulation and a participation context. The difference among approaches to human activity systems have a spiritual genesis.
If systems thinking can amplify the perception of the context, it is the self that draws the borders of such context. The reference horizon corresponds to the self expansion level and determines the breadth of the vision that guides actions.
Through a spiritual path of development the self can expand along the dimensions of time and space. On the space dimension a very narrow (egotistic) self will consider a space corresponding to its own body and to directly connected vital spaces (house, office, etc.). Expanding the boundaries of the self, individual self-care reaches the nearest persons like a partner and the other family members. A further expansion of the self will involve friends, colleagues, citizens, nations, humanity and biosphere.
On the time dimension a short sighted self will act considering a short time (for instance a certain behaviour can give some pleasure in the short term but can have negative effects in the long term); an natural expansion of the self will reaches the expected time laps of personal life. A further enlargement of self-concern will embrace the time extents of sons, grandchildren and the future. Within a wide-ranging horizon, the narrow-self/non-permanence becomes the wide-self/permanence of next and future generations and can support the development and pursuit of shared ideals through systems design.
If the horizon is short-sighted, systems thinking becomes a support for manipulation: one could use dynamic levers to simply deactive a deviant behaviour in the patient; one could adjust company organisation just to induce the workers to behavioural models more functional to profit; one could show off fictitious ecological properties of products to attract innocent customers.
On the contrary, if the reference horizon is wide-ranging, the self expands to embrace contiguous selves and further generations’ time lapses; this way behaviour becomes actually more ethical and systems thinking works as a powerful support to develop an harmony-seeking culture of participation, towards a responsible and sustainable evolution.

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