Salt Lake City, Utah
June 20, 2004
June 20, 2004
June 23, 2004
9.1260.1 - 9.1260.8
Session Number ???
The ethics of systems thinking
Nathan Harter, Mark Dean, Donna Evanecky Purdue University
The search for a science of management has moved from a Newtonian perspective to a quantum perspective. Margaret Wheatley emphasized this shift in perspective with her prize-winning book Leadership and the New Science.21 Whereas the Newtonian perspective was reductionist, treating organizations as machines and breaking them conceptually into component parts, the quantum perspective treats organizations holistically. In fact, it treats organizations not only as integrated systems, but also as participants in larger systems. These larger systems include political systems, economic systems, and eco-systems.
The shift toward a quantum perspective has placed systems thinking near the center of different fields of study, such as mathematics, physics, and biology. Because a comparable shift has been underway in the managerial sciences, systems thinking as it would apply to human organizations has also generated interest. Theorists associated with this shift include Jay Forrester, Russell Ackoff, W. Edwards Deming, and Peter Senge. These writers show how it is possible to view organizations as social systems.
When organizations are viewed from a Newtonian perspective, there are ethical concerns about determinism, social engineering, and the dehumanization of the workforce. The great clockwork model reduces human beings to cogs in a machine, resources to be deployed by trained specialists – a model in other words with implications for ethics. As engineers turn toward social systems as a way of understanding and leading human organizations, they must consider the ethical implications of their new perspective.
This paper asks whether the shift toward systems thinking alters the landscape. It might be that systems thinking is, from the standpoint of ethics, nothing more than a more sophisticated version of the previous perspective. If this is the case, then systems thinking inherits the same ethical concerns. At most, perhaps it obscures or exaggerates them. Optimistically, it might be that systems thinking resolves previous concerns. By the same token, it might raise entirely new ones. In other words, this paper begins to examine the ethical implications of systems thinking in organizational settings.
Thinking well and ethics
Simon Blackburn, a philosopher, writes that what he does is conceptual engineering. He studies the structure of thoughts.3 Systems thinking requires its own conceptual engineering. The goal would be to reflect on the structure of thoughts and ideas contained in systems thinking. Seen in
Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education
Harter, N., & Dean, M., & Evanecky, D. (2004, June), The Ethics Of Systems Thinking Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--13823
ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2004 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015