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The Ethics Of Systems Thinking

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2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Papers Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.1260.1 - 9.1260.8



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Paper Authors

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Nathan Harter

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Mark Dean

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Donna Evanecky

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

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

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