Of purpose & virtue

November 9, 2012

One of the very strong memories of my youth is the scene in the BBC production of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom where Mathieu and Ivitch use a knife to define their authenticity through an act ‘as themselves’ not determined by any essence.  Trying to fathom that at the age of 16 resulted in a extended period of late teenage angst augmented by taking Camus’s The Plague and the notion of absurdity far too seriously.  I just hope the appalling essay I wrote and recorded on the nature of evil never surfaces.  Fortunately there was no Facebook then, no pervasive and unquenchable record of shame to peruse me into a later and hopefully more mature, if no less curious, life.

The memory came back to me today when I was thinking about the question of purpose, something I referenced in my lecture at the National University of Singapore this afternoon on the differences between systems thinking/dynamics and complexity.  In that I talked about the difference between managing to an idealised future state and enabling the emergent possibilities of the situated now.   I suppose I should explain the latter term as I think its my own invention; although you can never be sure of that if you read a lot.  I’m using the term as a short hand to describe the informed management of the present.  Its not just a matter of acting regardless, but of acting with some purpose and with responsibility for understanding as far as is possible the nature of the present.

That leads me back to a comment I made on day one of KM Asia which was tweeted by David Gurteen as “Obliquity and serendipity are more important than purpose”.  Now the context of this statement was a reference to the scientific evidence that explicit rewards undermine intrinsic motivation and Strathern’s variation of Goodhart’s Law namely When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.  I suppose I should not be suprised that the odd obsessive picked this up without any context and assumed I was saying that all life should be without purpose.  Twitter is a dangerous information source for those whose connection to reality is limited by a inflamed sense of grievance.

The issue in a complex domain is what counts as purpose?  Do we just go with the flow?  Life life as it comes in a mood of acceptance and resignation?  Should we like, Mathieu and Ivitch take any action to assert our own identity, to grasp the nettle of the gift of freedom?   In choosing safe-to-fail experiments do we just do anything, or does the test for coherence imply some purpose or goal?

Now when I talk about this I often use a quote from Seneca which reads as follows:

The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty

Acting in the present to my mind without a defined purpose in the sense of explicit goals and targets opens you up to evolving to future possibilities that could not be fully anticipated but which are more sustainable and resilient.  Of course to do this we need some sense of direction.  Seneca again:

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable


To which we can couple, from the same source

If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind

All of which may not at first sight appear especially helpful until read them a little more deeply.  In the first case our hero or heroine is setting out from a port, they are leaving safety for uncertainty.  In the second the position is reversed, they are seeking sanctuary.  I think we can (in Cynefin terms) see the former as applying to the complex domain, the latter to chaos.  In a world where there are some constraints we can have an idea of the direction in which we want to travel without having to be precise about the route we take.  We have time to essay safe-to-fail experiments and determine their impact to allow amplification or dampening.   In a chaotic domain there is little time and we have to seize the moment.

So I think we can be a little more sophisticated in our understanding of purposefulness while avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of explicit goals and purposefulness.  There are a few examples of purpose in history that allow considerable latitude as to route such as Jack Welch’s “Always be number two or more” which in effect is a goal expressed as a constraint – good complexity thinking.   Others will easily occur to the reader.

That said, I think the real answer is the found with the Greeks.  Cynics, Stoics and Aristotelians alike had varying ideas of a life guided by virtue in accord with nature.  Some of the early Christian aesthetics, especially the Celtic Church prior to its supression following the Synod of Whitby picked up on similar ideas.  The concept is a simple one, faced with conditions of uncertainty one should act in a virtual way.  For Aristotle this is means navigating between the extremes of excess and deficiency, our dispositions (another key complexity term) and important to this day.  Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that virtue is the means by which we avoid the fragmentation of ethics; I would go further and say it is essential to avoid the fragmentation of society.

The idea of virtue as a guide for action maybe unpopular in a age where greed has been endorsed as a new morality in the worship of markets.  But that does not mean we should abandon a sense of both duty and virtue in determining action.  A innate sense of fairness seems, given modern evidence, to be a part of our evolutionary inheritance so the capability is there.  We are offended when success is achieved not by endeavour but by deceit.  Training and peer review/respect are a part of enforcing this disposition.  So maybe Google had the idea right, even if their practice has stretched the limits of their credibility in recent years:  Do no harm.  It is not of itself enough, but it is a start.

The picture by the way is  the 18th Century “The Triumph of Virtue and Nobility Over Ignorance” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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