Cybernetics, virtue ethics and design

Ben Sweeting

In this paper I explore the shared ground between considerations of purpose in virtue ethics and cybernetics, drawing on the example of design to bridge between the two. In so doing I connect the conference theme of human flourishing, which is at the heart of virtue ethics, with discourse in cybernetics and design.

The collaboration between Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow (1943) was a key part of the origins of cybernetics, dramatically reintroducing the notion of purpose into scientific discourse. Purpose had been replaced by a more mechanistic account of causality because of difficulties associated with the Aristotelian concept of final causes. Early cybernetics bypasses concerns with final causes occurring after the events they cause through its circular understanding of causality (Stewart, 1959/2000). Later, in the discussion following his (1990/2003) influential “Ethics and second-order cybernetics”, Heinz von Foerster summarises cybernetics in similar terms:

“…we are all cyberneticians (whether or not we call ourselves such) whenever we justify our actions without using the words “because of…,”or “à cause de…,” but with the phrase in English “in order to…,” which in French is much more Aristotelian, “à fin de…” ” (p. 298).

Considering Rosenblueth et al.’s paper from a design perspective brings out additional complexity. The examples that Rosenblueth et al. cite as non-purposeful (a clock, a roulette wheel, a gun), while not exhibiting “intrinsic purposeful behaviour” (p. 19) in the same way as a servo-mechanism, can be said to be a purpose in themselves (the goal of their designing and making) and can also be used purposefully. These and other considerations were also raised in exchanges with the philosopher Richard Taylor (Rosenblueth & Wiener, 1950; Taylor, 1950a, 1950b), whose critique anticipates the development of cybernetics in terms of what Andrew Pickering has described as a “forward-looking search” (Pickering, 2010).

Taylor was later an advocate of virtue ethics. Much like cybernetics had reintroduced the notion of purpose into scientific discourse, challenging the mechanistic accounts of causality that had been favoured since the enlightenment, so too the modern revival of virtue ethics, instigated by G.E.M. Anscombe (1958) and developed by Alasdair Macintyre (1981/1985, 1988) and others, sought to challenge the similarly mechanistic ethical theories of consequentialism and deontology with reference to the Aristotelian tradition.

Cybernetics and virtue ethics have had little if any explicit exchange. There are a number of areas in which they may contribute to or provide useful critiques of each other:

  • Differentiating the pursuit of external goals from internal ones distinguishes between virtue ethics and consequentialism, and between cybernetic notions of purposefulness and the instrumental “command and control” agenda with which it has sometimes become confused.
  • MacIntyre’s discussion of social practices with internal goals, which is a central but underdeveloped part of his (1981/1985) account, can be clarified through cybernetic ideas (Sweeting, 2015a). In turn, MacIntyre’s emphasis on internal goals complements second-order cybernetics’ concerns with the inclusion of observers.
  • Both virtue ethics and cybernetics are concerned with unspecified and changing goals—with what Pickering (2010) called a “forward-looking search” and MacIntyre (1981/1985) characterised as a “quest”. MacIntyre’s (1981/1985) definition of the good life—“the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man”—may find support in cybernetic understanding of circularity, self-reference and reflexivity.
  • While the most significant contributions to ethical discourse from cybernetics (e.g. Glanville, 2004/2009; von Foerster, 1990/2003) do not refer to virtue ethics, they can be understood as similarly oriented towards the ethical qualities (virtues) of participants (e.g. responsibility, listening) rather than the rightness or wrongness of particular actions.

I explore each of these points of exchange by understanding them in the context of design, drawing on Glanville’s (2007) understanding of the close parallels between design and cybernetics and Nicholas Negroponte’s (1970, p. 119) identification of the good life (human flourishing), and so design, as in conflict with processes such as optimisation. As well as helping develop an account of ethics that is compatible with designerly thinking (Jonas, 2006)—as opposed to the difficulty of applying deontological and consequentialist approaches in design (Sweeting, 2015b).

I propose that design activity may be drawn on for examples of how such ethical qualities can be pursued in complex and ethically charged circumstances more generally.

Posted: Oct-2017

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