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Plenaries & panels

Cybernetics, virtue ethics and design

Format: Plenaries & Panels, RSD6, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Ben Sweeting

University of Brighton

In this paper I speak directly to the subject matter of this conference: to its theme of flourishing, and to the subject areas of systems thinking and design that this conference series as a whole seeks to bring together.

The conference theme of flourishing is a direct reference to ethics, and in particular the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. There has been a revival of interest in this in recent decades under the heading of virtue ethics. Aristotle defined the good as that at which all things aim, and so in terms of goals and purpose. He described the goal of human life in terms eudemonia, which is usually translated as either human flourishing or the good life.

There is a clear connection between this conception of ethics in terms of purpose and both design and systems. Design is an explicitly purposeful activity, which can be understood as the attempt to devise “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1969/1996, p. 111). Purpose is of central concern for how we understand systems, most explicitly in cybernetics. The aim of this paper is to make explicit some of the deep interconnections between these three areas in terms of the theme of purpose, and to suggest areas of common concern where they might lend support to each other.

In order to do this within the scope of this paper, I focus on a specific point of reference in each of the three areas: to Alasdair MacIntyre’s (1981/1985) After Virtue, Dalibor Vesely’s (1985, 2004, 2010) account of architecture, and to the debate around Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow’s (1943) proto-cybernetic paper.




Citation Data

Author(s): Ben Sweeting
Title: Cybernetics, virtue ethics and design
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 16 October 2017
Last update:
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404