Archive for May, 2011


The following is a partial demonstration of how a ‘formalized’ IBIS – type structure might represent a discussion such as the Linked-In SystemsThinkers World thread started by Helene Finidori [Giraud] on the UN call for revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival. The posts on the thread are the ‘verbatim file‘ of the discourse support system; the following are a first sample of a topic list (A) and a list of issues (B). In a project accompanying a discussion, these would have been generated as the discussion proceeds; in this case, the selection represents a subset of ‘basic’ questions I summarized from a large number of posts at the time I joined the discussion. None of the parts should be considered exhaustive representations of the subject matter.
The beginning discourse is displayed in the two overview maps: one for the first ten or so tbasc topics, the other for one specific question.

A) Topics:
The topics are numbered, roughly in the sequence they are raised, for reference.

1 UN Call: Revolutionary Thinking & Action
to ensure economic model for survival
2 Finidori group response
3 Revolutionary thinking
4 Revolutionary action
5 Economic model for survival
6 System
7 Model
8 Other conceptual approaches
9 Sustainability
10 Threats to humanity survival

B) Issues
(Reminder: Each topic generates a set (‘family’) of potential issues or questions:
Factual questions (F); Deontic Questions (D); Explanatory of description questions (E)’
Instrumental questions (I); Factual-instrumental or relationship questions (FI);
Associated problems questions (PR); Questions for criteria for solving / answering the respective questions) (CR).
The issues are identified by topic number abd question type, plus additional number if there are several issues of the same type for the topic. Questions that have not been explicitly raised may not have a number yet.
WQ: “Wrong question”; inadequate view of problem (with suggestion for different view or issue)

1 UN Call
>> 2 Finidori group response?
>> 3 Revolutionary thinking
>> 4 Revolutionary action
>> 5 Economic model for survival

2 Finidori group response
2 D Group response?
Should the Finidori Group / Systems Thinking World
develop a response to the UN call?
WQ: Goals of effort?
2 I Possible response structure / organization / nature?
>> Systems thinking approach?
>> Summary of posts?
>> Organization of material (Grouping/Classification/)
>> Use data mining /clustering programs to develop structure?
>> One recommendation?
>> Set of a few major recommendations?
>> 5 Economic system model?
>> 10 Analysis and response to threats (UN list)?
2D2 Report author?
2D3 Report timeline?

3 Revolutionary thinking
3E Revolutionary thinking?
>> Developing / adopting new thought approaches?
>> Challenging / abandoning past/current thinking?

4 Revolutionary action
4E Revolutionary action (to ensure economic model)
>> Innovative initiatives / programs /actions?
>> (Revolutionary) reversal of current activities?
4D Revolutionary action?

5 Economic model for survival
5E1 Economic model for survival?
>> 7 Model
>> 6 System
WQ: Economic system is only part of overall system that should be discussed
WQ: The problem should be discussed in terms of >> 9 Sustainability
5E2 Current economic model?

6 System
6D Use systems thinking as approach for response to UN challenge?
6E1 System (Definition? Description?)
6E2 Systems Thinking: Approach?
WQ: Explore other conceptual approaches to the problem
>> 8 Other approaches

7 Model
7E Model?
7D (Group:) Develop a new model?

8 Other conceptual approaches
8E What other approaches to the challenge could be considered?

9 Sustainability
(Group changed discussion vocabulary from ‘survival’ to ‘sustainability’)
9E Sustainability?
9CR Criteria for sustainability?
10 Threats to humanity survival (UN List of threats)
10 D1 Use threat list as vehicle for analyzing response to UN challenge?
10E Threats to humanity survival (UN list)

C Individual issues (selected sample)

2 I Possible response structure / organization / nature?
1 The response should be a result and demonstration of Systems Thinking Approach to such problems >> Systems thinking approach?

2 The report should be a (condensed, organized) summary of the different posts
>> Summary of posts?
>> Organization of material (Grouping/Classification/)?
>> Use data mining /clustering programs to develop structure?

3 The group should attempt to arrive at one coherent set of recommendations
>> One recommendation?
4 The report should present a few major recommendation packages
(since different contributors presented different views of the problem)
>> Set of a few major recommendations?
5 The report should respond to what the UN calls for: an economic model
>> 5 Economic system model?
6 The report should adopt the approach of responding to the UN list of threats
to humanity survival (already analyzed by the UN) >> 10 Analysis and response to threats (UN list)?
7 The report should not presume to arrive at an answer (since it does not have the time or resources to actualy perform analysis, model construction and testing (e.g. by simulation):
it should suggest a process for the global broad based discourse to arrive at a solution
>> Process for Discourse?

Map 1: the first set of ‘basic issues’ of the discussion

Map 2: Issues for one selected topic




UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued a call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to secure an economic model for survival’ at the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos. On the Linked-In Systems Thinking World forum, a discussion was started by Helene Finidori (Giraud) about how to make this happen.

Starting in February 2011, the discussion had generated more than 1100 comments by May, resulting not only in a lively exchange of widely differing opinions about the issue, but also an astounding wealth of references to reports, books, action proposals and actual initiatives already underway, that were relevant to the problem in one way or another. Also, a proposal was made suggesting that the results of the discussion be summarized into a concise report that could be made available to the UN and the public.

I had contributed a number of comments, including some ideas that — to my knowledge — had not been published before. On the request of some key contributors to the discussion, I began drafting an outline for such a report: a framework into which the main conclusions and recommendations of the discussions could be inserted. It became apparent, however, that the differences in conceptual frames of reference, values and world views that had been recognized as one of the contributing factors to the current global problems also permeated this group of ‘Systems Thinkers’, to the point that it seems unlikely for such a document to emerge that would be a convincing contribution and answer to the UN challenge, rather than mainly an unwieldy compilation of published material on the issue, organized according to one grouping or another from a set of plausible classification schemes — but an ultimately arbitrary choice. This, and the insistence of some participants to develop a coherent set of goals, values and principles as a precondition for assembling the report (the very question I see as being the task of a much wider discussion) led me to the decision to try to organize my insights from the discussion and my own contributions into some coherent summary, and to post this here for discussion rather than wait for the group of contributors of the Systems Thinking World thread to reach a consensus about what to inlcude in such a report. The following is the result of that effort.


The following attempt to present a coherent response to the Secretary General’s call for thinking and action consists of a
– clarification of my own basic assumptions and preliminary conclusions regarding this problem, followed by an
– overview of my impressions of the results of the discussion. This informed my
– proposal for a rough framework of recommendations, grouped loosely into three or four categories:
– recommendations to support action initiatives and projects using available tools and resources, that are ready for application or already being applied — mostly small scale, local projects;
– recommendation to coordinate the funding, information sharing, monitoring of such efforts on a global scale, to make the lessons from such efforts widely available;
– recommendations to orchestrate a global discourse about a number of problems and issues that require both further theoretical analysis and public discussion; and finally a
– recommendation for a concerted program of education, to make the results of initiatives, the results of theoretical research, the issues, results and remaining open questions of the discourse available to as wide a public as possible so as to support both the transformation of understanding and values (seen by many as critical to a sustainable future) and the provision of skills, tools and empowerment to people to implement needed changes.
– recommendations regarding the research needed to support the development of knowledge and tools for transformation.
Some ideas and proposals of my own are inserted and referenced into this framework in the respective sections.


The recommendations assembled here are based on the following views (of mine) that are widely (but not necessarily universally) shared among the participants in the LinkedIn discussion:

* The ‘economic’ model is only a part of the overall system for humanity’s survival in the face of the various threats currently emerging. The posting of the question in the Systems Thinking World forum was based on a view that proposals for for a response should therefore be discussed within a larger systems perspective, one that considers other significant system components and their interactions. The diversity of views and attitudes win the group of participants suggests that the ‘systems perspective’ itself is pervaded by enough differences and contradictions to question its validity and usefulness as an overarching perspective and framework for a global discussion.

* The discussion revealed a wealth and variety of efforts and initiatives already undertaken by many people, institutions and companies worldwide. They can be distinguished, at one level, according to their underlying view and corresponding preferences about whether significant change should be achieved through overall ‘top-down’ programs on a global scale, or through a variety of small scale, local, piecemeal ‘bottom-up’ projects and initiatives. The global-local controversy is, in my opinion, a contributing factor to the problems. Both kinds of efforts are needed, for a variety of reasons; the global ‘top-down’ programs should, however, adopt a facilitating, inclusive, coordinating role rather than a directive one.

* A view emerged that roughly distinguishes the following types of such efforts, according to their position on a ‘practice — theory’ scale, or rather on a scale of ‘readiness for implementation’ to ‘needing more discussion, analysis and research’:

– ‘ACTION’ or ‘PRACTICE’ initiatives: Actual projects targeting a variety of projects by small groups tackling problems ranging from ‘single-issue’ concerns to more complex and comprehensive efforts to establish viable communities. (Examples include many historical ‘commune’, intentional communities on religious, spiritual or social ideology basis, local initiatives for sustainable agricultural practices, renewable energy production, efforts of complementing or replacing the monetary system and banking with different currencies such as time and bartering exchanges or community credits.)
These are usually small scale, at least initially, mostly local, with intensive citizen participation and involvement, and must be considered piecemeal efforts that provide examples for others to adopt and apply on larger scale. Similar efforts have been implemented by private enterprise corporations in an effort to increase their competitive stance and profitability while improving their practices and reducing their environmental impact.

– ‘THEORY’ efforts: Attempts to analyze, understand and predict the behavior of systems and subsystems, using scientific and systems analysis tools, based on systematic data collection, mathematical modeling and simulation, in the hope of reaching insights to support recommendations for control and recovery of the overall system.

– ‘PHILOSOPHICAL’ efforts: The view that to a considerable extent, the problems we face are caused by currently held views, beliefs, values and principles (or the lack of such), has generated many books and reports offering recommendations for ‘awakening’ (to the detrimental effect of these beliefs and resulting habits), and reversion to or adoption of more valid values, principles and habits. Many of the action initiatives are influenced or based on such systems of spiritual and philosophical thinking.

* I perceive a number of problems in the emerging picture of these responses. This pertains not so much to the list of challenges (risks, threats) we face — even though there are some disagreements about those as well — but about the appropriate approach to be taken to meet them. They include the following observations:

– There is no one model or even a single overall direction for the development of a successful economic model for survival;

– While there is considerable consensus about the need for transdormation, for humanity to adopt more ‘ecological’ and sustainability practices, there are wide differences of opinion (even within the relatively small group of participants in this discussion) about such issues as the proper value system to guide those practices, whether the needed transformation should be based on ‘top-down’ regulatory programs — and which institutions should be expected to assume leadership in such programs — or ‘bottom-up’ incremental efforts by individuals and small groups; and of course about the causes of the problems (and thus the solutions);

– The ‘practice’, ‘theory’ and ‘philosophical’ efforts all exhibit a wide variety of conceptual frames of reference, each with their specialized jargon and vocabulary. This trend is aggravated by the habit of using acronyms, which often are unintelligible to people from a different background or conceptual frame. This leads to considerable problems in communication even about shared goals and ideas.

– Well-intentioned efforts even by small groups have often been stopped or resisted by more powerful entities, either because of fear of losing influence, profit or stature, or because of lack of understanding.



– No single individual or group (such as the participants in the Systems Thinkers discussion) is in a position to make definite recommendations for a viable global model or system for survival, nor should the recommendation by anyone group, however well argued and supported by analysis and data, be adopted as a general policy to be implemented (‘imposed’ in ‘top-down’ fashion). Such a policy must be the result of agreements following a discourse based on wide public participation.

– The necessary discourse has not yet been carried out let alone run its course towards achieving results. Yet action and efforts to experiment, improve, apply new solutions cannot wait for such a discourse to be completed. Action in the form of initiatives described above must be encouraged; they should follow the principle of piecemeal, incremental improvements rather than large-scale ‘revolutionary’ change; the latter have often proved to trigger unforeseen consequences that rival the problems they were trying to solve.

– The recommendations made here are based on the assumptions that any ‘new’ model must be adopted by nonviolent, peaceful means, not as a result of coercion either by military action or other (e.g. economic) sanctions or pressures. The principle to avoid violence will therefore be a key part of the challenge of developing such a model.

– It must be acknowledged that the assumption of any such globally orchestrated initiative — that of nonviolent resolution of conflicts and peaceful cooperation — is at variance with some ideological and/or religious convictions. They range from acceptance of some ‘survival of the fittest’ positions that justify violent struggle for survival, implying subjugation or elimination of competitors, to religious beliefs that acceptance of a certain faith must be fought for ‘by the sword’, that nonbelievers must be punished and put to death, and that fighters getting killed in the inevitably resulting struggles with nonbelievers will be rewarded as martyrs in the hereafter. Whether such ideologies are genuine beliefs or — as many suspect — mere convenient cynical justifications for mundane power struggles, there seems to be little hope for conciliation except two arguments: One, regarding the survival of the fittest: modern human weaponry does not allow for any discrimination of fitness among victims: weapons of mass destruction kill the fit and the unfit indiscriminately and thus defeat the principle. Secondly, regarding the killing of infidels: the possibility that the respective God might yet see a way to achieve conversion of nonbelievers should be given a chance, which is only possible through mutual nonviolence agreements combined with the mutual admission of free exchange of conversion efforts. These arguments should be articulated and distributed globally with priority. To the extent states or other entities do not accept these precepts, unfortunately, the necessity of maintaining military defense forces remains. This can only be counteracted by creating sufficiently attractive examples of coexistence and cooperation, in the hope that these will over time will convince all societies to adopt the same principles.

The following is a diagram showing the overall framework of recommendations.


The variety of already ongoing local efforts — local, small scale initiatives — should be supported in principle, unless they violate basic standards of human rights, dignity, freedom and justice. They are too numerous to be listed here — see appendix …. (or selective summaries?)

Their value consists in the activation of the energy, enthusiasm and pride of ownership of local population; so such efforts should be encouraged and funded even if there are as yet no generally accepted standards, goals, performance benchmarks etc. They should be monitored and their success or problems made available as information for other or more global efforts.
Implementation of specific, initially small scale experiments to create such examples can take many different forms, depending on circumstances. The recommendation follows the principles of:
– Piecemeal implementation in specific actual locations;
– Global coordination;
– Focusing funding;
– Allowing exploration of a wide range of approaches and ideas (responding to local conditions, prevailing cultural or philosophical views of participants) while developing a workable set of necessary ‘global’ agreements for cooperation and nonviolent conflict resolution;
– Providing ‘laboratory’ conditions for innovative models that do not require violent or disruptive change of existing conditions but encourage older institutions / nations to adapt to successful new patterns.
– Demonstration of viability of even small scale experiments as complete (as much as possible) self-sustaining and stable systems, that can serve to convince existing larger entities to adopt the same design.

A new idea for such initiatives that has not yet been widely published except in other comments on this blog is the following:

– To establish ‘buffer area’ projects between enemy states that have been engaged in prolonged conflict for a number of reasons; resulting in destruction of housing, industry and infrastructure, neglected innovation, refugees, and similar problems. Such projects — that would be needed anyway to provide humanitarian aid for the affected civilian populations — would provide a ‘demilitarized’ zone between such countries, where new technology, agriculture and infrastructure (power generation, water, health care and education) projects. The areas would be populated by refugees and volunteers from both states who will be granted ‘citizenship’ to the new entity (it should not be called ‘nation’) upon declaring allegiance to a set of principles of cooperation and willingness to engage in cooperative activities resulting in experimental projects for new economic and governance patterns.
Such projects would initially be funded by focusing the aid for international refugee, development, renewable resource or emergency relief aid that would be devoted to such crisis areas anyway, on these experiment projects — not the neighboring states (in which such funds have in the past often been misallocated by corruption, mismanagement, or discriminatory allocation etc.)
Infrastructure, energy, shelter, water, food, health care, education: available tools.
The first first tasks would be the development of infrastructure based on sustainability principles: renewable energy resources, water and food production based on sustainability / permaculture techniques, urban settlement patterns aimed at walkability rather than automobile traffic, construction of housing according to energy-conservation principles, education and health care services. These are task that can be attacked with existing, proven technology, which currently may still be regarded not yet cost-efficient compared to existing technology and infrastructure — but since no or only outdated instrastructure of the ‘old’ kind exists in such regions, the absence of ‘sunk costs’ in existing infrastructure which may not be considered in the cost comparison for developed areas will likely make new projects with new technology competitive.
Each project should aim at developing an agricultural food production system according to Permaculture, ecologically sound principles, sufficient primarily to serve its population. Private and community gardens in close proximity to residences should be encouraged. A further aim would be that of restoring soils and environments that may have been degraded, and developing areas for agriculture, forests and natural ecosystems that never had been fertile before. Transportation of food over long distances should be avoided for most of basic sustenance of the local population; though later production of suitable crops for export may be considered. The development of soils and water distribution should be guided by the needs of this kind of agricuture and gardening system.
Depending on local conditions, the projects should aim at preserving, restoring or establishing areas of natural environments with diversity of species, protected from damaging effects of human development such as air and water pollution, loss of habitat, imbalances due to invasive species, nutrient soil erosion. Reforestation, wetlands, wilderness areas are examples.
New forms of governance and economic / financing system need not be established initially for such projects as given ‘constitutions’, but should be considered one of the development tasks to be discussed and negotiated by the projects’ participants, on a participatory basis, supported by new information technology tools. As these provisions and agreements emerge from the discussion, they will replace the initial, strictly temporary project management structure. General guidelines should include the considerations described below under the topic of governenace, power controls, economic system in the DISCOURSE section.

Similar projects starting in areas requiring substantial international aid after natural disasters — earthquakes, floods, hurricanes ect.


Recommendations for proposals and efforts that are not limited or implemented in specific locations or intended for the development of general policies are listed here as ‘global’ programs for which some gobal entity — such as the UN, or a similar organization created for that purpose should assume leadership. Such global effort should serve the following main functions:
– Coordination, information sharing, translation, support of local projects
– Orchestrating the Discourse needed to develop a global policy and model;
– Education
– Research.


A global system for the development of a sustainable economic model should contain a coordinating component primarily serving the purpose of providing support for the variety of local action projects. This may involve funding, information sharing, monitoring their development and performance. A key part of this function will involve translation, not only in terms of translation between different languages, but also between the different conceptual frames of reference, value systems, philosophies that guide those initiatives. An inventory of such initatives may become a vital source of helpful information for the design of new projects. The inventory and record of performance monitoring will become the basis for the discussion and evaluation of project features (for suitability in general application elsewhere) in the following discourse component.


The second vital global initiative component would be that of a platform and orchestrating support for the discourse from which a globally acceptable model would emerge. It would include the same component of translation as the coordination component above, between the diffent languages and vocabularies. An important task will be that of facilitating a genuine discourse, a function not yet adequately served by current platforms of information search and exchange e.g. in social networks. Discussions need to be supported by research, diagrams, and ‘maps’ (to inform participants about the state of discourse about a topic as well the network of related topics); and finally, of tools for evaluation of arguments to reach well-informed decisions. Better software for this function will have to be developed. Some suggestions for the structure of such a framework include the following:
A public forum that focuses on the explicit articulation of the ‘pros and cons’ (arguments for and against) of proposals and controversial issues, allows for the systematic and transparent evaluation of arguments, and provides convenient overview of the state of the discussion. The forum should be open in all languages and also provide the translation function mentioned above for the specialized vocabularies in different disciplines, theory and philosophy systems as well as commercial comapy ‘brands’.
The framework itself would consist of the following components:

a. An overview listing of issues and proposals, which are entered as ‘topics’ for discussion.

b. For each topic, the public is invited to contribute comments, suggestions, amandments, and arguments pro and con. These will be entered into a ‘verbatim’ collection in chronological order.

c. The contributions and arguments are reviewed. For each topic or issue x, a ‘family’ of related questions will be listed:
– conceptual and definition questions: “what is x?” (definitions, descriptions)
– factual questions: e.g. “is x the case?”
– factual-instrumental questions: “what are the consequences of implementing x?” or “does x cause y?”
– instrumental questions: “how can x be implemented?” (alternative means for implementing / acieving x?)
– deontic (ought-) questions: “should x be implemented?” “Should y be aimed for?”
– ‘problem’ questions: “What are the problems with x?”
– ‘criteria questions’: “According to what criteria should alternative plans for achieving x be judged?”

The contributions will be examined and condensed versions of comments, arguments, proposals will be entered into a concise, condensed list of answers for each question type.

d. Graphical representations of the topics, questions, and arguments and their relationships (topic maps, issue maps, argument maps) will be prepared to provide convenient overview of the state of the discourse.

e. The formalized collections of questions and answers (item c) and maps (item d) will be published as information to the public, either periodically in appropriate intervals, or for critical issues continually as new contributions are received.

f. For critical issues and decisions, argument evaluation worksheets are prepared, in which all arguments pro and con are listed, each with their individual premises iidentified for assessment: all premises according to their plausibility, and deontic premises als according to their relative weight of importance. Discourse participants and public decision-makers are asked to perform the assessment, from which argument weights and an overall plausibility score is calculated, for each patricipant.

The results can be analyzed to identify precise areas of agreement and disagrement, or lack of information to make judgments. This can guide the process by indicating the need for further reseacrh support, further discussion (e.g. clarification of argument premisses, or negotiating modifications to the proposed plans, or readiness for decision.

(Details of the approach for argument assessment: T. Mann: The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments, Informal Logic, Dec. 2010)

Discourse topics
The discourse will have to address a number of key topics and problems such as the UN list of threats to the survival of humanity, and issues whose clarification seems to be a necessary condition for the emergence of viable solutions and agreements. The following are examples of such topics are the following, for discussion; for some I have added references to my own writings about these issues:

• The various risk and threat factors listed by the UN;

• Values, principles, ethics; the philosophical and spiritual basis guiding the development of the policies and model;
My own observations about this topic include a post on the Abbe Boulah blog:
and the development of basic assumptions for the planning discourse in “The Fog Island Argument”
(in German: “Das Planungsargument”)

• Governance and power
Subtopics that are in need of discussion:
– The relationship between freedom and power;
– The problem of controlling power
(the need for controls and sanctions triggered automatically by attempts to violate rules and agreements rather than sanctions enforced by a ‘stronger / bigger force)
– Taxation
– Alternative measures of performance: Environment value
My article on the value of built environment as part of a better measure of quality of life
– The role of religion in governance
– Growth
– The public policy discourse
“The Fog Island Argument”; Article in Informal Logic: “The structure and evaluation of
planning arguments”

• The economic system: finance, money, banking;
– Growth
– Profit controls
– Complementary currecnies
– Property (land; means of production)

• Subsistence essentials
– Food, Agriculture, Permaculture;
– Water
– Housing / shelter

• The natural ecosystem
– Climate
– Biodiversity

• Energy
– Renewable energy technology
– Large systems versus independent (individual household) technology

• Research
– The role of research in supporting discourse and education
– The implications of research moving from the university to government and private enterprise

More thought is needed to do justice to the connections and interrelationships between the topics. In the discussion, it could already be observed that comments about specific subject areas tended to develop into separate ‘disciplines’ with their own vocabularies and concerns that did not make connections to other system components (other than references amounting to see assumptions about them as the context within which they operate, not as component that themselves are subject to transformation).

The instruments for this crucial task should take advantage of the rapidly evolving information technology — especially the internet and the near ubiquity of cellphones — might make such a global dialogue with wide participation possible.


The results of the work done in the DISCOURSE component — both the discussion and the analysis / theory realms, as well as the lessons learned from the action initiatives, must be distributed, made available to the public everywhere: to induce awakening, understanding, a transformation of beliefs, values, principles, habits, and to provide the necessary tools for action. This might be seen as simply providing information, but arguably goes beyond merely making information available: it really is an EDUCATION function. And it is critical in achieving a fundamental change of direction of the global human project. There are many voices urging a mental or spiritual awakening and reorientation as the key to a new model. Not much is said in the discussions about how this may be achieved: perhaps it is taken for granted that it will have to taken the form of education (including adult re-education), that it should be as widespread — global — as possible, and that it would have to involve or at least aim at some universal, cross-cultural common denominators; mainly common ethical in nature. (The overall set or framework of common principles and agreements).

The label ‘education’ might suggest that the material in question should be injected into the existing education systems everywhere. A traditional approach would be for some entity / authority to develop a standard syllabus for this, which the various educational systems (schools) will be expected to adopt and teach. This perhaps plausible in the long run, but unrealistic as a tool for achieving the necessary result in the short run; action and movement must be achieved much faster and with fewer resources than it would take to revamp all the world’s educational systems. I recommend to instead adopt a different attitude. To be effective, a set of behavioral guidelines and rules cannot be imposed by authority; it must also be accepted by everybody, as mutual commitments freely engaged. In turn, this means that it must be the result of dialogue and negotiation (which of course can address traditional canons.) Therefore I suggest a concerted effort feeding directly off the results achieved in the discussions of topics in the DISCOURSE, using the same list of subjects, for a start. The results — understood not as the ‘facts’ about the world that schools have been charged with conveying to children (with resulting destructive, unproductive fights about wat should be counting as truth and facts) but as information about the issues people argue about, and what we (humans) ought to do — presenting the different opinions with their supporting evidence, and seeking to empower learners to effectively and meaningfully evaluate that material and arrive at their own judgments and creatively construct their own future.

The instruments for this crucial task should take advantage of the rapidly evolving information technology — especially the internet and the near ubiquity of cellphones — which could facilitate a global dialogue (DISCOURSE) with wide participation possible, and the educational task should consider taking advantage of this potential. So the recommendations would be to begin developing a framework for disseminating the education material using these technologies.

Reliance on technology should not be the only pillar of such a campaign, however. For one, people are more likely to accept mutual rules of cooperation if their understanding of the need for such rules arises out of actual experiences. There are two main possibilities for this: one is for ‘apprenticeship’ participation in experimental projects or emergency relief situations, where the normal societal structures have been disrupted and must be re-established. The Peace Corps offered a kind of such experiences, as an example. Another possibility is that of games. Even the traditional educational system relied on games (in sports) or game-like activities — music, plays, — through which qualities such as cooperation (besides competition), sportsmanship are conveyed. The recommendation therefore is for an effort to start an educational campaign via the internet, possibly complemented by TV: a survivor-type series of episodes highlighting both the kinds of situations where current / traditional attitudes and rules must be replaced by a new ethic, and the interactions conveyed in an interesting, entertaining manner; videogames where the ‘winning’ scores depend on adherence to cooperative and sustainability principles. A widely advertised competition for the development of such shows and games might be a starting point.
The design of a complementary education system along the lines suggested must take into account society’s dual expectation of education: On the one hand, education — the acquisition of knowledge, skills and information must be freely accessible to all members of society (not only during childhood but throughout life, as the kind of information and skills change over time). Knowledge, skills and information are among the most important resources for people to be able to take advantage of available opportunities in a society. On the other hand, the outcomes of this process in the form of acquisition of skills etc. must be able to be certified, that is, demonstrated, according to some articulated and agreed-upon standards. The balance between these two functions must be re-examined; the opportunities for acquisition of knowledge and skills through new information technology should be acknowledged and accommodated, and the linkage of the demonstration / certification function to the traditional educational institutions that once were the exclusive means for acquisition of knowledge can be replaced by other, more effective means.

This discussion is currently, it seems, made more difficult by the legitimate concerns for the second important level of the education system of a society: that of ‘socialization’, or acquisition of a common foundation of ideas and values — a cultural dimension. In addition, the role of the ‘research’ mission of the educational system — the generation of new knowledge, traditionally also linked to the same institutions that were then transmitting research insights to students — adds to the complexity of this challenge. The discussion might be made more constructive if these different functions — knowledge acquisition, certification, socialization, and research — were clearly acknowledged as separate tasks, but a common forum provided for the orchestrated exchange of information, opinions, discussion and resolution of concerns (such as allocation of funds for each funcion). This could allow experiments to be conducted for each function to arrive at innovative, improved means to pursue its purpose, without having to encumber the innovation process by having to discuss how the entire structure of a combined system would be affected by an experiment in one part.

This is an example of a globalized initiative, and one in which private enterprise (corporations in the technology and entertainment industries) might be enticed into joining the effort. It can of course also be combined with any small-scale, local experiment or initiative.


The systematic investigation of unresolved questions both as related to understanding natue, and to policy issues about human activity within the natural environment has been the role of ‘research’ — a function that overlaps and serves both the DISCOURSE component of the proposed policy, and EDUCATION, as well as, of course, all the ACTION projects as the underlying knowledge basis for the technology they use. It has traditionally been housed in institutions of education (universities); a recent (20th century) shift has seen research activity being taken over by both governments and private industry. The implications of this development have not yet been adequately investigated and understood; though problems have become quite apparent: issues regarding secrecy for research results by government research institutions; which takes the form of controversies about research results produced by private enterprise investigators (legal issues about the right to profit from research billed as ‘intellectual property’); problems that have spawned an entirely new category of crime in the form of ‘industrial espionage’. The common problems here include both questions about how commercial and state interests influence research objectivity (let alone the question of research priorities and funding), and about the ethical implications of withholding publication of research results to protect commercial (profit) interests.

It is widely accepted that answers to humanity’s problems are to a significant degree going to be provided by research. The question whether new institutions will have to be developed to meet this global challenge and resolve the issues of current research practices should therefore occupy a place of highest priority on the agenda of any forum or institution attempting to coordinate the effort to ensure the development of a better model for survival.


The ideas described in this attempt to clarify for myself what a reasonable response the the UN Secretary General’s call might look like should be taken as contributions for a much wider discussion. That discussion must even address the issue of what entity should be asked to organize, fund and orchestrate the ‘global’ part of the overall response I have outlined here, including the discourse itself. Since the call was issued by the UN, it might seem that the UN is the plausible addressee for responses like these, and the plausible agent for any initatives to meet the challenges. This assumption must be put up for questioning and discussion for several reasons. The UN is in its structure (and name) predicated on the current state of the world as one governed by nation-states, with representation in the UN therefore being provided and controlled by these states. But it might be that this very structure could be part of the range of causes for the problems humanity as a whole is facing. Secondly, given the problems I have identified regarding the role of entities charged with ‘enforcing’ agreements and laws, and thus imposing sanctions for any violation of such agreements. As long as violations involve coercion and use of power, the enforcing agency must always be a ‘bigger’ power. But as such, it will also alwasy be the object of suspicions of falling victim to the temptations of power — mainly that of not having to adhere to the laws it is supposed to enforce, since there is no bigger power to prevent and impose sanctions for such abuse. Such suspicions, justified or not, are currently the reason for the mistrust with which many regard the UN, and the reason why it is not given sufficient power to effectively enforce international agreeents, human rights, and treaties.

Many see the internet as a source of hope at least for the discourse part of the needed response. In its current form, it promises a much more free exchange, distribution and discussion of information — much to the consternation of powers that see control of information as being in their interest. But it does not yet lend itself very well to a more organized discourse aimed at constructive policy development much less evaluation and decisions. The exhilarating by arguably rather chaotic discussion in the Systems Thinking forum itself is a good example demonstrating this shortcoming; (it is only due to the exceptionally competent, gentle and patient guidance by its moderator Helene Finidori [Giraud] that even this discussion was prevented from deteriorating into the kind of mudslinging spectacle seen on too many such forum exchages). And any implementation of conclusions, recommendations and expressions of calls for action remains the prerogative of existing power structures. So the evolution of the internet towards becoming a more constructive and effective tool for public policy development is itself part of the transformation task, but its limitations must be acknowledged to prevent attention from straying away from the task of reshaping the structure of the powers that will have to carry the needed work forward, in small local, incremental steps as well as in terms of global coordination and action. The problem has been likened to the challenge of rebuilding a ship while underway on the open sea; it will require the contribution and cooperation of every member of its crew, even if the captain himself has thrown up his arms calling for ‘revolutionary thinking and action’ — on a ship, would it not be called mutiny?

‘Systems Thinking’: just another jargon ‘brand’ vocabulary?

Comments on a discussion on a LinkedIn “Systems Thinking” Forum

Looking at the impressive effort of a group of ‘Systems Thinkers’ on the Linked-In forum “Systems Thinking World” to respond to the call by the UN Secretary General for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ from one or two steps removed, it is interesting and instructive to note certain underlying assumptions that govern it — and that may have to be re-examined.

The first assumption is that the assessment by the UN Secretary is justified, by the threats and dangers of current developments, to call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action’.

The ‘revolutionary’ statement there is remarkable in itself, and should have caused some critical examination. Does it assume that past and current institutions and approaches have been fundamentally wrong — and that this might include the very institution he is heading? Would it suggest that these structures and approaches should be subject to ‘revolutionary’ reassessment, thinking — and action? What would such action possibly look like?

The admirable decision on the part of the group of (‘self-defined’?) systems thinkers to respond to the call with more than some superficial or standard blog comments must surely be seen as an indication that these thinkers are convinced that they can contribute something of value to the problem. One naive interpretation would be that they feel able to produce revolutionary thinking if not action that would solve the problems.

How would a systems approach (if this slightly outdated term is still acceptable) go about doing this? The textbook answer suggests that the systems analyst would examine the system, meaning: to identify its components, the relationships between the components (some views are speaking of components as ‘stocks’ and the relationships as ‘flows’ between them, and to first describe these entities and relationships: to ‘understand’ the system. The analysis and understanding might mean to develop ‘models’, preferably ‘mathematical models’ of the system structure, and to carry out calculations and simulations of system behavior, testing the models to see if the model behavior matches observed behavior in the real system. The understanding then is supposed to enable the analyst to identify critical system components where appropriate intervention might produce desired results. It is always a little unclear whether the systems analyst /thinker is able and/or entitled to define what system behavior (outcomes) are desirable, or where these determinations would come from. So has the effort of 1150 systems thinkers posts done this? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. There is not only a strange dichotomy of responses: On the one hand a willingness, even eagerness to pronounce basic conditions that must be met, achieved, before meaningful system transformation (which is almost universally seen as desirable, while the nature of the transformation is hotly disputed) can be attempted. Most of those had to do with the thinking, attitudes, beliefs, values and ethics of mankind (not the systems thinkers). On the other hand, one could observe a reluctance to engage in the development, and recommendation of more coherent and detailed system structure designs — with the argument that ‘first, we must understand the system’. Instead of such proper systems approach, there were a host of contributions providing links. Links to writings: reports, books, blogs, talks (videos), studies about the subject, all with their own recommendations, and links to reports of actual initiatives and projects that are already being undertaken, that represent ‘change’ from current normative practices and processes. If the contributor went as far as attaching a recommendation to such links beyond pointing out that it is an ‘interesting’ effort or view, it was inevitably an explicit or implied suggestion that ‘more’ such actions should be encouraged. The basis of such recommendations, interestingly, was rarely a demonstration of resulting superior system performance — according to a valid measure of performance — but the insistence that the effort is guided by valid , desirable principles. (Though the call for examining and clarifying principles was a frequent one as well). So the discussion did not — as might be expected just on the basis of the fact that none of the participants nor the group as a whole was paid and provided the time and resources to actually conduct a proper analysis — produce any recommendations for revolutionary solutions to the concerns of the Secretary General.

A closer, less naively optimistic and more sober assessment of what such a discussion could produce, might focus on the ‘understanding the system’ precondition for action. Again, since no actual collection of system behavior data was carried out (searching the internet for reports and activities by others, however admirable and certainly useful, does not qualify as such) recommendations for system understanding could only be based on the judgment of the participants, participants whose judgment presumably is honed by training and experience with such work. So far, no effort has been made to systematically examine the 1150 posts to arrive at reliable patterns (consensus?) of insight by the participants, much less for looking at how such insights might translate into recommendations for solutions — even for subjecting solution proposals to rigorous systems analysis testing. The current state of the discussion seems focused on developing a system for organizing, classifying the material from all the posts and links, and relating the items to topics such as the UN list of threats to survival. Data mining, data clustering, “synergising of data into “bubbles” of information much like the synergisms than seem to appear at the boundary conditions of chaos” are seriously being proposed as vehicles for culling meaning and sense (solutions?) from the 1150+ posts. The few actually new and creative ideas that have been proposed in the course of the discussion are studiously ignored in the resulting compilation of data — because they haven’t come from links and can’t be referenced…

A skeptical observer may therefore be justified invoicing some doubts about the effectiveness and usefulness of ‘Systems Thinking’. Indeed, one feature observed in the discussion was the preponderance of different vocabularies used not only by the studies and reports in the list of links and references — especially commercial companies offering management or analysis services seem to feel that a separate ‘brand’ terminology is a necessary requirement for competitiveness in the market — but also by participants in the discussion itself. This proliferation of terms and associated acronyms created considerable misunderstanding and confusion, and the conversation is in many places entirely unintelligible to any outsider who might be straying by looking for wisdom in this group. The “Systems Thinking World” is very far from having achieved a common conceptual frame of reference . This was the very central goal of the first systems thinkers in the middle of the last century: to find a common way of talking about the similarities in the structures studied by very different disciplines so that they could be represented in the new analysis tools of the computer. It raises the heretical question: is systems thinking, systems talk itself just a ‘brand’ phenomenon and vocabulary, and as such spawning ever more jargon brands by each new thinker? If so, it is little wonder that the impressive effort of the Systems Thinker discussion has — at least so far — not been able to produce any interesting, convincing results.

Response to the UN Secretary General call for ‘revolutionary thinking’ to secure a sustainable economic model

(Part of a discussion on Linked In: A diagram describing the overall framework of suggested response to the UN Secretary’s call.

There will be a variety of
They will vary according to the topic they address (agriculture, energy, education…)
and according to their degree of comprehensiveness:
(Some will be ‘single-issue’ efforts, others will have to address most or all of
societal components, even in small scale projects)
Though some such efforts will try to remain more independent than others, a global effort should accompany these, having basically three functions:

This part will coordinate efforts, collect and share information, help in securing funding, track performance of each initiative, and translate not only the information between different languages but also between different mental and ideological models.


The discourse must attempt to clarify direction, approaches, research, principles and values
that require mutual translation, discussion, negotiation towards a set of common agreements; for none of which it can be taken for granted that a common, universally acceptable framework already exists. It calls for discussion with as comprehensive participation as possible.
These problems, agreements, attitudes, solutions and remaining unresolved issues must be presented to as wide a global audience as possible, aiming at the necessary transformation (of minds, skills, attitudes) through education. Again, this should not be seen as an effort to impose one view or paradigm on everybody, but as an effort to inform people of the issues, differences, and to encourage them to find cooperative means of resolving conflicts and achieving common tasks.

Both DISCOURSE and EDUCATION address a common set of topics or themes, paths (this is one example where vocabulary differs and needs translation); even the listing of topics is currently open to discussion — the cake can be sliced in several different ways. It can be argued that the overlap and connections between them are really what we are seeking to understand.
One tentative list is:
– Values, principles, direction, ethics
– Governance, power
– Food / Water / Agriculture
– Energy
– Infrastructure
– Economy: Money, finance.

On the relation between freedom and power

A closer look at the relationship between power and freedom, and some suggestions (for discussion) for the control of power. The linkage between power and freedom may be surprising to some, but is almost given by definition (though not often stated): We want freedom, which comes in two versions: freedom to do what we want to do and live the way we prefer; and freedom from experiences and forces we don’t like. Freedom TO engage in an activity requires having the power — being ‘empowered’ — to do so. Power comes in several varieties as well: Power as related to the individual self, power as related to others, and power in relation to nature or the non-human environment. The matrix of these kinds shows six basic reationships, (which may have to be distinguished for the purpose of finding appropriate power controls):

.1 Freedom ‘TO” ; Power as related to
A) Self: – do what we want (pursuit of happiness)
B) Others: – getting others to do what we want;
C) Nature: – use natural resources and processes for our purposes;
.2 Freedom ‘FROM: Power as related to
D) Self: – resisting / avoiding effects of our own temptations, urges, desires; weaknesses;
E) Others: – freedom from others’ attempts to have us do what they (or others ) want;
F) Nature: – avoidance or freedom from effects of undesirable natural forces or events

Freedom ‘TO’: The basic freedom and power to exercise one’s freedom to pursue our happiness, interests, satisfy our needs, (A) is touted as the pure form of freedom, a quintessential human right. The choice aspect has been the dominant feature in the discussion of freedom of this kind; I would add as an essential one the ability to create new choices: new action options, new experience opportunities. It has the drawback that if pursued individually in social isolation, it is not necessarily acknowledged by others. It seems that such acknowledgment, recognition is something we (at least most of us) also seem to crave or need as part of the condition for ‘happiness’.

Pursuit of satisfaction of our needs and desires together with the recognition that others may be better positioned, or in possession of whatever we would like to have or experience, drives us towards (B) trying to gain power over others: the power to get (persuade, trick, force) others to do what we want.

Related to nature, we seek the freedom and power (C) to exploit and use natural resources (food, energy, minerals etc.) for our purposes. (This is sufficiently different from (A) because of the different requirements to pursue it.)

The desire for freedom ‘FROM’ seeks power to avoid being coerced or tempted into doing undesired things by D) one’s own temptations, desires, frailties, weaknesses, or E) other peoples’ demands. Here, we can further distinguish demands, constraints on our freedom, according to whether the demand or coercion is directed in the form of individual demands by another individual or by others (individuals or groups) exercising demands on their own behalf or on behalf of still others — e.g. greater powers.

Finally, the quest for freedom (F) from adverse effects of forces of nature, compels us to acquire power to prevent or protect ourselves from those forces.

It now should become clear that while freedom can be seen as an unqualified basic human right only in the form of (A) and (C) and perhaps (F). As soon as the desire for freedom takes the form of (B) and (E), the potential for conflict arises. If a society wishes to avoid such conflict to be settled by violence (elimination or subjugation of the other party by force and other forms of coercion), rules and agreements will have to be developed: in other words, means to control power. To examine what tools might be developed for each of these combinations, it is helpful to first distinguish the conditions needed and the means we have for gaining, keeping, and increasing power for each cell in the matrix.

(A) Individual power over one’s own actions: The ability to choose among different action options; our skills, dexterity, endurance in carrying out the activities involved: bodily and mental fitness. Many would add a mental and spiritual fitness dimension here.

(B) Power over others is achieved by different means: by force or threat of force, by persuasion (which can range from ‘brainwashing’ and deception to discussion by exchange of arguments); by negotiation and trade: offers of exchanging values (goods, money, experiences) desirable to the other party. These are ‘direct’ power tools than usually come to mind; we should also consider the indirect means of influencing others’ behavior that consist of expanding or reducing the range of opportunities, options available to others to choose from.

(C) The exploitation and use of natural resources and processes requires knowledge, skills, tools, usually some ‘start-up’ resources, and last not least control (possession) of the resources in question (e.g. land, mineral rights: possession in the form of power to exclude others from the opportunity to exploit a resource: ‘property’).

(D) Freedom from the deleterious effects of one’s own flaws and tendencies: weaknesses, drives, instincts etc. may not seem to belong to this discussion, but in fact is the subject of many recommendations for improvement of the human condition: All the recipes for education, self-improvement, exercising and discipline both of body and mind are intended as tools for increasing and maintaining individual freedom and power against the consequences of these internal forces.

(E) Most attempts by other people — even benevolent ones, such as the advice by parents, friends, teachers, leaders of all kinds — can be perceived as infringements on individual freedom (to choose, to behave). The means and tools used to resist such efforts are largely the same as those used to gain and exercise power (B), but used in different ways. Children learn very quickly how they can counteract parental power; even apparently ‘irrational’ means such as temper tantrums are soon found to be very effective power controls…

(F) The efforts to protect ourselves from adverse forces of nature require the same kinds of knowledge and resources as those for (C), but used in modes of either prevention or reaction to natural processes and events.

The table does not show an important further dimension: that of time. The outcomes of freedom/power interactions can be limited to the present, but increasingly. much attention is being devoted especially regarding factors relating to nature, to the ‘sustainability’ of relationships in the long term: How will our actions today affect our ability to secure the same benefits over time?

From this more differentiated perspective, we can now begin to examine how power might be contained or controlled, for those interactions where power interests begin to conflict with freedom and power interests of other individuals and groups. The matrix shows where such conflicts are likely to arise. We know, from history, that power/freedom conflicts can and all too often have been ‘resolved’ by the application of force, resulting in the elimination or subjugation of the ‘losing’ party, reducing or severely constraining its power and freedom. We also know that allowing some groups or individuals to accrue power to the point where it no longer can be restrained from abusing that power in the past has inevitably led to such abuse, situations that could only be rectified by ‘revolutionary‘ use of force by the ‘oppressed’ populations, but in the overwhelming majority of cases leading to the installation of another group in power, one which now sooner or later will be contaminated by the temptations and opportunity to abuse that power. Finally, we see that the tools for resolutions of such conflicts by force have become so destructive that their use not only becomes counterproductive in the short run in terms of costing lives and resources and severely reducing freedoms, quality of life for both ‘winners’ and losers, but more significantly endangers life for the entire planet for the future. This means, in my opinion, that the need for finding better tools for managing the relationship between freedom and power becomes critical.

There has been no shortage of suggestions and arrangements for power controls throughout history. A brief survey of the most common arrangements would include the following:

– Election of leaders to hold power, for limited periods of time; often with provisions for measures of performance that determine whether a leader will be elected to another term;
– Establishment of different ‘branches’ of government (executive, legislative, judicial) and designing a system of rules for maintaining a ‘balance’ of power between them;
– Introduction of rules governing the application of decision-making power in cases of conflict of interest
– Hierarchical structures of organizations, in which each level is subject to oversight and adherence to established ‘rules’, accountable to the next higher level, but given power over the respectively next lower level; the question of limiting the power of the highest level addressed either by elections or by admitting only very elderly people to the highest position (which provides an automatic if not very precisely defined time limit, besides reducing the number of temptations that induce younger people to stretching or breaking rules and agreements).
– From an economic viewpoint, it is often argued that a ‘free market’, undistorted by arbitrary regulations is providing an ‘automatic’ regulatory control device not only for purely economic transactions but for other kinds of social interactions as well. The discussion about whether truly free market are possible, and whether this principle can be applied to such problems as the freedom-power relationship is an important one, but one which exceeds the boundary of this essay.

In the present situation of the dramatic increase of global networks and relationships, information technology, unprecedented accumulation of wealth and power in fewer hands, and increasingly widespread problematic effects of the actions of individuals as well as corporations and governments, and the destructiveness of military weapons for conflict resolution, these historical arrangements appear to have run into limits of their effectiveness. The reasons are not only that their rule systems have become obsolete or too cumbersome to be able to work properly in time to prevent abuse, but also that new groups of players emerge for which the traditional rules are not clear, do not apply, or which extend beyond the borders of jurisdiction of established systems: international financing networks, crime syndicates, terrorism networks, religious organizations and movements are examples of such groups; the military arms of the executive branches even of governments with well-intentioned balance-of power provisions historically have shown a propensity to become a force within and against its own executive, as frequent military coups demonstrate. Another aspect is that many modern arrangements for power management have proven quite effective in controlling everybody’s power to engage in activities that might infringe on others’ freedom and power (especially on the power of the group in power) but quite disastrous in providing and securing basic freedoms and empowerment for the general population: the measures of performance for good governance have been slanted towards ‘law and order’, at the expense of the freedom and opportunities that determine the quality of life and even the economic health of the society.

Efforts to improve the tools for control of power and secure a sustainable balance of freedom and power at all levels might consider the following strategies (submitted here for discussion and expansion by more creative and knowledgeable experts):

1 Development and implementation of better measures of performance, that consider the range, quality and value of freedoms and opportunities at all levels of society — not just overall measures of purely economic performance such as GNP that ignore the distribution of freedoms (opportunities for choosing among different attractive experiences, activities, ways of life) across all levels. The extent to which government should be charged — and its performance measured — not only with ‘protection’ functions and basic infrastructure but actively increasing the range and value of opportunities available to citizens (including opportunities for creating new experiences) deserves discussion.

2 To the extent power can be considered a human ‘need’ (the exact borderline between ‘empowerment’ and ‘power to dominate’ being a matter for discussion), provisions might have to be developed for on the one hand securing a base level of meeting that need for all members of society, but on the other hand — like consumption beyond the basic necessities for life, health, shelter etc. — having power seekers ‘pay’ for meeting more advanced ‘domination-favored’ levels of power.

3 One provision might be to establish a ‘dual’ societal system in which every citizen is, in a sense, a public ‘employee’ who thus can work on common infrastructure provision and maintenance tasks, and is automatically and continually enrolled in basic health care, educational, insurance, retirement programs etc. Everybody can also choose to work in private enterprise entities; both the extent (percentage of public/private work) and scheduling should and can be extremely flexible. Enhancement services for all the above basic programs can be offered by the private sector. This provides individuals the basic security protection against exploitation that is currently threatened by the prospect of losing one’s job. Private enterprise will be freed from bureaucratic burdens of withholding tax, providing health insurance etc.; in times of economic slowdown, the possibility of reducing work time and employees shifting their work percentage to increased work in the public sector not only reduces the need for laying off valuable, experienced employees but reduces the disruption for those employees families resulting from layoffs: moving costs, changing children’s schools etc. Overall, as regards the freedom/power balance, such a system would reduce the frequency and severity of economic crises drastically reducing freedom, opportunity, and well-being of society.

4 The admission to positions of power might be linked to a requirement of candidates for such positions depositing an ‘investment’ — which ideally would be a currency consisting not of money but of credit points earned, say, with work and services in the public work sector (#3 above, in addition to basic life subsistence compensation). These points would be ‘used up’ as investments with each significant power decision or action, and lost if the decision resulted in an unsuccessful or detrimental outcome, but can earn more credit points ‘income’ or profit if successful.

5 With regard to the ‘enforcement’ of agreements and rules at every level of society, the system of enforcement by a bigger, stronger, more powerful agency pursuing and punishing violators should be replaced by a system of ‘automatically activated sanctions that are triggered by the very attempt to violate an agreement, rule, or law. There are some examples of low-level technology already available that demonstrate the principle: the ignition lock for cars that prevent inebriated drives from even starting a vehicle, thus preventing DUI violations entirely.
Sensors in cars could be installed to ‘read’ posted speed limits or red traffic lights and automatically warning the driver as the violation occurs, and automatically subtracts a ‘fine’ in the driver’s account (money or credit point account) for persistent and excessive violations. This would drastically reduce the need for expensive law enforcement manpower and technology (red light cameras, dangerous police chases oftne ending in crashes with innocent parties) with its accompanying growth in power, free law enforcement to focus on more important crime; and avoid the ‘big brother’ effect of having all citizen activities monitored at all times and recorded (which creates the opportunity for abuse): the record would be contained only in the individual citizens ‘credit point account’ and become a matter of interest for others only when a person wants to use that credit for power position ‘investment’ (a kind of performance bond). The technology for such controls for larger entities and international relations obviously requires development but could follow the same principle.

6 Special attention should be devoted to the issue of control of power accumulation through accumulation of money (profit). A general principle to be followed here is one that has long been applied to working wages, from which taxes were subtracted before the net income is disbursed — preventing ‘abuse’ (in the form of overspending in the case of workers) rather than fixing its consequences after the fact. So tools should be considered that would prevent the exorbitant accumulation of profit, rather than taxing it after the fact. For example, the profit rate charged on the sale of products and services might be tied to the overall number of items sold (after due accounting for costs, of course) — a kind of ‘decreasing marginal profit rate’ provision. Another issue calling for reform regulation is that of profit on financial instruments involving resale of loans; but this is probably a topic for the discussion of the design or reformation of the economic system of society, rather than its arrangements for the control of the balance between freedom and power.

7 Finally, it may become necessary to also re-evaluate the role of property in this picture of balancing freedom and power. It was noted that property — being in (exclusive) possession of — the means of production and exploitation of resources is a necessary condition for the freedom to pursue the corresponding freedom. With the accumulation of power through accumulation of money there comes accumulation of property, especially land. And with land being an intrinsically limited commodity, concentrating ownership of land in a limited number of hands will automatically have the effect of reducing the opportunities (and thus freedoms) of everybody who does not own property, as is every new child in the growing global population. The principle of honoring property rights as a vital guarantee for the freedom of the owner, that has been an important cornerstone of modern democratic societies in capitalist economies thus is also an intrinsic and growing constraint on the freedom of the numbers of people who don’t own property. For the design of a satisfactory and sustainable societal and economic system, that must include viable arrangements for the relationship between freedom and power, this issue also requires renewed discussion and creative solutions. As an aside, however, it may be interesting to note that existing property conditions inevitably constitute a significant distortion of the ‘free market’ that many suggest as the solution to these problems.

It is obvious, from this brief exploration, that the issue of an appropriate and sustainable balance between freedom and power is both a more complex as well as a supremely important one, and one that is far from having been adequately discussed (say, in comparison to the issues of renewable energy sources and human impact on climate change) let alone resolved.

Abbé Boulah reviews a book review on the science of morality

NYRB: H. Allen Orr on Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape”.

– Hey Abbé Boulah, your coffee’s getting cold. What are you reading there?

– Ah, Bog-Hubert: and a good morning to you too. What I am reading while I am waiting for somebody to talk to in this deserted Fog Island Tavern? Something about the old quarrel between science and ethics: another round. In the New York Review of Books.

– Another round of that? Sounds like it’s all settled in your mind. So why are you even bothering with it?

– Trying to keep it open, that’s all. The mind, not the controversy. This time, the reviewer — H. Allen Orr — takes on the new book by Sam Harris about ‘The Moral Landscape’ .

– Have you read the book?

– Nah. And I don’t think I’m going to. The review seems to summarize its main points nicely enough for me to see that I don’t agree with them. Nor with the reviewer either, for that matter.

– Your mind opened a little and slammed shut again so soon? Not like you. And on both the author and the reviewer? How did that happen?

– You’re right in wagging your finger at the possibility that I’m jumping to unsupported conclusions. Especially about morals and neuroscience of which I admittedly know nothing. But wait ‘till you hear this.The insights of neuroscience — research about how the brain works when dealing with questions of scientific fact and moral issues — lead Harris to the claim that a science of ethics is possible. A science! And that this science, though it is a yet undeveloped branch of science, can discover objective moral truths. That the widely accepted distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ claims (the view that one cannot derive moral ‘ought’ truths from scientific facts) is a ‘nonproblem’, and that the split between these claims is an illusion, and that the objective basis for a science of morals is the ‘correct’ conception of the good as the well-being of conscious creatures.

– I can see how you get aggravated by those views — I remember your tirades about how truth doesn’t apply to moral claims. And the reviewer bought all that?

– No. Orr remains unconvinced about the validity of these claims but is open to the possibility Harris’s belief that a science of morals might be possible — he just doesn’t think Harris has made his case. Yet.

– Maybe that’s just a polite way of saying that it looks like BS but that he’ll keep his mind open, eh? Just in case?

– No, I think they are both barking up the wrong tree. Wrong question. As long as they keep arguing from within the paradigms of science (and true facts about the world) and ethics or morals (and moral truths).

– But if that’s what they are worried about, what else should they be discussing?

– You’ve got a point there. But you see, they are stuck in their way of looking at the issue. And that way of looking at it makes it seem quite unlikely that the controversy will ever be resolved to the satisfaction of either camp — science and ethics, especially the religious-based ethics.

– So what’s the better way of looking at it, then? Are you going to get in the middle of that?

– Well, I might enter the fray with some observations about the concepts of truth, or about the human urge to find moral precepts. But, I admit, those are not backed by any superior expertise or authority of mine either as a scientist or as a philosopher of ethics, or even a religious expert, none of which I claim to be. Just by some stupid commonsense questions.

– I agree, common sense is often uncommonly stupid. So what are those questions?

– Starting with truth, doesn’t it seem obvious that if there IS a real world out there, it would be useful to know what it IS like, really: to know the truth about what the world is like and how it works?

– Right: that’s the job of science, is that what you are saying? So far, I don’t see the controversy.

– Not yet. To all that, the criterion ‘truth’ applies: we would like to know it — even though people may have expressed different opinions about what that truth is. Science is supposed to try to sort that out. And it seems equally obvious that there exists a human desire for moral or ethical guidance about what we ought to do. I don’t know about you, but it holds for a lot of people.

– Hey, what are you insinuating here? Better watch it all the time, buddy.

– Sorry, I didn’t mean to insinuate anything. It’s too early for insinuating. Coffee hasn’t even kicked in yet. Now: The precepts we are offered are often called ‘moral truths’.

– Ain’t that the truth. Just got on a radio station this morning that was full of that. Full of it, I tell you.

– I know what you mean. Well, while many of them look quite convincing, isn’t there a difference between such claims and the claims about reality?

– They both refer to fat books: what’s the difference?

– I think there is a big difference. You know it. The descriptions by science about the real world refer to the past and present, — what IS. Well, and sometimes carelessly about the future: predictions about what will be, based on what we know about what was and what is. Later, the predictions are then seen as having come true (resulted in true facts) or false (when things didn’t turn out as predicted). The test is the observed reality at that time. In contrast, aren’t precepts about what we OUGHT to do made precisely because they are not true (yet)? And because there is the possibility that we might not heed them and do something contrary to the recommended moral rule?

– You are right: the preacher on that radio sounded like most people are breaking the moral rules all the time. Got all worked up about it, too…

– So if we want to use the same term ‘truth’ for both the scientific and the moral claims, shouldn’t we make a distinction between the kinds of ‘truth’ involved: ‘reality-truth’ and ‘moral truth’? And then Hume’s warning that we can’t derive the latter from the former kind still applies — or would have to be convincingly resolved.

– Whose warning?

– Hume’s.

– Who’s Hume?

– David Hume. He was an old English philosopher who first stated that you can’t logically derive ought claims from facts. And it’s something that many smart people have pretty much accepted. And logic too.

– Oh. And now this Harris Neurowhatnot is saying that’s not true? And you are saying Harris is wrong?

– I am not in a position to make any comments about whether neuroscience can resolve that issue. I don’t believe it can, but what I do suggest is that its’ the wrong question. And that a resolution of a kind is possible from a different perspective — that of design, planning, policy-making.

– And you can prove that?

– I think it’s a better story. Proof, I don’t know: not about ought-claims. Which is the point.

– So what’s the story?

– It begins with the observation that humans (possibly other species too, but we know about humans for sure) act, and make plans for actions, for changing the environment they find themselves in. The purpose for such action is survival: food, shelter, procreation etc. at the basic level.

– And happiness, don’t forget.

– Right. Happiness, I guess. Now they find, unhappily, that such plans sometimes conflict with the plans of other people. They also find that they then have several options available, several possible actions among which they have to decide. For example: they can decide to just try to get rid of the guy with the other plan and go ahead with their own. Chase him, make him an offer he can’t refuse, hit him over the head with a blunt object, you know the routines. Or they might recognize the possibility of being gotten rid of by the other guy — perhaps he has a bigger club — and run away, forgetting about their plan. Or, to look for some way of reconciling the differences between the plans (all the while seeking to keep up the appearance of having the bigger club…). They may also entertain a vision that perhaps by joining forces in pursuing a common plan, they might achieve an outcome that would be even preferable to that of either individual plan, and opt for cooperation.

– I see. I think. So what should I do when that happens?

– Ah! You put the finger on it!

– I put the finger on what? The guy with the bigger club who’s interfering with my plan? Don’t think so.

– No: Think! You put the finger on the origin of basic ought – questions of the kind ‘what should I do?‘ Which of the options of fighting, fleeing or surrendering, or negotiating to choose. And of the more elaborate questions of the kinds of agreements that must be entered to ensure successful cooperative planning, if you select the last option of negotiating a common plan.

– What kind of agreements are you talking about?

– Good question. First, there is something of a vague acknowledgment that the outcome of the plan must be better than the existing (or predicted) situation or at least acceptable, for both parties. And secondly, that to find out what that mutually acceptable plan should look like, requires communication: talking, negotiation. It also requires some mutual assurance that the clubs will have to be left outside the negotiating hall. The talk must aim at clarifying the features of the common plan, and the application or threat of force, coercion don’t relate to the quality of the plan, and therefore would immediately revert the situation to the fight/flight option. So the agreement to abstain from force is a basic necessary element of such situations.

– Okay, I can see the need for those agreements. Now are you saying those are moral truths?

– Not truths: agreements. This distinction is important: these starting agreements or rules for cooperative planning are not truths — they are mutual understandings, commitments, promises. Even the concept of ‘thieves’ honor’ expresses this: two scoundrels may know and acknowledge that they are scoundrels when negotiating a deal — but also know that making certain commitments will have to be honored if the negotiating option is to be maintained — but that they can always switch to one of the other options.To call the agreements, promises, ‘truths‘ is not doing justice to the concept of truth, don’t you think? But they work just as well, don’t they?

– Yeah. At least I see that they are very different kinds of truths than the facts of reality. So truth is gone from planning, then?

– No: This does not mean that truth is absent from the process. Quite the contrary: In explaining to each other what features the plan should have or not have, the parties make proposals of the kind: ‘the plan should have feature x’ — and try to convince the other party with an argument justifying that suggestion. The argument will take something like the form: “The plan should have feature x, because having x will lead to (cause) a situation with feature y, and feature y is desirable”. Such an argument will ‘work’ in persuading the other party only if that ‘opponent’ or planning partner feels / is convinced that the claim ‘x will cause y’ is true. So at least for that part of the argument, we are looking for truth: ‘reality-truth’, if you go along with the distinction we made.

– Okay: but what about the part that says we ought to have y?

– Right. The problem is that we talk about this in different ways, some of which look like the term ‘truth’ applies, even though we saw that it doesn’t, or that it is a different kind of truth.

– Your are confusing me here.

– It can be confusing. Let’s see. You agreed, didn’t you, that saying ‘we ought to have y’ is not true in the same way as ‘doing x will produce y’. If only because different people may have legitimate and obvious disagreements about whether we should have y — one person’s benefit is another person’s cost, remember? But they should eventually come to an agreement whether x causes y: it depends on the nature of x and y, not on whether they like it or not. I’m not saying that is always easy to pin down. But the confusion comes when we speak about the effect or goal y like this: “Having y is desirable” or “Y is a good thing”. Notice the use of the word ‘is’ here? That’s the source of the confusion.

– Why?

– It sounds more like a statement about reality that’s independent of how we feel about it — so people use ‘truth’ for such statements as if they were also ‘reality-truths’. Blurring the difference.

– Okay: So what b… blurring difference does that make in deciding what we should do?

– Patience. There will usually be a number of such arguments being bandied back and forth, some supporting the plan having feature x, some against. Each party must decide whether and when to end the discussion by agreeing to the plan or ending the cooperation, based on some ‘weighing’ of all these pros and cons: a decision. What does this mean? It means, for one, that the decision is made on the strength of the person’s perception of the truth of the claims ‘x will lead to y’ etc. in all the arguments. More specifically, the decision is not made on the basis of the actual truth of the claims — but on the person’s degree of confidence that the claim is true. An important distinction: we never know with complete certainty whether x will cause y; it is a prediction that may turn out not true (due to all kinds of unforeseen circumstances) even if we know with reasonable certainty that in the past x has always caused y. But even that isn’t always very certain. What about the claim that y is desirable? Again: y may be desirable to one party but not so much for the other. So is ‘true’ the proper term for whatever level of confidence we have for such claims?

– Well,you convinced me that it isn’t quite the same. But what else do you suggest?

– I suggest that we use something like ‘plausible’ instead — with degrees of plausibility ranging all the way from complete agreement or conviction, to complete disagreement, with an in-between point of ‘don’t know’ or ‘undecided’. And all the ‘pro’ and all the ‘con’ arguments (of which there is always at least one, pertaining to the cost or effort involved of getting the desired outcome, plus any other disadvantages) must be weighed against one another according to their relative importance for each party.

– The short and long of all this is that the planning argument contains two different kinds of premisses: (at least two; there may be some qualifying claims added, or statements about conditions under which x causes y, and whether those conditions are present) but the two key premisses are these: one ‘factual’ or ‘factual-instrumental’ which will have to be justified, supported by means of what we might loosely call the ‘scientific’ approach: observation, logic, calculation. Aiming at ‘objectivity’ — our judgments about it should aim at conforming to the property of the reality, the object we are judging, not according to what we would like it to be or how we feel about it. But that kind of judgment is preciseley what we have to make about the second kind, the ‘deontic’ premiss: “we ought to achieve y”. Both premisses can of course we challenged’: the former will call for ‘scientific’ evidence for support, as I said — but the latter can only be supported with more arguments of the same kind. Which students of argument will have recognized the argument pattern as being inconclusive from a formal logic point of view: “y should be pursued because y will lead to z, and z is desirable” — more arguments that cannot be decided by ‘scientific’ means, if only because their deontic premises in turn may be desirable to one party but unacceptable to the other.

– This is getting kind of complicated. How does all this relate to a science of morality?

– If you think about it for a while, it will sort itself out. But here is where it gets back to morals and ethics. Some such discussions may end up invoking deontic claims, principles, rules that are accepted, even seen as ‘evident’ or ‘self-evident’ by all participants. Is the search for such universally claims and rules what morality, ethics is all about?

– From what I know about it, yeah. Obviously, it would be useful to have such a set of precepts that could help settle disagreements about what we ought to do.

– I quite agree. And the very planning discourse itself embodies some such rules: for example, we must assume, for a truly cooperative discussion towards a mutually desirable plan, that the claims we make are ‘true’, in the sense that we do not make claims which we are convinced are not true: our claims should have a reasonable degree of plausibility. We shouldn’t make deceptive or knowingly untrue claims; they would jeopardize the quality of the plan.

– That makes sense. But hey, not lying and not telling the whole truth can be different things, can’t they? Should we also be obliged not to hold back knowledge we have reason to believe would constitute weighty arguments for or against, for the other party?

– You are getting it, my friend. What about explicitly spelling out reasons — for and against some proposal — that some may feel are so obvious that they should be taken for granted as being known and taken into account by the other? What about mentioning possible effects of the plan that would be desirable for us, but undesirable for the other party — but that the other party is not aware of?

– Well how does all that relate to the claims of that book? Does he have an answer for these questions?

– To be honest, I’m not sure; since I haven’t read the book, only the review. But there seems to be a claim for some ultimate answer in there, that I have trouble accepting. It is the claim by Harris regarding the ‘correct conception of the good‘ being the well-being of conscious creatures. Ultimately, the deontic premisses that must be accepted as ‘self-evident‘ and not requiring further debate would rest on the identification of such well-being — in the planning case, of all parties involved in the planning discussion because they might be affected by the outcome in some way.

– And the author thinks science can do that?

– Apparently. Sure: If science could clarify what is required for such well-being, this would indeed provide us with at least a workable set of ultimately and commonly acceptable deontic premisses for the planning discourse: morality. This would then be described by the scientists who — as Orr seems to accept — may be in a position to do so because of their expertise in neuroscience. If neuroscience has those answers — which is another question.

– You sound like you don’t think so? And I imagine there would be other people who don’t like where this is going?

– You are probably right. Another round of quarreling. There is, from the planning perspective, at least one good reason for the visceral reaction one must expect to this vision, in my opinion.

– I’m glad you have more than another visceral reaction. What’s the reason?

– The notion of ‘well-being’. Doesn’t it look like a rather static concept: one set of circumstances that produces the optimal constellation of neural responses in the human brain? What if it cannot be determined with any degree of certainty?

– I’d suspect it won’t be that easy…

– Right — not just because of its complexity. The real difficulty is that it isn’t a static, constant condition. Don’t humans, at least many humans, have an innate desire to change not only their environment to increase their well-being, but essentially themselves?

– What do you mean? All I ever hear is about people wanting to find out ‘who they are’?

– That’s a distraction people have been brainwashed into accepting. Well, I guess it’s somewhat justified in that it helps people get out from under what other people keep telling them they are. No, the real issue is who they want to be. Think about it. Expressions such as ‘make a difference’ are one indication. People want to stand out, be recognizable as individuals, not as indistinguishable specimens of the same species. They’d be very unhappy if they found out that what they really are is just a cog in the wheel, one of millions of indistinguishable worker ants. They try to ‘live up to’ certain images, visions of what they could be. Don’t you agree?

– Not that you explain it — Was that what Bob Dylan was saying in his song ‘I’ve got nothing, ma, to live up to’?

– Right. And just the basic two or three choices of the original planning situation described above demonstrates that different images lead to very different ‘moral’ rules. Some people may have a stronger tendency (perhaps even on a genetic basis: that would be something for science to study) to deal with conflicts according to the ‘fight’ option.The ‘warrior ethics’ has some very demanding rules, internal consistency and ethical precepts that demand acknowledgment and even grudging admiration even from people who themselves are more inclined to the ‘cooperation, mutual assistance’ attitude with its very different ethical implication. And people throughout history have designed very different visions of who they wanted to be and to become, to be seen as — expressed in their art, their architecture, their manners, and their moral rule systems.

– To the casual observer such as myself, this may look like just baseless, what do they call it, moral relativism, without any firm foundation. Isn’t there a desire, a need for something more, something more universal, timeless?

– You have been listening to too much talk radio. No, the question is a valid one. Where does this desire for a firm foundation for morality come from? The individual, certainly, confronted with choices, must make decisions and justify these to others; with arguments resting on deontic premisses that are acceptable to others: this is one if not the major basis for a desire for morality. Yes: people want to ‘do the right thing’ — as acknowledged even by others from which they also want to distinguish themselves (‘stand out’…). A bit of a dilemma, right? But there are other motivations. For people whose existence involves intense interaction with other people — and especially for anybody aiming at leadership roles or positions of power in society, the predictability of the moral rules of others is a significant aspect of their own planning: so there is a strong incentive to try to influence people to adopt and adhere to a consistent set of moral or ethical rules.

– Are you saying they are trying to brainwash us to toe the line?

– Would I ever say any such thing?

– No, you sly devil, you trick me into saying it…

– Well… And to ensure adherence by imposing sanctions for violating them. If this conflicts with assumptions about avoiding ‘enforcement’ by application of force, the strategy has been to invoke supernatural beings who will carry out the requisite enforcement sanctions or rewards, if not in this life, then in the hereafter…

– I think you’d better watch it all the time. You are making yourself a tad unpopular here.

– Why, even in this mythical fogged-in tavern? I guess it can’t be helped: the questions just keep coming up. Can humanity find a workable balance between its members’ desire to invent and live up to ever new and different images of who we might be, encourage their creativity and ability to devise inspiring, noble, beautiful visions of what humans can be — and the need for predictability of the resulting ethic rules of each of those visions?

– Gee, don’t ask me, Abbé Boulah.

– Why not?