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Systems Ethics Thinking (4) : Naoki MORISHITA
Activities | 2020.07.17

3. The fundamental viewpoint

If the above diagnosis is correct, the basic policy that we should have regarding ethics is clear. In other words, it is the construction of the new framework that considers the conflict-situation in a broad sense, incorporates changes between generations, includes complexity, and deals with the uncertainty due to digitization. This is a real challenge. However, it is the “systems ethics” of this book that dares to take up the challenge. Let me explain the fundamental viewpoint.

Structuring of communication system

Systems Ethics regards all human activities as “communication”, and regards the function of directing and maintaining communication from the inside, that is, the function of controlling as “structuring”, and the communication controlled by structuring is called “system”. The name of systems ethics derives from the viewpoint that so-called “ethics” is regarded as “structuring of communication system”.

The keywords here are “communication”, “structuring”, and “system”. These are not familiar everyday words, and different technical terms have different definitions. If so, why choose such terms? Isn’t this just to reject the reader’s understanding? The doubts are legitimate, but of course there is a good reason for choosing them. As pointed out earlier, the reality, which is the basis of ethics, has changed.

Transformation of reality

Today, in the 21st century, the reality that is the basis of ethics changes from “personal action” and “behavior in the environment,” which were the focus of conventional frameworks, to the world of broader communication, including the exchange of digital information. In the first place, knowing and acting are all part of communicating, but now they are being digitized, as seen in SNS and Pokémon GO.

* Some traditional ethics still focus on individual behavior and question its motives and consequences. It is a remnant of the ethical framework that was the mainstream of the 19th century philosophy centered on the balance between religion and science. It was Kant’s philosophy of object recognition that provided the basis. 

Some others are within the framework of the 20th century philosophy that focuses on biological behaviors in the environment, centered on the balance between humans, organizations and machines. The focus here is unconsciousness, language, body, and climate that cannot be captured by reasoning. Bergson philosophy and pragmatism were the first to provide this foundation. The above will be mentioned in the final chapter.

The ethics of Tetsuro Watsuji’s “Aida”, as introduced earlier, is still the basis of most textbooks on Japanese high school ethics. However, as long as Watsuji advocates “relation” that goes beyond individuals and seeks the foundation for it, his theory is within the framework of 20th century philosophy.

Looking back, the criteria for “reality” up to the 20th century were “body” that people can feel, and “human” as the relationship between people who have bodies. However, the way of feeling reality changes in the digitization. For example, wearing a robot suit makes you feel like a cyborg, which is a combination of the body and the machine. Or, if you go to the exhibition area of Team Lab in Odaiba, Tokyo, you will feel as if you are in the digital universe ( The permeation of digitally synthesized reality urges us to make a fundamental overhaul of reality.


There was a theory of communication in the 20th century. What was supposed there was either information communication without humans or human communication without digital. However, nowadays, what is needed to build a new framework of ethics is to recapture human communication within the context of the relationship of all things, including the exchange of digital information, as communication.

The origin of the word “communication” is the exchange (communis) of “gifts (munus)” as explained in Chapter 1. In other words, the relationship of exchanging something is at the core of the meaning of “communication.” We usually think that “communication” is the only human communication that involves gestures, symbols and words. However, there are countless relationships in which something is exchanged, including electronic energy and pheromones, and these relationships are all communications.

In the existing framework of ethics, that is, in conventional ethics, the relationship between humans and animals has been taken as the standard of “person”. The same applies to the relationship with AI and AI-equipped robots that have newly appeared in the 21st century. However, with the pervasiveness of digital reality, “person” can no longer be the norm. To recapture the relationship between humans, animals, AI, and robots (this point will be discussed in Chapter 9), it is necessary to generalize communication, including digital communication.


The concept of “system” is essential for the generalization of communication. The “system” of system ethics is the system of communication.

“System” comes from the Greek word “standing together”, and the core of its meaning is “relation among elements.” At the beginning of Europe in the 17th century, indexing at the end of the dictionary allowed cross-references of words and phrases, and the book was understood as a “system.” In the 18th century, the “system” of the living world was created, and in the 19th century philosophy became proud of the “system.” In the 20th century, general systems theories such as equilibrium system, open system and closed system were proposed. Finally, Luhmann integrated them and applied communication system to society (see “Introduction to System Theory” and “Introduction to Social Theory”).

The systems theory in this book is inspired by Luhmann’s ideas of ​​”division,” “boundary,” “communication,” and “division of divisions,” but the basics and development are also unique. Luhmann does not have a general view of communication in the first place, nor he has a way of thinking about four-dimensional correlation as described below.

If the relationship between things is communication, then everything is a whole communication among smaller communications as well as s part of a larger one. A myriad of communications is constantly occurring and disappearing in this universe. Among them, “communication that maintains the inside that is distinguished from the outside” is called “system”. Humans, animals, robots, minds, societies, and cultures are all communication systems in that sense.


Whether or not communication becomes a system depends on whether or not the function of directing and maintaining (that is, controlling) communication is within it. Its function is “structuring”. Why do I express this word?

We can see the “shape” of things. The various shapes that can be seen are constant expressions of “patterns” from time to time. A “type” is an immutable relationship among elements and is invisible to itself. In mathematics (topology and projective geometry) this is called structure. The structuralism of French modern thought also derives from it (Levi-Strauss “Structural Anthropology”).

The structure, of course, is in the communication system. However, communication systems are not stationary like mathematical objects, they are constantly moving. If so, as for the function of controlling the movement from the inside, the expression “structuring” that implies movement is more appropriate.

Communication that is controlled from the inside by structuring (structure) is “system”. In addition, the movement of the parts that are connected inside the communication system is called “function”. From this comes the concept of functionalism.

4.  Inclusion and distinction of the ethical world

Systems ethics is probably the only new framework of ethics that corresponds to the reality of the digital age of the 21st century. The viewpoint of (structuring of) communication system makes it possible to fundamentally shift the perception of reality and person, but it is not the only one. That viewpoint also makes it possible to comprehensively capture the complicated world of ethics and then distinguish it. Let me explain this point by taking the “human mind” and “social institution” that are usually discussed separately.

Mind and Institution

Inside the human mind, self-dialog (that is, self-inquiry) is being conducted. At the core of self-dialogue is a conscience (belief) that, for example, “I will not betray others” or “I want to be sincere with myself,” and this unconsciously guides the flow of self-dialogue.

On the other hand, each social institution has its own special founding purpose (idea) to direct the movements of people involved, such as “justice” in law and “support for development of immature persons” in education, and itspurpose makes a difference among others.

Common sense states that the mind and the institution are separate events that are not directly related. However, by introducing the general viewpoint of <working> here and looking from there, the characteristics common to both parties emerge. In other words, the mind and the institution can be seen as “connection among elements”, and the conscience and the purpose of establishment can be seen as “internal control of connection”, although there are differences between ideas and actions.

Here, we will replace the connection among elements with “communication”, the function of controlling the connection from the inside by “structuring”, and the communication controlled by “structuring” with “system”*. Then, the human mind and the social institution become communication systems, and the conscience and the purpose of establishment become the structuring of each system.

*”Connection” is communication, and “connectedness” (established and maintained by the connection itself) is communication system. Systems ethics becomes “ethics of connectedness” using everyday expressions. We will return to this point later in the closing chapter. The reason why “connectedness (established and maintained by oneself)” is reinterpreted as a “communication system” is to build a general ethical theory for the digital age.

Conscience is of course the center of morality, and morality is also the internal attitude of ethics. On the other hand, the purpose of establishment is the control idea of the organization and a part of social ethics. If so, <structuring of communication system> is functionally equivalent to “ethics (reason of human relationship, 倫理) ”. In other words, the communication system corresponds to “倫理(human relationship)” and the “structuring” corresponds to “理(reason)”.

Multiple levels of Ethical World

As seen above, the viewpoint of the structuring of communication system makes possible to comprehensively capture the ethical world, including the human mind, face-to-face relationships, groups, society as a whole, history and ideas, and furthermore to distinguish one from the other. In the existing framework (conventional ethics), ethics was limited to individual actions, face-to-face relationships (interrelationships), or groups, and therefore it was not capable to capture the complexity of multiple levels of ethics. That limit can be exceeded only from the viewpoint of the structuring of communication system. Corresponding to <Structuring of Communication System>, multiple levels of the ethical (or moral) world are distinguished as follows.

Self-dialogue in the mind…Structuring…Conscience/Beliefs…Ethics

Mutual personal relation…Structuring…Trust/common sense…Ethics 

Society (institution)…Structuring…Establishment-purpose/Mission…Ethics

Co-relation among societies…Structuring…Ideology/public opinion…Ethics

Group of people…Structuring…Practice/Organizational culture…Ethics

History…Structuring…Civilization/Cultural Tradition…Ethics


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