Emergence: a systems theory’s challenge to ethics

Vladislav Valentinov, Stefan Hielscher, Ingo Pies

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The paper reconstructs Niklas Luhmann’s diagnosis of the dysfunctional character of moral communication in the modern society by emphasizing the emergent character of today’s moral problems. In the systems-theoretic literature, emergence means the irreducibility of the properties of the whole to the characteristics of its parts. Two arguments have been advanced. First, the dysfunctional character of moral communication has been traced back to the emergent character of many moral problems. Moral communication has thus been shown to be not inherently dysfunctional, but rather needful of semantic forms that take account of the emergent properties of the economic and other social systems. Second, these properties highlight the moral aspect of the precariousness of system–environment relations as seen by Luhmann. As a moral problem, this precariousness can be resolved through greater sensitivity of social systems to their environment, social and natural alike. Accordingly, the emergent properties of the economic and other social systems can be captured by recasting the concept of responsibility as the individual-level or organizational-level projection of the environmental sensitivity of these systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-610
Number of pages14
JournalSystemic Practice and Action Research
Issue number6
Early online date3 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016


  • Sustainability
  • Emergence
  • Moral communication
  • Niklas Luhmann
  • Systems theory
  • Economic system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Management of Technology and Innovation
  • Strategy and Management


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