Dave Snowden

Purpose as virtue, opening thoughts

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The question of purpose is an important one for anyone trying to apply complexity thinking to any human system or endeavour.  A complex system is not causal but dispositional, so we can't define an end state per se.  That can give rise to the charge that advocates of the approach are purposeless which, if true, would be problematic.  Some of this is the common confusion of complexity with chaos or randomness or more frequently (and inauthentically) with something I don't really understand which is really confusion.  The words have the same opening consonant-vowel coupling at the start but that should be the end of it!

Now in day to day life we manage.  Part of the satire in the Children's Party Story is the suggestion of clearly articulated objectives published in motivational posters.   In practice we have an idea of where we do go, or more accurately where we don't; an important distinction to which I will return.  I am also assuming that an organisation, be it industry or government, has to have some sense of purpose.  Happy to argue that with any transient anarchist (is there any other kind), but only if they first read Ursula K. Le Guin's wonderful dystopia The Dispossessed.

So while we can, and do muddle through it's not enough for an organisation or for society.  So the issue, which has been occupying me much of late, is what type of purpose is appropriate if the situation is complex.  And, of course nearly all situations that organisations face which require leadership are complex.  To be honest I have always held the position, from when I first read The Nicomachean Ethics back in my too-ernest early teenage years, that the solution to this is in Artistotle's idea of living a virtuous life, something that requires not simply knowledge, but also practice; a reference back to my polemic of yesterday.  That belief was augmented by studies of Aquinas in my excessively-ernest late teens and a flirtation with Pelagius when studying the Celtic Church and the Synod of Whitby in my slightly more relaxed twenties.  Thanks to Brian for reminding me of that yesterday, although he may have to take responsibility for my becoming heretical in my thinking in consequence.  Of course some would argue that is no new thing!

Virtue for Aristotle involved the balancing of excess and absence, the golden mean.  It's a very practical idea and handles the Should we lie question at a level that any parent can understand and practice.  Virtue for Aristotle requires the acquisition of good habits and the application of reason, all of which seem like a good idea to me.  In the modern age we have Alasdair MacIntyre who starting with his seminal After Virtue and then in subsequent writing expounded a modern interpretation of Aristotle.  Like me he studied for a period under the brilliant Dominican Herbert McCabe so Aquinas is in there too.

Part of this whole way of thinking is the argument that there is an aesthetic to virtue that is elegant of itself.  Just as the golden mean is used in design and occurs in nature – the opening picture is of a nautilus shell which follows the golden spiral.  An idea which also links back to fractality which is also key and I have to pick up on the idea of fractal management following an earlier post last month

So elegance, balance, habits, reason;  all key aspects of thinking about purpose under conditions of uncertainty.  It also handles both high strategy and day to day issues such as legitimising rule breaking and the use of heuristics.   More on that tomorrow where I will be less reflective, more pragmatic.