The Conundrum of Autonomy in Systems:

In my previous post, I talked about the idea of the Copernican revolution in philosophy by Immanuel Kant. In today’s post, I am expanding upon the ideas originated by Kant, especially autonomy and how it poses challenges in how we view human systems. I am also heavily relying on the ideas of Ralph Stacey. Kant had a lot to say about human autonomy. Autonomy stands for the ability to set laws for oneself or the ability to perform actions that are not directed by someone else. Kant viewed humanity as an end in itself and not a means to an end. Humans should not be used simply as a means to get something done. Humans, Kant noted, have the power to act according to their own conception of laws.

Kant was one of the pioneers of systems thinking. He understood the idea of circular causality and self-organization. Kant proposed that all living beings can be viewed as self-organizing systems rather than mechanisms such as a clock. The idea of a self-organizing system meant that the idea of feedback is important. However, Kant made an important distinction when it came to human beings. He proposed that humans cannot be understood as merely being a part of the “system” of nature. For this he used some ideas from Aristotle. Kant noted that all other living beings follow a formative causality, where the structure determines the unfolding of the living being itself. For example, a tree follows the unfolding of their lifecycle from a seed. The same formative causality is applicable to the human body; however, this is not applicable to the human being as a whole who has autonomy. This is beautifully explained by Ralph Stacey:

Humans are part of nature but if nature is governed by fixed mechanistic and systemic laws, then they cannot have any freedom to make their own choices… the body is subject to the fixed laws of nature but the mind is governed by the laws of reason, rationalist causality, and it is reason that makes us free. Kant was here formulating the theory of autonomous, rational individual who chooses goals and actions required to achieve them on the basis of reason. Kant then stressed that autonomous individuals could not be understood as parts of a whole because then they would be subject to the whole and so lose their autonomy. The notion of a system could, therefore, not be applied to reasoning individuals and it would not be valid to regard society as a system whose parts were individuals.

The idea of structure determining the outcome is a prevalent theme in many schools of Organizational Management. However, the idea of humans as being rule-following parts of the “system” should be challenged. In the light of the understanding that we are autonomous individuals with many self-imposed purposes and needs, the mechanistic view of an organization system based on structure falls apart. The “human body” may be viewed as a system, however a human being cannot be viewed as a system or being a part of a system.

The notion of Systems Thinking as being a study of real systems that can be observed objectively is still prevalent. This view suggests ideas such as learning organization or complex adaptive systems. Stacey again provides wisdom in this aspect:

For me, the claim that organizations learn amounts to both reification and anthropomorphism. I argue that organizations are not things because no one can point to where an organization is –all one can point to is the artefacts used by members of organizations in their work together. In our experience, the organization qua organization arises as the patterning of our interactions with each other… Since an organization is neither inanimate thing nor living body, in anything other than rather fanciful metaphorical terms, it follows that an organization can neither think nor learn.

The conundrum of autonomy also brings the important point that objective reality is not possible. The idea that a manager can objectively view the organization by being outside the organization must be reevaluated. This notion implies that the manager can use scientific thinking and identify rules to implement to optimize the organization. But this again utilize the idea that humans can be viewed as mere parts of a system. Stacey cautions us against this:

Management science equates the manager with the scientist and the organization with the mechanistic phenomenon that the scientist is concerned with. The manager’s main concern is with getting the right “if-then” causal rules. There is a quite explicit assumption that there is some set of rules that are optimal, that is, that produce the most efficient global outcome of the actions of the parts, or members, of the organization. There is an important difference between the scientist concerned with nature and the analogous manager concerned with an organization. The scientist discovers the laws of nature while the manager, in the theory of management science, chooses rules driving the behavior of organization’s members. In this way, there is rationalist causality, but it applies only to the manager who exercises the freedom of autonomous choice in the act of choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow in order to achieve the goals. Those members are assumed to be rule-following entities. The organizational reality, of course, is that members of an organization are not rule-following entities and they all do choose their own goals and actions to some extent.

Final Words:

Edgar Morin wonderfully noted that the autonomy of a system is less than the sum of autonomies of all the individual parts of a system. The idea that humans should not be viewed as being parts of a system should challenge your current view points on systems thinking. Kant proposed that we are using an as-if metaphor to construct reality since we do not have access to the external reality. From this standpoint, we can notate that systems are not real entities in the real world. Humans are autonomous and this means that we cannot stipulate purposes for other people. The freedom of the employee puts a constraint on the organization, and the freedom of the organization puts a constraint on the employee. This requires an ongoing reinterpretation and adjustment of intentions and values at all levels of recursions in an organization. This is not a conundrum to be solved. It is a creative tension that should be reinterpreted as often as possible.

I will finish with a Zen story:

A man is riding on top of a horse that is galloping by frantically, as if he has to be somewhere important, as soon as possible. A bystander sees this and asks the man, “Where are you going?

“I don’t know,” the rider replies, “ask the horse!

Wear a mask, stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking:


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