The Purpose of Purposeful Entities in Purposive Systems:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “purposeful” versus “purposive” in Systems Thinking. The two words are based on “purpose”. “Purposeful” means that the entity is autonomous and has freedom of choice. The entity is free to make their own rules, as the term “auto-nomous” means. “Purposive” on the other hand implies that the entity’s purpose is chosen by somebody else, and they do not have the freedom to make choices. I am very interested in the differences between purposeful and purposive, and very fascinated by the implication of purposeful entities in a “system”. If the purposeful entities are able to be autonomous, then the traditional viewpoints of systems thinking must be reevaluated. By “traditional systems thinking”, I am referring to the hard systems approach. This is the notion that there are real systems out there in the world that can be objectively modeled or designed where a specific purpose for the system can be achieved. Moreover, if the system is not functioning as expected, it can easily be changed or fixed. This would be the notion that the entities in the “system” are purposive, where they all work together for a common purpose, one that is prescribed by the designer or the leader of the “system”. A typical example is an organization where the leader has prescribed what everybody shall be doing. In this case, purposive entities are viewed as merely tools or a means to an end or cogs in the machine.

My take on purposefulness is based on the ideas of the great Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that we are rational beings, and we should treat each other with respect. He stated this as a categorical imperative and had different versions of the categorical imperative, of which I am looking at the second one:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

He called this a categorical imperative because this imperative was applicable in all circumstances. Kant is not saying that we should not use others as a means. For example, if I am going to the store, I am using the storekeeper as a means (to get the things I want). Kant is okay with this. His point is that I should not treat the storekeeper simply as a means. This would be the case, if I go into the store, and take whatever I want and then leave without paying or trick the storekeeper to give me whatever I want for free. Kant emphasized that each one of us are autonomous beings. The storekeeper and I can choose to do certain things, and come into an agreement (as a social contract) on how we will treat each other as means. I will get the things I want, in return for money that I will give to the storekeeper. We have both entered into this voluntarily, and we both still have the freedom to make choices. I can leave the store without buying anything, and the storekeeper can choose to stop being a storekeeper.

From the Kantian viewpoint, treating others as “purposive” is immoral. Kant goes one step further and says that we are duty-bound to not treat others simply as a means. For example, if I have the intent to trick the storekeeper, but I am not doing it because I am afraid that I would get caught, Kant would say that I am being immoral even if I abide by the social contracts. For Kant, it is the intent of my behavior that matters the most. Kant believed that the reason to do good is for the sake of the goodwill. He believed this to be an objective truth. He viewed goodwill as that which will shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself. As a constructivist, I differ from Kant at this point. I do not assume that there is an objective truth outside of us. I will discuss this further later on.

Kant viewed freedom to choose as the opposite of necessity. If I drop an apple, it has to fall to the ground. The apple has no choice but to do that. This is a necessity. On other hand, if I drop a bird, it may or may not fall to the ground. It is able to make choices. There is no necessity here. Similarly, in organizations, people are purposeful rather than purposive. Even though, people may come and work at an organization, it does not mean that they are cogs in the machine, where they will do exactly as told. Trying to coerce them or force them is immoral. There is a tendency for a leader to expect the employees to behave exactly as told. This will be viewing them as mere robots, used only for their hands. This is a hard systems approach. From the soft systems approach, the employees are seen as purposeful, where they are autonomous and have the freedom to choose. They are not seen merely as a means to an end. This goes both ways – it would be immoral for the employee to come to work just for a paycheck. Unfortunately, sometimes when the leader treats the employees as a means to an end, the employees in return will treat the employer as a means to an end too.

From the soft systems standpoint, we should try to view the “system” through the others’ eyes. This would mean that we will try to understand what all purposes are being prescribed to the “system”. In addition, we should also look at ways to expand the capabilities of people to make choices for themselves. From this standpoint, we will not be able to value the whole as being more important than the part. The reason is because the “system” is a construction of an observer. Therefore, the prescribed whole is also a construction of the observer. Moreover, assuming what is the whole, what is the purpose, and what is “good” for the whole are also dependent on the observer. It would be immoral to view that the whole is indeed greater than the parts. The value of the part is as important as the value of the whole. This view goes against the hard systems thinking. We need to start looking at “systems” differently. All “systems” are human “systems” because they are constructed by us humans, as an as-if representation of reality. This is to make sense of what is going on around us. This systems thinking is observer based and ethics based.

From a constructivist viewpoint, I do not believe that objective truths are valid. Instead, as entities in a social realm, we come to certain stable states where some viewpoints are assigned a value in the social realm. This is ongoing and requires interactions in the social realm. There is a reflexive nature to this. If we look at all cultures, we would see similarities in how they were structured, and what value systems were common to all. These are the stable states that result from ongoing interactions. If we say that the value of an individual is as important as the value of the entire community they are a part of, then this introduces reflexivity in the equation. The individual is part of the community, and the value of the community is being viewed as the same as the individual who is also part of the community. This is a second order approach. I have written about this a lot. A seemingly “objective” value system can arise in the social realm due to the ongoing subjective interactions of the individuals.

From this viewpoint, we should realize that there are no objective “systems” out there waiting to be fixed or changed or manipulated. As Kant would say, we should do the right things for the right reasons. And in this case, it would be to try to first understand one another, and to respect the humanity in us. We should try to increase the capacity for others to act autonomously and increase their freedom to make choices. The stability of value systems should not come from high above, but from the ongoing interactions with each other. In other words, the purposes of purposeful entities should not be given via commandments, but viewed as being emergent from the ongoing interactions with each other in the social realm, and this also requires continuous self-reflection and openness for error-correction.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was HvF’s Ethical Imperative:


4 thoughts on “The Purpose of Purposeful Entities in Purposive Systems:

  1. Legend: I’m using some words without (in)definite article, because I want to highlight lack of any definite or indefinite purpose by me.

    The words “purpose” and “problem” have been based on the same structure: to put (place, position,…) something in front (pur, pro, for, …), as in pro-pose. As you’re reading this, these words are in front of you, proposing my problem with purpose. In using language, at least in using a language with (in)definite articles, purpose and problem invoke paradoxical pairs. For instance, “individual” and “community”. A community consists of individuals, is not an individual but in our use of language, is being treated as an individual. As in having rights and purposes of its own.

    I remember Weick describing a cycle like … –> Individual purpose — makes –> individual means –leads to –> collective means –induces –> collective purposes individual purpose. As there’s a power difference between a community (collective, organisation, …) and the individual, this will lead to the individual purposes being subjugated to collective purposes and becoming a means to this community. Having “other” purposes means becoming a problem.

    (I may have mentioned that while working for Philips and AT&T Communications, I resisted becoming a “human resource” in the eyes of HRM, the new name of the Personnel and Organisation Department. Like you, I used Kant to prove my point. Off course, being an individual, my rights were denied. Somebody even told me: “you should bite the hand that feeds you”. As-if).

    As I’ve said, structure of language accounts for usefulness (by a community as well as by an individual), as the structure of maps resembles the structure of a territory. Terrains can have several maps, depending on one’s uses, making terrain into a territory. Any map (model, system, …) made is made by somebody, to paraphrase somebody, and someone always has a purpose or purposes with this map (model, system, …). The mapmaker is, in a way, present in the map made, as is his/her purpose. In presenting one’s map or model, one purposely induces a community to realize one’s purpose.

    With our (Western) languages we (un)intentionally model a purposeful universe. This goes back to translating the Hebrew verses (incantations) into, “in the beginning God created heaven and earth” and not, as is more, into “something divided heaven and earth”. In using a “creating structure” with purposes, one can, in a way, control the thinking of others. From there it follows logically we think purposefully about systems. The system of language-use induces this.

    I hope you can see, how a structure of language, the way we use this (western) language, already presupposes purposes, allocating values on solving problems, the problems in achieving supposed purposes. .

    So proposing “system” (any system) has purposes, evokes problems the system (now in place) tries to solve. Organisations organized for a a sensible and often communal purpose, after some (long) time, become “goals in themselves”. Continuing a system, takes over any purpose of the system, while insisting, the system still works for these purposes. Individuals in these organizations become the cogs and pegs of these systems. (I think this shows the work of Parkinson’s Law: ‘work fills the time available for its completion” and how organisations grow while becoming less and less efficient. Because of the individuals, the organisation remains somewhat effective).

    Because of the structure (grammar) of our language (use), being “directed to a purpose”, this unintentionally establishes “power games”. In my view, a more sensible way in dealing with this is by facilitating conversations in continuously redistributing power from powerful systems to individuals. I suppose this means restructuring the structure – grammar – of our (Western) language. Other grammars for engaging.


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