Original Articles

The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics

Published in: South African Journal of Philosophy
Volume 31, issue 2, 2012 , pages: 447–463
DOI: 10.1080/02580136.2012.10751787
Author(s): Minka WoermannDepartment of Philosophy, Stellenbosch;South Africa, Paul CilliersDepartment of Philosophy, Stellenbosch;South Africa


In this paper, we investigate the implications that a general view of complexity - i.e. the view that complex phenomena are irreducible - hold for our understanding of ethics. In this view, ethics should be conceived of as constitutive of knowledge and identity, rather than as a normative system that dictates right action. Using this understanding, we elaborate on the ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics. Whilst the former concerns the nature and the status of our modelling choices, the latter denotes a contingent and recursive understanding of ethics. Although the complexity of ethics cannot be captured in a substantive normative model, we argue that this view of ethics nevertheless commits one to, what we term, ‘the provisional imperative’. Like Kant’s categorical imperative, the provisional imperative is sub-stantively-empty; however, unlike Kant’s imperative, our imperative cannot be used to generate universal ethical principles. As such, the provisional imperative simultaneously demands that we must be guided by it, whilst drawing attention to the exclusionary nature of all imperatives. We further argue that the provisional imperative urges us to adopt a certain attitude with regard to ethical decision-making, and that this attitude is supported and nurtured by provisionality, transgressivity, irony, and imagination.

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