Luhmann on Morality and Ethics

In a 1996 article on morality and ethics, Luhmann wrote,

First, systems theory means, nowadays, starting with a difference, that is, the difference of system and environment. Next, differentiation will mean systems differentiation and systems differentiation means repeating the difference of system and environment within systems, i.e. presupposing the selective effects of a first boundary to increase selectivity by drawing and maintaining further internal boundaries. That leads, of course, to an increasing improbability of institutional arrangements and eventually to a greater degree of malfunctioning, anomie, alienation, apathy, fanaticism, etc. Finally, function systems have to recognize themselves not only in terms of goals or functions but, more effectively, in terms of specific binary codes, such as having/not having property, having/not having official power, legally right/legally wrong, true/untrue, transcendent/immanent, good grades/bad grades – and soon.

Only this sort of arrangement makes it possible to keep function systems separate and to reproduce open options, that is contingency within the systems. And this clearly excludes a moral integration of the society because it excludes the identification of the code values of the function systems with the positive/negative values of the moral code.  It might look at first sight highly suggestive to simply upgrade the positive or negative values of the function systems with the corresponding moral values. We certainly would strongly object to such a simplification, because this would mean that the office holder is morally good, the simple citizen is morally bad; having low grades in school makes a morally bad pupil; having no property a bad citizen (and everybody does not  own  most  things, however rich they may be). Criticism in science or the arts would turn into a moral battle. We see the temptation, but we also see that our society has to avoid such confusion of moral and other codes.

Luhmann, N. (1996). The Sociology of the Moral and Ethics. International Sociology11(1), 27–36.

In a functionally differentiated society, communication occurs on local scales, in families, groups of friends, and organizations. The society is too complex for a global sense of morality such as that of the medieval Christian church or a 17th century Puritan colony. Individual are disciplined on a local level, such as by being expelled from an organization for violating moral/ethical values. But even then, the individual will rarely be considered a “bad person” in a global sense.

In other words, distinct functions systems (politics, science, commerce, law, education, etc.) cannot be bound to a universal moral code; the positive side of a code, such as having good grades or having political power, cannot be tied to the positive side a moral code. If they were tied, then those with poor grades or ordinary citizens (non-office holders) would be considered immoral. Or students with average grades would be considered morally average. In science, a theory that is rejected (judged untrue) would be considered an immoral theory and the scientist maintaining an untrue theory would be immoral. A person without money to buy the necessities of life would be considered immoral.

In social systems theory, morality is all about the communication of esteem or disesteem. It is about drawing a distinction between esteem and disesteem. Within the context of sociology, Luhmann argues further that

concepts have to be chosen in a way that creates irritations, difficulties, resistance and therefore learning within sociology. This is the only possible meaning of meaning or empirical reference. In this sense, the concept of the moral refers to communication (not to consciousness!) and it designates the conditions under which esteem and disesteem can be communicated.

So, in the context of sociology, we are not concerned with qualities of consciousness, such as a person’s motives or thoughts, which are socially inaccessible.

Luhmann argues that it is

necessary to distinguish between esteem and other forms of evaluation, such as admiration for heroic efforts or respect for specific capacities and performances as an artist, athlete, doctor or politician. This distinction makes it possible to revisit Durkheim’s conception of the relation between the division of labour and morality. The division of labour requires and makes possible the differentiation of standards of good work or even of exceptionally good performances. However, this cannot, in itself, be the source of morality.

page 30

This means, I can admire the exceptional performances of an artist, athlete, doctor, or politician without implying a moral judgment. In moral communication, one is supposed to apply the same moral standards to oneself; otherwise, you are a hypocrite. There can be no self-exemption. But even if the person making a moral judgment is a hypocrite, other people are free to hold that person to the same moral standards. But I can respect the performance of someone else–e.g., an artist or athlete–without holding myself to the same performance standards. And, of course, no else expects me to measure up to those performance standards either.

One may evaluate the accomplishments of others with­out committing oneself to do as well or even better. The opposite is true for the communication of moral claims, rules, standards or evaluations.

Luhmann, page 30

The reference above to Durkheim and the division of labor means that the good performance of the athlete is not the same as the good work of the surgeon. There no universal criteria performance shared by the athlete and the surgeon; there is no morality-based integration. The performance standards are unique to the particular field, and they are created by communication within that field. This is where something like peer review comes into play: A surgeon’s performance should be evaluated by other surgeons–and those surgeons should apply the same standards to their own work. Thus, the (amoral) communication is intrasystemic, or operationally closed to outsiders. However, even outsiders can expect the peer reviewers to measure up to the same performance standards, even if the outsider doesn’t really understand those standards. But the point is that a peer review is not a moral judgment. Someone can be a bad surgeon without being a bad person.

However, sticking with the surgeon example, outsiders can (and do) make moral judgments about surgical practice, such as in declaring a particular surgical procedure (e.g., lobotomy, forced-sterilization, etc.) immoral. In this case, a surgeon can be judged to be a bad person, not merely a bad surgeon. The difference is that one person is calling another person immoral, which means the communication symmetrical. Surgical procedures can also be declared unlawful, which means the legal code comes into play.

The moral distinction between esteem/disesteem (or good/bad) is a universal code, but the programs (criteria for applying the code) are adopted by particular social systems and are flexible. Criteria for excellent performances (or for deciding between good and bad) change over time. Consider how the standards for Olympic gymnastics or figure skating have changed over time. Or in moral terms, consider how the views regarding what it means to be a “good mother” or a “good father” have changed over the years.

As a complement to its code, the moral needs criteria to decide which behaviour is good and which behaviour is bad. Since there are no good versus bad criteria, the criteria or programmes of the moral cannot be identified with the values of the code. The criteria serve to differentiate between good and bad.

Luhmann, page 30

In this discussion, programs (British spelling, programmes) and criteria are synonymous. Criteria/programs change but the moral code remains the same:

If codes are invariant, programmes are variable and change historically – that is with structural changes of the societal system. One has to distinguish between these two levels of structuration to be able to see the transformations of the historical semantics of morality and its ethical reflection and to be able to see its limits and its structural drift towards modernity. Moreover, the diversity and fluidity of programmes com­pensate in a way for the interdiction of self-exemption. Nobody can avoid the moral implications of his or her own statements but everybody can choose the programmes that favour their own interests and opinions.

page 31

These programs/criteria can be considered unspoken moral values. Continuing the above quote:

This seems to be the reason why the language of ‘values’ comes out best in the competition for usable moral programmes. Values are indisputable; they are not even in need of explicit communication. They can be taken for granted and this taken-for-grantedness can also be taken for granted. They are silent persuaders; but they decide nothing, because decisions are necessary only in cases of value conflict. In this sense, it is attractive to use values as criteria or programmes in moral communication, because they seem to fulfil but do not fulfil the function of allocating the values ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to concrete behaviour. They are stable, because they are ambivalent. They produce a semantic cover for unresolved conflicts. And therefore we need legitimation by procedure.

page 31

An organizational code of ethics is a statement of values; however, Luhmann argues that it is “ridiculous” for a sociological organization to create a code of ethics.

‘Ethics’ is a la mode together with other elusive terms such as ‘culture’. Even sociological associations prescribe ethics to themselves. This is, to use a strong term, ridiculous. There is no clear concept of ethics and it is not even clear whether adapting behaviour to prescribed ethical rules would be ethical (or perhaps unethical?) be­haviour. Neither Kant nor Bentham could answer this thorny question that hits the nerves of their theories (internal constraint or greater utility?). The present use of ‘ethics’ is nothing but fashion. And fashion has its own way of reflexive universality: it can and it will become fashionable to think of ethics as a fashion of the recent past.

page 33

Perhaps these organizations’ ethics statement are ridiculous because they do not invite further communication; they simply announce certain values–and to what end? I suppose such codes are useful when a member must be disciplined or expelled from the organization. Here is the Code of Ethics of The American Sociological Association.


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