Contents What's New Glossary Contact
The Modern Generalist
  Morality and Ethics



Terms and Notes
  From the Developmental Origin of the Need for Morality to Its Application in a Social Intervention    

From the Developmental Origin of the Need for Morality to Its Application in a Social Intervention

Vincent Vesterby


A modern generalist thinks by way of general systems isomorphies, principles, and general patterns of organization of structure and process that occur in diverse situations, where they play roles that determine the intrinsic nature of those situations. One of those general patterns of organization is universal development—the sequential difference from one place in space and structure to another and the sequential difference of change from one part of time and process to another. Everything we see about us comes into existence, continues to exist, undergoes change, and eventually disintegrates as part of universal development. Emergence in diverse forms is the general process by which things come into existence. Atoms, planets, and galaxies emerge, as did life, organisms, people, and social systems, and in this latter developmental sequence there emerged ethics.

It is becoming increasingly evident that there are ethical issues that are important in the process of social intervention, specifically the impact of the intervention on the affected population. Procedures have been and are being developed that determine the needs, values, and expectations of affected people prior to the interventions, thus bringing them into the planning and decision process from the beginning. The same or similar procedures are used to determine the experiences of the affected population after the intervention.

This paper considers the ethical significance of procedures that bring in the concerns of the people whose lives are changed by an intervention. It does so in the context of the developmental origin of the need for ethics in our social systems.


In systems and complexity science there are three progressive stages of research and practice. First, there is the stage of basic research that explores the foundations and the universals—the origins and intrinsic nature of such factors as emergence, self-organization, hierarchy, systems, and complexity. Second, there are the researchers who use the products of the first stage to fashion tools for further research and for application to real world problems. And third, there are those who apply those tools, the practitioners.

While the work of most of us focuses primarily on just one of these stages, that work, and our interests, usually overlap two or more of these stages to various degrees. Until recently I have worked exclusively in the first stage, exploring the foundations of reality, of that which exists, and looking to see how the universals of the foundations play roles in setting the intrinsic nature of all else that exists. At conferences over the past two years, I have met people like Theo Andrew (Petkov et al. 2006), Josef Zelger (2007), and Robert Cavana (Cavana and Tobias 2007)(Maani and Cavana 2007). They directed my attention to the stages of tool making and applications. This meeting is primarily about the second stage—tool making. Since I am not a tool maker, nor a practitioner, I should explain what I do, and why the analysis of foundations and origins is relevant to tool making and to the methodologies of practitioners.

Practitioners rely on tool makers to provide them with methodologies that are effective. When the methodologies created by the tool makers incorporate principles of systems and complexity, the tool makers rely on the basic researchers to provide them with accurate, realistic understanding of those principles. If basic researchers do not get it right, tool makers cannot get it right, and practitioners are left with methodologies that are not up to the task of solving the world’s problems.

What Is a Modern Generalist?

As a basic researcher, I am a generalist, but not in the traditional manner of knowing almost everything in almost every field of study, as in the era before science. I am a generalist in a modern manner, characterized not by quantity of knowledge, but by type of knowledge.

The deluge of knowledge provided by science made it impossible to be a generalist in the old way. There was no longer a choice—all researchers had to be specialists. The term generalist has become restricted, meaning broadly knowledgeable within a limited discipline. Polymaths can become proficient in several fields, however, they are still specialists—multispecialists. They lack the conceptual tools, the methodology, the type of knowledge used by a modern generalist. It is this special type of knowledge that enables a modern generalist to roam broadly across all the disciplines and to go down to the foundations wherever necessary.

In the middle of the last century, general systems theory seemed to indicate that it was possible to achieve broad and deep understanding by way of general systems principles. But general systems did not live up to its promise. It turns out that there was a specific reason for that—there were no generalists. All researchers were specialists, with specialist methodologies and specialist world views. The generalist tools that are necessary to cross, with facility, from discipline to discipline were not yet sufficiently developed. The specialists did not have the kind of generalist understandings that would enable them to seamlessly meld one discipline with another.

The modern generalist mode of exploration, analysis, and understanding is based on the use of specific patterns of organization of structure and process that exist in and play formative roles in diverse situations, both at different levels in the hierarchy of material reality, from elementary particles to galactic clusters, and broadly across a level, such as the level of chemistry or the level of multicellular organisms. These patterns of organization are general, often virtually universal, in that they occur in diverse situations, and they are local in that they occur and play their roles in specific situations. It is this dual aspect of these patterns of organization that enables a modern generalist both to roam widely and to go deep in particular situations. And in turn, seeing these general patterns in the breadth and depth of their occurrence enforces a realistic accuracy on the thinking of a modern generalist, on both the modern generalist’s understanding of the intrinsic nature of these patterns of organization, and on the effects of these patterns on the nature of the situations in which they occur. Thus, a modern generalist is not characterized by quantity of knowledge, but by quality of understanding. The modern generalist mode is like a Rosetta Stone in that it translates the intrinsic nature of reality into a form that can be understood by a living mind.

On the Origin of Morality


Development is a general pattern of organization that is universal in that all other factors of the organization of the universe occur within it. It provides a universal aspect of connectivity that interrelates everything that exists—not in the inaccurate sense that everything is connected to everything—but rather realistically in that everything is connected to something. The diverse pathways of the many kinds of development provide routes of connectivity—pathways for exploration. This general pattern of organization provides a modern generalist with a universal roadmap (Vesterby 2007, p. 3).

Development is sequential difference (Vesterby 2008, p. 270). There are three foundational forms. First is the sequential difference that occurs from one part of space to another part, and from one part of material structure to another part of that structure. Second is the sequential difference that occurs from one part of time to a following part, and from one part of materially based process to a following part of that process. The forms of sequential difference involved with time and process constitute change. Third is factor development. A factor is something that exists and that plays a role in a situation. General patterns of organization of structure and process (general system principles, isomorphies, and so forth) such as continuity, self-organization, emergence, hierarchy, and resilience are factors.

Virtually all factors develop. They generally occur in simple form in simple situations where few other factors are playing roles, and in more complex forms in more complex situations where a greater number of other factors are also playing roles. For example, they occur in simpler form at the lower levels of the hierarchic organization of reality, such as at the levels of atoms and molecules, and in more complex forms at higher levels such as the levels of organisms and ecosystems. The form of emergence that occurs with the transition from atoms to molecules is quite simple compared to the forms in which emergence occurs with the ontogeny of a mammal or the form of emergence that occurs with ecological succession after the retreat of a glacier or the abandonment of a pasture.

Like all other factors, development itself develops, becoming more complex, for example, when two or more of the simpler forms occur together, developing interrelationally one with another. This is situation development. Whenever there are two or more factors developing in concert it is situation development, as is the case whenever there are changing relations between factors. The vast majority of change experienced by a person is situation development.

Some things are foundational to reality—space, time, matter, and motion. From these four factors is derived everything else that has ever existed, exists now, or will ever exist. All that derivation, of all the complexity of the entire infinite universe, has always occurred, occurs now, and will always occur by way of the various forms of development.

The process of emergence (not the concept of emergence, emergence itself) is a virtually universal form of development. It is the foundational process by way of which things come into existence. Emergence always occurs by way of situation development.

Sophisticated System

On this planet life has emerged. Life has then gone through another form of development, a very specific form of development, biological evolution. Biological evolution is a particularly significant kind of development because it is based on an intrinsic mechanism that produces new components of living systems and new components of systems with living systems as components. But it is not just that there is the production of additional components. The critical feature of this mechanism that produces new components is that it creates new kinds of components. Systems with an intrinsic diversity-generating-subsystem become sophisticated in the quantity and diversity of their components and relations. Compared to other systems they develop a sophisticated intricate integration of their components and subsystems.

The greater the number of letters in an alphabet, the greater is the number of words that can be created with those letters, and the greater is the number of sentences that can be created with those words. If there is a process that generates an increasing diversity of words, there results an increasing diversity of relations that can occur between words, and an increasing diversity of sentences.

Atoms combine to form molecules. The result is a seemingly endless diversity of molecules. And yet the abiotic components of the universe never come close to the degree and intricacy of complexity that occurs with the biotic components and with systems based on biotic components, such as ecosystems.

In the process of emergence the intrinsic qualities of the various components of the situation determine the nature of the types of interrelations and interactions those components can have with one another. If the situation has a limited number of different types of components, there will be a limited number of different types of relations that can occur between those components. With a limited diversity of components, and therefore a limited diversity of relations, the process of emergence will be limited in the diversity of the patterns of organization, objects, and systems it can create. This is how it is with the abiotic systems of the universe—with geology, weather, and the formation of stars, planetary systems, and galaxies. While living systems contain diversity-generating-subsystems, the chemical pathways to the immense diversity of abiotic molecules are various and scattered, dispersed throughout various different types of systems. The result is that the individual situations that are generating abiotic diversity of molecules are locally limited in the types of components available, and thus in the possible relations that can occur.

The situation is just the opposite with sophisticated systems that self-organize by way of subsystems that generate diversity of new components. With these systems there can occur several different forms of progressive change that together result in the intricate integration of their high degree of complexity. First, there is the production of new units, which, through accumulation, results in (a) an abundance of components, (b) an abundance of relations, and (c) the occurrence of the types of organization and complexity that are consequences simply of the abundance of components. Second there is (a) the creation of new kinds of units, which results in (b) new kinds of relations, which makes possible (c) the creation of a diversity of new kinds of organization of structure and process that are consequences of diversity of components.


Such multiple forms of progressive change could wreak havoc with a well integrated system. Known sophisticated systems are either living systems or systems with living systems as components.

Systems with living systems as components are noncoherent systems. In these systems, the components are not attached to one another and are free to move about relative to each other. Some biological examples are groups of organisms such as families, herds, interbreeding populations, social systems such as clubs, institutions, corporations, military units, and cultures, ecological community systems, and ecosystems. Some of these noncoherent systems—interbreeding populations, ecological communities, ecosystems—derive their robustness and resiliency by way of (1) diversity of components, (2) redundancy, and (3) sufficient autonomy of components and subsystems such that damage or alteration such as progressive change in one part does not generally have an overwhelming affect on other parts of the system.

Living systems are coherent systems. In these systems a subset of the components are attached to one another in such a manner that the rest of the components are contained within a coherent boundary, a cell membrane or skin, and the living system, an organism, exists overall as a single unit, in contrast to the group character of a noncoherent system. While living systems also derive some of their robustness and resiliency by way of diversity of components, redundancy, and autonomy of components, their existence as whole individual units, with a much greater degree of intricate integration, makes them more vulnerable to damage due to progressive change. Living systems, both unicellular and multicellular organisms, have evolved system-control-subsystems, which range in form from DNA repair mechanisms and gene expression control systems within a cell to the endocrine, nervous, and healing subsystems of multicellular organisms.

The system component, system-control-subsystem, is a factor of system maintenance, and like all factors it develops. One of its forms within a cell is a gene-expression-control-subsystem. Within a multicellular organism one of its forms is the nervous system. System-control-subsystem develops again at the next level up—the level of social system. When organisms interrelate in ways that maintain those interrelations over time, they form social systems. Because social systems are noncoherent systems, many of the system-control-subsystems play roles in keeping the members of the system together, for example herd, flocking, and schooling instincts and their consequent behaviors. Other subsystems of this type that control social systems play roles in the ongoing processes of the system, such as the pheromones that direct the behavior of ants in a colony. Some system-control-subsystems at this level maintain order within the social group, for example the systems of dominance behavior that establish and maintain pecking order and access to opportunities to breed.

These control-subsystems influence the behavior of the individual members of the group such that those behaviors maintain the ongoing social system. The benefit to the individual is generally indirect, through the benefits the individual derives through membership in the group. There are no roles for fairness, morality, or ethics in these social relations. The “rights” of the individual are of no significance, except that they can be defended by way of might-makes-right. Individual rights have no social standing.

A further development of system-control-subsystem occurs with behavior controlled by way of negotiated agreement. Here benefit accrues to individuals through deliberate behavior that results in mutual benefit. The negotiated agreement concerns trading benefits, such as commodity trade or mutual defense. It is based on bargaining, where fairness plays no role and no real rights are recognized. It is trader beware, with all participants endeavoring to acquire the best for themselves. There are no obligations beyond direct self interest. The social situation is maintained as long as the participants follow the agreed upon rules of appropriate behavior. When someone breaks the rules by stealing benefit from the other person or group, that is very irritating, and might incur retaliation, but it is not considered immoral. The situation is understood to be as follows. You will attack me if I am weak, and I will attack you if you are weak. We agree to not attack each other in order to engage in an exchange of benefits.

A major transitional development occurs when someone rejects the natural state of affairs that might-makes-right, and says, “This is mine, leave it alone. You have no right to attack me. You are in the wrong to commit aggression against me.” The consequent corollary is that if it is wrong for you to commit aggression against me, it is equally wrong for me to commit aggression against you. The recognition of one’s own rights leads to the recognition of the rights of others. The factor, fairness, now plays a formative role in the nature of this social system-control-subsystem. This completely reverses the foundational assumption of might-makes-right. Might-makes-right is not fair.

This is the development-of-origin of morality, that to give social status to one’s own rights, it is necessary to give the same status to the rights of others. If it is wrong for others to harm you, it is equally wrong for you to harm others. The basis of morality is the recognition that it is wrong to inflict harm onto another person. And the reason, derived from one’s own experience, is that they experience the harm...they feel the hurts. Committing harm on another is wrong, fundamentally wrong. Morality is the agreement to not harm one another.

Such experience, such hurt, occurs only in individuals. Thus the origin of morality occurs with the personal experience of individuals. Morality is a system-control-subsystem that protects the individual members of the social system from harm inflicted by other members of the social system. A system-control-subsystem that protects individuals helps prevent internally initiated disruptions to the system.

The Role of Ethics in the Design of Procedures for Social Intervention

The ethics of concern in a social intervention are, ultimately, those dealing with the impact of the intervention on individual persons. Therefore the ethics that should guide the design of the methodology of social intervention are those involved with the way in which the methodology sets the character of the intervention. When a method targets some aspect of the structure or organization of a social system above the level of the individual, the ethical responsibility does not stop there at that higher level, but continues on down to the level of the individual. While the design concerns involved in the creation of the method remain at the level where the actual intervention takes place, ethics dictates that the nature of the design has no negative consequences at the level of the individual.

The consideration of ethics extends the area of consideration to additional factors that must be incorporated into the design process. The practical role of ethics in the design of an intervention has two basic parts, first there is the identification of the stakeholders, the people who will be affected by the project, and second there is the acquisition of input from the stakeholders, initially what they expect, want, or need from the project, and afterwards the effect the intervention has had on their lives.

The identification of stakeholders also has two basic parts, identifying or specifying the intended stakeholders, the easy part, and identifying the unintended stakeholders, a more difficult task. Intended stakeholders are generally known, as a group or category if not yet as individuals, at the stage where it is first recognized that there can or should be an intervention. Something about them or their situation is often what brings up the suggestion that there be an intervention. Finding unintended stakeholders is a different matter. They are initially unknown and must be searched for. The first step is to follow the pathway of the intended effects within the planned scope of the intervention to see if there are persons affected by it that were previously not identified. The second step is to follow the effects of the intervention, the consequences of the intervention, wherever they progress beyond the planned scope of the project.

Since ethics originates and is fulfilled in relation to individual persons, it is ethically necessary to consult with the stakeholders early in a project, and again afterward to assess the success and value of the intervention. The stakeholder’s assessment of the success and value of the intervention project is of particular significance as input to the design process of future methodology.

Because the experience of the individual person is ethically the ultimate target of an intervention, the accuracy of the method that derives the input from individuals is of critical significance. Obtaining that accuracy is not always a straightforward, uncomplicated procedure of conducting interviews. There can be problems both with distrust of strangers and with cultural factors controlling how a person can express hopes, needs, fears, or opinions. There are many design factors that can be incorporated into the interview process that mitigate the effect of these problems, for example, in some cultures it might be best for women to interview women.

Any good interview method will incorporate factors of the psychology of the interview situation, such as the manners and attire of the interviewer, or how the person interviewed views the situation and how they respond to it. These are psychological factors of the time and place of the interview. An intriguing aspect of the GABEK method is that it goes beyond methods that are applied at the time of the interview, and uses more general, more basic, psychological factors and human habits of mind. People often think about, refer to, and talk about issues and concerns that are most important to them more often than they do about issues of less personal significance. The GABEK method analyses the interview data set, and identifies these significant issues and concerns. GABEK uses the general human habit of mind to detect what is most important to the persons interviewed.

It is particularly interesting and significant for intervention interviews that the GABEK method of analysis is effective both with interview data derived from individual persons and with that derived from groups of people. Even when individuals of a group are reluctant to stress the importance of some factor or issue, GABEK can find that factor and identify it as a common concern of the members of the group.


Cavana, Robert Y., and Martin Tobias. (2007). Local Solutions to Global Problems: An Integrated System Dynamics Model for Analyzing Policy Options for Tobacco Control in New Zealand. 13th Annual Australia and New Zealand Systems (ANZSYS) Conference, Auckland, New Zealand.

Maani, Kambiz E., and Robert Y. Cavana. (2007). Systems Thinking, System Dynamics: Managing Change and Complexity. ISBN 13: 978 1 877 37103 5.

Petkov, Doncho I., Olga Petkova, Truthilal Nepal, and Theo Andrew. (2006). Paradigm Issues in Critical Systems Thinking and Their Interpretation in Three Developmental Systemic Interventions. Proceedings of the 50th Annual Meeting of the ISSS, Sonoma, California.

Zelger, Josef. (2007). Two Ways of Reducing Linguistic Complexity. K. A. Richardson and Paul Cilliers (eds.), Explorations in Complexity Thinking: Pre-Proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy, Stellenbosch, South Africa. ISBN 0979168813.

Vesterby, Vincent. (2007). The Modern Generalist Universal Conceptual Model. 13th Annual Australia and New Zealand Systems (ANZSYS) Conference, Auckland, New Zealand.

Vesterby, Vincent. (2008). Origins of Self-Organization, Emergence and Cause. Goodyear, Arizona: ISCE Publishing, ISBN 0-9817032-0-8.




Contents What's New Glossary Contact

©2004-2012 Vincent Vesterby