Being ethical in the face of complexity

Development Policy17 Nov 2009Seerp Wigboldus

What does ‘strategic’ mean to whom? This is an essential question to ask when discussing what ‘being strategic in the face of complexity’ involves. Is ‘strategic’ synonymous to ‘good’ and ‘ethical’? ‘Strategic’ may sometimes be considered as merely being opportunistic, such as in the case of being politically correct.

Being strategic refers to an objective. This is not ‘dealing’ with complexity itself, but what is beyond that: the motivation for seeing an aspired future become reality. We may then ask ‘whose aspired future?’ This question relates to stakeholder interests, power issues, (corporate) responsibility, etc. What some will consider to be ‘strategic’ may not be in the interests of certain groups of people. Also, in relation to activities, there can be a difference in what is considered to be ‘strategic’ due to differences in ideas about how (we think) change happens and ought to happen. And then, the goal does not justify the means: being strategic cannot be reduced to simply achieving your objectives, which is unfortunately the focus of quite a few management books on dealing with complexity.

We may argue that in complex situations in particular, ethical concerns are the first to be pushed overboard when making so-called ‘strategic’ decisions. It will be interesting to see whether this could be confirmed during roundtable dialogues on issues such as situations of conflict and competing claims.

Let’s take the impressive movie ‘Amistad’ by Steven Spielberg as an example. The question of how to be strategic in deciding the fate of the group of captured ‘slaves’ was, for some, answered from a strictly political and economic perspective. For others, it was basically an ethical issue. The same difference in perspective and attitude can be seen in last year’s movie ‘Amazing Grace’ about William Wilberforce’s fight against slavery. It is good news that in the above examples, ethical concerns prevailed. I suppose similar differences of opinion about what ‘being strategic’ means can be found in current debates.

There is much more to be said about this, but one of my arguments is that if the desire to be strategic is not governed by a desire to act ethically, we will be in serious trouble. Yes, that does leave us with the question ‘what is ethical?’. And that is where we will need to work on finding shared values and principles and apply these towards virtues (such as prudence) in being strategic in the face of complexity. We will then also need to address another question, one that has often shifted out of focus because of a dominant concern with knowledge: how to be wise in the face of complexity?

In view of the above reflection, I would therefore suggest to take ‘being strategic’ in this event as a ‘pars pro toto’, which then includes notions such as being wise, ethical and responsible in the face of complexity.