Relational positionism: a constructive interpretation of morality in Luhmann's social systems theory

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Purpose: The purpose of this article is to summarize three Luhmannian critiques on morality, illustrate new roles for morality and add constructive interpretations. Design/methodology/approach: Luhmann has recently been described as downright negative toward morality, resulting in a refusal to use ethics as a sociologist, thus leading to a limited use of his theory in moral issues. A constructive interpretation could support a more functional use of morality in social system theory. Findings: First, Luhmann signals that morality can no longer fulfill its integrative function in society but also that society has recourse to moral sensitivity. Second, Luhmann describes how anxiety is crucial in modern morality and indicates which role risk and danger could play. The author builds further on this and proposes the concept of “social system attention” that can provide answers to individual and organizational anxiety. The author proposes that institutionalized socialization can support an integrative morality. Third, Luhmann states that ethics today is nothing more than a utopia but also that the interdiction of moral self-exemption is an essential element. The author adds that a relational ontology for social systems theory can avoid ethics as utopia. Practical implications: This article is a programmatic plea to further elaborate morality from a system theory perspective in which meaning is relationally positioned. Originality/value: This article could potentially provide a more functional application of morality in social systems, thus leading to improvements of attempts of ethical decision-making. The originality of the approach lies in the interpretation of basic assumptions of Luhmann social system theory that are not core to his theory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-44
Number of pages16
Issue number13
Early online date14 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - 18 Dec 2023


This research is conducted in the frame of the HTSM research programs “SRCrowd: Individual and Collective Agency in Socially Responsible Nudging of Crowd” and “HTCrowd: A high-tech platform for Human Crowd Flow Monitoring, Modeling and Nudging” with project numbers 18754, 17962, and the VENI-AES research program “Understanding and controlling the flow of human crowds” with project number 16771, all financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

FundersFunder number
Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek


    • Anxiety
    • Attention
    • Ethics
    • Luhmann
    • Moral sensitivity
    • Morality
    • Organization
    • Positionism
    • Relational
    • Risk
    • Self-exemption
    • System


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