Moral character in human systems (Geoffrey Vickers) | Adams, Catron, Cook (1995)

While Geoffrey Vickers and Gregory Bateson both worked with human systems, the background philosophies on ethics were different.

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Beginning with The Art of Judgment and culminating in 1983 with Human Systems Are Different, Vickers was concerned to avoid the narrowing of scope that had become a remarkably powerful force in both the theoretical and empirical study of organized human activity. His concept of appreciation was a pivotal element of this effort. Gregory Bateson (1972) also wished to keep the sense of “system” more open than was the norm. Yet while Vickers and Bateson admired one another’s work, they parted intellectual company on the origin and role of ethics.

  • For Bateson, since all systems are identical, morality enters, if at all, in systemic processes that would be found in all systems.
  • Vickers, by contrast, saw a moral character within human systems that distinguished them from both natural and man-made systems.

Vickers argued that appreciation is an inherent and essential part of human activity from the level of individual consciousness to that of human cultures. It was for him a way to achieve the broadening of scope that he felt to be essential both to a practical understanding of the world of action and to responsible action within that world. [p. xviii, editorial paragraphing added]


The exercise of appreciative judgment, the central theme in this book, has three components.

  • The first is the making of reality judgments: those judgments concerning what is or is not the case—ranging from basic cause-and-effect beliefs to more subtle and complex “facts.”
  • The second facet is the making of value judgments: those concerning what ought or ought not be the case—including imperatives, wants and desires, prudential or self-interested considerations, and individual and collective goals and norms.
  • The third is the making of instrumental judgments: those concerning the best means available to reduce the mismatch between is and ought—including the personal resources of time, attention, intellect, passion, money, and power, along with those social resources that can be marshaled and applied (by influence or command) through communication, coalition, and access to social institutions. [editorial paragraphing added]

Along with being a single activity composed of three interrelated but distinct forms of judgment, appreciation, Vickers argued, is always partly tacit. Human judgment, he insisted, cannot be fully described in explicit or analytic terms. But to hold that something is tacit, he maintained, is not to relinquish hope of describing or understanding it, nor does it relegate it to the realm of the mystical. The analytic and the appreciative, he maintained, are not conflicting but complementary, not dichotomous but dialectical. Vickers saw it as a regrettable prejudice of our times that those things that can be described explicitly are honored with the terms scientific and rational, while those that are not are often correspondingly deemed unscientific or irrational. In his interest in understanding the tacit and his insistence on treating it in its own right, Vickers clearly reflects his long personal and intellectual friendship with the philosopher Michael Polanyi (1958).

The incorporation of the epistemological and ethical along with the instrumental in the single activity of appreciation is a central feature of Vickers’s thought. The more economic and analytic treatments of judgment and decision making common in the social sciences provide a means of assessing only the instrumental (epistemological and ethical judgments are typically treated merely as “givens”). For Vickers, human action (as distinct from reaction, instinct, or reflex) inextricably entails all three forms of judgment; it is a product of judging what is, what ought to be, and what can be done to reduce the difference by selecting specific means from the set of possible actions at hand. [pp. xix-xx]

Kenneth Boulding, in his foreword to the 1983 edition of The Art of Judgment, concluded that Vickers’s concept of appreciation remained a more robust way to account for the exercise of human judgment and decision making than the “facile models of maximizing behavior in economics or rat and pigeon behaviorism in psychology” that were then still dominant. Now, in this centenary edition, we come to the same assessment yet again. [pp. xx]

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With that new foreword, who were the authors? They were all professors, now retired.


Adams, Guy B., Bayard L. Catron, and Scott D.N. Cook. 1995. “Foreword to the Centenary Edition of The Art of Judgment.” In The Art of Judgment: A Study of Policy Making, by Geoffrey Vickers, Centenary Edition, xii–xxiv. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.