What do we mean when we say we live in a complex world? This paper characterises problems such as combating climate change, the provision of affordable access to healthy food for all, or evaluation of the possible use of nuclear energy as ‘complex social problems’ of which the complexity can be described by the same set of seven characteristics, and consequently reflects on what it would imply to deal with this complexity fairly. It argues why and how modern representative democracy (within the nation state), science and the market, as the three formal governing methods to produce meaning for our modern society, are unable to deal with these complex problems in a satisfactory way, ‘incapable’ as they are to ‘grasp’ their complexity. Based on this argumentation, the paper proposes ‘reflexivity’ and ‘intellectual solidarity’ as ethical attitudes or virtues for all concerned actors, to be understood from a specific ethics of care perspective ‘bound in complexity’. Consequently, it proposes ‘societal trust’ as an overall criterion for governance, although with the specification that this trust should be generated by the governance methods we use to make sense of complexity rather than by promised or anticipated outcomes. With this focus, in conclusion, it proposes advanced approaches to democratic decision making, policy supportive research and education that would have the capacity to enable and enforce the attitudes of reflexivity and intellectual solidarity for the better of our co-existence.
This paper is a contribution to the book ‘Ethics of Environmental Health’ (editors Friedo Zölzer, University of South Bohemia, Czech Republic, and Gaston Meskens, University of Ghent, Belgium) published by Routledge.
An extended version of this paper is available in Dutch here: eerlijk-omgaan-met-maatschappelijke-compexiteit-gaston-meskens-ethiek-maatschappij