Goals, purposes and choice

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This paper analyses the idea of goal-directedness from various directions.

The discussion is more from the viewpoint of biologist than a sociologist.

“Biology is back with a vengeance and threatens once more to dissolve culture into nature.” (See Appendix)


Terms. 1

Choices made by actors. 2

Ashby’s view of choice. 2

Boulding’s view of “choice”. 2

Ackoff’s view of “choice”. 3

Free will?. 4

Purposes of actors and systems. 4

Non-living natural systems. 5

Non-living designed systems. 5

Living organisms (e.g. trees, bees, humans) 5

Social groups. 6

Commentary on the human-centric viewpoint 6

The special nature of human actors. 7

Meta system thinking. 8

Two other classifications of systems. 9

A classification by goals. 9

A classification by changeability. 9

Appendix: Can We [Socioligist’s] Survive Science?. 10



A choice is a decision made by an actor when selecting between possible actions.

A goal or purpose is a motivation that gives an actor a reason to choose one action over another.

A presumption in much system theory is that an actor’s choices are deterministic.

This means: if you know the actor’s internal state and reasoning rules, you can predict the actor’s response to an event.


Discussion of an organisation or enterprise as a system tends to confuse two views.

Actor-oriented view: a social group is a set of physical actors who communicate with each other.

Action-oriented view: a social system (say a tennis club, or choir) is a set of logical roles, which need actors.

As Boulding suggested in 1956, the unit of a social system is not an actor; it is their assignment to a role

It is that tiny part of an actor’s time and energy that is dedicated to the system of interest.

A social system is not composed of actors, it is composed of their assignments to roles.


One social group can act as several social systems – its actors can play unrelated roles in (say) a football team and a choir.

One social system can be realised by different social groups – and all the actors who play its roles can be replaced.


The goals, purposes and choices of people are highlighted in actor-oriented discussion of society.

Yet it is not so clear that systems thinkers (Ackoff, Beer, Luhmann etc.) have made much of a difference in this regard.

Or indeed that a social group that chooses its own actions and goals is well-called a "system" in any commonly used sense of the term.


In the design of activity systems, designers start from the goals or purposes of system users.

Designers strive to meet those goals, and allow for choices that people make.

Designers can make a difference by designing systems that meet the goals of people and accommodate their choices.

Choices made by actors

A choice is a decision made by an actor when selecting between possible actions.

Actors in all kinds of system can be said to choose the actions they take.

But the word “choice” is loaded with philosophical overtones.

Does a tree - when it senses the sun’s power wanes – choose (or intend) to drop its leaves?

Does a honey bee - when it sees another honey bee’s dance - choose (or intend) to fly from the hive to find pollen?

Does a football referee – when he sees a player punch an opponent - choose (or intend) to send the player off?

Ashby’s view of choice

Ashby was a well-known systems theorist; he considered organisms as machines, and viewed the brain’s choices as deterministic.

It might plausibly be said of a deterministic actor (be it man-made or organic) that:

·         The actor acts to produce outcomes beneficial to it, or its designer or owner.

·         The actor has the intent or purpose of causing those beneficial outcomes.

·         To meet its purposes, an actor makes choices based on its internal state or recall of past events

·         An actor’s state changes in response to input events, the passage of time and the outcomes of past actions.

·         You cannot predict an actor’s response to an event unless you know its internal state.

·         A group of interacting actors may, over time, surprise you by producing unpredictable or “chaotic” outcomes.


Ashby considered self-awareness to be irrelevant; however, self-awareness does bring another dimension to systems thinking.

Self-awareness enables system participants to play roles in a parallel meta system (as discussed below).


Humans are continually making choices about actions.

Among the events that might trigger a choice is a thought floating into the conscious from the unconscious.

Among the choices that may be made are decisions to spend more thinking about something, or switch to thinking about something else.

Once you include conscious thoughts among the inputs humans experiences and the responses they make, it gets harder to make sense of what choice means.

Self-awareness adds a dimension of complexity that compounds the imponderability.

Boulding’s view of “choice”

Boulding presumed a person acts in response to an event based on remembered mental images.

Their actions only appear “chosen” because we cannot observe or understand their internal state.

Ackoff’s view of “choice”

Ackoff was a well-known systems thinker, respected for a large body of work focused on human society.

However, Ackoff's classification of system types is questionable.

He proposed “choice” to be the characteristic that distinguishes four classes of systems.


Type of System Model





Clock, Tree, Bee

No choice

No choice



No choice



Church, Corporation






No Choice



Ackoff defined animate actors as ones that choose freely between possible actions. Hmm…

To choose an action could mean to invent an action – to creatively decide the next thing to be done.

But surely, a social group in which actors invent actions (and change their) goals cannot reasonably be called a system?

The range of actions within an organisation or system must be limited in some way


To choose could mean to select one of several possible actions within a system.

Given an invoice, a customer could choose to pay in full, pay in part, or refuse to pay.

The question becomes – how does the actor make the choice?


To choose between known options could mean to select deterministically by following definable rules.

Determinism means that if you know an actor’s internal state and reasoning rules, you can predict the actor’s choice of action response to an event.

We don’t know whether a human is deterministic – because we don’t know the actor’s state or the rules their brain follows.

A human’s choice may be unpredictable, but still deterministic in a complex way we cannot penetrate.


To choose between known options could mean to select by free will, which (according to Ackoff) is to choose non-deterministically.

How an actor makes a choice makes no difference to a describer of system roles and actions.

The system describer has only to decide what range of options and activities to include in the system, and what to exclude.

The describer must assume a human can choose any possible option or fail to act, and make allowance for “exception paths” the actor may choose to follow.


To choose between known options could mean to select purposefully - in the light of the actors internal purposes

If those purposes are referred to in reasoning rules, then does that mean the choice is deterministic?

If the actor can review and change their purposes before making the choice, then doesn’t undermine the meaning of purposeful?


Ackoff tells us social systems and animate actors do not make choices deterministically – but why exclude that possibility?

He tells us social systems make choices, but how are those choices distinguished from choices made by its member actors?

Free will?

A biologist may say that attributing free will to a person is the ego-centric way we interpret abilities and behaviours that have developed through biological evolution.

We are nothing but vehicles constructed by our genes to reproduce themselves.

However, our societies and laws assume we make choices of our own free will, and behave according to our purposes.

And it would be impossible to live in a human society without assuming the same.


Does determinism prevent free will? A “compatibilist” position is possible.

It seems to me the explosion of options made available to humans by self-awareness justifies saying that you have free will.

It also enables you to flip between acting in a system and a meta system that changes the roles and rules of the first system.

Purposes of actors and systems

The word purpose has several meanings and flavours of meaning.
"You did it on purpose" probably means you did something contrary to specific instructions; but following those instructions would be equally purposeful.
Saying you have no purpose in life probably means having no long-term goal; it doesn't mean you doing everything with no purpose.
The mission statement of a business is a purpose conferred on it by some particular actors, perhaps not agreed by all.


Obviously, people can ascribe purposes to entities they observe or envisage.

An automobile has purposes conferred on it by observers - designers, users etc.

A social group or system has purposes conferred on it by observers - designers, users, members etc.

In the view of observers, the purpose of a computer virus might be to survive, to annoy people, or to satisfy the ego of its creator.

In the view of the observers, the purpose of a human might be to survive, to please people, or to satisfy the ego of its creator.


Here, a goal or purpose is an internal to an actor; it is a motivation that gives an actor a reason to choose one action over another.

This table classifies systems purely for the purpose of discussing purposes.

Actor or system type


Acts with the intent or purpose to



Solar System, Tidal System

Maintain its state?


Clock, Car, Word Processor

Meet goals of sponsors, designers and users.



Tree, Bee, Human

Replicate its DNA through actions that achieve that directly or indirectly

Social group

Tennis club, Church, IBM

Meet goals of members, sponsors, designers and users

Non-living natural systems

An entity that maintain its state may be described as a system.

E.g. the solar system is called a system because planets maintain their orbits.

State maintaining actions may be interpreted by observers as goal-directed.

Here however, I don’t want to argue the solar system has state maintenance as a goal or purpose.

Non-living designed systems

A designed system (e.g. motor car, word processor) acts to meet purposes given to it.

It is usually created to support or enable actors in the environment that the system interacts with.

The purposes of different observers (sponsors, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders) can be different, and may conflict.

So of course, designers strive to gather and document requirements from all stakeholders, then get them signed off.

The resulting system may compromise between conflicting goals - such as fast and fuel-efficient.

Living organisms (e.g. trees, bees, humans)

This acts to replicate its DNA (or half of it) replicate its DNA through actions that achieve that directly or indirectly

All so-called higher purposes might be seen by a biologists subordinate to that end.

A living organism acts to maintain its bodily state - eats, finds warmth and shelter.

It acts find mates - shows off, makes love.

It acts to maintain the bodily state of its relatives - feeds family, sacrifices life for children.

These actions have evolved to the end of DNA replication.


It acts to maintain the bodily state of those in the social group it lives in.

Sharing food and sacrificing life for friends are actions evolved to the end of DNA replication.

Noting that individuals in the near community share more DNA than strangers.


OK, but what about “higher level” purposes we ascribe to humans?

A human may act to please others (make them laugh, sing a song).

Pleasing relatives and friends is a way to keep a social group together.

Keeping a social group together is an action that has evolved to the end of DNA replication.


A human may act to please itself (earning money, playing guitar).

A biologist might see this as a necessary precondition for other aims above.

Or see solo hobbies as rehearsals of actions that could prove useful in other ways.

If human feels no desire to reproduce, prefer to please itself in other ways, that is an evolutionary dead end.

Social groups

Remember discussion of an organisation or enterprise as a purposeful system tends to confuse two concepts.

A physical social group - a set of human actors who communicate with each other, perhaps a disorganised bunch with little or no common purpose.

A logical social system - a set of interrelated roles and rules, likely with some common purpose(s), say a football team or choir.


In my words, a goal or purpose is a motivation that gives an entity a reason to choose one action over another.

For Ackoff, a purpose is internal to the system that makes choice – it makes the system purposeful.

His notion of purposefulness is related to the concept of free will; he defines a purposeful system as one that can change its goals.

“a purposeful system is one that can change its goals in constant environmental conditions; it selects goals as well as the means by which to pursue them. It displays will.


Geoff Elliot tells me that in the socio-cultural perspective, only people can be “purposeful”.

But Ackof says both human actors and social systems are purposeful.

I confess I don’t understand the concept of a social system being purposeful, or making choices.

A human actor always has personal goals or purposes outside any social system they act in.

They may have purposes that are private, in conflict, in flux or unconscious (they don’t recognise themselves).

They may act to make a social system inefficient, or even to sabotage it.

So, which of all those purposes might Ackoff consider as making the social system purposeful?

And how does it make a choice in the light of those purposes?


Commentary on the human-centric viewpoint

Do the properties below distinguish animate humans from deterministic machines?


Is unpredictability or choice limited to humans?

The response of deterministic machine to an event is unpredictable if you do not know its internal state.

When its internal state changes it may appear to “change its mind” about how to respond to the next event of the same type

A deterministic machine can behave over the longer term in a surprisingly “chaotic” and unpredictable way.

A deterministic machine can make choices based on its internal state or past history.

If that does not feel to you like choice then why not?


Are purposes limited to humans?  

All biological entities have the purposes nature has given them.

All designed entities (including human organisations) have the purposes given to them by their designers.

If the designers of a human organisation are also players in that organisation, then they are participants in both the meta system and the operational system.

As members of the meta system they may change the purposes of the system they act in as players.

Human actors in a social system may have purposes that match, contradict and are irrelevant to purposes given to the system.


Is purposefulness limited to humans?

Ackoff speaks of purposefulness rather than purpose.

He defines purposefulness in terms of relationships between a system’s ends, means and environments.

“2.51. Purposeful individual or system (3C): one that can produce

(1) the same functional type of outcome in different structural ways in the same structural environment and

(2) can produce functionally different outcomes in the same and different structural environments.” Bruce McNaughton quoting a 1972 definition offered by Ackoff

In other words:

·         A purposeful system can achieve 1 end, in 1 environment in N ways

·         A purposeful system can achieve N ends in N environments.


But it seems to me a software system could meet this definition.


Ackoff’s notion of purposefulness is related to the concept of free will.

“Thus a purposeful system is one that can change its goals in constant environmental conditions; it selects goals as well as the means by which to pursue them.

It displays will. Human beings are the most familiar examples of such systems." Ibid


For an individual, there is no such thing as a constant environment.

The processes of the brain are continuous; they continually change the state of your brain; they “change your mind”.

So even if the external environment appears static, you will make different choices at different points in time, depending on the state of your mind.


Might Ackoff’s animate category be better distinguished from his deterministic category by self-awareness?

The special nature of human actors

From a biological evolution perspective, the interesting and critical property of human social systems is not choice – exactly.

It is the self-awareness of the actors.


To focus on actors is one thing, as for example in studying the social structure of bees in a beehive.

To focus on self-aware actors (humans and perhaps some other animals) is another thing.

The human brain is the most complex system of all – more complex than any system in which humans play roles.

Employing human actors as components in a socio-technical organisation is dramatically different from employing technology components in two ways.


First, you are more widely capable than any specific business system needs.

You are intelligent, knowledgeable and multi-talented beyond any talent needed for one business activity set by your employer.


Second, you are self-aware.

You can stand back from the system you are employed, step up to the meta systen level, to inspect the purposes that your choices support.

Humans think about themselves and any social organisation they belong to.

They naturally balance their own goals against the goals of the organisation.

They don’t always need rules to do the right thing, and they don’t always follow rules they have been given.


You have not only your own private knowledge but also your own private purposes, outside of those given to you.

Being self-aware; you give yourself purposes and set yourself goals; some in line with what your employer wants and some not.


Capability and self-awareness are mutually reinforcing.

Through evolution, they have grown alongside each other and are highest in mankind.

Meta system thinking

Self-awareness is the ability of an actor to review its past history of events and choices.

A self-aware actor can reflect on whether applying current rules to past events has proved effective in meeting goals.

Self-determination is an act that makes use of self-awareness to set or change rules or goals, and so make different choices from in the past.


The human ability to abstract has been advantageous to humankind’s success as a species.

So much so that you can now shift your attention from a task to its purpose and back in the blink of an eye.


Human actors easily shift from thinking about their operational system actions to thinking about the system itself – and back again.

The result of this capability and abstraction from system to meta system, is an explosion of choice in human behaviour.

This makes human organisations nebulous and amorphous.

The range of possible choices is way beyond the range any architect could ever define or want to define in a specific system description.


The more capable and self-aware the system actors, the higher the degree of abstraction in description of an operational system.

Given human organisations are so fluid, some systems thinkers focus more on the meta system than the operational system.

Systematic approaches to the continual improvement of human organisations and processes that might well be called meta system thinking.

E.g. consider "agile software development" as a meta system.

Two other classifications of systems

A classification by goals

One hears: "a feature of systems is the desire to perpetuate themselves".

Self-perpetuation might be a desire of biological entities, but a solar system has no desire or goal.

A tennis club has no desire of its own, over and above the desires of its members.

And some club members may desire to close the club so as to sell the grounds to a property developer.

Actor or system type



Ackoff class



Solar System, Tidal System

None (unless you count maintaining state).



Clock, Car, Computer

Goals of sponsors, designers and users.




Tree, Bee, Human

Produce progeny, and all to that end

Deterministic, Animate

Social group

Tennis club, IBM

Goals members bring to their roles and/or

Goals of sponsors, designers and users

Deterministic, Society


The next section looks only at social systems.

A classification by changeability

David Seidl (2001) says the question facing a social system theorist is what to treat as the basic elements of a social system.

“The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons or actions.”


Human actors can play a role in a system and a role its meta system at the same time.

·         As system actors, they can perform processes in a social group.

·         As systems architects, they can observe, redesign and change how things are done on the fly.


This table classifies social groups according to what system actors are allowed to change.

Social group type

System actors can change

System goals

System roles or rules











The “ordered social group” is a proper system; its structure and behaviour can be described as per general system theory.

The “chaotic social group” is not a system; it cannot be described as a system, because all its properties are in flux.


What about the “goal-driven social group”? It has actors and goals – but its roles or rules can change at any time.

Actors may work in an ad hoc way, may do nothing, may not co-operate or even undermine others’ efforts.

Or perhaps they decide to outsource the achievement of the given goals to a different group of actors?

You might be able to measure the achievement of the goals, but still, there is no describable system.


However the classification above is naïve, since a social group may well be a hybrid of types.

It may be partly ordered, partly goal-driven and partly chaotic.

In so-called “complex adaptive system”, only the ordered part is really a “systemthe rest is just actors doing things.


Note that some goals are set with the view that that they can and should be measured and achieved.

Other goals are rather directives or principles that set a direction of travel, with no need to achieve.



Related topics

Determinism and hysteresis

Change: adaptation, evolution and self-organisation


Appendix: Can We [Socioligist’s] Survive Science?

Can We Survive Science? Bryan S. Turner. The Sociological Quarterly 56 (2015) 101–107 © 2015 Midwest Sociological Society.


“In the 19th-century sociologists… contributed to both biology and sociology… examined how mores controlled selection.

While professional sociology was busy distancing itself from philosophy, it also turned eventually away from biology and evolutionary theory.

By the second half of the 20th century, sociologists had abandoned much of this legacy.”

“The replacement of Cartesian rationalism in the mind–body dichotomy by the idea of practical embodiment looks like a welcome development for sociology and for ethnographic research (Wacquant 2004).

There are, however, three interconnected issues that disturb this somewhat complacent view that sociology has “solved” the political and intellectual issues associated with biology such as race, sex, and intelligence.

First in turning its back on “nature,” sociologists have not paid attention to the radical transformations that have been taking place in the natural sciences.

In this regard, contemporary sociologists are like Cervantes’s hero Don Quixote in fighting with the dead windmills of biological science.

In the public realm, evolutionary biology, neurosciences, artificial intelligence, and the interface between computers and biology have captured not only public debate but the interests of both governments and industry.

Second, as Victoria Pitts-Taylor (2012) points out, while embodiment may dissolve the mind–body dichotomy into practical embodiment in a post-Cartesian avowal “I practice; therefore I am,” it fails to address questions about the brain.

She argues that sociologists cannot afford to neglect “neurosociology,” which understands the human brain in social terms and rethinks sociality from the perspective of brain sciences.

One possible area of development might be to look at the connections between social class, social stress, the immune system, and disease.

The conceptual and theoretical problem for the sociology of health and illness is how to make a causal connection between social conditions, the immune system, and disease outcomes.

In short, the social sciences need the biological sciences.

Finally, developments in genetics, neuroscience, informatics, and the biological sciences generally threaten to bypass sociology as the social is dissolved into neurons.

The growth of neuroscience promises to explain the concerns of classical sociology with “social pathology”—suicide, crime and deviance, violence and civil conflict—with scientific accuracy and objectivity.

Emily Martin (2000:566) captures the possible outcome by observing that “the dyke between nature and culture has been breached, and all of what anthropologists call culture has drained through the hole and dissolved into the realm of neural networks.”

“Biology is back with a vengeance and threatens once more to dissolve culture into nature.”


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