“Are we born with a moral code?” is the title of CNN’s article on February 14, 2014. The content of the article, including its video, inform us that babies can actually distinguish between good and evil, even as young as 3 months old. The research was conducted by Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, also known as “The Baby Lab”. The researchers claim that babies are in fact born with an innate sense of morality. Nevertheless, they said, their parents and society can play a role in developing a belief system in babies. The result of this research is interesting and invites not only biological and psychological debates but also philosophical and sociological debates. However, I believe, the opinion that we are born with a moral code is still a mystery and arguably unimportant; mystery because of the lack of methodology of the research, and unimportant because of eventually the moral development of the children strongly hinges on parents and society. Thus, socialisation can still be a big factor to foster a moral code of human beings.

Of course, the word human beings could be debated, especially when dealing with post-humanist thinker. Therefore, it is a good idea to look at what a post-human sociologist says on this matter. Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), who worked at Bielefeld University for more than 30 years has something interesting to tell us about the issue of morality. As a social theorist, he is not interested in answering the question either we are born with a moral code or otherwise. Rather, he is keen on what is the task of morality in society, and how can we utilize it for making society functioning well. Based on this objective, I will structure this paper in a few sections by (1) briefly introducing the background of Niklas Luhmann, (2) describing his theory of society, which is very important to comprehend the location of morality within his general social theory, (3) presenting ethics as a reflection of morality, (4) exploring his analysis about the paradoxical of morality, furthermore (5) explaining the task of morality, and finally I will provide (7) some criticisms on his perspective.


Niklas Luhmann is no doubt one of the major social theorists in the 20th century. When he started his work at Bielefeld University in 1969, he was asked to outline a research project. “My project,” he answered, “is the theory of society; term: 30 years; and costs: none”. Nearly 30 years later, in 1998, he died with around 75 books and 500 articlesand almost completed his aspiring project. In spite of his ambition to build a grand sociological project, there are various reactions on his works: compliment or criticism. Nevertheless, the most remarkable one comes from Juergen Habermas, who has notoriously regarded as the leading scholar from Frankfurt School. In 1970s, these two giant of sociologists had a debate on “social theory or social technology”. Ironically, although both believe in communication as a framework in analysing modern society, neither of them represented social technology. The outcome of the debate culminated in a book they published together entitled, “Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie”, and it has never been translated into English.

Since the debate, Luhmann wrote many books on constructing the theory of society, including Law as a Social System, Theory of Religion, Political Theory in the Welfare State, Love as a Passion, Risk: A Sociological Theory, Art as a Social System, The Reality of Mass Media, and so forth. In order to develop his theory of society in a comprehensive way, Luhmann opens his theory by applying various disciplines into his theory of society such as second order observation (Spencer-Brown), autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela), cybernetics (von Foerster), and phenomenology (Husserl).

Theory of Society

As a systems theorist, Luhmann is also called as a post-humanist thinker since he does not look at society as constituting by human beings. Instead, he portrays society, similarly with psychic system and biological system, as a very complex social systems of communication. Surely, this notion invites critiques, who accuse him as propagating a counter-intuitive theory. To be fair, it is not strictly correct to argue that Luhmann’s theory of society totally disregards human beings. His theory neither neglect the existence of human being nor anti-human. Nevertheless, for Luhmann, if we want to understand how society functions, we must look at the operation of communication that actually takes place in the diversity of present society. In his purest conception, Luhmann takes communication as foundation of his theoretical project. Therefore, communication in this sense is beyond language, as we usually understand. By communication, Luhmann means as a different forms in which society operates. In other words, communication refers to signs, gestures, media, language, and etc. So, based on this radical perspective, Luhmann conceives society as multiple sets of communications unconstituted by human beings.

Moreover, Luhmann also thinks society is constituted by numerous social systems. These social systems are functional systems in which we can communicate based on different forms of communication. According to Luhmann (2012: 27), the concept of form actually consists of two elements: distinction and indication. Distinction is essential in distinguishing between two sides, as Spencer-Brown defines, “a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary” (Spencer Brown 1969:1). In addition, distinction brings a meaning if we start indicating an object of observation. For example, we cannot say a book without consisting the elements of distinction and indication. Hence, the concept of form is operated in circularity or closed system, based on its paradoxical situation. For the sake of clarity, this paradoxical appears when the distinction covers two opposite sides: positive value and negative value. Thus, it makes distinction presupposes itself. These sides will be detected by an observation, and the result draws a need to unify these two sides in a single point of view. In this framing condition, Luhmann formulates the concept of system/environment in order to unify the differences of forms. In a positive form, Luhmann argues we can find it within the scope of system, whereas in a negative form we can find it within the scope of environment. Put it simply, there is no system without environment, and vice versa. At any rate, every observation leads us to consider both territories: system as a marked state and environment as an unmarked state. In other words, Luhmann would also prefer to call these sides as marked states (refers to its actuality) and an unmarked states (refers to its potentiality).

For now, there is a question: how come we are able to make distinction? The answer lies in meaning. For Luhmann, meaning is embedded in both sides: actuality and potentiality. This perspective can be seen clearer when we observe a communication. By starting a communication, we have no choice except having to make a distinction by indicating something. The value of indication, no matter positive value or negative value, has a meaning. So, the meaning is very fundamental in the concept of communication. And, it is indisputable that there is no communication without meaning. Next, I shall present Luhmann’s concept of morality by placing into the context of his theory of society.

Ethical Reflection of Morality

In 1988, Luhmann was awarded the Hegel Prize. In the event, Luhmann delivered a stimulating speech that entitled, “Paradigm Lost: On the ethical reflection of morality.” I think, the speech contains a provocative statement that invites many responses on the subject of morality. Traditionally, we believe that morality is a normative principle in human life. The most common description is pertaining to utilitarianism and transcendentalism, as Luhmann described in the speech. Luhmann highlights that: “In both utilitarian and transcendental ethics it was a question of the rational grounding of moral judgement. In this version, ethics could understand itself as a moral undertaking, include itself in its own description of morality and, to put it simply, consider itself to be good (Luhmann 1991: 85).”

Since Luhmann conceives society based on communication, thus his controversial view on morality makes him departed from other philosopher of ethics. Utilitarianism, as a theory in normative ethics focuses on maximizing utility of morality. The most influential contributor in this principle is Jeremy Bentham. Along with this principle, Luhmann also named Immanuel Kant as a main philosopher for the idea of transcendentalism. Kant argues that ethical theory, developed as a result of Enlightenment rationalism. This ethical perspective is grounded on establishing metaphysics of morality in order to establish a priori foundation of moral reasoning. However, Luhmann argues that both views are incapable to play its functions in society. In fact, Luhmann accuses that “the present use of ethics is nothing but fashion (Luhmann 1996: 33).” Therefore, it is well worth considering what makes Luhmann opposes to this perspective of morality as its normative principle.

In Luhmann’s view, every communication in society produces its meaning regarding its social system. Thus, the meaning within communication is a social construct. Unlike Kant and Bentham, the distinction of morality between good and bad is made within communication and socially constructed. However, empirically evident, we can see how morality has been overly used in society. Therefore, Luhmann does not think that ultimate moral could be found, either by a transcendentalism’s Kantian, or Unitarianism’s Bentham. Furthermore, he emphasizes that modern society can no longer be integrated by means of morality because it is only one code of communication. While, in social systems, there are many code of communication in society. But there is not a single dominating code in society. Indeed, modern society is a complex society and no code has capacity to be central to unify other codes. In this sense, all codes have their rationality and logic. So, here Luhmann comes to conclusion that there are a multiplicity of rationality, which simultaneously operates on one another in the environment.

For that reason, it is therefore unsurprising that Luhmann proposes a different way on looking at morality within society. For Luhmann, obviously morality neither refers to normative ethical principle nor as a social system. Simply put, there is no such system of morality. In fact, morality is relatively represented as small segments in his theory of society. However, by understanding his concept of morality, it would allow us to understand the most essential characteristic of his theory, which is the amorality of social systems. So, in Luhmann’s hand, it is not a question of good or bad of a person. As a theoretician of communication, he prefers to distinguish the term of ethics and morality in different ways. For Luhmann, ethics is what he calls very simply as a reflection of morality, whereas morality is identified with its manner. Therefore, it makes sense that for Luhmann morality is about our esteemed or unesteemed of a person as a whole (Luhmann 1993: 999). Or, put in another way, if we reflect on morality, then we do ethics. If we buy this way of thinking, therefore we can say that Luhmann attempts to put morality as the unity of good and bad. The differences of good and bad will bring us to the statement that “the ultimate ground of all moral criteria is a paradox, i.e the unity of what has to be distinguished (Luhmann 1996: 33).”

The Paradoxical of Morality

Having mentioned that morality is based on paradoxical, Luhmann argues that it is so because morality cannot decide between good and bad when it applies to itself. This is a crucial junction in Luhmann’s concept of morality, and this must be understood in a wider context, which brings us back to the notion of meaning in social systems. For Luhmann, meaning in communication is constructed through making distinction, as demostrated in the previous section. When we distinguish something else, we immediately create a sort of meaning. In short, by making distinction we simply create meaning. As a consequence, meaning is not objectively out there, but it emerges only by making distinction. Otherwise, the world remains meaningless. In doing so, distinction making as such is a form of constructing reality. If we observe how society works, we can find how our modern society has become capable of making more and more complex distinctions, and these forms of social construction operate on the basic distinction making.

Thus, it is important to note that the paradoxical of morality appears when the code cannot apply to itself. It has to be in the assumption of paving a way to systems to be properly functioned. As Luhmann says: “Every binary code including that of morality leads to paradoxes when it is applied to itself. We cannot decide whether the distinction between good and bad is itself good or not rather bad (Luhmann 1991: 86).” In this case, it means that the distinction cannot connect to itself. A further consequence of this perspective, morality is not only without ultimate foundation but also that the distinction is basically highly contingent. As a result of this standpoint, one might think that moral deliberation in our society could be futile. Ironically, such suggestion could be wrong too because moral deliberation is still a communication. As long as there is a communication, for Luhmann, the moral communication can still provide us a lot of possibilities to precede communication in society. However, it should be remembered that there is a problem when moral communication dominates all communication in society. It is certainly true that extreme moral communication may lead us to pathology of communication. In this sense, Luhmann suggests that whenever communication is morally in charged it tenses to become pathological.

In making this claim, Luhmann asserts that over moralization of social systems is dangerous because it makes certain groups of people feel esteemed than others. Of course, here, Luhmann does not make any normative claim. But as a matter of fact, he wants to explain as nearly descriptive as he could. What he interested in is pointing out the danger for communication whenever there is moral in charged. Based on this situation, Luhmann believes that by decreasing moral communication in society it could make society functionally better (better not in moral sense). In order to understand this “better”, it would be useful to look at moral communication in the political context. Dealing with this issue, Luhmann remarks that the concept of amorality could rescue political system from full-fledged moral communication. For instance in political system, Luhmann distinguishes the code of political systems by differentiating between government and opposition. In order to make political system sustains well, Luhmann argues that by distancing moral communication it could keep away government to be declared as structurally good, while opposition to be declared as structurally bad, or evil. Alas, if this is the case, Luhmann adds, it would be a death sentence for democracy because we charge political system with moral communication (Luhmann 1991: 86). Based on this reason, in Luhmannian sense, it is more dangerous for political system if politicians apply his or her morality in political sphere. Undeniably, this is opposite with the mainstream perspective, which believes that politicians with higher morality could be good for political system. Accounting for this situation, it is hardly to see an exchange position in-office between government and opposition, or in the worst-case scenario it could destroy political system at all.

The Task of Morality

Yet, how to apply amoral theory in social system? Luhmann replies to this thorny question by suggesting the limitation of the sphere of moral communication. If there are issues of moral communication in society, Luhmann contends that it would be easily resolved by transferring it into legal system, for example. But if we still exercise moral communication, it tends to make social systems corrupted by the obsession of moral communication. This kind of obsession will only allow moral communication to fully take over the functionality of social systems and society can no longer produce communication.

However, limiting the sphere of morality is not enough if morality is still unreflected. Therefore, the main task of ethics is actually to warn morality, in case there is an overused of moral communication. As Luhmann says: “the most pressing task of ethics is to warn against morality (Luhmann 1991: 90).” By applying this task, ethics could make check and balance for any moral communication in society. In addition, morality could discipline itself by reminding it when there is overused moral communication in society. Here, Luhmann aims to protect social systems by dominating a single code of communication, which in this case is the form of good and bad. For Luhmann, as long as moral communication is not too strong, social systems can still function very well, because, ironically speaking, these systems can tolerate morality based on its amoral code (Luhmann 1994: 16). So, for Luhmann, thanks to the construction of amorality that society has found its way on how they can tolerate moral communication. For this reason, it can be understandable that modern society functions on a basis of higher level of amorality which eventually makes it immune to certain extend of moral communication.

A Reflection

Up to now, I have presented Luhmann’s view of morality by locating it into his theory of society. Now, it is time for me to make my argument on how to make sense of his controversial perspective. First of all, in some extend, I can accept Luhmann explanation on morality by buying Nietzsche’s view on morality. For Nietzsche (1998), morality is something that we need to be careful and keep some distance with it in our everyday life. Thus, as Luhmann argues too, we need to take morality in very cautious way. So, by referring to Nietzsche, I am fully aware that Luhmann wants us to be careful with own moral pathology. However, as far as I am concerned, what is strikingly absent in Luhmann’s analysis of morality is referred to his suggestion that we need to limit the sphere of morality. Frankly speaking, I can see no way in which Luhmann could square this suggestion because, in reality, we can find a contrasting observation. For example, although we have legal system in our society, it could not stop war. Apparently, legal system itself is not enough to prevent war from happening. So, the fact shows us there is a limit of social systems as well, in this case, the legal system. In some cases, members of society, if I can use this contentious word (because Luhmann refuses to use it), have to call the element of morality in improving the condition of society. That is why we can see society could manage a demonstration in the name of humanity (or morality) to express their solidarity with the victimised people of war. Now, this should gain a more particular study: how come people could assembly if there is no same “feeling” (in Luhmannian sense, feeling is not a social element) among members of society. Of course, Luhmann would say that there is a connection (structural coupling) between psychic system (conciousness) and social systems (communication). However, it just shows that Luhmann fails to explain why many people have strong tendency to have the same feeling. Based on this point, I realise that some critiques accused Luhmann’s theory of society as undermining social activism since he believes there is no such way to make society better. And, I personally think that this accusation is really a valid point.

Another point I would like to address is pertaining to the role of agency in society. Again, Luhmann clearly rejects to include human beings in his theory of society. He is interested in communication as a function and imagining society like a kind of mechanism of communication. Based on this monotonous approach, he arrives at interpreting society by not looking to psychological aspect, but to the aspect of functional systems. For Luhmann, human beings are not really a useful concept that could be applied into social systems theory. However, this approach is not convincingly satisfying. Here, I recognise that Luhmann tries to make his theory as nearly descriptive as possible. As a sociologist, he formulates his theory of society by putting every aspect of society into a big picture. But, in creating this kind of ambitious theory, he unlikely needs to sit outside of society in order to formulate it. Without starting to think from outside of society, thus Luhmann himself would not be able to get a big picture on how society works. But once he created the theory, he immediately has to include himself inside in the theory. Therefore, there is an inside/outside position in his theory. For me, this is an irony. Here, I smell there is still a place for individuality in Luhmann’s theory of society. Individuality in this context regards to the space of human subjectivity. But, this kind of individuality is reflected in a paradoxical way. Once more, to avoid misunderstanding: before building theory of society, Luhmann needs his individuality to conceive the theory of society. After all, once he created it he already put himself into the theory (for example as a sociologist in scientific system, or as a customer in economic system, or as a husband in intimate system, etc). Thus, in one hand, Luhmann has full freedom to conceptualise theory of society, but finally it constraints himself in the theory. Based on this strange situation, I think there is still a role of human subjectivity in Luhmann’s theory of society. In similar vein, I can say it is impossible to totally exclude human being in society. If this is a case, thus automatically his concept on morality could be questionable as well.


Luhmann, Niklas. 1996. The Sociology of the Moral and Ethics. 1996. International Sociology 11:27, 27-36.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1991. Paradigm Lost: On the Ethical Reflection of Morality: Speech on the Occasion of the Award of the Hegel Prize 1988. Thesis Eleven, 29:82, 82-94.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1993. The Code of the Moral. Cardozo L. Rev. 14, 995-1009.

Luhmann, Niklas. 2012. Theory of Society. California: Stanford University Press.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1994. Politicians, Honesty, and the Higher Amorality of Politics. Theory, Culture, and Society 11, 25—36.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1998. On the Genealogy of Morality. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Spencer-Brown, G. 1969. Laws of Form. London: George Allen and Unwin

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