Towards an Ethics of Complexity

An ethics of complexity begins with the relationship of holon to surrounding whole. As a self-contained holon, we pursue a good that is particular to ourselves. As a holon amongst many, within an encompassing wholeness, we move to a dance that is orchestrated, so to speak, from above. The emphasis of most spiritual beliefs is on doing God’s will, abandoning ego, following the Tao, etc. Yet it is also held that our inmost self is Buddha Nature, the Tao, or the activating grace of God. Thus, it is presumed that our inmost selves can (and should) be wholly in harmony with the encompassing All or One. From a non-religious perspective, we are still rooted in a wider context, including human society and the natural environment. Thus, we should be responsible to one another and to our common planet.

This squares nicely with the understandings of complexity theory, which would seem to imply a kind of ecological ethic. That is, the shark, by eating smaller fishes, accomplishes two goods. One is “egotistic”―it feeds itself. The other is systemic―it keeps populations of smaller fish under control and even contributes to the survival of the fittest by culling the ones that are easiest to catch. It is important to note that, though populations of organisms within ecosystems undergo cycles of boom and bust, and the make-up of species within ecosystems transitions over time, there tends to be an inherent stability of the whole that is maintained, while at the same time the needs of each species and individual are largely met (or they soon cease to be!).

The lesson for us as human beings is that we don’t, in general, need to make a choice between serving God (or following the Tao, or being responsible social and planetary citizens) or serving our egotistical lower natures. However, it can be a trick to do both, simultaneously and well. And, if we find ourselves in a situation where only one can truly be met, the greater good would seem to lie with the greater whole.

The ideal situation, for example, would be to eat enough to satisfy our bodily needs. Not too much (gluttony), nor too little (starving and harming our body―God’s temple for the soul). We can follow the Middle Way. However, what if there is not enough food to go around? This is a situation humans have often experienced. Laurens van der Post tells of an encounter with the San or Bushmen of the Kalahari. In the midst of a drought, his expedition came across a party nearing the end of their endurance. Far behind them (but within reach of the expedition’s Land Rovers) were an old couple. They had insisted on being left behind, when it became apparent that, by slowing the progress of the whole party to the next waterhole, they were endangering everyone in the group. Such behavior is documented in many cultures. It certainly makes ecological sense.

However, a thorny issue arises. Would it have been ethical for the younger San to force the older ones to stay behind, or even to abandon them to their own fate by simply walking faster? This is where the ecological parallel fails us. To understand why, we need to recall the concept of emergence.

Distinctive properties emerge at higher levels of organization. The property of free will, for example, would seem to belong to beings possessing fully rational natures, but not to those without. This is why the law, for instance, does not penalize those (such as the mentally handicapped or very young children) who do not appreciate the consequences of their crimes. In that an ecosystem lacks reason, it cannot model an ethics that is applicable to reasoning beings. The critical feature here is free will. The old San couple chose to stay behind. They were not forced to, nor were they callously abandoned. On the contrary, they were thanked and revered for their sacrifice. Free will would seem to be a central feature of human ethics, in that we have to be responsible for our own choices, and for the extent to which these balance our egotistical needs with the good of the encompassing whole.

As noted previously, all religions—as well as most agnostic or atheistic belief systems—seem to adhere to some version of the golden rule. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. Again, we are led to a capacity that seems to be more developed in humans than in other animals―empathy. We have the ability to put ourselves in another’s place, to walk a mile in his or her moccasins. Thus, we differ from the shark in two ways. First, we understand when we are doing a systemic good (or ill). Second, we feel the consequences of our actions when we put ourselves in the place of another. Thus, our uniquely human capacity to be exquisitely aware of the whole is made possible by highly developed capacities of thinking and of feeling.

To “stand under” another human being is to see the world as he or she does. To “feel in” (empathy), “suffer with” (compassion), or “feel together” (sympathy), is to feel the world as another does. Only through these activities can we appreciate the systemic goods (or ills) we are doing (or contemplating), and weigh them against our personal goods. Thus, only through understanding and compassion can we make truly free decisions.

Free, in this sense, doesn’t so much mean without compulsion from God or some higher authority. More deeply, it means without compulsion from the tyranny of the ego, whose needs are trumpeted so incessantly and loudly. We have to exert effort (thus, free willing or exertion) to listen to the voices of reason and empathy. Therefore, the cultivation through regular practice of our capacities of understanding and compassion (what the Buddhists call mindfulness, Christians call caritas, etc.) would seem to be an ethical imperative. (Buddhism, by the way, is an atheistic religion.)

What might such a practice entail? The common denominator, across spiritual practices from many traditions, would seem to be attention, but of a deep and peaceful sort. We go through our days giving a great deal of attention to many things, but often in a superficial way. We are pulled in so many directions that we sometimes fail to take in, or make meaning of, what is right before us. Perhaps this is what is meant by needing to become “those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.” Such deeper, richer, fuller attention can be practiced in many types of meditation, contemplation, and prayer. (Again, this need not be theistic, as in the case of Buddhism, or even religious, as in the case of secular mindfulness practices.) Through such inner practice, we become more able to attend to the others we encounter in our daily lives. Given the imperative to cultivate such attention in order to act ethically, some sort of regular inner practice (which would, in turn, support mindfulness in our interactions) seems essential.

Religions, despite their wide variety, tend to be fairly uniform in their ethical injunctions: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t cheat and lie, etc. These all boil down to not harming others, to treating others as we would ourselves be treated. An ethics of complexity, in which the needs of the individual holon must be balanced and harmonized with those of the greater whole, comes to much the same conclusion. It does so by making us aware that our conscious choices must take into account seemingly disparate (and sometimes indeed conflicting) goods, on the levels of self and whole, in the same way that the shark’s unconscious choices harmonize self-interest with ecological benefit.

However, while sharks are ecologically ethical through unconscious instinct, our acts are only ethical when informed by the highest capacities of our consciousness. An ethics of complexity calls us to be fully awake to and aware of ourselves, of others, and of the interlinked complexities within every situation we face.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

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