Conservative Theology

December 15, 2009

Religion and Science / Deontological Ethics and Emergence


NOTE - Don't get lost in the opening sentence, I will explain myself as I go on

I have been studying emergent behaviors of systems for a variety of inquiries, and think I have found an interesting connection between emergence and ethical systems.

Emergence is the idea that there are global properties of systems that are not present in any of the details of the system.  For example, if you look at the function of a car, it is for locomotion.  However, none of the _parts_ of the car themselves are capable of indepedent motion.  Gasoline is not, spark plugs are not, the drive shaft is not, etc.  However, when all of the parts of the car are correctly assembled, the car can move.  Therefore, independent motion is an emergent property of the car - it is something the car does that none of its individual components can do.

A subset of emergent systems are rule-based emergent systems.  That is, given a set of players, and a set of rules, one can get global behavior to emerge that is not apparent in the rules themselves.  For instance, it has been found that honeycombs have a very characteristic, global pattern.  That pattern is stable even if it is perterbed by experimenters, or no matter what the initial state is.  However, the honeybees do not have to have the global pattern in mind in order to implement it.  It seems, instead, that bees only apply a few, simple rules for what to put in each cell.  Those rules, when applied consistently and repeatedly, always result in a global pattern of honeycomb organization.  As I mentioned earlier, this pattern is stable even in the face of adverse interventions, such as experimenters modifying the organization while the bees are away.

Now, when it comes to ethics, there are two main systems of ethical thought - deontological, or rule-based ethics, and teleological, or goal-oriented ethics.  I tend to do both, depending on how clear the scriptural teaching is.  If there is a clear rule in scripture, I try to follow it, but use the goals outlined in scripture to fill in the details.

Deontological ethics has come under a lot of fire in postmodernity.  While people can understand a person who holds on to their ideals in spite of adversity, the idea of following rules seems old-fashioned.  Whose rules are you following anyway?  It is thought that deontological ethics is outmoded because the rules themselves require justification, and that justification could only be provided by a teleological framework.  Therefore, any apparently deontological system that was worthwhile would actually have a teleological system hiding underneath, giving purpose to the rules that were being followed.

I think that deontological ethics has been unduly frowned upon, however.  There are many aspects of deontological ethics which are worthwhile, even in absence of an underlying teleology. 

Or, I should clarify, even in absence of a personal teleology.

If God has a purpose, or a vision, for what society should look like, what is the best way to implement it?  Most teleologists would assume that God would give us the goals, and that we would use the goals to implement God's plan.  But what if it wasn't so simple?  What if the path to the destination wasn't directly visible to us?  What if there were too many variables?  What if God did not want to rely on our intellectual capacity to implement His visiion for our social order?

Perhaps He used, like He appears to have used on the honeybees, a rule-based approach for our living.  That is, perhaps God's end-goal for society is an emergent property of His people following His rules.  It is not something that is visible from the rules themselves, but rather something that will emerge when we are obedient to His instruction, having enduring properties not available to us if we were to try to implement it on our own.

And so, I think a re-evaluation of deontological ethics is in order, focusing on the relationship between rules and emergence and God's goal for humanity.

While I'm thinking of it, Thomas Sowell gave another good reason for deontological ethics (actually he's given several - this one is from Basic Economics if I recall).  His point was that social classes can do well even in a society that discriminates against them.  However, it can do this only if its rules are well-specified, relatively static, and consistently applied.  I don't remember the specific example, but Sowell points out that in one society, although the minority class had very few rights, those rights were well-specified and very consistently applied.  Therefore, they could be leveraged, and used for social advancement.  In a teleological system, the goal is, well, the goal, and the rules can be bent in service to the goals.  This does not lend well to social advancement, as whatever ideological errors exist in the society are actually encoded into the laws.  In a deontological system, only the accidents of the ideological errors are encoded into the laws, and can be overcome through social leverage.  This cannot be done in a teleological system. 

Therefore, a deontological system actually allows for better resilience to ideological error than a teleological system.