Chaos, Complexity, Kant and Mill

One of the great debates in the field of ethics centers around the thinking of Emmanuel Kant vs. the Utilitarians – most notably John Stuart Mill. To simplify, Kant’s philosophy suggests that the means justify the ends: we should always do the right thing and trust the results to work out for themselves. Mill, on the other hand, argued that we should do what produced the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and that the ends justified the means.

I’ve always tried to do the right and moral thing, of course, but when push comes to shove I’ve been an unapologetic utilitarian. I might, in my brasher moments, have put it this way: what matters is the outcome, the result, and doing the noble thing when it leads to a tragic result isn’t ethical, it’s both immoral and stupid. In a sense, this might be seen as privileging pragmatism over idealism, although those things have long been at war in my soul and I can’t say which will eventually win. (I’ll go ahead and apologize now to any real philosophers reading this for the hash I’m probably making of their field’s great minds.)

Last night I had a thought that may change all this. It occurred to me that both Chaos and Complexity Theories may have implications for the centuries-old debate between the ethics of duty and the ethics of utility.

Let’s start with the principle of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, better known as the “Butterfly Effect.” In the 1960s, meteorologist Edward Lorenz, in his attempts to model weather, discovered that minuscule changes in the inputs to an equation resulted not in equally minuscule changes in output, but in changes so vast and dramatic as to be unpredictable. The popular explanation says that a butterfly flapping its wings in America today can cause a hurricane in China next year – hence “the Butterfly Effect.” Of course, Chaos Theory is intensely mathematical and difficult, and our layman’s discussions are relegated to the simple and metaphorical applications, but the theory clearly suggests something important to our ethics discussion.

Utilitarian ethics make a lot of assumptions about the knowability of an outcome. That is, it presupposes that I can know what result is desirable and am therefore better able to work toward it. It assumes the ability to predict and dictate the ends.

Sensitivity to initial conditions, however, dismisses the possibility that I can reliably predict the results of my actions. Even in highly controlled mathematical contexts, where inputs can be controlled to as many decimal places as you have computing power to manage, a .00000001% alteration can change the end result massively. Human activity – especially in a dynamic system with multiple interacting agents – is hardly that precise, so the difference between keeping the extra 50 cents the cashier accidentally gave me and returning it, the difference between telling a white lie and ‘fessing up, the difference between stopping to help a stranded motorist and speeding past is guaranteed to set in motion a series of events that will lead me to a more or less unknowable end.

All of which points to the futility of a utilitarian approach. If I can’t accurately predict the results of my actions, then how can I possibly act in accordance with an ethical code that assumes the output? Sure, we can make educated general guesses and perhaps we’ll be generally correct, but as I ponder the ethics of the Butterfly Effect I realize there’s substantially less certainty in the system that I had previously imagined.

Kant’s ethics of duty, on the other hand, are completely unconcerned with the unpredictable ends, and instead focus on that which is knowable and controllable – the initial action, the input. If I’m faced with an ethical dilemma and I accept that I can’t act in accordance with practical results, the only thing left is to act in accordance with moral rules; as Kant put it, “I am never to act otherwise than to will that my maxim should become universal law.” Or, as they say on television and in the movies, “do the right thing.” Act morally and trust the universe, I guess.

It also occurs to me that Complexity Theory has something to say on the subject, too, and that the implications are consistent with Kant. Artificial Life researchers have conclusively demonstrated, in their attempts to model living systems, that rule-heavy, top-down systems that attempt to define too many pieces of the system are destined to fail. In the end, truly dynamic lifelike activity is too complex to micromanage.

sorrowfuldependablealaskajingleWhat does work are systems where the activity of individual agents are guided by two or three simple rules. Take Craig Reynolds’ famous “Boids” model, for instance:

In 1986 I made a computer model of coordinated animal motion such as bird flocks and fish schools. It was based on three dimensional computational geometry of the sort normally used in computer animation or computer aided design. I called the generic simulated flocking creatures boids. The basic flocking model consists of three simple steering behaviors which describe how an individual boid maneuvers based on the positions and velocities its nearby flockmates…

The behavior of the boids in Reynolds’ simulation wasn’t over-determined. Instead, each individual boid was programmed to follow three basic rules.

  • Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
  • Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
  • Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates

The result was startlingly lifelike behavior on the part of the A-Life agents, and the validity of Reynolds’ findings have been borne out by substantial research since.

So how does this bear on our ethics question? Well, it seems that a utilitarian model, by assuming the knowability of outcomes and focusing on strategies to force the ends, are very much over-determined, like the top-down A-Life models that consistently fail to generate lifelike behavior. Those models decide at the outset what the result will look like and set out to try and sheepdog all the agents of action toward a predetermined conclusion.

The Kantian model, on the other hand, makes no assumptions about outcomes at all. It merely acts in accordance with basic moral rules that are structurally similar to the operational rules of a working A-Life system.

I’m neither a trained philosopher nor a scientist, but it seems to me that two schools of scientific thought nonetheless have something to say here about an important ethical conversation. For me, at least, my epiphany about the implications of Chaos and Complexity pose challenges to the code I have lived by for my entire adult life. If Chaos and Complexity (and my interpretations of them) are correct, it’s all of a sudden more difficult to be a Utilitarian.

Even more critically, it means I need to focus more attention on my own core first principles. If I can make no assumptions about the outcomes of my actions, then it seems all I have left is the moral value of the actions in and of themselves.

Hmmm….

Additional Reading

Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick

Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, by M. Mitchell Waldrop

NOTE: I am unaware of any research that broaches the questions raised here. I have not had time to conduct a formal search, however, and if others have addressed the relationship between Kant, Mill, Chaos and Complexity I would appreciate being pointed toward that research.

31 comments on “Chaos, Complexity, Kant and Mill

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  2. Excellent, Sam! Just first freakin’ rate!

    In essence, it seems to me that you have described all the religions that suggest leaving worldly matter alone, including the religion Yeshuah of Nazareth thought he was teaching. You’re also walking in the footsteps of time-travel science fiction. One goes back to kill Hitler and succeeds, but German poverty and anti-Semitism don’t cease to exist. Instead, someone far more capable than Hitler harnesses those forces, and has the foresight not to exile the Jewish theoretical physicists, creating the first atomic bomb.

    Having said that, we must still make some choices to which most outcomes are quite clear. As I’m sure you’re aware, the lifeboat analogy is probaby the most often used example of this. There are too many people to support in a single lifeboat. Do they all drown, or are some of those people sent off to drown so the others can live? Now, one can postulate that it might be best for them all to die because one of those that lives might become the grandfather of the guy who finally pushes the nuclear button and destroys the world. But that person might also be the grandfather of another Newton, Einstein, of Gautama.

    In other words, at some point, practicality wins out.

    Great stuff. Thanks.

  3. Good examples, JS, and yeah, this is far from prescriptive. My wife just asked me if this meant a major change in how I approach life. The answer: well, maybe.

  4. My observation has been that people who are forced for any length of time to exist in abnormally chaotic conditions (war, abuse, etc.), if they survive, tend to commit too unequivocally to the primacy of ends or the primacy of means. We either insist on the predictability of outcome, since we have become of necessity very, very good at gauging the likely reactions to our actions, or we are so disillusioned with the idea of of a moral, predictable world that we say,”I have only my own convictions on which to stand and decide,” or as you put it so well, do what you think is right, right now, and trust the universe to sort itself out.

    I went the second way, as opposed to your path, and it seems to me to be a supremely courageous act to reexamine either way of living with the aim of self-awareness and a more complex (chaotic; an excellent, excellent connection there) but ultimately more realistic and useful view of our place in the world.

    Last night I heard a marvelous thought on what makes someone a liberal: they recognize that the truth is complicated. If we could all just start there… maybe there would be more thinking and less screaming. I don’t know.

  5. Last night I heard a marvelous thought on what makes someone a liberal: they recognize that the truth is complicated.

    I wish I believed that definition, Joy. I’ve actually thought of that one, myself, and discarded it because I just know too many liberals who see the world in complete black and white terms. Do I believe that there are more conservatives who see things way too simplistically? Yeah. I guess I do. But there are plenty of liberals who are the same way, in my experience.

  6. My friend Doug Kellner, who’s one of America’s most prominent philosophers, just e-mailed me this:

    Hey Sam, off the top, you are on to something. I think I wouldn’t say, however, “Kant’s philosophy suggests that the means justify the ends.”

    Rather, for Kant the Good is an End-in-itself, so he really doesn’t use means/end arguments, as I remember.

    On the other hand, I think that the thrust of your application of C/C theory definitely subvert’s Mill’s utilitarianism since we cannot really predict consequences of acting so moral judgements are always after the fact; this also, as you argue, leans to Kant that we should do the good regardless of consequences. the problem for a kantian ethics, however, is that we cannot always know for sure the good….

    Doug is right, of course – in my attempts to simplify I over-simplified – and he has my thanks for correcting the error.

  7. Doc,

    I see what Doug is saying, but if one postulates that there is cause and effect in the universe, and that actions have effects, then “good” actions must also have effects. In that case, the “means justify the ends” still works.

  8. A frightfully interesting post.

    As long as I’ve been thinking about it, I had considered myself a ,a href=http://voluntaryist.com.Voluntaryist. One of Volunatryism’s main tenets is to concentrate on the means, and then ends will take care of themselves. This is the first time I remember hearing it from the perspective of knowledge, though.

    The biggest problem I have with Utilitarianism lies with unintended consequences and the fact that the targeted end is achieved so infrequently. Sure, the intention is to achieve the end, and that is the direction most actions head for, but just getting close isn’t achieving that end. By the time it is realized – if it is ever realized – that the end was missed the path is often lost and the end missed permanently.

    Of course, any attempt to lay down concrete rules and set things in black and white is doomed to failure. When making moral choices, moral value changes from person to person, and can result in many choices of action leading to various ends. Is that the synthesis of choosing your desired end while acting morally?

    Great post!

  9. Maybe that’s not a liberal or a conservative at all – maybe that’s a decent human being.

    As usual with you, Euphrosyne, what seems a simple observation that’s easy to rebut turns out to be not the least bit simple. I was going to respond that I know decent human beings whose knees are set on “jerk immediately upon touch.” And I think I do, if one defines “decent” as “caring, generous of spirit,” etc.

    Then, I was going to substitute “well-educated” and/or “intelligent,” but those words don’t work either because I know many well-educated, intelligent people who see things in very black and white terms.

    I did come up with an adjective after much thought, and I won’t include the thought here because I think it’s more interesting just to throw out the word in its sentence:

    Maybe that’s not a liberal or conservative at all — maybe that’s a courageous human being.

  10. Out of necessity, you oversimplified both chaos and complexity, but that’s not a really big deal. However, you did neglect something that also bears discussion, namely the idea that both chaos theory and complexity function at the edges of functionality. Complexity especially lies within the dividing line between unpredictable, chaotic behavior and predictable, mechanistic behavior.

    As an engineer, I work every day to ensure that my designs behave predictably, and just because I can’t exactly know what a given circuit output will be on an individual level, I can absolutely predict, within certain bounds, how a circuit will behave. An unity-gain buffer will give me the same output voltage as the voltage I input into the buffer, but with some predictable biases and some statistically-estimated noise. This intersects this philosophical discussion when you realize that, just because all exact outcomes cannot be predicted, many, many, many outcomes, and especially the general outcome, can be predicted nonetheless.

    I’d personally consider adding the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to your discussions as well, Sam. Just because you can’t necessarily predict an outcome at one scale doesn’t mean you can’t predict an outcome at a different scale. And just because you can’t have perfect knowledge of something (position and momentum in the case of particles, both of which could be given analogues in the realms of morality, society, culture, etc.), that doesn’t mean you can’t have a) good knowledge of one at the cost of the other and b) a statistical understanding that is sufficiently nuanced to still be meaningful.

  11. This path in the philisophical discourse does put things like “Operation Ajax” and the newly popularized concept of ‘blowback’ in good contextual framework….

    I think the Boids model also puts in an excellently understandable format… a group of actors working along Kantian lines … if you’ve found a good set of rules for them to go by… could much more likely produce a desirable outcome (and be a lot nicer to live with) than individuals entirely governed by ‘ends justify the means’ principles.

    like so much in life I imagine it will remain a messy compromise but hopefully as we refine both our ethical systems and predictive models we can reduce the conflicts between the two and find ways to make means to the end more uniformly consistant and ethical… and that refinement, to which you bring to the point of attention here… is probably the sum of goal of philosophy and civilization really….

    *deposing the democratically elected and popular (though suspected of being mildly pink) government of Iran to replace them with the repressive but ‘pro-western’ and right wing repressive government the Shah… followed by Islamic fundementalist Ayahtollah backlash

  12. Nice, but Kant and Mill are both in a framework of thought that precedes the recognition of the importance of language in structuring out thoughts. Subsequent philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth century made their modes of observation seem rather quaint and exposed even more of their simplistic assumptions than those that you have outlined here. Although this is a nice observation.

    But as elegant as your observation is and as well worded as you put it, I feel compelled by some of the other comments here to to suggest that any serious modern philosopher must be comfortable with the notion that there is no basis for meaning and that the search for meaning is a naive endeavor. It simply does not matter that there is no basis for meaning and being a philosopher means being comfortable with that much like learning to swim means no longer needing to stand in the water. Getting past that need to pin down meaning and suddenly change one’s world view in a eureka moment is the beginning of the journey of philosophy. That is when you have learned to swim.

    This is not to say, by any means, that Mill and Kant are irrelevant. Rather, it means that battling them as if they were super heroes with clashing super powers is no longer the the focus of philosophical investigation.

  13. In this case, I would say it’s fairly obvious that Sam’s broad strokes are the framework for further thought, rather than a naive and simplistic battle of the Titans. Does anyone learn to swim without first standing in the water?

    Of course, the ability to pin down the exact beginning of the journey or to lay down the “musts” of modern philosophical investigation is currently beyond me and will likely continue to be so. Certainty is a tricky thing, isn’t it? Almost as slippery as meaning.

  14. Oh, and…

    just because you can’t have perfect knowledge of something (position and momentum in the case of particles, both of which could be given analogues in the realms of morality, society, culture, etc.), that doesn’t mean you can’t have a) good knowledge of one at the cost of the other and b) a statistical understanding that is sufficiently nuanced to still be meaningful.

    Bravo, my nerdy friend.

  15. I feel compelled by some of the other comments here to to suggest that any serious modern philosopher must be comfortable with the notion that there is no basis for meaning and that the search for meaning is a naive endeavor.

    Whew! Thanks! I’m really glad to hear this. I can quit thinking now and just put a bullet through my brain.

  16. For chrissakes, Sam. Cut it out. My head hurts just thinking about this …

    But this is precisely the kind of ethical quagmire good journalists wrestle with (the bad don’t bother, of course). I’m saving this post to use when I teach media ethics. (Hey, stop laughing, you guys. I really teach ethics. Honest! With the dean, even.)

  17. The problem with Kant’s categorical imperative –“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” –is that it is itself ‘utilitarian’, in practice. In other words, any imaginable “universal law” must, by definition, be applicable to everyone and, thus, ultimately measured against the ‘good’ that is done in practice, the ‘greatest good’ being the standard. Both theories fail to define ‘good’ which forever and always will be subjective and, by definition, indefinable. The closest anyone has come to an ‘objective’ moral standard was Jacob Bronouwki’s critique of Logical Positivism: “Behave in such a way that was is true can be verified to be so”! Now –while I personally subscribe to this, I do so by choice, as an Existentialist. Bronowski is no more verifiable than is Mill or Bentham, no moe so than Kant. A.J. Ayer was correct: ‘ought’ statements —and the positions of both Mill and Kant are premised upon ‘ought’ statements –care meaningless by virtue of the fact that there is not means by which either can be verified to be true. Even this position is logically flawed. 1) Ayer leads inexorably to infinite regress; and 2) logical positivism itself is premised upon a value judgement.

    Alas, Socrates was right. We know nothing!

  18. Please ignore my typos above…’care’ for ‘are’, for example. I can barely read this type; hence. I often cannot tell when I’ve made a typo. Sorry.

  19. OP (#12):

    You comment is both technically accurate and largely beside the point. It also makes some questionable assumptions about what I have called the “de-meaning project.”

    For starters, there’s no attempt here to present Kant and Mill and the latest and most modern in philosphical thought. They’re foundational figures who were responsible for some important moments in the history of thought. However, it’s not proper to dismiss the contemporary relevance of the debate presented here, as these core perspectives are still very much alive in the world of professional and personal ethics today. They’re taught in our colleges and their precepts underpin a variety of ethical codes in play in the world today.

    As for language and meaning, yes, we know this. Believe me, I’ve suffered through structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, and the fait accompli place that social contructivism occupies in the modern research academy. There is obviously a great deal of wisdom in this research, of course – it’s impossible to argue that much of social reality is constructed and it’s even more impossible to argue the central role of language in the reality-forging process.

    However, the idea that meaning doesn’t exist, can’t exist, is a consensual hallucination of some sort, etc., is not demonstrable fact, nor is it obvious truth. It is, instead, a shared dogma resulting from particular cultural and institutional dynamics. It is a project that serves a particular set of masters and goals, and we’re as foolish to buy it uncritically as we are to insist that there is such a thing as objective social reality (or, at least, that we are capable at this moment in our history of apprehending whatever social reality may exist at an objective level).

    Note this thread, for instance, and in particular comment #9.

  20. You wrote:

    They’re [Mill and Kant] foundational figures who were responsible for some important moments in the history of thought.

    Indeed, they are and I hope I didn’t offend. I responded because it is rare to find a literate discussion of philosophy on the web. I had not intended a critique but, rather, a perspective on the conundrum.

    They’re taught in our colleges and their precepts underpin a variety of ethical codes in play in the world today.

    Indeed, they are, though I am less temperamentally inclined to Kant. If we differ, it is our ‘slant’ (if you will) on utilitarianism, i.e., that the end justifies any means may not follow necessarily from utilitarianism.

    it’s impossible to argue that much of social reality is constructed and it’s even more impossible to argue the central role of language in the reality-forging process.

    That has never been more relevant. Propaganda and advertising may operate on two levels. 1) sheer repetition and Arbitron ‘ratings’, ‘cumes’, and gross ratings points”. 2) At a deeper level, various deliberate techniques make it possible to change the language itself. Language is how we think. When political forces debase language, they change thought itself.

    There is obviously a great deal of wisdom in this research, of course – it’s impossible to argue that much of social reality is constructed and it’s even more impossible to argue the central role of language in the reality-forging process.

    Indeed!

    the idea that meaning doesn’t exist, can’t exist, is a consensual hallucination of some sort, etc., is not demonstrable fact, nor is it obvious truth. It is, instead, a shared dogma resulting from particular cultural and institutional dynamics.

    I respectfully disagree that it is mere “shared dogma”. What is needed is the logical ‘rescue’, if you will, of Ayer. Bronowski will always be a hero for having given it his best shot. But the fault was not with Bronowski –but Ayer! Without this piece de resistance, we are still adrift and vulnerable.

    Thanks for the literate and intelligent article and blog. If you don’t mind, I will add a link to my blogroll at the Existentialist Cowboy.

  21. Len:

    Why have philosophy at all? For that matter, why think at all? Let’s forget Mill and Kant for a moment. What about Descartes? If our senses are suspect, then absolutely nothing we perceive to exist may exist. In which case, there can be no reputable data acquired by our senses, which means there is no grist for the intellectual mill.

    Really, why bother? If the ultimate conclusion is that there is no meaning and can be no meaning, why have philosophy at all? If what you say is true, then wouldn’t it follow that philosophy itself, as well as all other forms of intellectual human endeavor, are futile?

  22. Someone once said “if your means are truly immoral, maybe they won’t build the word you think”. That said, I tend towards utilitarianism, but I also convinced that in the vast majority of cases there is no contradiction between the right thing morally and the right thing practically, if your goal is the betterment of your fellow humans. The US would have been better off not invading Iraq based on lies; the US would pay 1/3 less for universal health care than it pays now and get better health care results; most coups turn out to be bad ideas for the US in the long-run; torture usually produces worse intelligence than gentler interrogation; stealing the Florida election turned out to be bad for the US in every way possible; etc, etc…

    People want to make this complicated, as if there is some opposition between the pragmatic thing; the right action morally and the right end morally. In the vast majority of cases, there isn’t, if your ends are truly moral.

  23. Hi, Ian. Ideally the principles and ends are in harmony, I agree, and it may be true that this is usually the case. But I don’t think it’s always true, and as I think about certain situations in my own life I know I’ve faced times when it seemed like the only way through to the right outcome was to fight fire with fire. That, of course, isn’t in line with Kantian ethics.

    This is where my issue with knowability comes into play. Even if this is an abstract argument that will never again matter in my actual life, it’s important (to me, at least) to consider the principles I’m living by.

    Now when we look at today’s political stage, the philosophical matters a lot less, I agree. It’s not like Bush and McCain are presenting us with a lot of tough calls, either morally or practically, huh?

  24. Brian (#10): I know less about Heisenberg, but it seems like it would apply here. In any case, you come close to suggesting that Chaos and Complexity don’t apply here because … we’re not dealing with non-linear systems?

    If that’s what you’re getting at, I’m going to need some demonstration that human action and human systems are linear. In my experience, there’s very little on the face of the Earth that’s LESS linear….

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