The Philosophical Implications of Cybernetic Ethics
The way that people react involuntarily to certain social stimuli demonstrates the presence of not only an emotional predisposition but also a form of moral knowledge. One might say that, in any society, visceral morality is an expression of “moral knowledge” at its most basic level. This type of moral knowledge may not be as precise as higher forms of knowledge, but it inspires ethical codes that are more enduring.
Two cultural mechanisms are at work here. First, the culture imposes constraints on behavior, in part because of the close proximity in which people live and work. Some mechanism of order and restraint is necessary to check intense emotions. Second, voicing moral concern reinforces and perpetuates those constraints when laws and customs are violated. At its core, a society is fundamentally a machine that inspires “an order to things” to maximize social and individual survival.
When a violation of custom offends adults, their reactions play an important part in a larger civilizing process. This is where cybernetics plays an important role in a society’s survival. The first time a person behaves inappropriately, that person experiences unpleasant forms of cybernetic feedback that may be subtle or more overt, such as stares that induce embarrassment and humiliation. That informational feedback leaves a person uneasy and unsatisfied and can run the gamut from light annoyance to poisonous remarks that can deleteriously affect a person’s confidence and/or self-esteem.
Numerous potential areas of human conduct can generate unpleasant responses. With time, people develop a sense of propriety in unfamiliar settings. Becoming an adult requires development of a certain amount of skill in ferreting out behavioral boundaries. For example, once a person becomes sexually aware, any inappropriate gesture can provoke an explosive response. In time, a young adult learns when and where touching is appropriate, when to be discreet and uninterested, when to mind one’s own business, and so forth. Without a firm knowledge of behavioral protocols, moving from adolescence to adulthood can be difficult. Most adults have moral knowledge of a wide spectrum of behaviors; the law removes from society those who do not and imposes an even more stringent set of rules on their every action.
Moral knowledge manifests itself at each level of reactivity. An adult’s ability to discern right from wrong might involve assessing right and wrong on all five levels. For example, at level 1 adults sense right and wrong based on a vague experience of “the general order of things” based on pleasant and unpleasant responses to their behaviors.
At level 2, interpersonal relationships evolve. Rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior are clear-cut, even without explicit definitions of “good” and “bad.” A child undergoes socialization by participating in culture and experiencing a common educational system. For example, children must frequently stand in line at school and, under supervision, cutting in line is not tolerated. This lesson in “the order of things” is reinforced and perpetuated throughout a person’s life. When an aggressive person cuts in line, that behavior violates the general order of things. Early childhood training and participation in “culture” predisposes a person to certain responses to certain reactions of others. It is inappropriate to cut in line, but it is appropriate to complain about someone doing so. At this level, the raw emotions of responding to social stimuli are shaped and tempered.
At level 3, people tend to align with a variety of groups and associations. If one of those associations is a religion, one aligns one’s beliefs with a formal set of behavioral rules, strict adherence to which predisposes a person to certain sensitivities that, when a rule is broken, lead to powerful visceral responses. For such a person, adultery and extramarital sex might provoke a stronger response than for the general population. Informal groups, clubs, or associations can also align people’s sensitivities to react to the group’s internal rules. In criminal societies, informing on a member to the police would provoke an outrage similar to the reaction explicit sex might provoke for sensitive religious people. Thus, moral reactivity is relative to time, place, and cultural situation. In each circumstance, individuals react to fairly established behavioral “wrongs.” Morality would forever remain at this level if it were not for higher planes of ethical and moral discernment.
At level 4, individuals respond to the many mixed and conflicting feelings of visceral, cultural, and moral reactivity in a thoughtful, disciplined way. Military personnel respond to environmental stimuli in terms of training rather than emotion, as do airline pilots. For such people, moral knowledge enters the conscious mind by way of reasoning and training.
At level 5, a matrix of competing sources of information determines moral knowledge. The stability of this form of moral knowing requires a disciplined and discerning mind and discerning emotions. The propriety of an action is derived from a mix of reasoning, knowledge of theory related to behaviors, and a galaxy of other kinds of knowledge.
We should note that the words “morality” and “ethics” are used almost interchangeably. However, they are different. At its most fundamental level, morality derives from the visceral experiences of everyday living that come with age, education, and considerable experience. Shared human experiences inspire the evolution of a more formalized set of ethical rules. In general, people care about others’ lives and do their best to prevent past tragedies from afflicting future generations (paternalism). The spontaneous emergence of morality in the field of human experience is not totally without cause.
Moral Knowledge and Paternalism
Like a diamond, morality has many distinct facets. Paternalism includes the protective concerns of wiser and more experienced parents as well as that of older siblings, close friends, or concerned neighbors. For example, a young woman who has just begun a rewarding career, is well liked, and is a good worker recently has been coming to work late and excusing herself with initially credible explanations. Many established employers have seen it all, and some are quick to dismiss those who act in this way. A coworker who genuinely likes the woman and appreciates her talent strongly advises her to show up on time. This intervention is parental and addresses a fundamental problem of discipline and truth telling. Lying and exaggerating the reasons for tardiness have consequences. An inexperienced person may be unaware of the problems predecessors have caused and the lies they have told to minimize their tardiness. An environment in which making a profit or providing a service is essential has a finite tolerance for behaviors that deviate from established norms. In the long term, the working environment is a goldfish bowl of activity and intrigues that eventually becomes transparent to all. In this light, coworkers almost universally will take the high moral ground regarding an issue and present it to a new or inexperienced worker. The woman might brush off the suggestion to show up on time by saying, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” However, the issue is not that of who is to say but of what has gone before. In other words, a person can express a bit of occupational wisdom.
At issue is the tendency of those in power to dismiss those who do not perform no matter how skilled they are at talking themselves out of trouble. Remember, throughout these writings the relationship between the presence of “power” and the threat of harm underlie a significant number of moral concerns. In this light, morality serves to educate people in the art of navigating life’s dangers.
Types of Morality
So far we have identified five types of morality or moral response including visceral morality, cultural morality, doctrinal and religious morality, professionally based morality, and intellectually based morality (covering nonverbal and high-culture morality). These are but a fraction of the possible categories of moral responses, attitudes, or ways of experiencing life. These five categories summarize learned behavioral responses. In each category, either a system of formal learning or one of rewards, and punishments affirms and perpetuates the notion of right and wrong.
Traditional ethical thinking recognises no evidence of what might be called moral knowledge. The constant affirmation or censure of specific behaviors forms the basis of human moral knowledge. The ways in which humans come to know right and wrong are so numerous that knowing and charting them in detail is difficult. Cybernetic ethics aims to provide a platform of rational analysis on which to examine the many details of moral knowledge. This is similar to creating an enormous chart of human actions and reactions given certain other social pressures, inducements, or dangers.
Occupationally Based Morality
Occupational experience profoundly shapes the moral lives of most workers. For example, Susan admonishes Lisa, a graphic designer at a newspaper, for surfing the Internet during working hours. Susan’s stature in the workplace is equal to Lisa’s, but Susan takes the high moral ground in criticizing Lisa. What right does Susan have to declare that something is wrong with Lisa’s work habits?
We can think of a business as a large organic machine that assembles the raw materials of information, talent, and management to produce a profit or perpetuate the enterprise in a positive way. In this respect, Lisa performs a job that must integrate well with other departments at the newspaper. Her performance, good or bad, has an effect on the newspaper. If Lisa slacks off in her work, other people must pick up the slack. In the workplace, employees are not always free to do as they choose. Bad work habits affect others’ lives. The negative impact an action has on the lives of other people in the workplace defines moral wrong. If Lisa’s advertisement design is sloppy and careless, the poor quality of her work reflects badly on the newspaper. However, if Lisa has mastered her job description she is an artisan with regard to the finest detail whenever business economics allows. In the workplace excellence, rather than personal freedom, often defines good and bad behavior.
Why Evolutionary Ethics Should Be Considered in Science Rather Than in Philosophy
Formal ethics cannot resolve the issues of ethical theory for several reasons. The very language of ethics hinders problem solving in ethics. The development of engineering provides an analog: before the invention of calculus, tall buildings and long bridges over deep water were not feasible; the language of algebra and geometry could not address the complexities of their construction. Similarly, meta-ethical discourse does not contain the necessary tools to describe the complexities of ethical or moral theory. The history of evolutionary ethics tells us otherwise.
Attempts to construct a theory of the evolution of ethics have failed. Two of the more significant reasons given are G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy and David Hume’s is-ought dichotomy. Part of the argument says that because words like “good” and “moral” cannot be defined, one cannot state what is moral and what is not. However, if one changes the language of ethics from meta-ethics to cybernetic ethics, a solution to complex ethical theories is possible.
Other Related Problems with Philosophical Language
Scientific terms can explain ethics in meaningful terms where conventional ethics cannot. In meta-ethics, there are three reasons that arguments cannot be resolved. First, words impose linguistic limitations on philosophical concepts. Certain words have “intensional” meanings or extensional meanings. 1 S.I. Hayakawa defines this term as follows: “The intensional meaning of a word or expression is that which is suggested (connoted) inside one’s head. Roughly speaking, when we express the meanings of words by uttering more words, we are giving intensional meanings or connotations to things. When utterances have extensional meanings, discussion can be ended and agreement reached; when utterances have intensional meanings arguments may, and often do, go on indefinitely.”2
The second problem with meta-ethical language is that no meaningful distinction exists between the general and specific cases of words. Using words like “good” and “moral” means that one begins with words that are general yet, in the end, begin to represent themselves as the real thing. The word “good,” as used in meta-ethical dialogue, is not the thing symbolized. S.I Hayakawa says, “The symbol is not the thing symbolized. The map is not the territory. The word is not the thing.”3 Third, words like “Good” evolve from the doing of specific acts of good, resulting in conflicts with the deductive approach to meta-ethical reasoning in which one moves from the general to the specific.
A good machinist is noted for the precision of his or her work. If the machinist meets every specification called out by an engineer, his or her work is called good. If he or she cannot perform the work within specified tolerances, his or her work is considered bad.
The total of all acts of good converges on a theoretical center defined as the generalized word good. Meta-ethics does not distinguish between indefinable Good and definable Good. As such, it lacks the requisite precision to solve ethical problems. In cybernetic ethics, the goal is to reduce all statements concerning the evolution of ethical ethics “to accounts of observable phenomena.” Cybernetic ethics is, after all, about evolution in the real world, where evolution is driven by adaptation, which, itself responds to systemic feedback.
Summary of Important Philosophical Ideas
The ideas put forth in cybernetic ethics run counter to ideas proposed by philosophers such as David Hume, who rejected the idea that rational cause lay at the foundation of moral theory. For Hume, morality derives from the moral sentiments. Here, morality is not rational and not considered to have rational causes. One cannot logically move from what is to what ought to be. He says that “no ethical or, indeed, evaluative conclusion whatsoever may be validly inferred from any set of purely factual premise.”4
Drinking alcohol and driving is an example of moving from what is to what ought to be. Here, a hundred years of traffic data reveal a relationship between drinking, driving, and fatalities. They show cause for laws prohibiting drinking and driving. Traffic statistics form the basis for a factual premise that drinking and driving is wrong. Using the philosopher’s logic, one might think that these laws are somehow illogically founded. If society did not make the leap from is to ought, then laws would cease to be enacted. If an intersection having no stop signs experiences accident after accident, is it unreasonable that one erect a stop sign to stem the pace of accidents? No, it is not unreasonable. Laws prohibiting drinking and driving and the subsequent placing of stop signs are inspired by systemic feedback in the form of traffic statistics. Here again, cybernetic ethics is about informational feedback that drives adaptation. Traffic statistics illustrate systemic feedback, and putting up stop signs illustrates adaptation.
Morality and the formal ethics that follow from it are based on cause (right or wrong). Morality is a natural phenomenon. It is not the same as philosophy. The words of philosophy are not necessarily the same as the words of morality because they often derive from a static context of language, not the dynamic context of human experience. The invention of the word good was preceded by the experience of it in the evolution of a language. In cybernetic ethics, the logic of the philosopher finds conflict with science and reason.
Moral knowledge at the lowest level of its existence is viscerally known. Here, it is derived from experience. Meta-ethics rejects the inclusion of experience in its logic, however; this is somewhat like rejecting the inclusion of the integral sign in calculus. Is it any wonder then, that ethics of the past have been unable to state whether murder is right or wrong? Being unable to discern right from wrong leaves a void in philosophy that can be filled by evolutionary ethics.
Business and professional ethics are a prime example of ethics based on experience. Because a business must make a profit, it must behave in a manner that maximizes profits. If the ethical command says, “One ought to be polite at all times,” then it is a command steeped in the knowledge of what can go wrong when a businessperson angers a client by being rude. It is only reasonable that ethical codes evolve from actions that maximize peace, prosperity, and productivity.
1 Extensional is an utterance that points to the physical world. Something one can feel, touch, photograph, or scientifically examine. S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (New York, Chicago, San Diego, Austin, London, Sydney, Toronto, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1978) p. 53
2 Ibid. p. 53
3 Ibid. p. 28
4 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Hume’s Moral Philosophy. Published Friday October 29, 2004, Section 5, Is and Ought