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Contextual Ethics

Chris Lucas

"If thy morals make thee dreary, depend upon it they are wrong."

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

"The practice of that which is ethically best...repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live."

Thomas Henry Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, 1893


Many systems of ethics have been proposed over the last two millennia, and these can be roughly divided into two styles. Firstly there is the absolute style, where morality is pre-defined and imposed from the outside, typified by the ethical systems of the major religions. Secondly there is the relative style, where morality is a cultural creation, a purely personal view, and this is most evident in the individualism we experience today.

However both these styles incorporate an assumption of permanence, whether based on command or freedom the basic philosophy in use is one of invariance - our adopted ethical standards are supposed to apply in all situations and at all times. Here we shall criticise both these approaches and suggest that an ethics based upon context is a far better basis for a system of social behaviour that aims to maximise overall fitness.

The Good Life

In the dialogues of Plato, Socrates takes the view that if we know what the 'good life' is then we will lead it, evil being due solely to lack of knowledge. This implies that good is an absolute value, and implies that the knowledgeable (philosopher kings) should therefore lead and censor the young and foolish. In today's world it would be plainly impossible for anyone to know everything, so we have the difficulty in deciding just what knowledge is required to decide ethical questions and who should hold it, in other words to define what an ethical 'expert' should be. One positive aspect of Platonic thinking is the realisation that this virtue or expertise is something that needs to be developed and is not innate in our natures - or if it is then at least it needs to be 'rediscovered'.

In Aristotle we find added the 'doctrine of the mean', the idea that the 'good life' results from moderation in all things, too much being as bad as too little, since utility or fitness falls with excess (e.g. damage from excessive eating or drinking). This relates to a balance between values, since pursuing one good naturally reduces the opportunity to pursue others, a state similar to what we call 'edge of chaos' in complexity thought. This viewpoint stresses freedom to act, taking imposed choices to be invalid constraints on achieving a balance. Again such self-discipline is regarded as needing training, and does not arise naturally.

Pleasure and Disappointment

Hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure whilst avoiding pain, is cast by the Epicureans as a passive style. Dynamic pleasures (e.g. sex, drinking) are regarded as causing later pain and thus are best avoided, whilst static pleasures (e.g. friendship) produce only good. This however rejects means as useful intermediaries (e.g. exercise) concentrating only on ends (e.g. health) but without an apparent way of reaching them.

Taking this to its ultimate end, the Cynics proposed the rejection of all values, and a withdrawal from the world, and this is a form of escapism also seen in much mysticism. In a strange reversal some of these ascetic sects impose pain on the body as a supposed 'good' in place of pleasure. Another variant of this withdrawal is the Stoic movement, where indifference to whatever happens gives a sort of protection from life's ups and downs - a non-attachment to craving or action also seen in early Buddhism and Taoism.

Christian Confusion

The merging of the teachings of Jesus Christ with Greek and Jewish thinking has created a rather confused moral system in Christianity. The pastoral message "as you sow, so shall you reap" is a relative morality, yet the ten commandments of Judaism plus the otherworldliness of the Greeks has included also a domination asceticism, an intellectualised distaste for the body, for emotions, for the world.

The Reformation added additional strands to the mix, with the idea that free will requires personal choice. Authoritarian obedience, forced choice as seen in the religious persecutions, cannot be said to be moral - a slave cannot be held responsible for their actions, fear isn't an adequate ethical system, nor can imposed laws by a corrupt elite constrain free thinkers (and uncorrupted elites seem to be relatively unknown in history !).

Relative Ethics

In Spinoza we find context appearing, all things are means and not ends and nothing is good or bad in itself, only in relation to someone, i.e. what it achieves. This was however combined with a deterministic viewpoint that denied free will. Losing the determinism and expanding the relativistic theme we arrive at Utilitarianism, of which two forms exist: act (or rule) where intentions or means are crucial and effect (or consequence) where only the end results matter.

The doctrine of the greatest happiness is however a single dimensional sum (in either form) and permits many negative effects along the way. Additionally, despite Bentham's 'Hedonistic Calculus', such objective calculations are impossible in practice. At best we can predict only local effects over a short timescale, but this may be enough provided that the concerns being evaluated are independent of other issues (sadly in complex systems this is rarely the case).

The Categorical Imperative

With Kant we return to the idea that what I should do depends on what I would have you do to me - generalising we ask what would happen if everyone acted this way ? This 'categorical imperative' seems a powerful idea, but is based upon absolute values, if for example you are a masochist you may like me to beat you, but it does not follow that that is what I would like also !

Such universal moralities do not deal with value conflicts and assume an homogeneous society, they are very much in the mold of Newtonian physics and the conformist societies of kings and bureaucracies. In a more diverse society these simplistic forms of ethics break down and we must try to find a system of ethics that can support cultural and individual diversity.

Avoiding Dualism

The subjective versus objective arguments in ethics, as in so many fields, are irrelevant under a complexity viewpoint. We have seen that in science and elsewhere our values make all our decisions partly objective (consensus) and partly subjective (human biased). We also see that the effects of our actions operate on three separate levels, the material, the psychological and the abstract, and thus our ethics must be evaluated across all these levels.

Additionally we have seen that there are many different needs or aspects to each of these levels, and these needs are not independent of each other, meeting one often means failing another. Thus our ethics must be an ethics of compromise, a balancing act between a complex set of objectives. If we are to optimise our intentions (and thus our actions, their effects and fitnesses) then we must take into account the unique situation in which we find ourselves on each occasion.

Context and Law

It is reasonable to say that if we decide that an action is correct in one context, then it should be correct in the same or a similar context in the future. This is the basis for our laws (whether moral or social). But law does not take account of the mind of the actor (thus cannot control action, only compensate for it after the fact), Whether a person acts well or badly depends entirely upon their view of themselves and the world at the time, ethics is primarily a psychological issue.

We thus cannot legislate for moral behaviour (at best we can punish or deter by fear - but that in itself is an immoral act !). Optimisation of our fitness (as a whole) is not achieved by deterrence, two wrongs do not make a right (justice is not fitness). Thus if we are to have people behave 'correctly' we must ensure that they have the right attitude, that they are educated in understanding the 'why' and the 'how' of fitness maximisation in a social and global setting - a skill almost unheard of in our world !

Metafitness Thinking

The necessary context for optimum fitness comes from our needs hierarchy, the balancing of all levels and aspects of our society. This metafitness means that before we act we should take account of all our circumstances. This means thinking about how our proposed action can affect our coevolution with those about us, with the planet, with our higher (or meta) needs and values. We should not automatically assume that our actions only affect us, nor that our action in pursuit of one of our ends is independent of and will not hurt other aspects of our own being, and this is what brings ethics into the picture. All fitness decisions potentially have this wider ethical or 'ought' dimension.

The 'good life' in contextual terms is those actions that enhance our personal world and enhance (or at least do not reduce) those of the interacting worlds around us (other people, nature, planet). This implies that we exist in a form of symbiosis or mutual support, an interconnected web of relationships that are all affected by our behaviour and the actions we take. We need to decide what options we have at each stage, and whether our overall lifestyle (or quality of life) will be better enhanced by synergistic cooperation with others, or by the one dimensional selfishness that our instinctive prediliction to conflict often initiates.

Context Relativity

By basing our past ethics on a vision of a static world, we have been deluded in supposing that our actions operate in isolation, that what we cause has its effects 'elsewhere'. This imagined divorce of cause from effect is incorrect in complex systems, since feedback loops will ensure that those effects will find their way back to the cause - us ! The coevolutionary nature of such systems means that contexts are unlikely to recur in any exact sense, thus rules of behaviour made for one context (the total sum of circumstances at the time - not just a single dimensional abstraction) may well prove invalid in later cases. This relates to the evolution of the world, the new aspects provided by creativity and the loss of those old aspects on which moral rules were based. Today's world is not yesterday's.

These evolution based difficulties are seen in the constant need to 'reinterpret' the law, to make static what is in essence dynamic (e.g. in including electronic information in copyright laws). Whilst such compartmentalised wall building may prove advantageous for the legal profession, it must have a negative fitness impact on our lives. We are forcing dynamic people and contexts into outdated static rule schemes, and this leads to deceit and conflict (we cannot openly maximise our fitness or that of others since the 'rules' try to impose an unfit option !), which is then associated with considerable waste of time and resources plus destructive (negative-sum) behaviour.

Dynamic Diversity

One complexity science finding is that complex systems generally have multiple equally fit options, which we can relate to different cultures. Thus 'different' does not equate to 'wrong' and retaining our cultural identities and diversities need not mean conflict. Creativity in fact comes from knowing alternative viewpoints, a wisdom encapsulated in the saying that "travel broadens the mind". People are not homogeneous, like physics based science assumes, our desires are not static and they evolve over time with education and experience - utimately we are all different.

Freedom of choice demands as many options as possible (all of state space), this is needed to locate and to track a moving personal or social optimum. This optimum will vary from person to person and from social context to social context. The greatest fitness for our world as a whole will only come when all the people in it are fit - a state of affairs far different from that produced by current ethical systems of either persuasion. Taking note of much ancient wisdom, we can perhaps say that the only three firm moral guidances required are a commitment to 'truth', to 'beauty' and to 'love'. This relates to knowledge (options), creativity (diversity) and sharing (synergy). With such a personal commitment (based upon education as to why they are fitness maximising) we should have no need of external 'laws', in other words we will have created a self-organizing and self-regulating global society.


Contextual Ethics is based upon a realisation that the fitness or 'goodness' of our actions depends upon an coevolving world. This dynamic nature of context implies that it cannot be adequately specified by static laws or by dogmatic and unchanging systems of morality. What is the 'correct' action to take in any circumstance, what we 'ought' to do, is what optimises the fitness of everything and everybody affected. This is not utilitarian (doubling my utility and halving yours is not fitness maximising - especially if you then shoot me !) but it is synergistic (we work together to double both !) which invariably takes us into novel areas not covered by old ethical rules or laws - a situation considerably exploited (but for detrimental ends) by those only constrained socially by force.

Additionally we require to consider all contexts, all of our values or needs, and not to maximise just one at the expense of our integrated fitness (it is an ethics of compromise, of balancing interacting variables or values). Ethics here is not divorced from life, it is not a sub-set of our world to be called into play only on special occasions, but is a way of behaving that is intimately connected with everything we do. It is a way of thinking as much as a way of behaving, a widening of our focus to take into effect the wider world in which we live and the wider context in which we now exist. As a mode of thought contextual ethics requires education and not laws for its implementation, a demonstration that such cooperative behaviour is beneficial to fitness in the long term even compared to short term selfish gain. Such a perspective could have a major impact on our societies, changing the way we approach commercial decisions and our tolerance to the deceit and negative side effects that almost always accompany current political actions.

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