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Holarchic Meta-Ethics and Complexity Science

Chris Lucas

"It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all other philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which history is full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to the attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer."

G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 1903, preface

"All human action is undertaken in order to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory state. The conduct we call moral is the conduct we consider likely to lead to the most satisfactory situation in the long run."

Henry Hazlitt, Foundations of Morality, 1964, Chapter 33


Our complex world includes many levels and types of value. We have the systemic values of distinctions, A or NOT A, the extrinsic values of comparisons A > B and the intrinsic values of wholeness A + B. But we also have a further type, and that is the holarchic concept of wholes within wholes C(B(A))), a multi-level approach which we can call 'whole systems' thinking. We normally, in our societies, treat individual levels in our reasoning, whether abstract labels (e.g. Arab), single variables (e.g. cost) or complete entities (e.g. a partner). This tends to obscure the real inter-connectedness of our world, the way in which all these values and levels link together, not only within the three dimensions of space, and the one of time, but also in the fifth dimension of scope or emergence (growth and evolution). In this nested (fractal) dimension we look to discovering the whole contents of our system, we reverse the analytical reductionist zoom-in tendency of recent specialist science and generate instead a zoom-out transdisciplinary synthesis of the dynamic component interconnections, we create rather than destroy.

Creation is a value-add step in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts that make it up, for example an aeroplane flies, but none of the components can do so, a girl skips, but none of her cells can do that. This synergy is what adds value levels to the whole, we need new concepts, new criteria to judge the system, new functions have become apparent, new opportunities - this is very much an active view of the world, in comparison to the passive 'detached observer' position often taken. In this valuation metaview we emphasise the twin reciprocal roles of all teleological entities (analogous to the Yin and the Yang), where we are both agents of action towards our environment and agents of opportunity within the environment of others. This is a coevolutionary form of human valuation which has some interesting perspectives to offer upon many traditional ethical or moral problems. We will examine some of these in part 2 where we introduce our holarchic valuation as a critical methodology which can give practical meaning to ethical guidelines.

Part 1: Generating a Meta-Valuation Methodology

Firstly we set the scene for our evolutionary ethical treatment by reviewing the relationship between complex systems science and our enhanced axiological science, in the context of human behaviour, and in asking how we act dynamically in our world as autonomous entities.

Complex Modes of Thought

In relating valuation to complexity, science and logic from a synergetics (e.g. Coulter's) viewpoint we can identify five separate modes of thinking and of behaviour, and these all have clear correspondences across our treated disciplines. The following table shows these relationships (of necessity somewhat simplified for clarity):

Modes of Thinking

Let us look more closely at these five levels of thinking with a view to understanding just what they mean in terms of our behaviours and judgements (the levels here relate to Wolfram's CA Classes and our equivalent Types of high-dimensional complex systems):

Level 0: Identic - The World As Void

This is the unconscious or inorganic mode, corresponding to a dead, homogeneous universe, a world in equilibrium at the lowest energy state. Here we have no escape, random fluctuations simply fallback to the same meaningless state (the ergodic attractor). The world is identical in all respects, corresponding to the quantum vacuum, and we can say nothing useful about it. Given a world not yet at such equilibrium, all actions here take place mindlessly, regardless of consequences, as the world runs down (dissipates) towards 'heat death' - this is the behaviour of inanimate objects. In human terms these are the automatic responses, the reflexes, those very simple physical cause-effect chains over which we have no control. Despite the 'observers' having values, reflected in what is chosen to be observed, scientifically they pretend that they do not, and hence take no responsibility for their behaviours, this world is ethically barren.

Level 1: Reactive - The World of Distinctions

This reactive thought mode is often associated with emotions, here we 'take sides', we polarise into either/or positions. This is the mode of love/hate or fight/flee, a bipolar classification of the stable versus the unstable, the 'us' and the 'them', the world of basic discrimination that attempts to reduce diverse order (viewed paradoxically as disorder or 'heresy') in a striving to conformity, a biased walk through state space to a single static far-from-equilibrium 'utopia' (a self-maintaining autopoiesis). This is also the bureaucratic world of 'no exceptions', no options, no choice and 'taboos'. Actions here promote systemic valuations and social dogmas, disjoint categories of 'right' and 'wrong' within mind and isolated scientific 'facts', resulting in fixed behaviours based upon an inflexible 'box' mentality (the point attractor).

Level 2: Uniordinal - The World of Measurement

At this point we discover variability, but in only one-dimension. We fixate on single paths (the cyclic attractor), single variables, single issues. We have one track minds, trying to maximise and perfect an isolated value (e.g. money). Actions here establish linear hierarchies of the better and worst, extrinsic valuations and deterministic (dynamical) scientific functions fit into this mode, which positions all issues along a continuum. Whilst many different continuums (based upon each systemic distinction) may exist, only one is employed at any time by any group. These axes remain disjoint and unconnected (e.g. academic specialisms).

Level 3: Multiordinal - The World of Possibility

At this level we discover inter-relationships, that we have many values within ourselves or that our viewpoint must mesh with those of essential others. We create for the first time a whole (the strange attractor), whether at a personal level or at a social one (e.g. the individual, the state or the ecology becomes important). We fight for the preservation of our chosen whole, for the chosen level of detail. Here actions focus on single scales, ignoring shorter and longer term consequences, wider and narrower issues, in order to optimise a single intrinsic value, a chosen (but isolated) set of objectives, which often interact nonlinearly and can only be described scientifically in probabilistic terms.

Level 4: Synergic - The World of Actuality

This is the real world, where all the levels interact. We cannot in our actions pretend that their effects are restricted to single levels. In considering the issues we must now take account of all the various wholes and how they affect each other. To optimise this actual world we need an holarchic valuation, we need to consider multiple timescales, multiple spatial scales and multiple emergent levels and the full dynamics of their interactions. Here we also begin to understand that many different short-term solutions (or transient attractors) are possible, depending upon the interactions employed, many different niches or balances of values are equally valid. We need to respect diversity in order to benefit from actualising these possibilities and to consider scientifically the role of our normative values in evaluating the overall result.

The Components of Holarchic Value

Before we can synthesize the value of the whole, our actual world, let us try to understand the parts. We can start with the basic distinction between part and not-part and work outwards.

The Undifferentiated Whole

Initially we have no parts, there is no awareness of anything, the world is one and completely unknown to mind, so no valuations exist. In essence infinite information is possible, the 'territory' is unconstrained, uncategorised, unmeasured. We have no 'maps', implicitly or explicitly, we are blind observers.

Disjoint Systemics

First we simply identify the distinctions present within our system, the types of 'parts' present. This is the systemic value level, the level of binary (Boolean logic) classification into just true (present) and false (absent). It is the assignment of a label to a difference, a timeless and spaceless 1 bit abstract value. Each distinction is a line on a map, a contour separating 'in' from 'out', and we can have as many of these 'systems' as we choose, i.e. our distinctions form a 1 dimensional set of binary values (implicit labels or categories, not necessarily made explicit in a conscious symbolic language). State space for this level of value alone consists of 2N alternatives (where N is the number of distinctions made).

Causal Extrinsics

Now we proceed by identifying how each of these parts relates to measurement, i.e. associate with another part or parts. This is the extrinsic or instrumental value level, where we treat parts or combinations of parts as variables, giving them fuzzy truth or completeness values. Thus here we give our labels a context (often a function of time), but they remain still flat spaceless abstractions (2 dimensional - one the systemic label, the other the magnitude), a set of disjoint real numbers. Almost infinite possible state space combinations will be possible at this level of value (depending upon the resolution employed for the variables).

Holistic Intrinsic

Putting together all these linkages we assemble a complete system and determine what emerges as a result. This is the intrinsic value level where only the whole matters and we tend to treat the components as unimportant (if necessary) details. Now we have a system space, the whole occupies both time and extent as a complete reality (4 dimensional - each 2 dimensional extrinsic value relates to each of the others in a matrix that forms the intrinsic whole).

Cubic Holarchic

But note that we have so far only created a single whole, one self-contained entity or 'object'. Our world contains many of these, and they in turn are interconnected in complex ways. We can classify this by the CAS cube. This identifies three forms of relation. First there are the intrasystem connections, which are the same as those we considered at the extrinsic level - links wholly within the entity. Second there are the hierarchical connections, those levels of emergence that form the entity as a whole, these correspond to the intrinsic connectivity that forms the overall assembly that we call the system. Finally there are the intersystem connections, those links between different entities. But here it starts to get complicated, since these can link parts in our system to parts in another, as well as the wholes to the wholes and parts in our system to other wholes or vice-versa. Additionally entities may overlap, sharing parts with other entities and swapping their configurations over time, the dimensionality in both space and time become fractal (non-integer). This larger holarchic value level comprises an hyperstructure (using a static description) or hypersystem (incorporating the dynamics), an integration of all the intrinsics:


What is Doing the Valuing ?

To convert standard structures of the above type into values we must relate them to people or to other living organisms, since only an entity with internal goals can have preferences or values at all (here organizations and societies, as emergent entities, are taken to have the collective values of the people making them up, as defined by their agreements). All we need add therefore are internal goals connected to the various parts and relations, thus we can regard all connections and parts as having a potential value to one or more of the entities in the hypersystem. This web of interlocking valuations is what we mean by our holarchic value dimension. Crucially this means that there is not one observer of the whole but many, who can all take different positions by adopting different sets of values. It is only in this level 4 mode of interacting agents that we can have any ethical content, since only here have we multiple, often incompatible, needs or desires. It is not possible by edict to claim that any of these positions can override the others, so we must evaluate their relative merits and priorities in a less systemic or privileged way.

In whole systems thinking it is not adequate to treat values in isolation, so we must look at their overall effects on the full sets of values involved, this means including all the entities and all the relevant values within those entities. An improvement in one value (extrinsic) may conceal a reduction in others within the same entity, or an improvement for one entity overall may be a reduction for many other entities. In this form of reasoning we are close to the utilitarian position in looking at how the proposed actions affect the sum of fitnesses. Yet such analyses tend to be arithmetical, they do not take into account intrinsic wholes, but simply add up linearly a number of extrinsic value dimensions. In nonlinear systems this is inadequate, these are not zero-sum calculations (e.g. moving 10 dollars from A to B leaves the dollar total unchanged) but positive or negative-sum issues (10 dollars from a millionaire leaves their utility almost unaffected, stealing the last 10 dollars from a poor person has massive fitness disadvantages !). Being objective here does not mean imposing our own values on the whole (nor pretending that we are not doing so when we are) but taking into account all viewpoints and identifying the dynamics of their interactions upon the holarchic 'whole system', i.e. we provide balanced information, we do not make the choice externally.

Emergence, Synergy and Dysergy

When different parts come together the net result is not only a whole containing all the part properties but something extra. Emergent properties beyond those of the parts appear, properties that exist at a higher level of description than those applicable to the parts. Thus the concept of synergy, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, has also to encompass the bringing into existence of these new properties. In dysergy the whole is less than the sum of the parts and no such extra levels of properties are applicable, the potential extra values are thus lost. Thus if we are to take a synergic viewpoint, and employ an holarchic valuation mode, we must include in our deliberations these extra features, these new opportunities for collective action that did not exist previously, the potential value enhancements.

In traditional forms of system description little or no reference is made to such concepts, either in recognising that they exist inherent within the system being considered nor in looking at how they change the evaluations being made. The tendency is to look at the whole and ignore the parts or to look at the parts and ignore the whole. In holarchic valuations however we require to consider all levels and such an approach will not suffice. Unfortunately our understanding of what extra properties or opportunities do emerge when systems come together is extremely limited so far, so this proves difficult to do. Our best methodology is perhaps still to 'suck it and see', i.e. to use trial and error techniques to try to see in which direction the system is going (positive or negative) and what new features or possibilities become evident as we make alterations in our attempt to optimise our world - an 'after the fact' approach that nethertheless can allow us to correct our errors before they become too serious.

Judgement Criteria

As we move towards employing our new valuation perspective in analysing ethical problems, we can first say that the five thinking modes themselves give us an initial criteria by which to judge our formulation of the problem. Each mode in turn widens the scope of our analysis and we can say that our aim must be to have an ethics or morality that operates at the highest valuation level. Thus we can evaluate systems of ethics, and in particular the way these are applied to ethical problems, in terms of which level or mode they target. Only when we traverse to a level 4 perspective should we be satisfied that we have an adequate formalism with which to proceed further, this we can relate to integrity, defining this as the ability to 'do the right thing', i.e. to promote synergic actions. In this way many previous treatments are seen to have been inadequate conceptually, either failing to consider the wider issues or constraining possible discussion to only a subset of possibility or state space. It is no wonder therefore that erroneous moral or legal judgements abound, with widespread dysergic (negative-sum) consequences to society overall.

Central to these dysergic effects is the concept of disvaluation. This is the idea that by applying a lower mode of thinking to any issue than is actually appropriate we are actively taking away value from the situation, we are reducing the quality of life of the ethical participants. We can quantify this, in information theoretical language, in terms of dimensionality. Thus by applying a level 1 systemic valuation to a level 2 extrinsic issue we reduce its dimensionality from 2 to 1, effectively we discard the R bits of information comprising its resolution, leaving just 1, i.e. a R-1 bit disvaluation. Similarly applying a level 3 valuation to a level 4 situation we disvalue it by however many valid (relevant) information bits are ignored. Our task therefore is to develop a way of highlighting these issues, and ensuring that such dysergic disvaluations are replaced by more synergic viewpoints, which can preserve all relevant values. In previous writings we have outlined an HDE methodology with which to approach this task for more general evaluations. In this 'metascientific' normative extension to science we take 4 additional aspects into account. Firstly we list all the values involved for all the entities of relevance to the hypersystem to be considered, secondly the interactions and dependencies between them are identified. Thirdly we determine the alternative 'niches' or combinatorial solutions that we can come up with, and lastly the overall fitness (or quality-of-life) of each of these is evaluated, based upon all the relevant values. In this way we can choose the best 'answer' or at least a reasonable way forward (probabilistic if, as is usually the case, many details are unknown or uncertain and the problem proves non-analytical)

Constraints and Boundaries

In any open system (i.e. interfacing with a wider environment) there are boundaries to what can be done and constraints upon available resources. For level 4 hypersystems these 'rules' include our biological limitations (upward or combinatorial causation) and our social norms (downward or dependent causation). For the first we must realise our dependence upon evolution and the natural world, in our ability to tolerate certain foods, chemical and climatic environments and in our needs for symbiosis with other organisms (plants, bacteria). The social area is equally vital and here our ability to live in the 'grand style' depends upon a large number of people working together, each doing their 'bits' to synergetically support society.

It is these constraints that act to close down certain areas of state space, reducing the number of solutions or attractors that the system can occupy, forcing the system (if these are badly designed) into lower level modes, more restrictive options. If the options excluded are genuinely dysergic (i.e. harmful) then this is advantageous, however we have little reason to believe this is true generally and many more advantageous optima will have been excluded also in the process, to the detriment of society as a whole. Understanding of this area of complex systems behaviour is still minimal, and much work needs to be done to determine the sort of constraints that are forced upon us by biological limitations and in understanding how we can engineer cultural constraints that free up our more synergic thought processes whilst preventing dysergic ones establishing dominance.

Part 2: Real World Ethical Problems

Having looked at the general theory of level 4 holarchic valuation we need to compare this mode with that of systemic (level 1), extrinsic (level 2) and intrinsic (level 3) in some real world cases. As normative examples here we include some of those used by axiologists Forrest and Moore in recent publications. It should be noted that level 4 valuation is highly dependent upon dynamical context and thus does not predefine static solutions to any problems, since such solutions are often dysergic in overall terms for actual real world cases. Our 'applied ethics' treatments here should be very much regarded as 'first pass' critical analyses to be refined by further discussion, and not definitive statements of any final position on these subjects (these must of course reflect our own preferences and prejudices as autonomous 'observers').

Not Enough Lifeboats

First the dilemma of saving 15 people if our lifeboat can only hold 10. How do we decide who gets a place ? Note that there is an in-built level 1 assumption here than no action other than 'choosing' is possible, 5 out of the group must be left behind to die. In general, from a level 4 holarchic point of view, other options are possible, e.g. we need not assume that the lifeboat must be used in the systemic ("obey the rules") way intended, but we will treat that issue next. 'Full' however is an extrinsic level 2 (measurement) concept and thus relates not to body counts but to size/weight (thus '10' is a meaningless and arbitrary number, based presumably on abstract 'averages'), and the 'lifeboat' is an intrinsic level 3 (quality-of-life) concept and thus '10 in comfort' could be traded for '15 crushed-up', a more egalitarian choice. But holarchic level 4 is also a temporal valuation, and the balance of value overall can fluctuate across the set of intrinsics (e.g. a shorter survival term for 15 compared to the 'design spec' for 10). Many other options might also be possible with synergic level 4 'lateral thinking' (e.g. 5 clinging to the side, or breaking it up to make 15 rafts !). In many standard ethical 'problems' the issue is artificially restrained to fit predetermined (lower level) ideas, and this often forces dualist (level 1) solutions. This however is an invalid philosophical technique, and implies that the restricted 'map' matches the unrestricted 'territory' - it does not. Imposing such 'solutions' back onto the real world would be a disvaluation since all the alternative level 4 effects and possibilities have been ignored.

Lying for Good Reasons

Are we justified in lying (level 1) to prevent harm (level 1 or 2) to an innocent ? What if this is under oath (i.e. perjury) ? What if the 'evidence' is illegal or would be used to convict an innocent (a stitch-up) ? What if the 'other' is a known criminal being sought by police ? Can we use illegal rules to protect welfare ? In all these cases we are saying that a 'bad' is used to further a different (assumed larger) 'good'. Here we relate all these situations to win/lose models and contrast them to win/win alternatives. We reject the implied duality, which 'justifies' the bad aspect, in favour of a revision of the whole situation by reframing it to find new perspectives, innovative solutions that can avoid the implied dysergy in favour of synergy. And note that there always are such solutions when a multidimensional value stance is taken, the failure to recognise them is largely due to our blinkered philosophical attachment to level 1 either/or logic and behaviours.

Finding such solutions isn't always easy however (particularly where the two opposing positions are held prejudicially with strong historically based emotions), it requires considerable creativity and wisdom, and may not prove to be a valid 'short-term' solution. Yet in holarchic thinking we consider longer term effects, and if one such case arises then many others will over time also. Summing all the spatial and temporal occurrences of these disvaluations will give us an unacceptably large level 4 fitness loss. Thus globally a better paradigm or worldview does need to replace the bad 'system' design currently adopted (for whatever historical reason).

Medical Experiments

Can we justly harm a person in the testing of new medical ideas or drugs ? Does it matter if they give consent ? Should we experiment on animals ? To answer the middle question first, yes it does. The intrinsic level 3 value of each of us is higher than the extrinsic level 2 benefit of experiments. At level 4 hurting one system to benefit other systems is unethical if the injured system doesn't consent (and this is not changed if the 'experts' are nominally 'in control' of the final decision). Only if the level 4 whole is being hurt by a 'rogue' system are we justified in taking action unilaterally (see crime section). But animals cannot give consent, and this raises two issues. If we need to experiment on living creatures (and level 4 thinking may identify other options) then better to use animals than humans, but we should not inflict pain unnecessarily, any more than we would on a baby. There is a continuum of level 3 valuation here (based upon the complexity of the entity, its set of values, and its awareness) so we should be more reluctant to experiment (level 2) on monkeys than on mice say, and probably need not give much concern to bacteria...

Vegetarianism and Animal Rights

Should we eat meat, and farm animals to produce it ? The negative level 1 answers often given ignore the fact that these animals would not have a level 3 existence at all if they were not farmed, thus these answers in themselves are disvaluations of the animals 'right' to exist ! The level 2 approach that they live only long enough to maximise our utility is valid from a human level 3 perspective, but perhaps we can do better at level 4 ? Meat is protein and humans need this, we cannot eat grass or crop many of the areas grazed, so animals are synergically useful as a pre-processing stage (at least in these situations). But other solutions may be possible (if the taste/texture is still valued), we can perhaps derive 'bacterial factories' to manufacture steak or chicken meat more productively - but how would animals 'feel' to be deprived of their 'jobs' ? Few humans would choose non-existence as preferable to a short existence, and this should be true for animals also... Rights however presuppose coevolutionary responsibilities, and this is dependent upon the valuation extent of the level 3 wholes involved, we should certainly not protect animal rights by infringing those higher ones of humans, or by irresponsibly damaging the level 4 whole to which the wider ecosystem belongs (e.g. by 'freeing' such animals into a non-natural environment !).

Drugs, Alcohol and Mind-Altering Chemicals

Our level 3 behaviours are highly susceptible to being changed by level 2 substance introduction. These substances not only comprise known drugs but all the chemical additives used in our food and drinks, whose purposes are incidental (whether useful or not) to the level 2 primal need of sustenance. If these chemicals affect our level 3 well-being dysergically then they also have potential effects on our level 2 interactions and on the level 4 whole. Note that these effects are not level 1, we cannot (ever) say they are 'safe' or 'not safe', the effects are extrinsic (level 2) acting to variable extents on many other extrinsics in the level 3 body/brain - and critically most of these potential effects are untested and unknown (and perhaps cummulative). Evidence suggests that many unwanted and potentially lethal side effects (externalities) are caused in this way, mostly it seems for the maximisation of level 2 profit... Substance abuse is another story, but should not be treated simply at level 2 or 3, the social (level 4) environment both provides these substances and influences their use (by creating stresses, imposing advertising and multiple other constraints and persuasions).

Killing Insects to Protect Crops

Can we spray insecticides at will ? What if they kill 'friendly' forces ? What if the crops are just decorative flowers ? Is organic farming and gardening 'better' ? Spraying is a level 2 action, ignoring the whole, and is thus inadequate since the future trajectory of the level 4 hypersystem as it moves to a new attractor is indeterminate. The results are often much worst than the initial situation (e.g. effects of such chemicals as DDT or nitrate poisoning of watercourses). Most such chemicals are untested as to their effects on such wider issues. Whilst humans are entitled to maximise their utility as level 3 systems, we need to approach this in a level 4 way and ensure a sustainable solution, not indulge in short term 'fixes' (especially not for the level 2 profit of single level 3 corporations, promoted by level 1 lies...). Thus organic farming (respecting the existing ecosystem) is a more ethical approach.

Genetic Engineering

The idea of genetic engineering presupposes a disjoint, extrinsic, level 2 form of valuation, which neglects those level 3 intrinsic epistatic interdependencies between genes (which cause extensive side-effects), and crucially also the level 4 holarchic coevolutionary nature of phenotype existence (i.e. changes to one organism can instigate major ecosystem knock-on effects). Design by ignorance in this way (chiefly for level 2 profit under patent protection) is not only dangerous, but acts to destroy the diversity which is, in itself, a major value in nature. The level 4 world is not one of standardised environments, so is not an appropriate host for standardised level 3 plants or animals. Optimisation of value within diverse niches is known to benefit from diverse solutions, and knowledge of all the constraints and interactions within complex systems is a prerequisite for any effective form of multiobjective optimisation.

Democracy and Control

Can democracy justify control of the many by the few ? Only if this, as in Plato's Republic, puts the power into enlightened hands but with the consent of the many. At any stage it must be possible for such power to be revoked, and the 'leaders' removed from office if they fail their remits (or prove untrustworthy). It must be shown, before such people are put into power, that they have an adequate level 4 understanding and they do not (as so often we see today) operate exclusively at level 1 or 2 ! In general the people know very well what they themselves want as level 3 wholes, and how best to achieve that overall is a decision that should be left in their hands. This implies that (autonomous) power remains with those directly affected, whether 'expert' help is needed or not. In self-organizing societies there is no external (hierarchical) control and decision making, just mutually agreed constraints and guidelines as to what is possible and probable in terms of positive and negative sum outcomes. This knowledge is historical and ethically should be available as a right to every member of society, since lack of such knowledge so easily leads to bad decisions. Experts (as specialists with a generally level 2 mode of thought) are not suitable people to make level 3 or 4 decisions, only to advise on single aspects of the problem. Any democratic decision needs, by definition, to take all aspects into account and must be made at level 4 where necessary and in a transdisciplinary (unbiased) way.


The viewpoints of McCarthy (communist/non-communist), Reagan (cowboy/indian) and Bush (good/evil) are all systemic (level 1) valuations which completely ignore the wider extrinsic, intrinsic and holarchic values involved. These sorts of simplistic valuations are appropriate only to the most limited of contexts and highly fitness reducing (disvaluational) when applied to any complex situation. The misuse of level 2 extrinsic values, e.g. by Nixon and Blair (the 'spin' culture of elastic truths, distorted meanings, accepted misinformation and hype) acts to destroy the basis of any society, which must be based upon trust (especially from the 'elected' representatives !). We cannot continually monitor each other, nor rely on vague laws to prevent abuse of power. The great civilisations of the past, despite their various faults, relied upon respect, on integrity, on balance, in other words on those higher level 3 intrinsic qualities of the whole person, a mode so alien to modern politics that the disdain in which politicians are held today is quite understandable. In this area the level 4 holarchic level relates to the concepts of true democracy, of representation and service, of coevolution and feedback. Here the state of the whole depends upon the synergy of the parts, the way individuals relate to each other and the freedoms that they have to act positively (i.e. politics should be about enabling and maintaining level 4 'social capital', not exploiting and restricting it by level 2 or 1 actions).

Equality, Perfectionism and Consumerism

Should all people be equally fit (an egalitarian society) ? Should we perfect our individual abilities and fitness instead ? Will material consumption achieve either ? Firstly equality is level 1, the conformity mentality, and disvalues genius, diversity and most synergic possibility (aggregates of identikit people have few 'higher' properties). This is not to say that 'opportunities' (the means) should not be egalitarian, just that this should not imply that the results (the ends) must be identical (which would disvalue each level 3 person). Each improvement in any level 3 potentially improves the whole, and generally in nonlinear systems this cannot be achieved simply by improvements in isolated level 2 extrinsic goods. So maximising 'consumption' (i.e. 'growing the economy', apparently the only aim of level 2 'economic' theory) can be highly dysergic if this causes reciprocal reductions in other level 2 values (and thus the fitness of the level 3/4 wholes). In any case, many of our values are abstract ones, probably not improved by additional 'things', such needs as 'trust', 'love' and 'natural beauty' are resource free best maximised by not consuming (which consumes much time also), suggesting that excess production and consumption are themselves unethical (analogously, 'holidays' are maybe better than 'working' as a means of improving our social, non-material, values and thus the level 4 whole - the 'lost' production is far less valuable than the 'gained' social benefits !).

Human Rights and Corporate Slavery

The right to personal liberty is intrinsic, level 3. Corporate behaviour is also level 3, so at level 4 the two level 3s should enjoy equal respect in general. Things are level 0, people with no intrinsic rights are slaves (treated instrumentally, i.e. level 2). But when a company is sold to another (level 1 ownership), we find that the staff (people) are sold with it - they have no rights to challenge the decision, any more than a filing cabinet. Thus this disvalues the staff from level 3 to level 0 ! Again, in our working lives we are often controlled in manners equivalent to machines, with no respect for our views or well-being, in other words our wider values (as level 3 intrinsic agents) are not even considered when the level 2 functioning of the processes within the workplace are planned or operated. The idea that we can 'resign' and go elsewhere is a level 1 'all or nothing' valuation, and neglects the very real disvaluation effects of such step changes (perturbations) on our wider level 4 lifestyles and on those of our family, friends and neighbourhood (i.e. our synergic webs of social connections). In similar fashion, the ability of companies to 'relocate' at the whim of directors (for level 2 reasons) is equally dysergic at level 4.

Religion and the Power of Love

Religions have always focused on love, as an ultimate value, love of God, love of neighbour, love of all creation. Why is that ? Simply because love is a level 3 intrinsic value and extending this to the whole level 4 system helps maximise our holarchic valuation. Thus we see that ancient wisdom agrees with the stance taken here. That is not to say that other aspects of religion also comply. Many self-centered (level 3) people 'lead' religious groups, many imbalances of goods or privilege (level 2) are evident, and the intolerance often shown to other beliefs (level 1) is unmistakable. The idea that a fixed ethical system has been provided by God, in the form of a set of level 1 'commandments' or similar rules, neglects the need to adapt any set of rules to an evolving context. At level 2, new values have come into being over the aeons, new educational knowledge has changed the biases of our level 3 wholes, and our level 4 global connectivity has also grown considerably. Changes of this nature invariably change the optima of the whole system, and it is perhaps naive to assume that a simplistic set of ancient 'rules' can adequately describe and regulate such a system. Disvaluations seem inevitable where such level 1 rules are applied indiscriminately at levels 2, 3 and 4, especially where the rules derived from these sources are in themselves inconsistent and highly selective (as historically shown by hermeneutic studies).

Sex, Promiscuity and Prostitution

Is intercourse a social issue at all ? As a value enhancing synergic agreement between two level 3 intrinsic systems (with no direct level 4 effects) it seems not. The level 1 or level 2 'punishments' imposed by the other 'systems' in the level 4 whole appear to serve no useful purpose and must be regarded as dysergic, using 'hate' to oppose 'love' in this way seems absurd ethically. Only when other values also exist can there be a problem (e.g. rape - where one party does not consent, or disease/unwanted pregnancy) and these other values should be treated as separate issues, they do not directly affect the main issue here. In many ways our social 'worldview', as in so many modern sub-level 4 viewpoints, creates its own problems by concatenating unconnected values to a single level 2 measure (e.g. sex and violence - they don't imply each other) and by ignoring obvious feedback effects (suppressing outlets for natural synergic behaviour forces it into 'unnatural' dysergic forms of expression). Again, loving more than one person should ethically be better than loving just one (greater level 4 synergy), so the idea that we should be 'faithful' seems dysergic, unless we imply also that being 'unfaithful' involves deceit and thus loss of the essential trust necessary for a good relationship. Thus promiscuity, with agreement, does not seem unethical and perhaps could even be said (if level 4 based and not level 2) to be desirable socially ! The contrast between the 'free love' culture of the 'hippies' and the violence shown to them by traditional 'moralists' is striking.

In terms of prostitution, the oft quoted judgement that "selling your body for money is immoral" neglects the fact that all workers sell their body for money, and that what is 'sold' is actually one or more level 2 extrinsics in exchange for another. Additionally, if socially we assume 'mind' is more valuable than 'body' (which we do by paying 'mind' workers much more than labourers), then the amount of the level 3 whole 'sold' should be relevant here - suggesting that corporate 'work is all' people (who trade their whole level 3 lives for level 2 'profit') should be said to be more immoral than prostitutes, who because their mind isn't sold should really have the same status as any other manual worker.... Like any other form of toil, if we choose to do it (i.e. are not forced to do so) and even enjoy our work, then ethical considerations should not apply. As is so often the case, our valuations of such issues tend to be based upon prejudices (as in similar taboos about nudity - a natural state) and not logic - in a society where 'selling' is all, the persecution of prostitutes often seen seems very much a level 1 disvaluation of a higher level whole.

Laws and Morality

Should we follow legal and religious laws or not ? Such laws are at level 1 only, they make simplistic prohibitions (rarely obligations), constraints on what is 'permitted' or not, completely devoid of context and must thus be regarded as completely inadequate as a system of level 4 morals. Laws are not even effective, being very much 'after-the-fact' responses to already failed policies (prosecution assumes a crime has already been committed, thus the 'deterrence' of possible retribution didn't work). They only have preventative effect in so far as the people believe in them as a level 4 whole, and if this is the case then people's behaviour automatically complies and thus the 'law' is redundant. Morality is all in the mind, a matter of 'right attitude' and a level 4 evaluation shows up this major failing of our systems of level 1 law, in comparison with their assumed (and uncritically accepted) 'necessity'. It is also evident that an over reliance upon the 'letter of the law', and the endless complications resulting from amendments which try to 'plug the loopholes', have resulted in a system of benefit mostly to the legal profession itself (and those clients that can afford their services), whilst leaving society largely unprotected (and ignorant of what is law - and we obviously can't comply with what we cannot understand !). People nowadays are actually prevented from making 'common-sense' level 3 or 4 ethical decisions, that take account (in the 'spirit of the law') of context and the wider social side effects, by being 'prosecuted' by level 1 bureaucrats for infringement of dogmatic 'rules' - the 'law' is indeed shown to be an ass ! The conflation of systemic valuation (level 1) with standard logic (in the forms of legal arguments used, e.g. "you must answer 'yes' or 'no' ") neglects those possible logics more appropriate to the higher valuation levels 2, 3 and 4, each of which would imply very different systems of law.

Crime and Capital Punishment

Can we execute a murderer or lesser criminal, either to protect other potential victims or to deter others ? It is up to society to decide if the level 2 cost of keeping convicted criminals is justified by the chance of them being rehabilitated as a level 3 contributing member of society. Ultimately, if recurrent crimes make this unlikely, a more permanent level 1 solution must prove fitter. This needs a level 4 trade-off between values and is a difficult and contextual decision. The deterrence value of such actions is perhaps overstated, and we should be able to find more effective forms of deterrence that do not operate in level 1 mode. What seems rarely emphasised these days is the idea that criminals should make amends, i.e. they should contribute value to society, as a level 4 whole, at least as much as has been lost by their disvaluations due to criminal activities. The idea that victims lose, then society also loses by jail costs, but the criminal does not, is yet another example of the tendency in our justice systems to take level 1/2 viewpoints only and ignore the wider level 4 situation in favour of looking after the level 1 'rights' of a single level 3 irresponsible criminal.

The Compensation Culture

The justice system, in its reparation policies, has in recent years appeared to have gone completely astray. In any crime situation, it is just to compensate the victim for any actual suffering and inconvenience endured (level 2), but this should never be so large as to cause much greater suffering to the offender or to society itself ! Such 'awards' as have been made (at lawyer's instigation - who, not surprisingly, 'get a cut'...) are damaging not only to the balance of the level 3 'offender' (which is often an institution, and thus indirectly this damages all the members of it) but to the whole level 4 concept of social justice. The outrage caused by blinkered judges to the public at large and their trust in 'justice' by excessive compensation (out of all proportion to the 'offence') seems to create dysergic side effects of major proportions, ignored in the 1 dimensional fixations employed. Balance is all here, and valuing a perceived insult (level 1) many times more highly in terms of compensation than the value of a human life (level 3) is as unethical as it is unjust.

Violence and War

Can socialised violence ever be justified ? Guns are systemic (level 1) valuations (kill/don't kill) but always level 3 dysergic by design (they destroy wholes and never create). At best they can cause a stalemate, and in one sense this is better than allowing an exploiter to operate unopposed (level 2). In any level 4 synergic society however, despite our best wishes and hopes, it only takes one defector (an antisocial, selfish individual) to invade and disrupt the group (e.g. computer virus perpetrators). Without any way to counter this threat the benefits of cooperation by the majority can be lost, so in one sense (since selfish violence is easy to augment with weapons of various sorts) a just society must have this option as a last resort. But that proviso is crucial, violence is not an appropriate means to deal with difference of opinion, to stamp out diversity, since this reduces the synergic fitness of the whole (both directly and indirectly). The widespread use of violent intimidation to protect selfish interests so often seen today operates at level 2 or 3 at best and is not adequate for mode 4 thinking.

Environmentalism and Sustainability

Why should we protect the rainforests or any natural habitat ? Apart from the intrinsic level 3 values of species diversity, because from a level 4 perspective our survival depends upon it. Without nature there is no human life possible. Rainforests, and other level 3 lifeforms generally, maintain those 'ecosystem services' necessary to support human life. That we don't know how this all works and fits together is all the more reason not to meddle, by level 2 exploitation and level 1 destruction, in what may well be essential for our future well-being and long term survival as a species. Ignorance in such matters is not bliss, science itself does not imply that what is 'unproved' does not exist, let alone that what is not understood has no effect ! The overall idea of 'proof' is level 1, and is generally inapplicable to any higher level arguments, which must be based upon probabilistic ideas, not certainty...

Doing Versus Not Doing

We often treat as different whether we actively do something, or refrain from doing something, i.e. we either help the endangered species or do nothing to harm them, or we kill someone or do nothing to save them. The first choices we regard as good/bad, the second we regard as neutral. But are they really different ? All our choices are systemic, level 1, and it makes no difference whether the choice is yes or no, the connectivity effects are equally strong upon the whole. This 'moral symmetry' principle suggests that we are just as responsible for what we do not do, as we are for what we do do. The only difference is that active responses do require some effort, we must commit level 2 resources and behaviour (at least) to make a causal effect, thus we must balance this (perhaps small) effort against the possible level 4 value advantages. This would suggest that we should do very much more to participate in positive actions than we currently do, regarding failure to act to prevent bad as almost as reprehensible as actively bad behaviour.

Helping the Starving and Disadvantaged

Given the previous point, why are so many level 3 people being hurt by level 2 behaviours by others around the world ? There may be three reasons. Firstly charity tends to be a level 2 action, but only one out of the many present in our level 3 being, it does not feel significant for our values or personal growth, and if this level 2 help significantly worsens our level 3 whole (e.g. we beggar ourselves to aid others) we could regard it as a disvaluation of ourselves - we become means rather than ends. Secondly we weight much more highly our local circumstances and personal contacts than we do those in remote countries and unknown cultures (i.e. personal values have stronger level 2 fitness or connectivity effects). Perhaps however the third reason is the most important, and that is that we expect no reciprocity from these people, they are not seen as part of our level 4 holarchic system, there is no synergy between them and us, no mutual advantage. However in a modern global village, none of us are nowadays detached observers, and our lack of concern (or, worst, level 2 exploitation) is failing to take advantage of the many possible additional level 4 synergic relations that could be built between distant peoples and ourselves, for mutual benefit.

Population Growth and Contraception

In a world of limited resources, should we limit our population ? Some ethical systems suggest that total utility increases the more people there are. However aggregation is not the best way to value-add in our holarchic valuation, we need to use synergy to gain extra values at level 4, and this needs interactions and imagination. Thus a maximisation of fitness probably occurs at some population mid-point (this avoids what has been called by Parfit "The Repugnant Conclusion" - where vast numbers of barely human lives maximise utility over smaller numbers of high-quality-of-life people). Thus it is ethical to limit our population (by prevention) if this maximises quality of life overall, although killing the 'excess population' to achieve this (in wars say) would not be an acceptable solution (two wrongs, i.e. disvaluations, don't make a right). This conclusion also implies that a badly skewed level 2 resource distribution, whereby many level 3s are at basic survival level, is also sub-optimum compared to a more egalitarian level 4 global society.


Finally, can we justify killing an embryo (a potential intrinsic human entity) for social reasons ? Contrast the level 1 systemic (murder is always wrong) view with the level 2 extrinsic (age or risk based) measurement (often with a systemic cut-off point for bureaucratic legalistic reasons !). A level 3 intrinsic valuation (mother as holistic decider) seems better, but still is inadequate overall as the potential baby is another level 3 intrinsic. Thus we need the metalevel given by holarchic valuation. We need to compare the fitness of the level 4 whole, on a temporal basis, i.e. considering possible future trajectories and seeing how global fitness changes with different alternatives. This takes all values into account, but should weight actual effects higher than potential ones in the same way as we rate achievement higher than mere possibility in any human developmental area (and note that reaching physical maturity does not imply that emotional or intellectual maturity is reached also, so 'adult' is not a level 1 valuation but an ongoing level 3 growth in its own right...).

At first glance it seems that we match one intrinsic human against another, but this leaves out all the extrinsics needed to balance the temporal situation. The embryo has a very much lower actual intrinsic value than a new-born baby (perhaps equal to some animal level, dependent upon expired gestation period ?). Developing the baby to adult intrinsic value is highly costly to society plus to the mother, and has risks of failure anyway (note that mothers naturally abort far more non-viable embryos than doctors ever do, for such probabilistic reasons...). If we need another human in the world (and do we if this extra resource drain would reduce fitness slightly for everyone else ?) then a better option would be to find a willing mother, or the same one at a different time, thus the choice is not between life or death, but between possible life in one context (unloved) or in another (loved). Here the alternative option clearly has more total value and thus should be preferred - justifying abortion (at least on those grounds considered in our very simplified treatment here).

Comparing Meta-Ethical Systems

Since our holarchic valuation methodology is only one of a number of meta-ethical viewpoints we need to compare our system with other common viewpoints to highlight the differences and similarities. Four general theories of 'right' and 'wrong' action are common in moral philosophy, plus a political variant, and we treat them in turn.

Utilitarianism or Consequentialism

We have already mentioned the linear nature of this system (which fails for nonlinear problems like that of the commons). But there are other problems also with this approach. Firstly it tends to be egoistic, ignoring the other levels (both below and above individual utility) that we find essential for a sustainable world. Secondly the two utilitarian styles ('rule' and 'act') behave as if we can divorce our beliefs (means) from the results of our actions (ends). This is not valid in our coevolutionary (circular causality) viewpoint since the two evolve simultaneously - we cannot maintain (rationally or scientifically) a belief that always fails, nor maintain that an action is good if we intended bad (since most of the time that belief must produce dysergic results as intended - otherwise we revise the belief). Additionally the utilitarian definition of 'good' is often far too limited, restricted to a single level 2 pleasure/pain axis, and does not reflect the full balanced nature of overall multidimensional fitness, either at level 3 or 4. Our perspective has something in common with the more general (preference based) consequentialism, however that is also homocentric and non-synergic by comparison, and does not take adequate account of internal feelings (motivational states influencing future actions), i.e. how they arise or whether they need to change.

Deontology or Kantianism

The idea that morality is a innate rational ability and gives absolute standards, independent of experience, obviously raises the question of where it comes from and especially (if, say, God given) why everyone adopts different ethical standards. In holarchic thought we accept that all knowledge comes from experience (biological, cultural and personal). Thus there is no problem explaining the differences between our ethical standards as due to differing amounts of suitable experience (just as without training you cannot be a good doctor, so ethical judgements may need the sort of training in wider issues expanded herein). Rationality in this view is a learnt expertise and is not innate in any sense - demonstrated perhaps by its complete absence in so much human discourse ! Modern research shows that emotions are essential to our decisions, so the idea of a detached 'rational' (higher human or spiritual) decision making ability has also been scientifically disproved. Kant's 'categorical imperative' ("do unto others as you would have them do unto you") is again rejected in our (diversity based) metaviewpoint, since it implies homogenous people, a 'single culture' bias totally inappropriate to today's multicultural world. What I should do, for the best results, depends critically upon what other people actually do - not upon what they should do in a 'theoretical' homogenous world, i.e. my action needs to be historically dependent. This does not imply that general rules are not advantageous, just that they are not 'rational' in isolation from a context - a rule in our culture may or may not be valid in another, depending upon the relative mix of many other aspects of the two cultures. Additionally the very notion of any 'absolute' right and wrong is level 1, a systemic disvaluation of most real world issues, as we have seen in our examples.

Intuitionalism or Common Sense

This approach denies any unifying account of ethics, or ordering of behaviours, can be generated and often suggests similar general level 4 approaches (i.e. wisdom) to our holarchic understanding, but without any firm grounding - just taking the 'prima-facie duties' followed to be 'self-evident' (a dubious concept given the human propensity for error and self-delusion). We take the view that some 'common sense' notions are based upon social or biological experience and are valid in most normal circumstances but deny that these are always valid or that better notions cannot be derived by scientific consideration and testing of the issues. Here 'intuition' is a pseudonym for the subconscious meshing of our trial and error experiences, our biological biases, and our cultural norms, a resulting 'worldview' which may (or may not) apply to new situations, and may (or may not) be an optimum approach. Often the actual stance taken is very much level 1, 2 or 3 rather than 4, i.e. wisdom, as we understand it, is lacking, e.g. conflicts are usually caused by the 'self-evident' level 1 belief that 'we' are totally right and 'they' are totally wrong... We need a methodology to look critically at these sorts of issues in a more scientific way, and here we consider holarchic valuation can provide this addition.

Virtue or Situation Ethics

This viewpoint suggests that morality cannot be captured in sets of level 1 rules or level 2 principles and sees each situation as unique. Here context comes to the fore, as it does in our approach, yet many contexts are similar or the same so there is reason to suppose that general guidelines (heuristics) can be derived over time, as we grow (socially) in experience, but we must not deify such guidelines, they are aids not Gods. This means that rules have a necessary generality which may not apply (at all or well) to more specific cases, a set of alternative rules is usually required to classify all of state space optimally. We, as individuals and also socially, neither need to 're-invent the wheel' (developing purely personal 'virtues'), or follow slavish 'rules', nor to assume that we cannot discuss these matters with a view to improving our behaviours. By allowing that 'fitness' exists on many different levels we can allow that a 'good' for me is a 'bad' for you (win/lose) without contradiction, and also reason that a different 'good' can be a good for both (win/win). The idea of innate motives (virtues) however must be rejected in favour of the idea that we can collectively develop better (more virtuous - i.e. synergic rather than dysergic) approaches to our behaviours, which here we equate with learning to use level 4 holarchic valuation techniques consciously and gradually making such behaviours innate in our subconscious actions (which may relate to Maslow's 'self-actualizing' people).

Social Contracts and Rights

The more politically or socially oriented viewpoints generally take the position that ethical behaviour is only relevant for the purposes of maintaining a just society, and thus are very much individualistic approaches preventing (or controlling) conflict, rather than purposefully enhancing the whole. Here they differ from our emphasis on synergistic enhancement trajectories for the whole (including both the natural and animal worlds), i.e. bringing into being new value levels and not just maximising individualistic 'opportunity' within current values. Additionally the emphasis on absolute 'rights' (level 1) makes these viewpoints inflexible and non-contextual, allowing much dysergy on the basis of unbalanced self-interest (especially when such rights are divorced from any concept of social or personal responsibility !). In our view 'rights' can only exist with respect to the whole, and since the individual claiming 'rights' creates that very whole (as part of the collective), they are both responsible for it and for their own relationship to it, the two areas are coevolutionary not disjoint and thus all such concepts must be defined bidirectionally - there are no 'rights' without the individual fulfilling their social 'responsibilities' to the whole, thus failing any of those responsibilities should forfeit the associated rights.


We have seen some examples of using an holarchic valuation to gain a broader perspective on some standard ethical issues. This perspective helps to show just how poor are many of the arguments traditionally employed, which approach these matters from valuation levels as low as 1 or 2 and fail to consider any wider values at all. By defining 'right' as actions that are value synergic (positive sum upon a level 4 evaluation) and 'wrong' as actions that are dysergic (negative sum overall) we can usefully criticise many standard approaches, based upon their actual effects upon the quality-of-life of the complete dynamic hypersystem, rather than the assumed effects of the isolated static theories on which most are based. These same level 4 techniques can of course be applied to any form of value or fitness assessment, so provide a universal methodology applicable to all complex systems - we can just substitute into our (rough and ready, not mathematically exact) calculations the appropriate set of values for the cases of interest.

Our approach here has been to subsume ethics under the wider remit of values as a whole, noting that we cannot artificially divorce 'moral' issues from issues of sustenance or cultural behaviour. All of our values potentially affect each other and it of no use whatever taking a 'high' moral stance if this dynamically destroys our world with its dysergic side effects. In many complex systems it is difficult to predict the effects on the whole of changes to the parts, considerable instability is common wherein small changes can have catastrophic effects (a leap to a very different attractor under positive feedback), or major changes can self-stabilise back to the same attractor state (following negative feedback paths). It is in the non-reductionist behaviour of such systems that an holarchic form of evaluation comes to the fore, leaving our options open to react appropriately and innovatively to contextual system changes that take us by surprise.

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