Fractal Ethics

Fractal Ethics

This article draws from my book Chaos: a User’s Guide, chapter “The evolution of our cultures and our social relationships.”

This article is the ultimate part of the “transcendental trilogy.” The two other parts allowed me to dwell on the True and the Beautiful. These three heads are more than predicates applied to particular subjects or individuals, to speak like analytical philosophers: no—they are something that sticks beyond the world of what is born, grows and dies off. From Plato’s early dialogues to Ken Wilber, the Beautiful, the Good and the True exert the same fascination on a philosophical mind than a thousand of bright stars quietly illuminating the nightly skies of the summer.

Ethics is the field of fairness and injustice, of good and evil. Of the three transcendentals, this one may be the most difficult to tackle. We live in a chaotic, liquid society, pulled by accelerated trends. What was deemed mental madness when I was already a grown adult is now not only tolerated and acknowledged as normal, but even sanctified, to the point where all the pedestalizing becomes a problem in its own right. Conversely, what was normal before looks now like an unbearable “authoritarian personality.” Irreconcilable systems of moral evaluation abound. Sets of moral feelings are now more numerous than individuals, with people sometimes shifting unpredictably in their moral judgments.

How could one write about good and evil as if the limit was clear-cut? Or as if there was no element of relativity—which may be enough to lead on a slippery slope, at the bottom of which nothing is truly good or truly evil, “it’s all depending on how you judge”?

The question of ethics become almost depressing when you start witnessing the subjective roots of most issues. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre contended that without a unified culture, most if not all morality gets reduced to individual choices, emotions, and priorities orders. A saved through hard work and finds unjust to get unduly taxed, B inherited wealth and wants to correct the inequalities of the world through taxation no matter the other people’s life history and ideas, C believes in equality but also feels like some people’s suffering is more valuable than other people’s demise, and so on.

Chaos means innumerable possibilities. In ethics, this means there can be more moral paradigms than individuals. Here the dark side of chaos seems to reign, and this is why I hesitated on writing this part of the transcendental trilogy: the complexity and multifacetedness of ethical issues seem too big to handle. It is very easy to ask big questions here—only to find no solid answer. Yet ethical issues sometimes need urgent responses. If no one solves anything, living together may become impossible. No sane mind wants that. And while I hardly feel like I can come up with definitive answers, I can at least lean less on the side of problems and closer to potential solutions.

The Zen Archer

Academic ethics are notoriously muddy. Part of it rests on university cliques, part harks on insular idols like Michel Foucault, and part may seem clearer and more rational thanks to being “analytical” but tends to go nowhere beyond perpetual hair-splitting and fulfilling the professors’ CV. The more scholarly journals you read, the more clouded and difficult all questions become. This is not to say faculty members are not intelligent or well-read, quite the contrary, but somehow their use of morality tends to stray.

Thus, instead of starting with some disembodied theory of morality, I would rather dwell on an “embodied” view: Japanese archery. Martial arts, whether their practitioner uses only his or her body or a complex array of weapons—as in ninjutsu—consist in total paths. Fighting or using weapons is but a golden thread for the practitioner’s integral growth. As he or she learns to move, spot, hit or defend, the practitioner develops specific qualities and learns to put a deep emphasis on specific values. Thus he or she realizes transcendentals within himself or herself. This is not about defining or verbally outlaying them but about embodying them, below, and perhaps beyond words.

Kyudo (弓道), which means literally “the Way of the Bow”, fosters the transcendentals: virtue (善, zen), beauty (美, bi) and truth (真, shin). Of these, virtue translates into inner independence and equilibrium. Someone is virtuous by maintaining his or her inner peace in the face of anything that comes in. Your equilibrium is strong when you do not get upset by events.

The zen, which has clear Buddhist roots, may be related to Greek ataraxia (Ἀταραξίὰ) which means tranquility of soul, absence of preoccupation and obsessions, and not being affected by feelings, no matter if they are agreeable or not. Inner conflicts, contradictions and turmoil get put between brackets, passing feelings become disconnected as if they were clouds, simply passing over solid, heavy mountains.

Thus, the practitioner can focus on the moment and deliver the perfect shot. By freeing his or her mind, the practitioner does a smooth, effortless, perfectly natural movement—and his or her virtue gets embodied by the arrow lands on the very center of the target.

Likewise, the Judo practitioners cultivate what they call gentleness. They cultivate a good-natured character, an equal mood, and a lack of hatred or negative feelings. All too often, Westerners perceive that as being passive or naïve. When some say Judo is about fostering “peace” and “tolerance”, without giving a single example of what this means in practical life, they seem to project their own view of the “noble savage” mixed with the gentlemanly reputation of the Japanese on Judo. However, gentleness is deeper than that.

Here is an example given by a good friend. In Shamo, a manga comic strip telling the tumultuous path of a young karateka, a Judo champion has to fight, MMA-style, an experienced karateka who happens to be much taller and heavier than himself. Although the judoka’s technique is flawless, the very weight difference allows the ruthless karateka to give him an awful beating.

Fortunately, the judoka manages to turn the karateka’s strength against himself by using his techniques. Once, pulled against the ropes, he throws the karateka beyond these. As he starts falling, the big-bodied karateka goes to land on his head—and not on tatami but on cold concrete. If the karateka’s weight plus falling press his head against such ground, this could be a lethal throw.

However, just before the karateka hits the ground, the judoka puts his foot before the crown of his head. He does it so that the karateka doesn’t get (badly) hurt from the shock. This means the struggle might continue, and the karateka might overpower the judoka, yet the latter prefers doing this over winning through a potentially lethal move.

Why so? Is it because the judoka cares about his reputation or media look? No: he saves his adversary’s life spontaneously, out of “gentleness.” “That’s my nature”, he says—no more and no less.

Dumbfounded, the karateka forfeits.

Werewolf Dharma

What lesson can we draw from this example? There may be many, perhaps innumerable paths towards something greater. But paths have to be followed properly. This, perhaps, is more important than external agreements. The archer has to be excellent as a complete practitioner to live a “good life.” He may use his abilities to serve a dubious cause—but this very possibility stems from free will, and I am not sure a Clockwork Orange-world where individuals are too conditioned to make truly important choices is a very desirable outcome.

The chaos we tread on everyday, the obscure and indefinite potentialities we pass through and sometimes ride, is by nature unbound, and although it may sometimes need to be urgently precluded, it cannot be ruled out forever for the sake of managerial rationality or because sometimes the unsupervised land grows crowns of blackthorn.

At some point, one may be free to choose a path, but if one does so, he or she should walk it well. Better choose a wrong or rather non-optimal path and then another than tread no path at all. Deep down, we may all have vocations, higher callings—which some call “True Will” and are not always easy to find.

It is also possible that such callings are akin to the choices we find in the Matrix film series: sentient programs, non-human characters, whether they are “good” like the Oracle, mildly awkward like the Architect or openly taunting and antagonistic like the masterfully played Merovingian, keep pointing out how choices never come out of the blue but are always done on a subconscious level. “You’ve already made the choice, Neo, now you have to understand it.” Perhaps the Oracle is much closer to the Merovingian, who claims that “our only hope… is to understand the reason, the why” of our choices, than most movie exegetes believe. But I digress.

To keep with Eastern references, a rich one when it comes to the diversity of paths is the Hindu concept of dharma. It is a dense, very dense concept, which can be interpreted as meaning “law”, “order”, “harmony” or “nature.” Stemming from the Sanskrit root dhri, which refers to “supporting, holding, or maintaining”, it is “what makes the becoming of the world more than perpetual change.” Only there could one speak of swadharma, meaning the dharma of a particular being, and then what we would call his or her calling.

Classical sociologist Max Weber, who wrote a lengthy monography on the dharmic culture of India, called this a “specialized view of ethics” where answering rightfully, dutifully and proudly to one’s own calling is more important than striving to impose another system of judging upon the world. This does not mean confining oneself into egoism and carelessness, though: it is rather about self-knowledge.

The Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu sacred text, shows us a warrior, Arjuna, who has serious doubts over what he should do. Fighting for his king’s right, Arjuna notices once on the battleground that he has cousins on the other side of the battle. Shouldn’t he flee as to avoid killing or at least harming his cousins? Krishna, an embodiment of the Divine who came down from heaven, chides Arjuna for doubting: you are a warrior, you enlisted on this side because you had to and now you should strive to do what you are here for. Fleeing would equate to cowardice.

Arjuna, filled with doubts, asking Krishna about what he should do (artist’s rendering)

Here the protagonist has free will—he can really choose between fighting or fleeing—but the uncertainty appears as something to be mastered, ridden, so that the warrior manages to deliver perfectly, just like the Japanese archer reaches his target in a single, flowing, and flawless gesture.

Of course, the Bhagavad-Gita’s tree should not hide the forest, and for every Arjuna that earned a name in its chronicles, ancient India had thousands of skilled craftsmen, traveling merchants, homely growers and so on. The point here isn’t to go kill your cousin if he enlists in the army of another country, but to acknowledge the diversity of paths and, consequently, of worldviews.

This diversity of paths and of ethical visions comes across as refreshing after a vogue of excessively abstract and simplistic views. Many ethics scholars, from psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg to philosopher John Rawls, claimed one way or another that individuals needed to be stripped of everything that made them particular and should pretend to be impartial spectators to make truly moral judgments. But even when people pretend to be disembodied and ethereal beings, they bring a subjectivity of their own. Why should this be a problem?

The best would be integrating everyone’s subjective and sometimes highly peculiar point of view, not into a unifying theory, but into a more harmonious world. The diversity of callings, desires, and sometimes their apparent contradiction, cannot be denied. If it is, it comes again, not unlike a werewolf jumping out of the night. Perhaps the timeless Vedic wisdom can help at rounding the angles.

E Pluribus Unum

Of course this does not mean renouncing to any claim at universality or to ethics in general. Too much relativism breeds nihilism. And we may feel a very understandable fear at witnessing a once almost unified world crumbling into a diversity loaded with conflicts. But remember: the world is becoming increasingly fractal. Which means it is rich in variations yet not necessarily contentious. A fractal world is made of and, and, and and and… Callings may differ widely yet coexist.

The coming back of diversity, flying in the face of disembodied views of universality, may be turbulent, difficult, sometimes edgy but also immensely promising. The biggest challenge may lie in singularity, which one may think of as a sort of realized universality, and the nearest one lies in living together. Just because no part of the tapestry is like any other and parts keep moving unpredictably, it doesn’t mean the tapestry cannot be smooth.

The human collective, in order to succeed or simply to survive in a complex chaotic world, has an absolute need to ensure that every individual can fully express his otherness and uniqueness. In a chaotic world, diversity is no more a choice but the very basis of survival. Likewise, in a chaotic mode, unity is no more a choice but a necessity of survival. Unity and diversity must therefore complement each other harmoniously.

The collective and the individual, the permanent and the transient, come together and complete each other in a sublime poetic fractal image. Or, else, society may shatter. And the ugliest side of chaos gain the upper hand.

As for myself, I cannot escape thinking that the sharing economy, which has been under fire from many people losing their older status such as taxi drivers and hotels, may help much. In fact, it already has: many young people struggling to get hired managed to create their own employments thanks to selling their services to customers directly instead of hoping some oligarchical company deigns to hire them. The sharing economy may be today what the London stock exchange was during the eighteenth century:

Enter the London stock exchange, a far more respectable place than many royal courts; there you will see deputies from all nations, brought together for other people’s utility. There the Jew, the Mohammedan and the Christian trade one with another as if they belonged to the same religion, and they only call infidels those who go bust. There, the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican receives the Quaker’s promise. Then, out of these free and peaceful gatherings, some go to the Synagogue while others seat around a drink. One goes to receive baptism in a big tank… another goes to get his son’s foreskin cut and have some Hebrew, which he doesn’t understand, uttered over his child, and some others go to their church, waiting for God to inspire them, their heads covered with hats, and all are happy.

As a conclusion

When a tsunami had hit Indonesia in 2004, the big wave was soon followed by another one: people from all over the world donated to help. The aftermath of this catastrophe has also been the biggest wave of global donations ever.

I would bet my next Uber ride that Enlightenment philosophers would have liked that.

Trading one with another may be one of the most beneficial practices. It is fully compliant with the fractal nature of our world, with many niche and smaller markets mirroring trends and contents from wider or smaller scales. It may be tempting to shell oneself in a so-called safe space, or to deplatform whoever tries to gain independence from an increasingly removed elite world. But such attempts are no solution and are likely to fail.

Dissenting viewpoints are part of life—and they may be stupid, uninformed, or simply prima facie shocking, but just like chaos itself, they cannot be thrown under the rug with the expectation that they’ll somehow magically disappear. Even if you fail at making chaos your friend, and I sincerely hope you will succeed, you must at least confront it. The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs didn’t succeed by stagnating into an increasingly solipsistic ivory tower world, but by getting in touch with actual people and needs.

The same is true for environmental concerns. Shouting everywhere that “nature is f****d” and “everything will rot under pollution” appears unlikely to help in any way. Scientists and engineers helping to get more out of used plastics do more for Mother Nature than those who surrender to panic. And who knows—mining asteroids, as Elon Musk suggested, looks far-reached today, but perhaps it will save the world from a war motivated by the scarcity of resources.

Embodying the Good is everyone’s responsibility. You might have no one to answer to aside from your own consciousness. But find it, cultivate your true self, and you may help us all to go along.

To know more about how to be a fractal, resilient manager, on how to implement optimized fractal processes, or to find out why fractals are even more beautiful than what meets the eye, check my book: Chaos, a User’s Guide, available here.

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