Emergent behavior is all the buzz these days, and rightly so. It seems to hold the key to a great many of the universe’s locks, some of which secure doors we would very much like to open. As with any growing branch of inquiry, however, the study of emergent behavior raises as many questions as it does answers. In observing the barrage of ethical criticism that has been laid down in the aftermath of ISIS’ take-over of portions of Iraq, Israel’s campaign in Gaza, and the downing of MH17 over the fractured border region of Ukraine, I think I have glimpsed another troubling question in the field of emergent behavior: what about emergent ethics? Do emergent systems with human-granular elements get to develop post- or trans- human ethics on their own? If they do, what do we do when those emergent ethics conflict with ours?
At a non-human granular level, this seems to be less of a concern. Most of us feel no need to impose ethics on beings whose behavior we consider to be more instinctive than autonomous. If a mosquito bites us, we may despise it as a pest, but we do not deplore the ethical shortcomings of its inherent parasitism. However, when our dogs steal food from one another (or us) in direct violation of norms we have imposed on them since their puppyhood, both we and they know that they have done something wrong, and although their ethics are far less developed than ours, we begin to allow that they exist. Similarly, when our children reach a certain age, and as they grow and develop, we gradually lower the burden of ethical behavior and decision-making onto their shoulders.
Thus do we draw a sort of conditional gradient: the more sophisticated the decision making machinery an entity has, the more of an ethical burden we expect it to shoulder. At the bottom of the gradient sits a rock, which makes no decisions at all (at least on any human time-scale), and at the top, we stand ourselves. Or, at least, so we have thought in the past, but do emergent phenomena disrupt this smooth continuum? A bee may not be smart enough for us to say that it is violating its conscience, but what about an entire swarm? We know the IQ of the swarm to be far greater than that of the bee, but is the swarm as smart as fish? a lizard? a dog? Such things are not so easy to measure, but they have consequences, for if the swarm of bees is indeed as clever as Rover is, we can begin to demand that it behave properly and that it make good decisions.
Extending the analogy, what are we to make of the entities that emerge from human behavior: states, nations, non-governmental entities with broad ethnic or trans-regional membership? Can these entities be said to think or to make decisions in the way that a flock of starlings or a school of fish can be said to do so? Do these entities have behavior patterns that emerge from the individual actions of their members? Can any group composed of beings as autonomous and perverse as humans be expected to exhibit true swarm intelligence, or does it break down into chaos as the feedback loop between its external and internal modes of perception and judgment come into conflict? Must we, in other words, always crash the stock market by attempting to game the system once we are intelligent enough to recognize that it exists and that its behavior emerges from our own?
None of these questions are easily answered, but it seems to me that we must begin considering them. Does a moral panic over immigration require analysis as an emergent property, an outgrowth of the instinctive chauvinism found in all social mammals? If so, how must it be judged? Is the entire population to be blamed or praised for the sum of its individual reactions? Or must any ethical question devolve upon the individual members of the population so long as those members can be said to be autonomous decision-makers?
I had hoped to start to answer a few of these questions in this post, but I do not yet feel confident in any of my answers. However, I hope to pursue this inquiry further in subsequent posts, and I will be collecting opinions from friends more intelligent and better informed than I over the next few weeks, the results of which I will include in upcoming posts. In the mean time, though not yet fully developed, even in fetal form the question suggests serious judicial and sociological consequences, and so I have posted it and will update it as it gestates.