Ethical Dimensions of Emergent Order

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: A Revolutionary Approach to Man’s Understanding of Himself, New York: Ballentine Books, 1972. 505 pp.

Trained as an anthropologist, Bateson’s book spills into many different fields. While using terminology wedded to the cybernetic model of homeostasis rather than emergent order, his arguments go beyond those concepts, and are highly relevant to this bibliography. Bateson writes penetratingly about the complex interaction of different levels of systems, particularly the human mind, society, and nature. Iimportant here is his discussion of the relationship of ethics to systems theory. See particularly pp. 426-505.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, New York: Bantam, 1980. 248 pp.

Bateson develops the concept of logical typing, ignorance of which has led to many types of confusion. This concept is important when considering the ethical implications of systems theory and emergent order growing out of the actions of its participants (as well as of explanation in general). For example, see pp. 164, 192. Hayek’s critique of “social justice” critiques errors in logical typing..

* diZerega, Gus. Market Non-neutrality: Systemic Bias in Spontaneous Orders. Critical Review, 11:1, Winter, 1997.

Among theorists of self-organization in the market, a primary assumption is that it serves primarily as a neutral transmission means for coordinating and enabling contractual exchange. DiZerega argue this is misleading. Any system of procedural rules, including those of market contract, incorporate value biases which can be different from the values of those operating within that system. Success can be defined either in terms of the individual attaining his or her ends, or in systemic terms as acquiring resources defined by the system itself. Those whose values are most in keeping with the underlying biases of systemic rules will tend to do better under such systems than will others. Thus, while traditional models of social justice were effectively critiqued by Hayek (below), the concept still has relevance within the different conceptual world of the interaction spontaneous social orders with one another, and with the individuals whose actions generate them

* Hayek, F. A. The Mirage of Social Justice. Vol. 2 of Law. Legislation and Liberty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, 191 pp.

Hayek offers a powerful argument that traditional applications of standards of justice and desert based on individual relationships to the market, and by extension, other spontaneous orders, evidence a radical confusing of two differing systems of human interaction. One is based on the concrete and foreseeable effects, the other on abstract rules and unforeseeable effects. Our usual concepts of justice apply only to the first. Outcomes from spontaneous orders which impact on individuals can be described neither as just nor as unjust. A broader description of this distinction is Bateson’s concept of logical typing.

Hock, Dee. Birth of the Chaordic Age, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Pub., 1999. 331 pp.

Dee Hock is founder and first CEO of VISA International, perhaps the world’s largest commercial enterprise. Rather intuitively, Hock utilized the implications of incorporating emergent principles into business to achieve his success. One major theme in his book is a focus on the ethical implication of applying what he terms “chaordic” principles to organizational life. Chaordic is Hock’s term for processes combining both chaos and order, in other words, self-organizing or emergent processes.

Jacobs, Jane. Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, New York: Vintage, 1994. 234 pp.

Written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, this book is a exploration of the differences between “guardian” and “Commercial” ethical “syndromes.” By the latter term Jacobs refers to each being an inter-connected ethical way of life. The latter she attributes to governments, the former to the commercial world, each broadly defined. (I suggest an alternative reading that sees the guardian syndrome being the ethics of instrumental organizations, including corporations, whereas the commercial syndrome applies to self-organizing processes.) Jacobs argues that attempts to apply standards, values, and practices from one syndrome to another can lead to “monstrous hybrids”.

* Rolston, Holmes III. “Duties to Ecosystems” in J. Baird Callicott. ed., Companion to a Sand County Almanac, U. of Wisconsin, 1987. pp. 246-74.

An extraordinary essay on environmental ethics – sounds in many ways almost like a translation of Hayek into ecology. But I am told that when he wrote it he was unaware of Hayek’s work. Rolston explores there being several levels of ethical relationships, and that a system which makes ethically valuable beings possible is itself of ethical value even though events which are desirable at the systemic level may be morally objectionable at the individual level. In this sense Rolston’s work is an interesting correlation with Hayek’s work critiquing social justice because what happens at the level of a social spontaneous order may be necessary whereas if the same events were deliberately done at the level of individual action, they would be morally objectionable.

Shapiro, Andrew L. The Control Revolution, New York: Public Affairs, 1999. 271 pp. See especially pp. 199-207.

This volume is an analysis of the internet and its impact on society and politics. However, chapter 19: “In Defense of Accidents (Order and Chaos)” pp. 197-207 makes an argument I have not encountered elsewhere, one with potentially significant implications on the ethical dimensions of emergent orders. Shapiro questions the desirability of the ideal that individuals can use the net to completely customize the information they receive. He argues that “too much order may be as dangerous to public life and personal well-being as too much chaos.”(p. 200) In contrast to the common assumption that the self is a discrete unit with clear preferences Shapiro suggests that it flourishes in an environment where it will encounter unexpected information it later decides is important – information that can change that self. In a sense, the attempt by the self to plan its environment is subject to similar problems as the attempt to plan and control other complex adaptive systems.

Titles not yet annotated:

Robert, Axelrod. An Evolutionary Approach to Norms, American Political Science Review, 80. 1095-1111.

Heath, Eugene. On the Normative Implications of a Theory of Spontaneous Social Order, in J. T. Fraser, Marlene P. Soulsby and Alexander J. Argyos, (eds.) Time, Order, Chaos: The Study of Time, IX. Madison, CN: International Universities Press, 1998. 125-34.

Nowak, M. A. and R. M. May, The Arithmetics of Mutual Help, Scientific American, June, 1995. 76-81. (

Rummel, R. J. Saving Lives, Enriching Life: Freedom as a Right and a Moral Good. 2001. On line book available at: