A moral navigator on the seas of complexity

We evolved in a world where people were known to one another, means and ends were clear, and causation appeared straightforward.  Transgressions were impossible to hide, and the consequences to our actions were understood without difficulty.  Success and failure in life, and the parts played by virtue and by luck, were plain for all to see.

Today, I am surrounded by products that alter my environment utterly, built by people I will never meet working for companies I know little about.  I deal with certain persons at work under one aspect, with others in my neighborhood under a different aspect, and with my family in a far more complete way.  I encounter thousands I don’t know under any aspect, even though they share the same spaces I do.  Often I place my life in these strangers’ hands:  they fly me up to 30,000 feet, to give one example.  Fame and power are images on a screen.  There I can find photos of the first lady of France, buck naked.  Material success depends on the interactions of billions.  Everything is revealed, yet everything is hidden.

Complexity trumps common sense.  We have been cast out of the primeval paradise our species evolved for, into a Talebian universe of endless uncertainty and endless surprises, in which probability is king.  We are now clueless about causes and effects.  Consequences seem unfathomably remote:  the beating of a butterfly’s wing in Africa, we are told, might result in a hurricane killing thousands in Louisiana.

How am I to seek the good life amid the chaos on this darkling plain?  How do I tell right from wrong, deprived of information about the ultimate consequences of my actions?  What steps should I take to achieve material success?

One approach to answering such questions is to articulate a principle so obviously good that its imposition should become a duty – then bend all social life, public and private, to fit the logic of the ruling principle.  Examples of the latter might be “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” or “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  Virtue here consists of the application of the rule – institutionally, universally, ruthlessly – while the greatest sin is “revisionism.”  Material success is implicit in the principle itself.  My happiness and my needs will somehow be taken care by institutions bent to the logic of the prime directive.

This is the rationalist’s way.  I have written enough on this subject, and will only add that, historically, it has failed the test of complexity.  Like the rest of us, the rationalist has no way of determining the impact of his actions over large social domains.  His craving for certainty is bound to end in frustration and calls for drastic action – the killing fields and the guillotine.

There is another way – in fact, stripped of the rationalist illusion, there is only one way to navigate the stormy waters of complexity.

I live in a small world which is submerged in a vaster, socially complex universe.  My small world is composed of the people and places I interact with directly, and to some extent resembles the primeval human environment.  Here causes and effects are clearer, consquequences more immediate.  If I stop working, I won’t get paid, for example.  If I don’t take my son to the hospital, I will be responsible for his death from a ruptured appendix.  If I steal or defraud, the chances of my going to jail increase.

To the extent I can consider the causes and effects of my actions, or factor consequences into morality, the application is entirely to the small world.  It doesn’t scale.  If I jump in the river and pull out a drowning man, I am responsible for saving his life.  If I refuse to save him, I am morally accountable for his death.  But if I have a law passed which blocks access to the river, I can have no idea what the consequences will be.

More to the point, if I am a doctor and prescribe the proper medicine, I have a reasonable expectation of achieving a cure.  However, if I impose a universal right to proper medication, I plunge into the seas of complexity and uncertainty, and become vulnerable to improbable disasters and unintended consequences.  This is the fallacy Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy”:  projecting from my small world to large-scale domains.

The good life for me concerns the small circle of my family, friends, and acquaintances.  What can be good about my life depends on my relationships with these relatively few people who are near at hand, rather than on the fate of Afghanistan or President Obama’s health legislation.

The pursuit of material success presents a more tangled picture.  Complexity and luck are factors from the start, in the form of market forces and inherited political structures.  Still, career choices, together with personal and work habits, will determine to what extent my working life is a crapshoot.  If I become a dentist, work hard at this profession, and behave with integrity towards my patients, the odds are in my favor for making a good living.  If I decide to become a major league baseball player or a market trader, I will, in Taleb’s language, almost certainly “blow up.”

Uncertainty can be managed in my small world, but it can’t be kept out.  Complexity is invasive.  It permeates and confuses even the smallest of small-world consequences.  The man I saved from the river may turn out to be a vicious murderer who can now kill again.  Am I responsible?  My savings as a hard-working dentist may be invested in the financial markets, which blow up.  Economic hard times, born of inexplicable events in faraway places, may change the human quality of my relationship with family and friends.  While peaceably at work, I may be killed or maimed in a terrorist attack.

There is no cure for randomness.  There is, by definition, no way to prepare for the unforeseeable catastrophe:  a Black Death, a 9/11, a financial meltdown.  Prudence minimizes the problem, until it can’t.  My small world keeps life focused and comprehensible, until it doesn’t.  This will come as a surprise only to the rationalist and to certain modern minds who have lost sight of the big picture.  Randomness has always won in the end, because in the end each of us must die.

I stand on the choices and consequences of my small world, facing a rising flood of complexity.  What virtue and hard work have given, randomness at any moment can take away.  What is the proper attitude for this condition?

In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb recommends an eclectic sort of stoicism.  “We are left only with dignity as a solution – dignity defined as the execution of a protocol of behavior that does not depend on the immediate circumstance,” he writes.  “It may not be the optimal one, but it certainly is the one that makes us feel best.”

Dignity detached from circumstances is a lofty ideal, and there is a tradition of American stoicism, going back to Emerson and Thoreau, which will appeal to some temperaments.  I consider it thin gruel, the counsels of fatalism.  I also find stoicism American-style to be less a way of life than a form of insincerity.  To imagine the excitable Taleb in the robes of Marcus Aurelius is to invite laughter.  The same could have been said of Emerson and Thoreau.

We shouldn’t scream in pain, but neither should we deny our suffering.  We shouldn’t high-five in victory, but neither should we repress the joy of winning.  Forestalling death by killing our emotions seems – to me, at least – curiously perverse.

The urge to flee to an invented morality like stoicism is a sign of panic in the face of uncertainty.  This is understandable but futile.  Traditional morality was forged over the centuries by living people in interaction with the dark heart of complexity, and it is wired to our emotional life from the first glimmer of consciousness.  Traditional morality teaches me how to live the good life and how to die a good death, and it does so by taking me outside my skin and placing a transcendental importance on family, friends, community, country, faith.  Against the storm of uncertainty, therefore, moral integrity must remain the highest virtue.

I can’t renegotiate my moral life just to make me feel better.  The result would be to act out a pose.  Nor can I parse some mathematical calculation of consequences.  I’m far too ignorant of cause and effect.  But I can keep my small-world behavior constant:  I can be the same moral pilgrim under all conditions, pursuing goals that lead beyond my own luck at the roulette wheel and separate my character, everywhere and with everyone, from the unpredictable outcomes of my life.

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