Tuesday 27 August 2013

Ethical and Critical Challenges to Cybernetics

Heinz Von Foerster articulated his ethical position as "I always act so as to increase the number of choices." This is presented as a core principle of ethical behaviour within second-order cybernetics, which Von Foerster more eloquently described in the context of Wittgenstein's position on Ethics (from the Tractatus) [Von Foerster's paper on ethics is available here: http://www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/4-2/text/foerster.html]

In Philosophy, "normative ethics" is the position of examining moral behaviour in determining the grounds for 'rightness' and 'wrongness'. Von Foerster's position, with it's emphasis on action, seems to fall into this camp'. Within normative ethics, there are some basic categories of position which can be adopted. They are:

1. Deontology - the position that right action is to be judged against a set of universal rules. The word 'deon' means 'duty', and so the deontological position is a position where the dutiful intention of the agent is what matters, not the consequence of the action. Some deontologists argue that religious law fundamentally is the ultimate yardstick for goodness, and so 'goodness' become dutiful observance of natural law.  This doesn't appear to be the position that Von Foerster adopts. He might suggest that deontology appears to suffer an 'observer' problem: the first question is "who's rule?" Having said this, there is a point at which deontological positions become more like 'virtue ethics' (see below) - where the question of the nature of the relationship between "good will" and "good character" can be addressed.

2. Consequentialism - this is the position that right action is judged by its consequences. Bentham's utilitarian position is often cited as an example of this. I think, if Von Foerster's ethical position is to 'increase the number of choices' then his position is most closely associated with consequentialism. There are, as with all these positions, grey areas around consequentialism, where it blends into deontology through seeing consequences as inseparable from human rights, or indeed where "consequences" are seen as constituted by observations within a society (again, there is an observer problem here)

3. Virtue Theory - this is originally an Aristotelian/Platonic position which places focus not on the behaviour itself, or its consequences, but on what is revealed about the person through their behaviour. There is a tendency in virtue theory not to reduce persons to behaviour, and to regard persons with their dispositions as the fundamental building blocks of a good society.  MacIntyre points out that 'ethics' implies 'ethos' - that the social constitution of individual persons and the personal constitution of societies are intrinsically linked. This I think provides an important critique to Von Foerster's position, since Von Foerster appears to reduce people to an analytical perspective on actions.

There are other positions in normative ethics, although these three summarise the broad thrust of the debate amongst ethicists. Apart from Virtue theory, there is a tendency to reduce people to actions or consequences, although deontology potentially provide irreducible "laws". Fundamentally, any ethical situation is addressed by a (particular) person, and yet ethical theorising occurs according to some vantage point which is abstracted away from any individual person.

In Kohlberg's "developmental ethics" this tendency of abstraction is particularly noticeable. The stages of ethical reasoning involve, according to Kohlberg, a progression from somewhat "autistic" questions (he was influenced by Piagetian developmental stages, and his approach is consistent with cybernetics) like "what's in it for me?" to a balancing of social norms and expectations, to the deontological acknowledgement of ethical principles, duties and contracts. But in the final analysis, what emerges of the 'person'? What of the impact of the attachments they have or had in their upbringing? Whilst Kohlberg's interest is in moral reasoning, there is an inherent cognitivism in his picture of moral reasoning which reduces the individual to communicative mechanisms.

Vladimir Lefebre has directed his "ethical reduction" to national characters, producing what he calls "first and second ethical systems" (see Stuart Umpleby's slides on Lefebre here http://www.gwu.edu/~umpleby/mgt216/Mgt%20216%20Lefebvre.ppt) According to this system, there are conflicts between what he calls "system 1" and "system 2" ethics as to whether ends justify means, whether conflicts between means and ends is a problem. He presents a characterisation of "saints", "heroes", "philistines" and "dissemblers" according to each of these ethical systems, associating each with different national ethical preconceptions. This is  work which is interesting because it provides a way of identifying what Isaiah Berlin called "value pluralism", and certainly provides a useful metric for identifying where international conflict might arise. However, here again, we are dealing not with real people, but with abstractions.

Dealing with these problems of abstraction and ethics requires an approach that takes account of the person that might wish to do the abstracting. Von Foerster seems strangely blind to the person behind the theory - ironic for the advocate of a philosophy of personal reflectivity. He reduced himself to a 'variety processing' mechanism.

To unpick this, I think the approach is necessarily critical. I say that because I think the principal issue with ethical reasoning is 'fear'; criticality is fundamentally a way of dealing with fear.

This is one of the reasons why George Bataille's economic theory has interested me recently. Bataille's main point is that our rational reasoning about economic behaviour was grounded in fears surrounding taboos. Rationality emerges as a human construct from the swamp of things that cannot be talked about, rather than being constitutive of an inherently logical universe. That's where cybernetic's problem is: whilst it tries to engage with the problems of the swamp, it inherently argues that through its rational abstractions, the swamp's dynamics can be articulated. Deep analysis of the person and deep critique needs to go hand-in-hand with the remarkable constructions (both ideational and technological) which we can create from the disciplines like cybernetics.

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