1 A “Copernican” Shift?

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A Copernican Revolution in Ethics?

Terrell Bynum, Southern Connecticut State University

1 A “Copernican” Shift?

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn (1962) made his famous distinction between “normal science” and “revolutionary science”. Normal science, he said, is much like “puzzle solving” in which one treats entrenched scientific theories as trustworthy givens. Then one tries to design experiments, conduct observations, provide explanations, and make predictions in ways that conform to the entrenched theories. Revolutionary science, on the other hand, occurs when a number of “anomalies” begin to creep into the results of experiments and observations. Some predictions do not come true and the old theories fail to provide satisfying explanations.

During a period of revolutionary science, instead of engaging in everyday “puzzle solving”, some scientists begin to question the entrenched theories and look for alternatives to explain the anomalies more successfully. At the time of Copernicus, for example, the old earth-centered, wheels-within-wheels Ptolemaic astronomy had become complex and unwieldy. In addition it was not very successful at explaining and predicting the observed behavior of certain heavenly bodies. Copernicus’ new astronomy shifted the assumed center of the universe from the earth to the sun and (with some help from Galileo and Kepler) effectively eliminated many of the anomalies. It also decreased the complexity and unwieldiness of predictions and explan-ations. Because the Ptolemaic theory still was able to yield reasonably good results in most cases, astronomers continued using the old theory for much of their work. Over time, however, they eventually adopted the newer theory because of its efficiency and its ability to resolve Ptolemaic anomalies.

Ethics is not science, but it shares with science the overall goal of making sense of human experience. Just as science tries to explain, predict and systematize our experience of the natural world, so ethics tries to make sense of our moral lives.1 During the past three thousand years, a number of powerful and highly respected ethical theories have emerged within various cultures around the globe. Some of the most influential theories are assoc-iated with great philosophers like the Buddha, Lao Tse and Confucius in Eastern societies, and Aristotle, Bentham and Kant in Western societies (to name a few examples). These and other “great ethical theories” do indeed systematize and make sense of the moral lives of the people and communities who believe in them and treasure them. The theories are deeply ingrained in the fabric of their home cultures, and they help to provide profound and lasting meaning to human lives.

In the present essay, I briefly describe a new ethical theory that has begun to coalesce from the efforts of a number of scholars in the international Computer Ethics2 community. It is still a very young theory that needs careful systematic development, but it shows great promise. It has deep Aristotelian roots, as well as strong ties to our contemporary scientific understanding of life, human nature and the fundamental nature of the universe. The new theory – which I call “Flourishing Ethics” because of its Aristotelian roots – can be viewed as including a shift in perspective that resolves some significant “anomalies” and provides new tools to meet future ethical challenges. In addition, it seems likely to deepen and broaden our understanding of the world’s great moral theories, rather than merely to replace them.

Flourishing Ethics can resolve certain “anomalies” associated with existing ethical theories. These include at least the following three short-comings:
1. Rejection of all ethical theories but one – “Devout believers” in one or another ethical theory often claim that their particular theory is the only correct theory. This dogmatic view is held by enthusiasts of many different ethical theories, but it is logically impossible for all of the theories to be the one and only right one. Extremists among such dogmatists are willing, by political action or even violence, to force everyone else to adopt the specific theory that they happen to favor. Loss of respect and understanding among individuals and cultures can be the result.
2. Troublesome cases – Even the most respected ethical theories have particular cases which they are unable to handle well. For example, Kantian critics of utilitarianism are fond of describing situations in which terrible injustices can result from adherence to utilitarian principles. Similarly, utilitarian critics of Kantianism point to cases where telling a lie or breaking a promise would prevent horrendous consequences; while telling the truth or keeping a prom-ise, which Kantianism always requires, would cause catastrophic results.
3. Difficulty coping with non-human agents ¬– New kinds of “agents” are be-ginning to emerge from the Information Revolution and genetic engineering. These agents include, for example, cyborgs (part human, part machine), robots, “softbots” (software robots), and genetically engineered “super humans”. Such new agents will not fit well into the “great ethical theories”, because those theories address human agency. But when non-human agents begin to act more like our children, and less like our puppets, additional ethical tools and concepts will be needed to determine their appropriate role and nature.
All of the major ethical theories appear to be subject to one or another of these “anomalies”. Flourishing Ethics, however, can resolve them and pro-vide, as well, helpful new interpretations and insights into the traditional theories. (See the discussion below.)

2 Aristotelian Roots

A remarkable fact about Aristotle’s ethical theory is the thoroughgoing way in which it was integrated, not only with his social and political theory (which one would expect), but also with his powerful new scientific theories. Because he was the greatest scientist in his own time, Aristotle had an unusual opportunity to ground and support his ethics with scientific insights into human nature and the nature of the universe. Thus, his account of human psychology was rooted in his theory of animal behavior, which in turn was built from his biology, physics, and metaphysics. And his theory of animal behavior led systematically and logically to his theory of human action and his ethics. (Bynum 1986)

Like Aristotle’s ethics, Flourishing Ethics is more integrated with scien-tific theories of human nature and the universe than most other ethical theories have been. Given today’s rapidly growing Information Revolution and its frequent breakthroughs in physics, biology, medicine, commun-ications, and so on, Flourishing Ethics can be supported and integrated with cutting-edge ideas from fields such as astrophysics, cybernetics, genetics, neuropsychology and computer science.

Another significant similarity between Flourishing Ethics and Aristotle’s theory is its compatibility with cultures around the globe. A person does not have to be an ancient Greek to admire virtuous behavior in Aristotle’s sense of this term, so people from Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and other parts of the world can respect, and aspire to become, someone who is courageous, temperate, friendly, as well as virtuous in many other Aristo-telian ways. Flourishing Ethics too, like Aristotle’s, is compatible with many cultures, and yet it is not simply a version of “galloping relativism” or un-warranted permissiveness.

Aristotle’s familiar account of the virtues and vices – the “means” and “extremes” of human character – will not be central to our purposes here. Instead, we will be especially interested in Aristotle’s overall assumption that the purpose of a human life is to flourish as a human being by doing excellently what humans are especially equipped to do. For Aristotle, given his famous definition of man as “the rational animal”, it follows that flour-ishing as a human requires reasoning excellently.

Aristotle, of course, did not use present-day terms like “cybernetics”, “feedback”, “input”, “output” or “central processing unit”. Nevertheless, his explanations of animal behavior and of human action, as well as his account of the purpose of a human life, include a number of ideas remarkably similar to those used by Norbert Wiener in the mid Twentieth Century when he laid the foundation for Information Ethics. (See Section 3 below.) Aristotle’s theory of animal behavior, for example, treats animals as information-processing entities. Indeed, he distinguishes animals from plants by their ability, unlike plants, to perceive. Every animal, he said, has at least the sense of touch, and so every animal receives information from the external world into its body. After perceptual information enters an animal’s body, it is processed in ways that depend upon the animal’s physiology. The processing of such information typically triggers behavior that is characteristic of the kind of animal in question. Aristotle explores this “triggering” process in his explanation of the so-called “practical syllogism”, which functions within an animal very much like a conditional “if …then” operator functions within a modern computer (See Aristotle’s On the Movement of Animals, as well as On the Soul; and see especially Bynum 1986.) In summary, then, the physiology of an animal, according to Aristotle, determines: (1) the kinds of perceptual information that the animal can take in, (2) how this information is processed within the animal’s body, and (3) what the resulting animal behavior will be.

The most sophisticated information processing in the animal kingdom, according to Aristotle, occurs within human bodies. In particular, the kinds of information processing that Aristotle called “theoretical reasoning” and “practical reasoning” include what we, today, call “comparison”, “pattern recognition”, “concept formation”, “inductive reasoning”, “deductive reasoning”, “evaluating”, “decision making”, and more. These activities of theoretical and practical reasoning, according to Aristotle, are – or at least must be accompanied by – the bodily manipulation of “phantasms” (residual perceptual images).3 As I have said elsewhere,

Aristotle is committed to the view that thinking involves the presence and manipulation of phantasms. His explanations of memory, recollection, concept acquisition, inferring and deliberation all require phantasms. And since phantasms are bodily entities, he seems committed to the view that thinking is – or at least requires – a physiological process. (Bynum 1986, p. 124)
Crucial to the flourishing of human beings is the fact that these bodily processes (manipulations of “phantasms”) generate meaning in the semantic and emotional senses of this term. Precisely what meaning is and how it is generated from bodily processing of physical information (“Shannon information” in today’s language; see below) are among the most challenging questions in all of philosophy. No philosopher has yet developed a complete and fully satisfying theory of meaning; and decades or even a century may pass before such a theory finally is developed. Nevertheless, it was clear even to Aristotle that physical manipulation of information inside of a person’s body is or generates theoretical and practical reasoning, thereby empowering human beings to set goals, manipulate nature, and govern their own actions in an endless variety of ways. These capacities distinguish humans from other animals and make it possible, in the context of society, to achieve knowledge, virtue, and wisdom – and thereby flourish.

For Aristotle, what contemporary philosophers would call “autonomy” – the capacity to deliberate about possible actions and then act upon the results of deliberation – is a necessary precondition for fulfilling the overall purpose of a human life: to flourish, to do excellently what humans are especially equipped to do. In a very real sense, the autonomy of human beings turns them into “self-creators” in at least two ways: by choosing their actions, one by one, human beings continually create and re-create their own ethical characters – and their own lives and personal identities, as well.

Human beings, however, are not solitary, they are fundamentally social, and they cannot flourish on their own. Knowledge and science, wisdom and ethics, justice and the law are all social achievements requiring communication and interaction within a community of reasoning, decision-making beings. Given an appropriate society, however, a human being can flourish in a wide diversity of ways – as a diplomat, teacher, philosopher, farmer, builder, and so on. And there are many different cultures and societies where such human flourishing is possible.

Much more can be said on this topic,4 but enough has been said for purposes of the present essay. The goal here is to describe briefly the Aristotelian roots of the emerging theory that I am calling “Flourishing Ethics”. Let me summarize by emphasizing the following points:

1. In Aristotle’s ethics, human flourishing is central.

2. Human beings are social animals. Only in the context of society can human beings flourish.

3. The nature of any living being, according to Aristotle, is determined by what that being is especially equipped to do, To flourish as a being of that kind is to do those things excellently and continuously.

4. It is the nature of a human being to reason theoretically and practically. Thus to do so excellently and continuously is to flourish as a human being and thereby lead a good (including a virtuous) life.

5. Theoretical and practical reasoning are special kinds of information processing. Engaging in appropriate information processing, therefore, is central to being ethical and leading a good life.

6. The key to excellent practical reasoning, and therefore the key to being ethical, is the capacity to deliberate well about one’s overall goals, choose a wise course of action, and carry out the action. (This ethically-central, decision-making, information-processing capacity has been called “a good will” by Kant and other philosophers following him.)

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