A copernican Revolution in Ethics? Terrell Ward Bynum

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A Copernican Revolution in Ethics?

Terrell Ward Bynum

Research Center on Computing & Society

Southern Connecticut State University

New Haven, CT 06515 USA


To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society. Norbert Wiener 1954
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 (e.g., Mars). 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 explanations. Because the Ptolemaic theory still was able to yield reasonably good results in most cases, astronomers could have continued using the old theory for much of their work. Over time, however, they eventually adopted the newer theory because of its efficiency and 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. During the past three thousand years, a number of powerful and highly respected ethical theories have emerged within various cultures worldwide. Some of the most influential theories are associated 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 Ethics1 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 to replace them.

Flourishing Ethics can resolve certain “anomalies” associated with existing ethical theories. These include at least the following three shortcomings:

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, through political action or even violence, to force everyone else to adopt the specific theory 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 promise, which Kantianism always requires, would cause catastrophic results.
3. Difficulty coping with non-human agents ­– New kinds of “agents” are beginning 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 understand 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 provide, 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 scientific 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, communications, 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 Aristotelian ways. Flourishing Ethics too, like Aristotle’s, is compatible with many cultures, and yet it is not simply a version of “galloping relativism” or unwarranted 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 flourishing 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 its physiology, and 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.

For the simplest animals, the internal processing of perceptual information is itself rather simple. In such animals, perceptual information is not retained for later use, but instead triggers appropriate reflexes – a “withdraw” reflex for harmful entities, an “ingest” reflex for food, and a “mate” reflex for potential reproductive partners. In all but the simplest animals, however, the processing of perceptual information, according to Aristotle, is more complicated. In particular, most animals retain within their bodies information from prior perceptions and then use the retained information (“phantasms”) in various ways to shape and monitor their responses to new perceptions and circumstances. In this way, most animals are able to respond appropriately to changes in their environments. So most animals learn from their past experiences by means of retained information and apply this learning to new situations. In very sophisticated animals, said Aristotle, the retained information explains the possibility of memories, dreams, and pattern recognition – and, in humans, the envisioning of alternative possibilities.

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).2 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 the 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 it may be decades or a century before one is finally developed. Whatever the source of meaning may be, given the power of the theoretical and practical reasoning that bodily information processing enables, humans are empowered to set goals, manipulate nature, and govern their own actions in an endless variety of ways. This distinguishes humans from other animals and makes it possible, in the context of society, to achieve knowledge, virtue, and wisdom.

For Aristotle, what contemporary philosophers would call “autonomy” – the capacity to deliberate about possible actions and to 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 senses: by choosing their actions, one by one, they continually create and re-create their own ethical characters, and also their own lives and personal identities.

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,3 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, so 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 thus 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 often been called “autonomy” by later philosophers.
7. The autonomy of human beings empowers them to continually recreate their characters and their personal identities.
3. Norbert Wiener and the Birth of Information Ethics

The American philosopher/scientist, Norbert Wiener, played a leading role (with others, such as John von Neumann, Claude Shannon and Alan Turing) in creating the technology and the science that launched the Information Revolution. In addition, Wiener had a rare gift of foresight, which enabled him to anticipate many of the enormous ethical and social impacts of his own work and that of his colleagues. This led him to create Information Ethics as an academic subject in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He not only developed a powerful foundation for Information Ethics, which we will examine here, he also provided in books, articles and speeches, a “treasure trove” of comments, examples and analyses. (See Wiener 1948, 1950, 1954, 1964) The issues that Wiener analyzed, or at least touched upon, decades ago included topics that are still considered “contemporary” today – information networks and globalization, virtual communities, teleworking, computers and unemployment, computers and security, computers and religion, computers and learning, computers for persons with disabilities, responsibilities of computer professionals, the merging of human bodies and machines, “agent” ethics, artificial intelligence, and a number of other topics as well. (Bynum 2000, 2004, 2005) For the most part, these specific “applied ethics” topics will not be addressed here. The primary focus will be, instead, the metaphysical foundation that Wiener presupposed in his Information Ethics, plus his account of human nature, his account of the nature of society, and his view of the role of information in all of these.

During the Second World War, while working on the development of an antiaircraft cannon, Wiener and some colleagues created a new branch of science, which Wiener named “Cybernetics”, from the Greek word for the steersman or pilot of a ship. He defined Cybernetics as the science of information feedback systems and the statistical study of communications. He viewed human beings, and indeed all other animals, as “cybernetic systems” whose internal parts communicate with each other in ways that include “feedback” to monitor their own activities. This internal dynamic cybernetic activity enables animals to maintain bodily stability and achieve success in fulfilling their desires and goals.

While creating the field of Information Ethics, Wiener laid a foundation that is very Aristotelian. Although there is no evidence that he explicitly based himself upon Aristotle,4 the similarities are striking between Aristotle’s accounts of animal behavior and human action on the one hand, and Wiener’s explanations of animal behavior, human action, and machine agency on the other. Like Aristotle before him, Wiener used the science of his day to help understand human nature and thereby derive an account of purpose in a human life. Of course, the science in Aristotle’s day was his own biology and physics, while that of Wiener included late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century sciences like relativity, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and Darwinian biology.

Both Aristotle and Wiener described animals, including humans, as beings that take in information from the outside world, process and store it in ways dependent upon internal bodily structure, and adjust their behavior to take account of past experience and new information. Like Aristotle, Wiener saw an intimate relationship between the information processing nature of human beings and the purpose of a human life. For Wiener, as for Aristotle, the overall purpose of a human life is to flourish as a person; and to achieve this purpose, one must engage in a diversity of information processing activities, such as perceiving, organizing, remembering, inferring, deciding, planning, and acting. Human flourishing, then, is utterly dependent upon internal information processing:
Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before....To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society. (Wiener 1954, pp. 17-18)
Wiener contrasted information processing in humans with that of other animals, and he noted the importance of bodily structure. Consider his comparison of humans with ants:
I wish to show that the human individual, capable of vast learning and study, which may occupy about half of his life, is physically equipped, as the ant is not, for this capacity. Variety and possibility are inherent in the human sensorium – and indeed are the key to man’s most noble flights – because variety and possibility belong to the very structure of the human organism.

While it is possible to throw away this enormous advantage that we have over the ants [and the rest of the animal kingdom], and to organize . . . [an] ant-state with human material, I certainly believe this is a degradation of man’s very nature, and . . . a waste of the great human values which man possesses. . . . if the human being is condemned and restricted to perform the same functions over and over again, he will not even be a good ant, not to mention a good human being. (Wiener, 1954, pp. 51-52; bracketed words added for clarity)

Cybernetics takes the view that the structure of the machine or of the organism is an index of the performance that may be expected from it. The fact that the mechanical rigidity of the insect is such as to limit its intelligence while the mechanical fluidity of the human being provides for his almost indefinite intellectual expansion is highly relevant to the point of view of this book. (Wiener, 1954, p. 57, italics in the original)
According to Wiener, just as individual animals can be viewed as dynamic, cybernetic entities, so communities and societies can be analyzed in a similar way:
It is certainly true that the social system is an organization like the individual; that it is bound together by a system of communication; and that it has a dynamics, in which circular processes of a feedback nature play an important part. (Wiener 1948, p. 33)
In Chapter VIII of Cybernetics, Wiener noted that societies and groups can be viewed as second-order cybernetic systems because their constituent parts are themselves cybernetic systems. This is true not only of human communities, but also, for example, of bee hives, ant colonies, and certain herds of mammals. According to Wiener’s cybernetic understanding of society, the processing and flow of information are crucial to the nature and the functioning of the community. Communication, he said, is “the central phenomenon of society” (Wiener 1950, p. 229).
4. The New Role of Machines in Society

Before 1950, Wiener’s social analyses dealt with communities consisting primarily of humans or other animals. From 1950 onward, however, beginning with the publication of The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener assumed that machines will join humans as active participants in society. For example, some machines will participate along with humans in the vital activity of creating, sending and receiving messages that constitute the “cement” which binds society together:

It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part. (Wiener 1950, p. 9)
Wiener predicted, as well, that certain machines – namely digital computers with robotic appendages – will participate in the workplace, replacing thousands of human factory workers, both blue collar and white collar. He also foresaw artificial limbs – cybernetic prostheses – that will be merged with human bodies to help persons with disabilities, or even to endow able-bodied persons with unprecedented powers. “What we now need,” he said, “ is an independent study of systems involving both human and mechanical elements.” (Wiener 1964, p. 77) Today, we would say that Wiener envisioned societies in which “cyborgs” (humans merged with machines) will play a significant role and we will need ethical policies to govern their behavior.

A special concern that Wiener often expressed involved machines that learn and make decisions on their own. He worried that some people, blundering like sorcerers’ apprentices, might create agents that humans are unable to control – agents that could act on the basis of values which humans do not share. It is risky, he noted, to replace human judgment with machine decisions, and he cautioned that a prudent man

will not leap in where angels fear to tread, unless he is prepared to accept the punishment of the fallen angels. Neither will he calmly transfer to the machine made in his own image the responsibility for his choice of good and evil, without continuing to accept a full responsibility for that choice. (Wiener 1950, pp.211-212)

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