Posted by: dacalu | 21 March 2012

Fractal Goodness

This week I was pondering the question of choosing between right and wrong, good and bad, life and death.  It occurred to me that goodness resembles a fractal.

For those of you unfamiliar with fractals, they appear as a result of certain mathematical functions which produce patterns that appear the same when viewed at any scale.  The technical definition is unimportant for the moment, the property I want to highlight involves “self-similiarity.”  When you zoom in on a fractal, you see the same pattern, simply at a smaller scale.  What appears to be a solid edge of the image above (a representation of the Mandelbrot set), is properly a curved line bent at the same level of complexity as the contours of the larger picture.  The actual line, if one could draw it, would be infinitely long.

Much ink has been spilt over the subject of right behavior, particularly with regard to questions of ends and means.  Some have claimed that significantly good outcomes warrant minor evils – the ends justifies the means.  This maxim falls under the heading of” consequentialism” or the idea that the ends are the only thing that really matters in making choices.

I’m rather uncomfortable with consequentialism, chiefly because so much genuine evil has been done for the sake of good ends.  The means can be counted on, the ends only projected.  Thus many have done far more bad than good – all for the sake of perfectly desirable ends.  The natural response to this conundrum, or at least natural for me and many philosophers, is to switch to deontology, the philosophy that acts are good or evil in and of themselves, consequences be damned (as it were). Deontologists say that moral are only about obeying the rules for right behavior.

Now most of us fall somewhere in between.  Some things we say are just wrong – such as torture.  Other things may be called for in extreme circumstances – say killing a few people in order to stop a genocide from happening.  This still makes me uncomfortable in a number of ways.  Where is the line?  What’s to stop you from fudging in cases where you really want one outcome?  How can we talk meaningfully about where the boundary should be?  I’d hate to do a calculus of souls:

If < means less evil

5 murdered soldiers < 50,000 saved civilians  (probably makes sense to you)

50 murdered soldiers < 5,000 saved civilians (squishier, but I’m guessing it sounds okay)

499 murdered soldiers < 501 saved civilians (well that just doesn’t sound right)


There’s got to be some proportionality to make this work.  Doesn’t there?  Many Americans have argued that a few hundred thousand deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less evil than the millions who may have died had the war in the Pacific been extended until the US could take Japan by conventional means.  No matter how you explain it, this type of calculation requires you to reduce people to numbers (or at the very least proportions).  It begs questions like quality of life and length of life.  Is a newborn worth more than someone on their deathbed? …

Death makes for such dramatic examples, but the same type of calculus occurs to us daily.  How much verbal abuse is appropriate for a dim-witted cashier if it allows me to vent?  How much pleasure will I get from a cup of coffee compared to the benefit to a beggar?  Am I okay with others starving, if it means my family gets fed?  Is it alright for the US to maintain a foreign dictatorship, if it secures peace in the region and low gas prices?  The compromise position always ends up in calculus.  Often implicit, but still a calculus of souls, a weighing of one agent against another.

Until recently, I reconciled this for myself with a concept I called “intention with due diligence.”  The intended consequences are vitally important (I was almost a consequentialist), but any conception of the consequences must weigh (with almost deontological heft) heavily the immediate action in terms of it’s impact on the soul of everyone involved.  One chose for consequences, but only after practicing due diligence for what those consequences should be.  If I just weighted that highly enough, I thought…

A much more elegant way to deal with the problem is the Buddhist eightfold path.  This asks that in each moment we look for right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  It’s another way of being aware of and balancing many different concerns.  Done properly, no calculus is needed, one experiences all 8 fully.  In practice, I fear, it’s an excuse for a Buddhist calculus – not of agents, but of rightnesses.  So I find it a good meditation, but I’m not sure it really gets me out of my problem.

I’m unwilling to subscribe to consequentialism, deontology, or calculus ethics.  What to do?

This is where fractal goodness comes in.  What if all goodness appears independent of scale?  What if big goods can only be composed of little goods?  What if goodness is more about the orientation of all the things to one another – at all levels of resolution – rather than a question of each pixel being in the right place?

It is, perhaps, a Taoist perspective, but I think it fits well with the life and death of Christ Jesus.  I think there is something to be said for a God who chose neither to micromanage from on high (setting things right by fiat) nor to simply reset the universe (by flood maybe) but rather entered into the world as a human in a way that both adjusted human relationships and made the whole world new.  We might call this a God who fixes by participating.

So I think we are called to participate as well.  My ethics focuses on entering into relationships in a way that draws the pieces into right relationship.  The ends never justify the means because the means are an integral part of the ends – just as the rightly intended ends form an integral part of the means.




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