Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

59. Defying Gravity

Note: This post is the fifty-ninth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs.

Imagine rain falling on the top of a mountain somewhere. And imagine that our goal is to have the drops of water travel as far downhill as possible. It seems the best approach might simply be to let each droplet, each molecule of water, take the path of least resistance - the downward seeking motivation from the pull of gravity on each molecule ensures that the optimal solution for maximizing the descent of the water is to remove all constraints on each drop of water. Any time you constrain a molecule from travelling in the most downward direction you are interfering with our goal of maximizing the descent of the drops.

Of course, there could be situations where the molecules would be better off working together. For instance, enough molecules together might carve a channel or wear away an obstacle. But any attempt to magnify this benefit by artificially concentrating water in one area represents an interference with the freedom of the molecules.

Individual molecules of water slide past one another fairly easily, and they are small enough to fit through a lot of holes and down a lot of passageways. But in other states (e.g. when frozen), the water molecules link together to form a larger structure. In the water molecules link together to form a larger block, then they could impede their progress down the hill any time they choose by forming a large enough block to get stopped by an obstacle on the downward path.

If we allow for an outside force - one with a perspective broader in space and time than the individual molecules - and one which can force the water molecules to do as it commands - then there are more possibilities. If the outside force wants to increase the final descent, the water could be channeled to a different side of the hill, one which offers a longer drop. If the outside force wants to impede the downward flow of the water, a dam could be built to build up a collection of water at a particular level.

Of course, the greater the potential descent of the water, the greater the potential energy that could be harnessed. And the greater the dam, the greater the store of energy, the greater the potential benefit from allowing some water to get through and resume its descent.

And finally, if we imagine two different outside forces, each with their own desires for the water, then the range of actions available to each outside force for either maximizing or preventing the descent of the water, must necessarily expand to include actions directed not directly at the water, but rather at, or in concert with, the other outside force.

So what does this have to do with ethics? I remember being advised by my Writing Instructors to resist the urge to explain, but I think that was meant to apply to fiction, not blogging.

Anyways, as I was imagining it, the pull of gravity on the water molecules represents their pursuit of their own self-interest. The Fundamental Theorems of Welfare Economics explain that, if you don't consider any of the many cases where the individual drops might need to work together, or they need to go uphill first in order to later go down somewhere else, or that there are places you just don't want to go down to, then it is optimal to just let the drops each follow their own path without interference.

The molecules working together represents cooperation, with economies of scale being one area where cooperation can further their self-interest. Linking the molecules together is bonds of sympathy. By linking themselves together the molecules can achieve things they are incapable of achieving if each molecule is pursuing its own interests.

The outside force represents the government. The government can push the self-interested actors out of a situation which is locally, but not globally optimal. It can restrain self-interested behaviour, but the more it does so, the greater the tension between the restraining force and the potential gain tempting each molecule to break free of the government's dam.

Ethics are the values that allow us to differentiate between when it is best to simply flow downwards and when we need to join with the other drops to better flow downwards, and when we need to join with the other molecules to prevent the downward flow. And when we need to work together to create an outside force capable of restraining us, when we need to fight against the outside force that is restraining us, and when we need to fight on behalf of our own outside force to take on a rival outside force.

Ethics represent the same breadth of vision across time and space that we earlier granted the outside force, but located within each molecule instead of in an outside force. With the right ethics in the molecules themselves, the power of decentralized decision making in each individual can be combined with the capacity for collective action, without sacrificing the benefits of either approach.

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