Free Will and the Anthropogenic Earth: Part II

Free Will and the Anthropogenic Earth: Part II

My previous column discussed the relationship of free will to ethical responsibility, noting a weakness in the area of macroethics, the ethical structures applicable to large complex economic, social, environmental and technological systems. This weakness becomes important given the integration of human and “natural” systems that characterize the anthropogenic, or “human-generated” earth, especially at larger scales (consider, for example, the Everglades; the climate system; technological systems such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communications technology, and cognitive sciences; and urban systems and their sometimes global hinterlands). How ethical systems for such challenges -- with issues that cut across very different systems of values (e.g., employment versus environment), and involve strongly disparate distributions of benefits and costs -- are to be formulated, much less managed and institutionalized, has yet to be effectively addressed.

Unfortunately, this is not just a matter of “scaling up” traditional dialogs about free will and ethics, which tend to focus on individuals. Historically, the two bases for judging the ethical posture of an action are by the intentions behind, or by the actual consequences of, the action. But such traditional approaches implicitly assume a simple system structure, where enough can be known at the time a decision is taken to be able to impute moral responsibility for the results of that decision. If, instead, the systems are inherently unknowable, at least beyond a trivial point, then I can neither have an honest intention as to what I hope to achieve (because the complexity of the system response means my intention is essentially irrelevant, since whatever I want is unlikely to occur), nor can I be judged by the consequences, which are beyond my ability to determine, and become apparent only over significant timeframes.

This has several significant implications. First, although the locus of free will remains the individual, the exercise of free will becomes a function of the state of the system within which the individual is located. Free will becomes a question of context, not just an inherent characteristic of a human being. As an important corollary, this means that the interconnectivity and internal dynamics of complex systems become additional constraints on the exercise of individual free will. Complex interlinking technology systems limit option spaces within which free will can be exercised.

These characteristics of free will in complex systems lead directly to another implication: ethical implications adhere less to specific choices, and more to the choice of mechanism by which we choose to interact with the relevant system. Macroethics thus differs from microethics in requiring a greater concern with processes, as opposed to single actions. Each has its role, but it is a fatally flawed category mistake not to recognize their differences.

For example, if I am designing the Everglades -- and, in doing so, trying to balance among other things human development, agricultural and mining interests, and environmental interests such as avian biodiversity -- the results of many individual decisions are difficult to determine except as the response of the overall system becomes clear. Therefore, whether judged by my intention, or by the consequences of any particular choice, any individual action is itself meaningful in an ethical sense only as it becomes reified in the system with which I am interacting. Thus, my choice of the process by which I become engaged in a dialog with the system itself is what becomes ethically critical. For example, I may choose any one of a number of particular actions -- channelizing a stream, planting a marsh to reduce phosphorous concentrations in agricultural runoff -- but because the potential outcomes of each action become clear only as the system - including its human components - adjusts, I am behaving unethically if I don’t monitor the results of my action, and change them accordingly. In other words, if I choose not to adopt a process that fits the system, I have behaved unethically, for in doing so I have deliberately undermined my ability to exercise free will, and thus my ethical nature.

Free will and ethical responsibility in complex systems such as the Everglades thus becomes less of a point function, and more of a networked function spread over multiple spatial and temporal scales. Just as quantum mechanics did not obsolete Newtonian physics, but relegated it to a limited space (e.g., interaction of macro bodies), the traditional concept of free will is thus not obsolete, but is a bounded part of a much more complex, systems-based phenomenon. My next column will suggest some practical implications of this analysis.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T’s vice president of environment, health, and safety.