Introduction to
Complexity Ethics

by Max Maxwell


While tracing the development of our universe in my mind, I realized that a commonly recognized attribute in the development of our known universe, including the development of life on earth, provides a useful foundation for the study of human ethics. I call the ethical perspective I developed from this observation "Complexity Ethics." Ethical perspectives and imperatives are typically formed in the context of determining how we ought to live in consideration of our fellow human beings, in obedience to god, and more recently in consideration of our environment. I propose that a fundamental ethical perspective can be formed prior to thinking about human beings, today's popular Gods, or the current environmental crisis, which is capable of touching upon every aspect of human living.

This new platform for ethical thinking begins with the idea that understanding one basic attribute in the development of the universe is suitable as a foundation for ethics because humanity is within the envelope of that attribute's expression. The attribute is the tendency to increase in complexity. Even while the universe is becoming more inert overall, there are aspects of increasing complexity. The primary ethical imperative derived from this observation, which I call the "affirmation imperative," is that we should willfully participate in this universal movement by working to affirm our extant complexity and increase in complexity. This imperative is complexity ethic's only moral absolute, "Thou shalt increase in complexity."

This moral absolute is not a rule to follow that guides our specific behaviors. This "moral absolute" points to human character as the source of ethics. Complexity ethics is a virtue ethic that emphasises the role of human character in the determination of behavior. Rather than responding to the call of duty or constraining ethics to expected consequences, complexity ethics embraces the complexity affirming state of mind as the ideal of human virtue. Here, it is a posture of mind that is the ground of ethics. Ethical behavior is brought forth as a natural product of a developed state of mind. It is the state of mind that is the goal. In this essay I indulge my poetic infatuation with incorporating observations about the universe into my thinking. Keep in mind that complexity ethics, as I describe below, can be constructed solely on the basis of the human brain's remarkable movement towards increasing its capacity for complexity from birth to maturity.

Addressing the subject of human ethics from the perspective that we should be in harmony with a basic motion of the universe may sound like an idea that belongs more to an ancient mystical religion than a modern ethical perspective. Although the idea of being in harmony with the universe is ancient, complexity ethics does not indulge in metaphysics or mysticism. Such indulgences are not restricted to the people of ancient times. A modern example of this indulgence, relative to the topic of complexity, is found in the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who is known for the law of complexity/consciousness. Teilhard thought more than most people about interpreting the tendency of the universe to become more complex in light of its relevance for human development. I agree with Teilhard, as do many people, in the basic observation that matter/energy has an innate tendency to arrange itself into more and more complex groupings. However, his interpretation of this basic observation is more imaginative than analytical. In Teilhard's thought, speculation about scientifically inaccessible concepts abound. From the speculation about consciousness existing in everything to contemplations about the ultimate end of universal complexity, Teilhard's interpretation of the universe's increasing complexity is a metaphysical assessment that becomes downright mystical in his teleological view of increasing complexity as the realization of some kind of God consciousness. The human contemplation of the universe and its connection to our passion for personal meaning has always tended to favor metaphysical and mystical thinking.

Complexity ethics is restricted to more practical phenomenon and does not interpret the universal movement of increasing complexity with regard to its meaning or purpose. This will result in pursuing more useful ideas that focus on how we can understand and actively attend to the universal theme of increasing complexity in a way that systemically influences the ethics of our daily living. Within the operations of complexity ethics, life has no objectively describable meaning. However, life does have a very clear direction. That direction is towards increasing complexity. I will proceed on the assumption that the movement towards increasing complexity is a significant and fundamental aspect of the development of the universe and, since humanity is within the envelope of that movement, is relevant to understanding human development. I will outline the development of the universe's rise in complexity and its relevance to complexity ethics, the energy dynamics necessary for the rise of complexity and the application of a complexity based perspective to the human mind and human ethics.


In the beginning, the universe was much simpler in that it was structurally less diverse. The universe started off as a simple and very hot plasma. This plasma was so hot that the particles, which make up much of our current universe, could not exist. The cooling of the universe allowed for the formation of the particles we associate with the observable universe. The number of different structures in the universe increased as time moved on. Eventually galaxies formed. The life cycles of these galaxies and stars manufactured an even greater diversity of energy forms, which make for an even greater number of different possible structural combinations and interactions. This in turn allowed for even more complex formations to exist in the universe, such as biological life. To sum it up, there is a basic movement in the universe that is a movement from lesser to greater complexity.

This same movement from lesser to greater complexity is visible in the development of life on earth. The universe had increased in complexity enough for the formation of biological life to be possible on earth. The chemical complexity of the earth increased as our planet cooled down until the formation of amino acids was possible. These building blocks of life were part of the foundation for the appearance of life on earth, beginning with the simplest single cell life. Simpler forms of life lived on earth for millions of years, affecting the environment by doing things such as creating more oxygen, which made it possible to sustain even more complex forms of life. A process of evolving increasingly complex life forms continued until the earth is filled with an extraordinary diversity of different life forms that make this planet incredibly more complex than the environment of the earth was in the absence of life.

Even if the details of what actually happened with the unfolding of the universe vary significantly from my preceding account, I believe that the following basic observations still stand. The process of the aging of the universe, which includes the process of developing life on earth, possesses the characteristic of moving from lesser to greater complexity with this increase in complexity defined as a continuing proliferation of different structures, properties and processes that are possible within the universe. This increase in complexity is a fundamental part of the nature of our existence. Humanity is embedded in and is a part of this universal movement.

This new ethical perspective is created by deriving its primary ethical imperative through recognizing the universal movement towards increased complexity as the fundamental governing dynamic in our lives. The formation of a complexity ethic does not require that we contemplate the meaning of this movement or its ultimate end (purpose). Complexity ethics does not assume anything, pro or con, about any goal or purpose regarding the universe's movement towards increasing complexity. This means that complexity ethics does not have the ability to apply conventional values within its own framework of operation. Complexity ethics is a purely structural perspective, which makes it even more appropriate as a foundation for ethics. The reason is that clear thinking should first pay attention to understanding the structure of things and then decide their value.

The order of structure before value is common when humans are thinking clearly. When engineers determine the value of a particular specification, they do so by first understanding the relevant structures that the specification in question is serving, then they decide if the specification has value in its proposed context. When considering the value of a drug, physicians first develop an understanding of the structure of that drug's interaction with the human body and then decide if the drug has any positive value. However, the most influential body of thought about humanity in the history of western civilization, which is Christian theology, reverses this order. Christian theology tells people that we are garbage (a valuation) worthy of being thrown in the trash (hell). This is the beginning point of the Christian view of humanity, upon which everything in the Christian theological view of humanity depends. This is a reversal of the proper order of structure before value and degrades the ability of Christian theology to generate clear thinking about humanity. Complexity ethics retains the proper order of structure before value when thinking about humanity and human ethics. This is achieved by focusing on the structure of complexity and refusing to apply traditional valuations of good and evil to the universe from which humanity has arisen.

Values, such as traditional religious concepts of good and evil, are beyond the operations of complexity ethics, yet this does not compromise its ability to generate useful ethical imperatives. In complexity ethics there is only one valuation to choose. Either we choose to affirm our existence, or not. Affirming our existence means working to realize the full measure of our existence. Affirming our existence is not the same as saying it is good. Complexity ethics does not know if the existence of the universe and all that is within it is good or evil. Complexity ethics only knows that we are part of the universe's movement toward increasing complexity and we either choose to jump on board and take a ride, or not.

Complexity ethics is a shift in the initial grounding of ethical contemplations from the details of human relatedness to a contemplation of the structure of complexity in the universe. The basic scheme for translating such observations into a platform for doing ethics is this: As a part of the universe, we are also a part of this motion from lesser to greater complexity. It is our fundamental need and obligation, if we are to realize the full measure of our existence, to be in harmony with this basic movement of the universe (affirmation imperative). Even if there was no movement towards increasing complexity in the universe, the mere affirmation of our extant biological complexity would be sufficient to develop a complexity ethic such as I describe below. Although I do believe there is enough of a movement in the universe towards increasing complexity to make it very relevant to the subject of this essay; I will admit my bias that it is also poetically satisfying to me to think that being in harmony with a basic motion of the universe can be the basis of our ethics.

The affirmation imperative, which is at the foundation of complexity ethics, states that we ought to actively affirm and increase complexity. This means that we must be attentive to the full depth of our existing complexity and be self-consciously willing to move towards greater complexity. The affirmation imperative is able to function as a moral absolute because complexity ethics operates like a low level programming language (such as assembly language). This low level character is a result of complexity ethics' focus on the structure and dynamics of complexity, which underlie and are relevant to all possible circumstances in human life. This is analogous to low level languages allowing programmers to talk more directly to the computer. Like a low level programming language, complexity ethics focuses more directly on the actual architecture of the machine (life). Traditional models of the formation of ethical imperatives, which function more like a high level programming language (such as Visual Basic), tend to address specific circumstances in a simplified way wherein the data of life is filtered through abstracted frameworks of preexisting valuations and world views. Such high level ethics focuses on generating specific rules and principles of evaluation that are in harmony with the parametrization of the ethical abstraction layer (world view) of the individual ethical practitioner. High level ethics will not tend to generate moral absolutes that can be categorically asserted due to the tendency of complex systems to generate a tremendous amount of variation that throws up exceptions to context sensitive rules. In contrast, complexity ethics is a low level ethics that directly addresses the physical necessities of increasing complexity, which are in common to all possible human circumstance. The imperative, "Thou shalt increase in complexity" is context independent and can, therefore, be successfully asserted as a moral absolute. In all possible circumstances, we should seek increasing complexity. This will not give us specific rules for specific circumstances. All it says is that whatever we decide to do, it should favor the maintenance and increase of complexity.

The biological infrastructure of human existence, relative to the functioning of complexity ethics, is like the architecture of a computing machine. Complexity ethics talks directly to that machine close to the structure of its own language. As assembly language is much more difficult to use than Visual Basic, living out the principles of complexity ethics is more difficult than the application of traditional ethical perspectives. Complexity ethics demands a much higher attentiveness to the vast sea of the little details of life than most common ethical/moral perspectives. The categorical nature of complexity ethics' low level operations forces the expression of the affirmation imperative towards the definition and realization of states of mindfulness necessary to richly affirm and increase complexity rather than generating lists of context sensitive rules. This is because the nature of raw human attentiveness is closer to the language of the machine. Attenuating that attentiveness for optimal increase in complexity addresses the ethics of human relatedness by focusing on the structure and dynamics of complexity in the architecture of life. Such attenuation requires that we employ the same energy dynamics that have helped complexity rise in the universe instead of creating lists of rules.

The affirmation imperative is the foundation for all ethical thinking in complexity ethics. In complexity ethics, every ethical perspective or imperative must be compatible with the affirmation imperative. Complexity ethics recognizes the possibility that secondary ethical imperatives (not the affirmation imperative) may be valid in one context and invalid in another, depending on the needs of complexity in those circumstances. All that is in harmony with increasing the complexity of human beings and human civilizations is in our best ethical interests. All that resists or destroys this movement towards our increasing complexity is against the best ethical interests of humanity. First, do not confuse complexity with "difficulty." Second, I recognize that the two sentences beginning with the word "all" will sound to some people as being too pithy to be useful. The greatest ambiguity at this point is the question of what it means for human beings to affirm and increase in complexity. The key to the applicability of this concept rests in several other basic observations about the nature of complexity in the universe.


A significant fact in the rise of complexity in the universe is in the need to attenuate energy into a useful range. Back when the universe was a quark-gluon plasma pudding cup1, it was too hot for the formation of our more familiar particles. The rise in complexity that occurred with the formation of particle matter required the universe to cool down. The same is true for the rise of life on earth. The sun is way to hot to directly host life. No biological life will ever be forming on the surface of the sun. The sun's energy must first be attenuated. The distance of the earth from the sun combined with an atmosphere and magnetic shield accomplishes this attenuation. The energy of the sun is vastly "cooled down" by the time it reaches the surface of the earth. This cooling down makes the rise of the complexity of biological life possible. Even then, life was still incapable of beginning because the earth still had to cool down from a raging sea of molten magma to a much more energetically attenuated environment before a single cell of life could ever form.

The universal movement towards increasing complexity with its need for the attenuation of energy is the primary principle in this perspective on ethics. So how do we apply it to human relationships, which is the domain of ethics? A human mind is a configuration of energy. If complexity can rise in human consciousness, there will be attenuations of energy needed in order to make this rise in complexity possible that are relative to the structure of our physical existence. When considering attenuating energy into a range that is useful for increasing the complexity of a system, we must recognize that this attenuation can go too far. If the earth was too far from the sun and the sun's energy was too "cool" by the time it reached the earth, life would be impossible. So is humanity currently too hot or too cold? I'm going to go out on a limb and state that we are too hot relative to the state needed for our optimal complexity, since this seems to be the order of things in the rise of universal complexity. When considering how the need to attenuate energy (cooling down) in order to increase complexity applies to human living, the key question is: "What kind of cooling down do human beings need to experience with regard to their relations with themselves and one another in order to allow the universal tendency of increasing complexity to be optimized within the life of our individual minds and our civilizations?"

To reflect on this question I will consider a basic principle that underlies the universal rise of complexity. Since I am a philosopher and not a scientist, I will describe it in my own terms. I have been calling this the principle of "Specification Flux"2, wherein specification refers to the tendency of energy to take a specific form and flux refers to the tendency of energy to be in motion, including motions to change into new forms. Specification flux is a label I coined to represent the fact that all configurations of energy tend to move and have a tendency to trade energy, influence one another, and combine themselves into new forms .

As biological life forms, we have an intense, if sometimes gruesome, experience with the universal principle of specification flux. Specification flux, with its need for energetic forms to exchange and combine energies, is why animals must sexually combine (reproduce) and why they must consume one another for food energy. It is also what causes atoms to trade electrons, causes different atoms and molecules combine into new forms, and leads to all energetic reactions. It is why galaxies and galactic clusters combine and consume one another. It is why the constituent elements of the originating universal plasma interacted to form particle energy.

On a side note, the observation of specification flux provides an illustration of how contemplating principles of much greater scope than our own little sphere of living affects ethical/moral thought. For example, in regard to our subjective assessments of the cannibalistic fury of nature and our recoiling at the gruesome reality of life consuming itself, including the brutally competitive difficulties in human relatedness, some have questioned the morality of nature or raised the question of how a good god could allow such evil (known as the "problem of evil"). In the past these kinds of thoughts were usually conducted separately from our understanding of what was perceived as the beautifully organized heavens, as if the organization of nature, especially of humans, was some how different from the organizing principles of the heavens. This was prior to understanding that both are one and that the "heavens" are not so orderly. The truth is that whole galaxies and galactic clusters, just as molecules do, combine and consume one another in a manner similar to what occurs in biological life. Whatever you think of the morality of nature or the theological problem of evil, a complexity based perspective indicates that the brutality of nature's self consuming style, which includes human interactions, are patterns of energy exchange that are consistent with the nature of the universe from the behavior of the largest galactic cluster right down to the subatomic level.

This tends to indicate that human beings are not quite the complete aberration of existence as the Abrahamic religions seem to think, but are instead quite consistent with the nature of the entire universe. The nature of the human mind is not separate from or different from the nature of the universe.3 The human mind shares in that nature because it arose from and is a part of the universe. Much of the Christian influence on moral and ethical thought of the west is based on a self loathing ontological separatism that places humanity in a distinctly unique category of existence. The Christian explanation of the existence of humanity puts us at odds with the principles of the Christian God's creative activity. In contrast, a complexity based view of humanity sees us as a result of the founding principles of the universe not their contradiction.


The next step in drawing closer to the applicability of a universal perspective on complexity in the formulation of human ethical perspectives is to determine how the principles of specification flux and increasing complexity work themselves out in the functioning of a human mind. To move towards this, I will discuss an observation that was made above. This observation, that the mind is a configuration of energy, relates to the the idea that energy and information are always bound together. There is no observable example of energy existing without information (the specification of energy being its informational aspect). There is also no example of information existing without being embedded in energy. This unity of energy and information also applies to the human mind. There is no idea, perspective, feeling or cognitive constitution of any type, no matter how abstract or seemingly epiphenomenal in the workings of a human mind, that is not embedded in a specific configuration of energy that exists in the functioning of the brain. The brain exists in the context of a larger configuration of energy that is the body, which exist in the even larger energy configuration of our environment. This means that, to the extent that consciousness is made up of specific configurations of energy, it is subject to the principle of specification flux within the constraints of the structure of the brain and the brain's extended environment. This also means that the tendency of the universe to move towards greater complexity is also expressible in the human brain. The question of what kind of "cooling down" or what kind of energetic attenuation is needed to optimize the rise of complexity in individual human minds and human civilizations is addressed by seeking to understand the nature of the universal rise in complexity relative to the constellation of energy configurations that compose and affect human consciousness.

The key here is that the application of this perspective is relative to our experience of human consciousness. The observation that our experience of consciousness is always grounded in specific energy forms and thus makes us subject to same universal nature as all other energy forms merely points us in a useful direction. This means that it is unnecessary to become overly technical to the extent that our experiences can be discussed in simple terms. Just as a few simple observations about the universe laid the foundation for this perspective, a few simple observations about humanity will sketch out the application of this perspective.

We live in the context of a lot of pre-existing complexity. In our biological environment, nurturing that complexity and developing our capacity to increase in complexity is difficult. Our extant complexity makes us very sensitive little beings. The very existence of sapient sensitivity is a manifestation of the universe's increased complexity and that complexity needs to be maintained and developed. Anyone who has taken care of a baby knows of their fragility, their resiliency and of the tender nature of their little minds. As the complexity of biology cannot arise in close proximity to the full, raw energetic reactions of the sun, the full capacity of our extant complexity and our ability to increase in complexity cannot survive the raw heat of the blunt and brutal energy transactions that characterize much of the history of humanity's struggle to survive. The ability of most people to live in a way that richly affirms the full depth of their complexity is often destroyed before they even manage to grow up. When all is war, the great beauty and genius of the human spirit is reduced from its full complexity to a simple, blunt struggle to survive. The stressful circumstances of conflict, presses our hearts and minds in such a way that we are often reduced and simplified by conflict in a manner that slows down, halts, or even reverses the rise of the complexity and intelligence of a civilization. It may be true that necessity is the mother of invention. However, we can become too obsessed with our necessities in a way that more than meets our needs for survival, yet also far passes the point of diminishing return with regard to affirming complexity.

The natural way to increase the complexity and intelligence of humanity is to determine the nature of energetic flow relative to the human mind, then attenuate that energy in a way that is characteristic of the universe's manner of increasing complexity. It is important to first define what kind of energy we talking about with regard to the human mind. That energy is attentiveness. Attentiveness is to the human mind what light and heat is to a star. Human attentiveness is the radiating energy that needs to be attenuated. One way of expressing this attenuation is to say that we need to increase the gentleness with which we treat and regard one another. Keep in mind that gentleness does not imply passivity. The most powerfully active minds are often very gentle when the attentiveness of such minds rises to their heights. This is because full human attentiveness in a complex environment has a diffusive character relative to the specification depth of the extraordinary complexity of our biological existence. All energetic attenuations in the universe can be euphemistically described as gentle. Insofar as they promote complexity, necessary energy attenuations are "gentle" to the needs of increasing complexity. I chose the word gentle because of the additional personal meanings in human attentiveness. Thriving, active human attentiveness, attenuated through optimal gentleness must precede an optimal increase in human complexity. I will choose another word to replace gentleness later.

When all is war, there is no time for the creation of the arts or the building of schools. When all is conflict, the full beauty and genius of humanity dies a death of attrition. When all is blunt survivalism, our full extant complexity and the incredible genius associated with it is all but completely destroyed. This destruction of the innate genius that is grounded in our extant complexity is primarily achieved through our exposure to too much of the raw, blunt heat of life's energetic transactions. This is not to say that war is against the nature of the universe. One look at biological life's ruthless battle amongst its various species to survive dispels that notion, since the complexity of life has increased as a result. When we decide to go to war, there is usually the idea in the hearts of warriors that they are fighting to create some gentler space in the world, whether it is through securing resources or defending against hostile forces, that they and their children may thrive. Even the phenomenon of war is a child of the universe and will share in its nature. Thus, war can serve the increasing complexity of the universe, but is an inferior tool for humanity's daily use. With warfare and other conflict based relations, there is a rapidly approaching point of diminishing return in which our capacity for complexity is diminished. In order for civilizations to advance, there must be spaces of relative peace in which gentle attentiveness flourishes.

In less destructive environs than warfare, we are still much too hot with one another to allow the genius of our extant complexity to fully nurture our species movement into an even greater complexity. As Buckminster Fuller said, "We are all born geniuses. But as we grow, life de-geniuses us." This failure to thrive in the full extent of our realizable genius (extant complexity) is severely limiting our ability to walk with the universe on the path of increasing complexity. This limitation is enforced by our tendency to be "too hot" with one another in our relationships.


The human brain shares in this movement from lesser to greater complexity. The transformation of the brain's capacities for complexity from birth into adult life is amazing. With regard to the de-genius effect that life applies to us, it does not require the full horror of war to dull down a human mind. Apart from the obvious examples of extreme repression and hideously violent forms that societies can take when not at war, there is a need to attenuate our attentive energies in even the most progressive societies. A child can be disabled from realizing its full potential just by hearing discouraging talk. We can abandon our visions of achievement due to fear, even when our fears are unfounded. It only takes is a mild lack of positive human attentiveness to cause some people to withdraw from the expression of their full potential. The full richness and sensitivity of our innate genius is a very delicate flower of our extant complexity that usually does not fully survive the heat of life even when the times are nominally peaceful. Our natal thriving as a species is like the energy of the sun. It is raw, powerful and desperately in need of attenuation if the complexity of our existence is to increase and be in harmony with the basic motion of the universe. At this point I will reduce the application of the principles discussed to one word that fulfills the full scope of gentleness (energy attenuation) required for the realization of our extant complexity and the advancing of complexity in the context of human relationships and civilizations. That word is courtesy. I realize that reducing the application of a perspective on a subject as unwieldy as human ethics to one word is a brutal thing to do in an act of communication. I will try to soften the blow.

It is important to distinguish the difference between courtesy as a formalism of convention and courtesy as a lifestyle of relatedness that expresses the full depth of human attentiveness. The formalisms of etiquette, however useful they may be, can be as ruthless and cruel as any protocol of war if the expression of etiquette is lacking in a rich depth of human attentiveness (lacking in heart). If courtesy is the framework of human energetic attenuation, human attentiveness is the energy that is being attenuated. Remember, attentiveness is to the human brain what light and heat is to a star. The relationship between attentiveness and courtesy can be expressed through complexity's need for the attenuation of energy to fall into a useful range. Like an earth too far from the sun, courtesy without sufficient attentiveness is too cold to support the full increase in complexity that humanity requires. Although courtesy without adequate attentiveness can still be superior to the raw, destructive heat of war, the full complexity of the human mind is far too glorious to be measured merely from the baseline of the raging of angry apes. Increasing complexity requires more than the mere absence of violence. It also requires that we give of ourselves in attentiveness to one another.

The earth must be far enough from the sun so the complexity of life may arise. It must also still continue to receive enough of a remnant of energy from the sun so the complexity of life may continue to increase. Active courtesy moves us far enough from the brutalities of human relatedness so that we do not burn up. However, that courtesy must be accompanied by a robust attentiveness of mind and heart so that we do not freeze. In this universe, complexity rises on the wings of gentleness (energetic attenuation). Yet, it still requires a remnant of sufficient energy to power those wings. If courtesy is the wings to lift our complexity to new heights, the attentiveness of the human mind is the wind beneath those wings. Human attentiveness is the wild, raw, hot energy that we need to feed to one another within the attenuating, complexity increasing constraints of courtesy.

That an increase in the quality (meaning with sufficient attentiveness) and quantity of courtesy in human relations will increase the intelligence (complexity) of human relations is a subject of easy demonstration. The incredible demise of rationality in public political discourse in the U.S. is one example. Listening to political talk in the U.S. is often like hearing undeveloped children bickering incoherently and spending most of their energy calling each other names. The staggering amount ad hominem rudeness that tries to pass for intelligent political conversation is scarcely believable for a technologically advanced society of the 21st century. If we lived in a society that believed being rude to anyone for any reason was just as shameful as being racist, the quality and intelligence of our public conversations would increase dramatically. If courtesy ruled public discourse, politicians and pundits would actually have to refrain from interrupting one another (courtesy). They would actually have to listen to and seek to understand one another (attentiveness). In such a courteous society, nobody would ever mistake agenda driven inattentiveness or ad hominem attacks for thoughtful discourse. Politicians and pundits would never dare to allow themselves to engage in intellectually debasing rudeness if the public did not already accept some level of rudeness as a matter of daily life. It is the failure of the whole U.S. society to maintain higher standards of courtesy that makes it easy for public political discourse to fail a basic intelligence test. The complexity of rational dialogue cannot be sustained nor increase in a sea of self centered inattentiveness and ad hominem sniper fire. The lack of public courtesy is a greater detriment to the intelligence of public discourse in the U.S. than any current failure of our education system.

Rudeness is simplistic, bluntly attentive, and thus too hot to allow the full potential of complexity in our conversations and our relationships to be realized. As such, rudeness is fundamentally against the human movement towards greater complexity and thus is not a trivial matter, but stands as a great obstacle to the advancement of human societies. Complexity ethics proclaims that a gentleness (energy attenuation) far more delicate than simply refraining from slaughtering each other is vital for the survival of humanity to the extent that we must increase our complexity and intelligence in order to survive and evolve. We must also refrain from discourtesy when we are attentive to one another. (For a different view of how simple discourtesies are categorically just as evil as much more harmful crimes, see my essay, "A Socratic Perspective on the Nature of Human Evil." This essay was written prior to and independently of my thinking on complexity ethics.)

It may seem strange to some that so much importance has been placed on courtesy. Yet, this emphasis is natural when one reflects on the various proportions of energetic attenuation in the universe relative to their corresponding increases of complexity. The mass and heat of the originating universe's plasma was tremendous. That energy moved into attenuation and we got particle energy. The structural complexity associated with particulate energy is greater than the complexity of the plasma from which it arose. The sun is much less hot and much less massive than the full energy with which the universe began. Yet, the sun's specification depth is greater than the originating plasma because it is made with the greater preexisting complexity of particle energy. When the sun's smaller energy moves into attenuation, we get a rise in complexity with the emergence of biological life that moves far beyond the baseline of the complexity of the particle energy from which biological life is composed. Now consider the human brain. It is much less hot and much less massive than the sun. Yet, the specification depth of a human brain is extraordinarily greater than that of the sun. Just as the sun's energy is scaled down from the originating plasma, yet is more complex than that plasma, the brain's energy is scaled down from the sun's, yet the brain is more complex than the sun. When the brain's energetic functions move into attenuation, the resulting expression of the brain's energy (attentiveness) that is capable of giving us our full rise in complexity is going to have to be extraordinarily subtle and extraordinarily gentle in proportion to the scale and complexity of the brain's energy. When dealing with the task of affirming and increasing complexity amidst the full specification depth of biology, we are moving to a much more delicate scale of attenuation. Attentive courtesy meets the delicate needs of affirming the biological complexity of human societies.

Complexity ethics predicts that ethical principles, which can best accommodate our rise in complexity, will have to move beyond a simple absence of horrific violence or protecting people against the violation of some concept of human rights. We are used to seeing the violation of humanity in very blunt terms. However, due to the amazing preexisting complexity of biology, great violence can be done to the realization of our full complexity with even the smallest social slights. Yes, our full complexity is that fragile. To insure that human complexity increases, the energetic attenuation of our minds must be on par with attending to the specification depth of biology. We cannot afford to be blunt with one another even in small ways. Human brains thrive best and human complexity increases best when we are bathed in a warm bath of gentle yet actively thriving human attentiveness. So it is that our raw power, which is the energy of our human attentiveness, must be attenuated through frameworks of the utmost courtesy in order for humanity to optimally move forward with our primary ethical obligation to affirm and increase complexity.


Complexity ethics anticipates some of our most valued existing ethical principles on the basis of the structure of its central ethical imperative. The affirmation imperative does not directly address specific circumstances with predetermined context dependent rules. The reason is that the affirmation imperative attends to the structure of complexity itself. Since the structure and dynamics of complexity underlie all possible circumstances of our existence, the affirmation imperative can be categorically asserted. Everyone should always act in a way that affirms complexity. The categorical nature of the affirmation imperative points us away from focusing on context dependent rules to the development of a complexity affirming state of mind.

Increasing in complexity requires that we increase our energy output, which is to become more powerful by becoming more attentive. The trick is to become more attentive in a way that is not too hot and thus affirms and supports the full complexity of our existence. Human attentiveness is the radiating energy of the human mind. Affirming complexity involves a change in the characteristics of our attentiveness. The transducer characteristics of the functioning of our attentiveness must be tuned to be able to realistically interact with the full specification depth of biology in order for complexity to increase. This means that just refraining from violating one another in the myriad of ways that we do is not enough. In order to increase in our complexity, it is not enough to embrace a list of blunt rules. Complexity affirming ethics must move beyond the rules (beyond good and evil) to emphasize a state of gentle, complexity affirming attentiveness. Complexity ethics predicts that any ethical principles capable of helping us construct a complexity affirming state of mind will reflect this movement. Humans have always been a part of the universe. It would not be surprising to find that the universal movement towards increasing complexity has always been active within us. It is also not surprising that such complexity affirming principles have already been articulated.

Any ethical principle capable of richly and dynamically affirming complexity will focus more on our state of attentiveness than on specific rules. An example of this is Jesus' reduction of law to love. Jesus said that the most important thing is to love. When he made clear that the fulfillment of all the laws of his people depended on love (Matt 22:37-40), Jesus articulated a focus that transcended rules in favor of a complexity affirming state of mind. So it is not surprising that Jesus said it is not enough to refrain from murder (the rule), but that we must also not be angry with one another (the state of mind). The movement from blunt rules about easily definable circumstances to the more complex and subtle cognitive functions of a complexity affirming state of mind is a necessary step in humanity's thriving towards increased complexity. It is not surprising that Confucius said that what we do not wish for ourselves, we should not impose upon others. Confucius' principle, which Jesus also stated in a different way ("Do unto others...), raises the complexity bar by stating we should give others the same quality of attentiveness that we give to ourselves. Jesus also reaches the same effect with, "Love your neighbor as yourself." It is not surprising that Buddhist thinking generates such a powerful emphasis on gentle compassion and such statements as, "Love all others as if each person was your only child." Such principles emphasize our attentiveness instead of specific rules. Some of the greatest ethical views of our entire history are completely anticipated from this complexity oriented view on ethics. Just by considering the nature of human complexity and the required energy attenuation needed to optimize it, we have an independent method for generating such principles and explaining their value.

In complexity ethics, it is not moral or ethical to love your neighbor as yourself because it is "nice," or because God said so. It is moral and ethical to love your neighbor as yourself because this is a complexity affirming state of mind capable of more accurately tuning the transducer characteristics of the human brain to the specification depth of our biological environment. This tuning is absolutely necessary. In a complex information/energy system, the possible radiance of energy is limited relative to the structure of energy bindings in the system. Relating this to the informational aspect, we have to understand that our human attentiveness (the radiant energy of our minds) lives in a context of extant complexity of such profound specification depth that our attentiveness must embody a diffusive character relative to that specification depth. There is a sea of information in our environment. We cannot afford to pay too much attention to a single piece of or small set of that information if it is at the expense of larger sets of relevant data. The human tendency to make too much of single facts or small sets of facts in a way that undermines the contribution of larger sets of data is the underlying corruption of reason in all bigotry. The living soul of bigotry is that it ignores complexity. Complexity affirming states of mind give us the the diffusive character of human attentiveness needed to do justice to the full depth of detail that is a manifestation of our extant complexity, and optimizes our chance of increasing in complexity. In complexity ethics, it is ethical to love your neighbor as yourself because this puts us into greater harmony with the universal movement towards increasing complexity. It is not surprising that complexity affirming ethical principles already exist. From the view point of complexity ethics, it is expected. This means that the special revelation of religion is not required to generate moral knowledge. Reason, responding to simple observations on the nature of complexity, can generate moral and ethical knowledge including the most important and valued ethical teachings of Jesus.4

Rule transcending, complexity affirming, ethical principles like, "Love your neighbor as yourself" are notoriously difficult to follow. This is why Christianity can claim to follow a man who said we should love our enemies and still have such a disastrously and brutally violent history. The development of complexity based ethical perspectives can add a much needed epistemological rigor to the development of future ethical perspectives, which seek to incorporate rule transcending principles. Epistemological rigor, as opposed to the rigors of blindly attached faith in any particular mythic tradition, is the proper foundation for human ethics. Simple knowledge, simply expressed, will do more to advance our ethical character than any amount of ruthless insistence that the myriad details of our mythic imaginations are somehow true. Complexity ethics can predict, explain and foster a more robust fulfillment of the most important ethical goals of all the major religions. Using complexity as a simple standard of measure, we can create and understand principles as simple as common courtesy and as profound as loving your enemies without the need to resort to theology. The most profitable knowledge of our moral/ethical dimension is not religious, it is secular. Ordinary secular knowledge is the foundation of moral/ethical understanding. Complexity is one framework to harness that truth. (For a very clear demonstration of the absolute priority of knowledge over faith pertaining to moral understanding, see the Socratic dialogue "The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith.")


All this talk about complexity raises the question of the importance of simplicity in human life. As James T. Kirk once said, "The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play." To illustrate the importance of simplicity's connection to complexity, I will borrow and handily mutilate an image from the poet Kahlil Gibran. While the strings of a guitar vibrate together with the same music, yet there are still spaces between the strings. The spaces between the strings actually help the strings voice the music, since a bundle of strings together are made mute. In the midst of the increasing complexity of humanity, there must always be spaces of simplicity, which allows our complexity to function. It is precisely with regard to our inner simplicity of mind, our inner child, that we need the attenuating gentleness of attentive courtesy the most. The tender, simple, childlike mind within each of us is always the first casualty of the heat and is in desperate need of gentle, attentive courtesy in order to thrive. As the spaces between the strings are essential for the production of music on the guitar, our simplicity of mind is essential for the flourishing of our genius (complexity). Ironically, in order to increase in complexity, we must learn to be simple. In order to learn to be simple, we must grow in our gentleness with ourselves and one another. By growing in our gentleness with one another, we will take a walk with the universe and travel into greater complexity.5

(The next essay in this series on complexity ethics will focus on how specific simplicities serve increasing complexity. In the mean time, I have already written about one such simplicity in the essay, "A Socratic Perspective on the Zombie Apocalypse." This essay was written prior to my coming up with the idea of complexity ethics.)


1 That the actual constituents of this plasma were quarks-gluons does not have a complete consensus among scientists. The early development of the universe is still speculative. The lack of confirmed knowledge about the early universe does not negate the basic observation that there is universal movement of increasing complexity. Nor does it interfere with the inference that this motion towards increasing complexity is at the foundation of our existence and is relevant to our thriving as a species. Even if we ignored the rise of complexity in the universe as a whole and also ignored the rise of complexity with the development of life on earth, individual human beings demonstrate a dramatic rise in complexity in the time span from their birth to their maturation as adults. This alone is sufficient to sustain the idea that complexity is a worthy basis for doing ethics, even if this smaller scope is not as poetically satisfying.

2 I am content to think of specification flux as either a single principle or set of principles in cooperation.

3 The emergence of new properties at each new level of complexity in the development of the universe does not seem to negate the continuing influence of basic characteristics that continue to affect each level. Specification flux and the envelope of movement towards increased complexity are just as much a part of biological life as the particle energy from which it arose.

4 This view of ethics is not incompatible with religious beliefs per se. If you believe that God created the universe, it should not surprise you that we can learn something by observing that universe.

5 Deciding if this journey of the universe is good or evil is beyond the scope of complexity ethics. Reciprocally, complexity ethics' refusal to impose simplistic dichotomies on the extraordinarily complex data of biological life gives it the capacity to generate a knowledge of useful ethical imperatives, which can engage the full diversity and complexity of human experience in a way that is beyond good and evil.