The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

I argue that the word goodness should be interpreted to mean, in the most fundamental sense of the word, “effectiveness”. I also argue that since effectiveness is a factual issue, goodness is a factual issue. These controversial positions of mine raise a lot of thought provoking questions and challenges from readers. I am using this feedback to guide me in my process of extrapolating the implications of my definition of goodness here on the blog.

Last week, at a commenter’s request, I talked about how the standard of effectiveness could help us judge the relative merits of alternative, competing ways of being effective, using the case of teachers as an example. In reply I got several comments, each of which I would want to reply to in a post of its own if ever there is the time. In this post, I will focus on the further reply of the commenter whose earlier comment inspired the post on measuring effective teachers:

Thanks for a very interesting reply to the first of my questions. So if I understand your position correctly, while you are acknowledging there are challenges in measuring the effectiveness of a teacher, there is no intrinsic reason not to be able to do so. The good (effectiveness) of a teacher is a question of tangible effect, and while that effect is difficult to quantify in a meaningful way there is nothing intrinsic to the effect that is immeasurable – given a sufficiently powerful means of measurement and a meaningful metric, effectiveness is a concrete attribute, not an abstract one.

Again as I understand it the concrete good (effectiveness) is in terms of empowerment of the individual (in this case the pupil) to achieve greater complexity (and although it is not explicit in the articles I read, I assume that you mean mental complexity in this case, and in all cases ordered complexity – chaotic systems can be increasingly complex but seem to me to be rarely a reasonable target for development). So a further question here – is all increase in complexity a desirable (and therefore a good) target? Increasing complexity seems such an arbitrary measure of progress – and complexity is also a difficult property to measure, and so we come back to the problem that you claim that something is a matter of “truth” yet what is the truth and what is being measured seems to vague for me to accept the argument as put so far (that is not to say I reject it – it is an interesting concept, I am just not convinced that the “truth” of good/ effectiveness is adequately supported by your model).

For example, it could be argued that the quality that life possesses and develops towards is not increasing complexity per se, but increasing fitness to its environment (to borrow the language of evolutionary science). Generally it may be the case that increasing fitness is positively correlated to increasing complexity, but it is not guaranteed. So to go back to our teaching example, if surpressing complex development increased fitness to the pupils environment, what would be more “effective”, a teacher that promoted complex behaviour that made the pupil less fit for their environment, or a teacher that inhibited the emergence of complex development that increased the pupils fitness to their environment.

Once again this is not to say that either “complexity” or “fitness” are immeasurable therefore good is a qualitative abstract term. It may well be that “good” is a matter of “fact” – your approach certainly provides for meaningful discussion about the actuality of the concept of “good” rather than the “we know it when we see it” approach to examining it.

My response is below the fold:

Yes, I do not suffer from Sam Harris Disease, I do not think goodness is just a “we know it when we see it” kind of issue. I am taking a factual part of the world (relationships of effectiveness), which are already designated with the word goodness in ordinary language and showing how if we are careful and methodical, we can ground all our other senses of the word good in such facts and debate about such facts rationally.

Sometimes empirical science will be of greater aid and sometimes of lesser, not because the issues are ever not ultimately about facts but because sometimes the relevant facts are not strictly quantifiable and sometimes because what is needed is philosophical analysis of the meanings of concepts and how to avoid practical contradictions, etc. But, ultimately, the whole account is an attempt to translate values out of the mysterious realm of the supposedly “non-factual” into the terms of the factual world around us.

The questions usagichan raises are the precise ones to address next. “Why is greater complexity a better thing than lesser complexity?” Or, to translate this into the factual question, “Why should we think greater complexity, as a general rule, can be expected to lead to greater effectiveness than lesser complexity does?”

By complexity, I do not mean the kind that could be involved in chaos. usagichan raises precisely the distinction I would in pointing out that when I have been referring to complexity as a good, I have meant ordered complexity. By ordered complexity I do not mean necessarily that there has to be an orderer behind a given complex for it to count. What I refer to is a system in which individual effective (i.e., good) things combine with other individual effective things to create another functionally effective being out of their interaction.

This ordering could be elements binding to make a molecule, cells ordering together to make an organ, organs coordinating to make a living body, a body and its brain teaming up to make a person, people working together in order to make a formal or informal social organization. Wherever simpler beings of less parts, less complexity, and less efficaciousness in isolation link up together to create something (literally or figuratively) bigger than themselves and in doing so they do not sabotage each other’s best, most effective functioning but rather amplify it, then there is an increase in ordered complexity, an increase in effectiveness, and, that means, an increase in value.

There are several ways in which beings of lesser effectiveness linking up together increases effectiveness.

The first is that by combining their strengths they each enhance each other individually. My finger is more capable at doing what it does effectively because there are other fingers supporting it. The second is that in a complex being, each component being can increase its effectiveness by contributing (and sometimes to a decisive extent) to powerful effects on the world that it could not have accomplished on its own. Imagine all the things that an individual finger could never do but which it is able to do as part of a whole hand of them. Look at the world of powers that opens up for the fingers when they have each other and then when they gain opposable thumbs to work with.

Or how much is the power of the piano to communicate increased when added to its effectiveness with its melodies there are other instruments, each of which is constantly contrasting or synchronizing with it in some way or another adding layer upon layer of possibilities for effectiveness.

Or how much is an individual enhanced by the support of other people or by being able to participate in activities where her one excellent contribution is backed up by tens or dozens or hundreds or thousands or millions of people and so its impact is maximized.

So, we can say that both quantitatively a lesser complexity is able to do what it does better when supported by partners that amplify its effects. Qualitatively, a lesser complexity is able to add to its repertoire of good things it effectively can contribute to by teaming up with other lesser complexities to do things neither of them could do on their own. In fact, many lesser complexities utterly depend (at least in nature) on the larger ordered complexity to do their own sub-effective activity.

Take, for example, a kidney—maybe it can be grown and function in a lab, but in nature it can only develop as a functioning, effective, good kidney as part of the larger complex of the body. And for it do its most powerfully effective thing, it needs to be contributing to that body. Its greatest impact of effectiveness in creating goods in the world outside its intrinsic kidney functions (i.e., more instances of effectiveness, with greater consequences) is all bound up in the body it supports excelling at creating effectiveness.

All things being equal, greater ordered complexes are intrinsically better than lesser ordered complexes. They are not advisable though in cases where they would destroy even greater, more valuable complexes than themselves. Or where the nature of their own complex is damaging to their own component parts in a self-destructive way that is not compensated for by great creations of goodness outside themselves.  Or where the ordered complex is, for some reason ordered but less efficiently than a simpler complex that got more power out of its component parts and their combinations. Or where the complex runs into unfortunate happenstance for which it is less efficiently equipped than a less complex being.

It is because of the combination of parts is not merely additive when it comes to effectiveness but multiplicative that complexes are generally far more valuable than the components of which they are made. This is a big part of why I do not think that maximal individual human power is rightly conceived of apart from maximal contribution to overall human flourishing. It is why I do not think there are often cases where the best thing for me to do is not the best thing for my fellow humans’ flourishing.

My own flourishing is bound up with my effectiveness according to human powers. Even though I can do them well in isolation, for example, I can think brilliant thoughts all alone, I can only have my expressions of my powers multiply in their effectiveness if I can increase your effectiveness too and make you, to that extent, another functioning of my power. When I contribute to your flourishing, I function well, I flourish, according to my constitutive powers through you. And when I contribute to many people’s flourishing I excel more than I could possibly just within the confines of my own body and brain.

The person who uses a tool effectively builds something. The person who invented the tool effectively contributes to, is powerful, is effective in the world, is good through each such usage of that tool by others. And the person who built something contributes to the flourishing of others every time that that which was built contributes to their flourishing.

The social order makes that happen. Preserving and advancing the social order itself means being effective through every excellent flourishing that happens within it. George Washington, though long dead, is powerful every day in America. So is Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. People like them who powerfully effect the molding, the maintenance, or the reimagining of the very order of a whole society function powerfully through that order and have a share of effectiveness in its every successful realization of power (i.e., goodness).

And that is why they are rightly called great people.

With this spelled out, I will address the evolutionary fitness vs. intrinsic excellence dichotomy in another post. The simple answer though is this: evolutionary fitness selects for what complexes are best in what circumstances but sometimes it thwarts, selects against, or just plain never happens to develop a given better, more efficient, more excellent complex. That does not make those greater ordered complexes not better.

Sometimes, there is no environmental reason an organism could not have greater intrinsic powers (e.g., be stronger, have a more efficient and powerful respiratory system, have greater intelligence or capacities for social organization, etc.) but the organism was unlucky in that it never developed the right gene or the needs of its evolutionary past constrained its development in ways which were necessary then but which are unfortunate in the present.

Sometimes, the current environment does prohibit a theoretically greater, more effective ordered complex. In such cases we can say that it is in fact better and more effective that we have a different and lesser ordered complex that serves our environmental needs, but it would still surely be better were we in an environment more conducive to our more maximal intrinsic flourishing/power/effectiveness/goodness.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • pixelinabitmap

    Let me first say that I’ve only recently discovered your blog, and I’ve been reading your articles mostly at random and enjoying some of them immensely (the “Big Brother” or “Heavenly Father” article gave me a mental orgasm).

    I’m curious, in light of what you are discussing here, if you are familiar with Chaos Theory. From usagichan’s use of the word “chaotic” to mean disordered, I would surmise that he/she is not, and since you ran with that definition, I’m inclined to assume that neither are you. It seems to me that the thrust of this article is to explore the inherent value of increasingly complex systems (which are, in fact, chaotic, though not in the colloquial sense of the word). It also seems to me that the discussion would benefit from the insights that Chaos Theory has to offer on the subject. That, and I have an ulterior motive — I’m wondering if you’ll find it as fascinating as I do, and what you’ll have to say about it.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, pixel, that’s extremely encouraging to learn you’ve been digging through the old posts and finding them rewarding! So many never got read as much as I’d like, so it’s always gratifying when I hear they’re being profitably read!

      I am sorry to disappoint, however, and report that I am nearly entirely ignorant of physics so cannot speak to chaos theory in the slightest. I do indeed find physics fascinating but I did not until recent years. I tend to find such subjects too daunting to even dabble with since I think you need a comprehensive grasp to really reason about any smaller issues.

      I would be interested to hear more of what you think the impact of chaos theory would be on my account of order and complexity and their value. I would say from what I think you’re saying in your remarks that the key issue is whether order arising out of chaos is somehow less a kind of order since its source is a kind of chaos. I do not see why that would be. Order and complexity would be what they are, regardless of whether on more basic levels of their constitution there is “chaos” at work. The order is the order to me, regardless of such other levels.

    • pixelinabitmap

      I would be interested to hear more of what you think the impact of chaos theory would be on my account of order and complexity and their value. I would say from what I think you’re saying in your remarks that the key issue is whether order arising out of chaos is somehow less a kind of order since its source is a kind of chaos.

      The point of mentioning Chaos Theory was more oblique than that. No, I absolutely don’t think that order arising out of chaos is a lesser kind of order. It’s just that, having read this article, and a few others (like the one about free will and the one about effectiveness), it seems to me that you keep intuitively closing on and circling the essence of Chaos Theory. I think that you would find it interesting precisely because it has the conceptual framework you are grasping for in so much of what you write. Maybe you’ll even have an “aha!” moment as satisfying as I did when I stumbled on it. That was why I brought it up. Well, that, and I’m curious where you would take it after that — the reason I’ve enjoyed so much of your writing is because you seem to perfectly articulate so many purely intuitive understandings I’m carrying around in my head, and I find it cathartic to have them shifted out of the realm of pure intuition and into more solid, graspable ideas that can be used to actually reason with.

      Anyway, I imagine it would be helpful to know/understand enough math to be able to comprehensively grasp the details (though I certainly don’t), but it’s quite possible to get a feel for the basics of Chaos Theory without it. There are some helpful primers around the internet. If you’d like, I could email you a paper I wrote in college about it, but only on the condition that you never quote it in a public forum, because I don’t think I could live down the embarrassment.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Forgive my delay in replying, pixel. I have just been waiting for a good moment to really read through what you and usagichan are saying more carefully and think through its implications. I find the possibilities very exciting and the parallels with Nietzsche (who was enamoured of the idea of chaos too) very pregnant.

      Feel free to send the college paper, I won’t publish it. Just blackmail you with it ;)

      Stay tuned and as I get a handle on the chaos theory concepts I hope to address them directly.

      Thanks again for the support! It’s a wonderful feeling to find kindred minds!

    • usagichan

      Hi pixel,

      firstly, to save awkward neutral gramitical constructs I’m a he. Secondly, absolutely with you on being delighted to find this blog. I was sucked along with the Pharyngula horde, but while I like to read pharyngula the comments often move too fast for my taste, and before I have a chance to think about what I want to say everything has moved on.

      Thirdly I am interested in what I said that made you think I do not know about chaos theory. Whilst the maths is well beyond me, I have read a little about the general principles (and indeed I tend to think that the experience of identity is the emergent property of a clasically Chaotic system, the human Central Nervous System). I am not convinced however that Daniel is refering to a Chaotic system when he uses the term “Ordered Complexity”. In a Chaotic system, the farther you move from the start position the less you are able to predict the direction of the systems movement, yet the concept of “ordered complexity” as I understand it from the post, is one in which the constituents develop in a predictable and therefore desirable direction. Of course if one interprets the concept of good as that which mediates a Chaotic (in the classical sense) system towards a more optimal state, it would begin to make some sense to me.

    • usagichan

      Ah, scratch the question about what asking what I said that made you doubt I had come across chaos theory – I am sure you mean

      chaotic systems can be increasingly complex but seem to me to be rarely a reasonable target for development

      which indeed is inadequately expressed (although the use of the term “system” implies a relationship between components that “random” would not; it would be disingenuous of me to claim that when in fact I had merely given insufficient consideration to my terminology).

      Your reply did set off a very interesting train of thought for me however – thanks for that!

  • usagichan

    Just to add a few points to the above – the definition of good I have come to through Daniel’s post and Pixelinabitmap’s comment relies on the possibility of a formal definition either of the optimal state of a Chaotic system (which may be impossible, my maths is not up to that level) or of the possibility of a formal definition the optimality of State change in a Chaotic system. Given that either of these are possible, one must accept that it is possible to establish the degree to which one stimulus moves towards or achieves a more optimal state compared to another. The difference between the two could then be established as a direct measure of the “good” of the stimuli. Conversely, stimuli which produce a negative change or movement away from the optimal state could be defined as “bad”.

    Also, my initial thought was entirely of the biological system, the CNS of an individual. However the social structures within which individuals operate could equally be Chaotic systems (and indeed it seems likely that they are). Therefore the same definition could be extended to larger social groupings (although it might be more accurate to examine things in terms of the direction and extent of a particular stimulus on all individual members of a particular group – otherwise one might end up with a Borg collective idealisation of society, where the individual has no value in terms of the whole).

    • pixelinabitmap

      Hi usagichan!

      I’ll just use one reply to address both of yours, if you don’t mind, to save confusion.

      The reason I thought you were unfamiliar with Chaos Theory was because you used the word “chaotic” in what seemed to me to be a more colloquial sense of “disorganized”, as an antonym to “ordered”. My mistake — you certainly seem to know your Chaos Theory.

      However, I still think that Daniel’s thrust with what he’s been saying about effectiveness and organized complexity has nothing to do with predictability.

      I guess it might be useful to outline my own understanding here. From what I’ve learned about Chaos Theory it seems to me that, basically, all naturally arising systems are chaotic ones. All organisms (and all substructures functioning within organisms as well, because complex systems are fractal, and so, every time you zoom in, you are presented with a picture as complex as the one you were previously examining) are chaotic systems. The weather is a chaotic system. So is the Sun. So is the atmosphere of Jupiter. So are systems made up of multiple organisms — from ant colonies to human societies. All of these systems lack (long-term, though not usually short-term) predictability simply because there are too many factors involved for a human mind to grasp. Nonetheless, they exhibit stability and function effectively over their lifetimes. In fact, it seems to me, that we humans keep screwing ourselves by attempting to build simple, deterministic, Newtonian systems in our societies on large and small scales that give rise to all manner unforeseen consequences (perverse incentives anyone?), in the hope that their inherent (or, rather, imagined) predictability will make them effective. It’s not like I have a better alternative to suggest, but it seems to me that it’s an avenue of thought that is ripe for exploration and, in fact, needs to be explored for the sake of improved effectiveness of human action on any scale.

      And (if that rant made any sense) this is why I think that using the word “chaotic” in opposition to “ordered” is a misnomer (if one is familiar with Chaos Theory) and “random”, “disordered”, or “entropic” might work better to designate not unpredictability of a system but a lack of organized complexity. This is why I took issue with the post that Daniel was quoting.


      Of course if one interprets the concept of good as that which mediates a Chaotic (in the classical sense) system towards a more optimal state, it would begin to make some sense to me.

      I think this is actually mostly what Daniel means. However, I think I disagree with your speculation that the concept of “bad” is whatever makes the system move away from an optimal state. Chaotic systems are dynamic, not static — moving away from an optimal state could cause them to break down or, alternatively, to change and move toward a different optimal state. I think it is the continual movement which holds the promise of gradual improvement, of states “more optimal” than the ones previously occupied that Daniel was after with his definition of “good”.

    • usagichan

      Hi Pixel

      You caught me not fully thinking things through again, and you are quite right when you said

      I think it is the continual movement which holds the promise of gradual improvement, of states “more optimal” than the ones previously occupied that Daniel was after with his definition of “good”.

      – indeed when I was thinking about your reply, I considered such things as Catharsis, where the sub-optimal State suffered by the individual is required to move to a more optimal state.

      A better definition of “bad” would be those stimuli that increase entropy within the system, reducing the potential of the system to achieve new States. Here I thought about the idea of fear – in appropriate context it can be both beneficial and (as lovers of horror movies will attest) a positive emotional state (therefore “Good”). But when it becomes so overwhelming that it actually reduces the potential activity of the rest of the system (for example the fear of Hell) the net effect is negative (entropy is increased, there is less potential for movement in an “optimal” direction) therefore it becomes “bad”).

      Of course it still leaves the problem of defining “optimal states” and being able to measure “state changes”, but as a framework for a concrete definition of Good and Bad it seems to me to be a reasonable departure point.