The Emergence of Ethical Norms in Human Systems

Mark Graves


Through the scientific study of human systems, one can model most activity as occurring on physical, biological, psychological and cultural levels where the boundaries occur in biochemical, neurological, and linguistic systems, respectively. The contemporary philosopher of science and religion Philip Clayton in Mind and Emergence suggests an additional emergent level of spiritual or transcendent activity, which emerges from mental (and cultural) activity, that in this systems model would capture activity at a fifth transcendent level. The transcendent level captures cross-cultural activities and norms such as those referred to in ethical, aesthetic and philosophical activities as relating to the Greek Good, Beauty, and Truth, respectively. The American pragmatist Josiah Royce suggests in The Philosophy of Loyalty that harmony between cultures can occur only when each culture’s ideals and cause include Loyalty to Loyalty, a commitment to the principle of commitment and dedication that demonstrates support and obligation to the loyalty of those in opposing cultures to their particular cause. (Royce, 1908) Royce argues convincingly that Loyalty to Loyalty not only provides harmony, but also suffices to distinguish the ethical or “true” causes as those that incorporate Loyalty to Loyalty. The cultural characteristic of Loyalty to Loyalty results in the emergent property of cross-cultural harmony and diversity at the transcendent level. Systems theory provides a tool for modeling personal and cultural interactions and the resultant emergent phenomena.

Following Terrence Deacon’s three orders of emergence, one may classify ethical systems into those that result in norms of relational properties, asymmetrical constraints, or information-bearing control. First-order emergence includes Kantian systems that depend upon universalization of a maxim of conditions across society. Second-order emergence includes the development of virtuous habits through practice. Third-order emergence includes Josiah Royce’s Loyalty to Loyalty where the aspiration and commitment to a principle is to the process of aspiration and commitment itself and results in a topological closure that provides ethical stability to various additional ethical or spiritual norms.


emergence; ethics; human systems; pragmatism; Josiah Royce; systems science; transcendence

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