Friday, February 7, 2020

Network Behavior and Christian Ethics

In designing software for computer networks, the Robustness Principle states 
"Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept"
The first half of the Robustness Principle ensures that the program doesn't pollute the network with malformed output, and the second half ensures high uptime. When this code of conduct becomes the dominant design among individual agents, the network as a whole functions smoothly and fulfills its purpose.

Humans society is also a communication network of sorts, where moral norms govern the principles of interaction. The dominant moral code of the modern world is Secular Humanism, a non-theistic descendant of Christianity. It inherits some ideas from its Christian forebears in an attenuated form, especially Human Rights and care for victims.

We take for granted that it is good to help the destitute, or that each human has a moral worth no matter how poor, foreign, or disfigured they are. But these concepts weren't present in the Roman world prior to the rise of Christianity. As 1,700 years of Christian dominance is coming to an end, it's hard for us to comprehend that people once lived in a completely different moral universe.

Comparing Secular Humanism to Christianity, we see that the former is new, rational, and small while Christianity is old, surprising, and syncretic. It is like the difference between a Christmas tree farm and an old-growth pine forest, or a fresh moonshine and an old scotch.

The distillation process that gave birth to Secular Humanism was a rational philosophical movement away from religion, known as the Enlightenment. Many of the moral goals of Christianity made it through the filter of rational analysis, while its ethical principles of conduct did not fare so well and were largely discarded.

This is a terrible loss. Morality (what is good) without ethics (how to act) can and will be abused to bully other humans in the pursuit of status, power, and other scarce resources. We see this dramatically illustrated by the world of social media. Everybody claims to be a good person, at the same time that "cancelling" members of rival factions is a popular pastime. Appeal to genuine moral good becomes a cynical move in vicious competitions among people to dominate and destroy each other.

The lost ethical codes of Christianity can be seen as fences that create and maintain a positive-sum moral commons. They constrain the behavior of each individual to produce more benefit than cost for the community. The result is a community that functions better for everyone. These principles include:

The underlying principle of Christian ethics can be summarized to something like a Robustness Principle for human networks: be generous in the behavior you accept from others, and conservative in the behavior you impose on others. Elsewhere in the scriptures, there is justification for authority figures to get rid of truly bad actors who repeatedly violate these principles in order to maintain a high quality of conduct within the Church.

The writers of the New Testament are much more aware than we are today of how groups of people with good intentions can go down dark paths. Its ethical norms constrain us from sharpening moral goods into weapons to use against our fellow humans.

What would a networked world look like with a revival of Christian Ethics? I don't know. But it would likely be better than what we have. The norm of forgiveness alone would put a big dent in the worst excesses of cancel culture and other moral panics.

But there is an implementation problem with Christian ethics. If most people follow Christian ethics, it leads to a peaceful, gentle world. But if a small group of people do, they will tend to lose out to people that are more ruthless.

The ancient Christians bootstrapped their moral order into being with a transcendent ideal. They believed that they would win by losing, since the scales of justice would be balanced in the afterlife. It's hard to get a group of people to defy immediate self-interest without such a belief. Observers witnessed their sincerity through the ultimate demonstration of skin-in-the-game: martyrdom.

Today, Christians and people who want to live by Christian Ethics may lose social media battles if they refuse to adopt effective tactics that betray their principles. But it is not so grim for us as it was for the early church. For one thing, the penalties are not nearly so severe. And the digital world is fluid and offers social possibilities that the Roman Empire did not. Christians can fork their own private social networks where the majority of those who opt-in abide by the Christian code.

Over time, if these forums become known for high-quality discourse, outsiders may see them as a refreshing oasis amidst a world of danger and noise. Christ never cancels people. This could lead to a revival of Christian norms, or at least a powerful witness.

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