Complexity takes away human agency

Last year, we argued that addressing societal shifts involved in transitioning to a decarbonised economy by relying on legal standards alone is not enough. By invoking an ethical position, we presented the case for why we should operate to higher standards than the law.

In this piece, I aim to emphasise how crucial that guidance could be in unlocking material change, but simultaneously present the case for how it is, albeit highly desirable, subtly impractical. And I will briefly present some counteractions.

How morality drives change

It is often not immediate to grasp how moral agency and ultimate actions and change are importantly connected. In today’s highly interconnected society, media and information overload expose us to countless facts, issues, even fake facts. Our superficial knowledge increases but our genuine, subjective concern and engagement may not necessarily follow suit (eg rising sea levels raise awareness about climate change but do not often trigger corresponding direct behavioural change).

Morality may help us bridge that gap. Morality drives a deeper and stronger comprehension of issues. Comprehension forms the basis for a greater sense of attachment and responsibility towards an issue. Responsibility ultimately leads to actions and, potentially, change.

We are not here to reason morally or propose any new moral system for investors or for the climate crisis itself. We aim to explore the system we have and pragmatically try to identify the leverage points for a better version of it.

What it means in theory

A classic hierarchy for agency and morality within the human system follows three categories: the obligatory (what we ought to do, the right thing), the permissible (or the morally indifferent), and the forbidden (what we should not do). Anything above the right ceiling represents (uncapped) moral excellence (the good is vastly broader than the right).

The fragmented, fragile, unequal socioeconomic endowment we entered the current climate crisis with would require us to wisely move toward that area of excellence. Higher standards of morality above and beyond the call of duty would potentially grant us higher chances of more effective actions and consequent change in the face of unprecedented threats in time and scale.

What doesn’t work in practice

While the desirable direction is upward, the reality is compounded by forces dragging us down. Let’s examine some examples of what is acting in the opposite direction.

  • Division of labour and responsibilities – subdivision of tasks reduces individual moral agency
  • Pace of work[1] – speed can result in burnout and ethical shortcuts
  • Ownership structure – concentration of power and wealth limits collective and individual agency
  • Niche specialisation – professional isolation diminishes systemic agency
  • Technological dependence – task-outsourcing leads to ethical complacency
  • Overconsumption – material gratification prevails over long-term ethical considerations
  • Disintermediated global financial markets – anonymity and impersonality spur a-morality
  • Boom and bust cycles and consequent social impacts deteriorate moral space and freedom
  • Relentless push for productivity, efficiency, growth – profits over people, well-being, ecosystems

The main idea is that the increasing complexity of our current market economy and capitalist society, in the forms discussed above, inhibits morality from kicking in. Complexity marginalises it.

Imagine complexity as a spinning spiral, continuously pushing the system’s components (individuals, governments, corporations) farther from the centre and each other. The core of moral principles and the ties within the network are progressively weakened, resulting in less orderly, coherent and more conflicting moral values and human agency.

Double the curse!

We find ourselves increasingly incapable of imposing and enforcing minimum obligatory standards, let alone exceeding the requirements of duty.

I claim it to be no coincidence that the most important historical global environmental goals and targets (eg UN SDGs, NDCs, etc.) are non-legally binding or lack legal enforcement[2]. What seem to be obvious reasons for that – sovereignty, flexibility, participation, ambition, varied capabilities across countries, political incentives, etc – are the very factors limiting the potential of our system. Complexity erodes agency by even lowering the regulatory bar.

We could argue that limiting the reach of law is in theory a powerful way to widen the moral category of good, leaving more room for voluntary good. This is indeed the very principle of voluntariness embodied by the UN in 2015.

However, in times of crisis, the good is seriously out of reach so the obligatory threshold needs to rise.

Counteractions

As illustrated in the list above, the system weakens our agency, so we need strategies to push back. How? There is no short answer. I’ll suggest a twofold effort of strengthening ‘what we ought to do’ (via regulation) and ‘what can be done differently’ (work on our imagination).

Regulation is rooted in the present and therefore up for emergency countermeasures. But it is the imagination, on the other hand, that even precedes morality and works as an enabler for alternative worldviews. We at TAI discussed this here.

The climate crisis will likely repeatedly expose us to this question: despite mounting evidence, why aren’t we motivated to act? In this piece, I’ve tried to provide a broad idea of what forces are holding back our agency within the current system. I’ve also pointed to a lack of imagination as part of the problem that limits the space needed to nurture our minds with different system views.

In fact, “[i]magination is a basis for positive agency, building motivation to act before a crisis enforces reactivity”[3]. Imagination is among the most powerful ways to reverse the flattening of our agency under the forces of complexity.


[1] Junior Bankers Log 100-Hour Weeks Again, And Tensions Are Up  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-06-28/junior-bankers-log-100-hour-weeks-again-and-tensions-are-rising

[2] “Follow-up and review processes [of SDGs] will be voluntary and country-led, will take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and will respect policy space and priorities.” UN (2015). Transforming Our World The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015

[3] Bristow, J. Bell, R. Wamsler, C. Björkman, T. Tickell, P. Kim, J. Scharmer, O. (2024). The System Within: addressing the inner dimensions of sustainability and systems change. The Club of Rome. Earth4All: deep-dive paper 17. https://www.clubofrome.org/publication/earth4all-bristow-bell/