Negative Organicism

11 May 2010


Sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth.

Probably everyone is familiar with the idea that a whole can represent more than the sum of its parts. Two versions of this idea have made it into popular culture, namely the Gestalt psychology of Wolfgang Köhler and the synergetics of Buckminster Fuller. In the latter case, Fuller cited the example of nichrome steel, more commonly known as stainless steel, since the tensile strength of stainless steel exceeds the combined tensile strengths of iron, nickel, and chromium taken individually that are the constituents of the alloy.

The same idea of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts, or at least different from the sum of its parts, is also to be found in a philosophical context in G. E. Moore’s discussion of organic wholes in his Principia Ethica. I know people who are repelled by Moore’s style of exposition and his thought, but I personally find it quite congenial. I appreciate the fact that Moore is so careful in his formulations, and the discussion of organic wholes is a perfect example of his careful approach. Moore gives the sense in which he uses “organic whole” in section 22:

…I shall, where it seems convenient, take the liberty to use the term “organic” with a special sense. I shall use it to denote the fact that a whole has an intrinsic value different in amount from the sum of the values of its parts. I shall use it to denote this and only this. The term will not imply any causal relation whatever between the parts of the whole in question. And it will not imply either, that the parts are inconceivable except as parts of that whole, or that, when they form parts of such a whole, they have a value different from that which they would have if they did not. Understood in this special and perfectly definite sense the relation of an organic whole to its parts is one of the most important which Ethics has to recognise. A chief part of that science should be occupied in comparing the relative values of various goods; and the grossest errors will be committed in such comparison if it be assumed that wherever two things form a whole, the value of that whole is merely the sum of the values of those two things.

However, despite the carefulness of Moore’s formulation, I see now that something has slipped through the cracks, as it were. In the above paragraph he writes, “a whole has an intrinsic value different in amount from the sum of the values of its parts,” and a little later in the same paragraph he writes, “the grossest errors will be committed… if it be assumed that wherever two things form a whole, the value of that whole is merely the sum of the values of those two things.” However, earlier in section 18 Moore writes, “It is certain that a good thing may exist in such a relation to another good thing that the value of the whole thus formed is immensely greater than the sum of the values of the two good things.” This seems to be the basic thrust of his exposition, but the idea that “a whole has an intrinsic value different in amount from the sum of the values of its parts” admits of two possibilities, and Moore only seems to be interested in one of them.

G. E. Moore (on the right), author of Principia Ethica, with Bertrand Russell, author of Principia Mathematica.

What about cases when a whole is less than the sum of its parts? What about cases of negative organicism, negative Gestalt, or negative synergetics? The idea is initially unfamiliar, but once we think about it we can come up with some plausible examples, and once we have both the principle and some examples in mind, we can look at the world a little differently knowing that this is a possibility that was not previously in the forefront of our minds.

In some cases the apparent instance of counter-productive excess is a consequence of a Gestalt or synergetic effect of an opposite property. A genuinely synergetic or Gestalt effect may greatly enhance a property or set of properties, and these properties are tied in an inverse relation with another property or properties, so that the apparent case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts follows from an opposite property being more that the sum of its parts. But this possibility does not rule out the possibility of cases in which an organic whole purely and of itself impairs a particular property of the whole.

The idea of “too much of a good thing” or “too many cooks spoil the broth” or that something can become counter-productive if it is extended beyond a proper scope are all instances of negative organicism, organic wholes that are less than the sum of their parts. An excess of any workers on a production line — not just cooks — is commonly believed to become counter-productive at some point. The larger a workplace becomes, the more anonymous it becomes, and the feeling and spirit of working toward a common goal becomes lost.

This practical observation about counter-productive excess may point to a deeper reason, i.e., a mechanism that accounts for the emergence of counter-productivity. There is a well known phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility” such that in large groups of people (usually more than three) individuals often fail to intervene or take responsibility for a situation, assuming that others will even when following the example of others also failing to offer to assistance. The most notorious case of diffusion of responsibility is the Kitty Genovese murder case in New York in 1964, although recent instances are also relatively well known.

I suggest that human compassion is one of those properties that is less than the sum of its parts, that is to say, that the organic whole of human society weakens the compassion felt by individuals, so that the compassion of a social group is less than the sum of the compassion of the members of that group. Acts of moral heroism are almost always the result of an individual acting as an individual and in exception to their role as a member of any given social group. It might sound odd at first to refer to this moral observation as a “mechanism” but it is indeed a moral mechanism by which moral perspectives and behaviors are changed.

What this says about mass society and mass man is not at all encouraging, though it does give us an explanatory framework for understanding some of the worst evils of our time. The horrors of the twentieth century — horrors of mass war and genocide — are the horrors of mass society as it emerged from industrialization. I will also observe that much of the twentieth century is a moral borderland in which moral perspectives are uncertain because more than one moral paradigm exists, and those that do exist are in competition with each other. Lack of social consensus further weakens moral impulses already weakened by the negative organicism of social wholes.

This suggestion may well be inconsistent with claims that I made in Selection for Neighborliness, but I will take up this possibility of inconsistency at another time.

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