The Bottom Line

We often judge how effective a structure is by how long it lasts; how it weathers storms and stands the test of time. In this sense, the good structure must maintain its solidity; must remain what it is. If this is the underlying decree of the structure - survival before all else - then it will necessarily abandon anything else it may stand for in order to uphold this imperative.

So whilst a structure like a "newspaper" may claim its primary purpose is the communication of truths, if, in doing so, it risks its own survival, then it will necessarily abandon this purpose - perhaps even directly contradict it - in order to uphold the purpose that lies beneath; its fundamental imperative of "survival above (or beneath) all else."

In assessing how serious a structure is about its purposes we must then ask; what lies at the bottom of this structure? What is the fundamental imperative upon which it is built? What is most important to it?

We can also view people as structures and can ask the same questions about them. Jesus presents us with an interesting example. He represents an archetypal structure, one which does not - unlike most - have "survival ahead of all else" at its roots. Perhaps one of the reasons why Jesus is important to us is for this very reason; that, if we unearth his deepest imperative we will not find it to be "survival" - a fact that is illustrated by his death. He was prepared to disregard "survival" in favour of something deeper. Digging down to his foundations we might find something like "Truth," a cause for which all else is abandoned. His structure came crumbling down in order for Truth to go on living. His example is an outstanding one because few structures will risk their own survival for something deeper.

This is why most structures are inherently compromised; because they are things, and they want to go on being these things. And this is why the ultimate sacrifice for any structure is always death.

Death needn't mean literal death. It could mean the death of a certain way of doing things, or of the current status quo. An example of this is the person who quits their job because they cannot, for a reason of conscience, continue to do it; and especially so in the case of the person who really cannot afford to make such a sacrifice, yet does so anyway, risking a potentially great upheaval - a descent into the unknown. The status quo crumbles so that something greater may live.

Most structures must be willing to shape-shift slightly in order to adapt to changing circumstances; indeed, whilst a sign of the strong structure may be its permanence, to endure in a world of change it must also have a critical amount of malleability. The question then, is how much change can a structure incorporate before it stops being what it is?

For a structure to remain fundamentally what it is, it must stay true to a certain amount of descriptive statements. If it does not then it will shift and slide into something else. So whilst a newspaper and a blog may have many similarities, there are also a critical amount of differences between them; and it is these differences that define each as separate from the other, allowing us to differentiate between the two and apply the relevant labels. If we imagine a structure as consisting of two circles, one contained within the other: the smaller circle represents the critical descriptive statements that the structure must uphold in order to remain what it is. In terms of a "newspaper" these could be things like "must be tangible", "must have pages" and so on. Outside of the smaller circle are contained all of those statements that can be subject to change. These could be things like "size must be broadsheet", "must contain x amount of pages" and so on. All of these latter statements can be abandoned without the structure risking its fundamental integrity, without it becoming something other than what it is (without "newspaper" becoming "blog").

So when we talk about the survival of a structure it is probably this inner circle - the core descriptive statements - to which we are referring. As long as these remain true then "survival" continues; but if any one of these statements is contradicted then "survival" is threatened. Death, in this sense, is always followed by immediate rebirth; the structure stops being one thing and becomes another.

So to place a value like "Truth" beneath "survival" may mean that we are willing to reform our structure - to become liquid, dissolve and reform - if, and when, we need to. We shed our skin - death to the old - so that we may become something else; all in service to this deeper purpose.

What, then, can we say about those structures which have "survival" as their fundamental imperative? When and why might this be a problem?

We've already mentioned newspapers, but charities also provide us with interesting case studies. Let's look at Oxfam. Its purpose - its reason for being - is to "fight global poverty." An organization was formed, a structure built for a purpose, and global poverty is, we can presume, best fought through this structure. "Oxfam" was, then, birthed from this imperative; and it would not be unreasonable of us to assume that to "fight global poverty" remains its foundational decree. We must then ask; what if it was found that, in existing the way it does, as a structure, "Oxfam" is, in the long run, contributing towards the continuance of global poverty? What if we were to find, through wide scale systemic analysis, that "Oxfam" was part of the problem it hoped to eradicate? The true test for Oxfam at this point would be whether, in knowing this, it was willing to sacrifice its own existence in order to serve the "fight against global poverty."

With structures like Oxfam - those that claim to have a specific mission that runs deeper than their own survival - we must always ask what lies down there at the bottom. Is it "fight global poverty"? Or is it "survival"? If Oxfam was to blink out of existence, thousands of people would be without jobs. We must also ask; what runs deeper for these people; "fight global poverty" or "survival (of the current way of things)."

When a structure with the foundational imperative of "survival" claims to be motivated by some other root-purpose then we can rightly describe it as playing games. It is not, in the strictest sense of the word, serious about its stated purposes; and it cannot be until it is willing to unearth "survival" and place these purposes beneath it. This may seem a lot to ask, and indeed for most structures it is far too much; but this is one of the great ethical lessons that archetypes like Jesus offer us. He was serious. Deadly serious. And this is what he, and all others like him, ask of us.

Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its “telos” – its purpose, end, or goal.

The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is health or healing. What is the telos of university?

The most obvious answer is “truth” –- the word appears on so many university crests. But increasingly, many of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as their telos, or as a second and equal telos. But can any institution or profession have two teloses (or teloi)? What happens if they conflict?

[Jonathan Haidt]
'Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice

Like the rats, who gradually lose all values except sheer competition, so companies in an economic environment of sufficiently intense competition are forced to abandon all values except optimizing-for-profit or else be outcompeted by companies that optimized for profit better and so can sell the same service at a lower price.

A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. 

Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse.

In a sufficiently intense competition, everyone who doesn’t throw all their values under the bus dies out […] This is the infamous Malthusian trap, where everyone is reduced to “subsistence”.

[Scott Alexander]
'Meditations on Moloch'