The Butterfly Duty: Mapping Our Way Toward Unity

02/19/2015 02:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

Carla Goldstein talks about the complex relationships that shape our interdependent world, and calls upon us to do the right thing.

For the lion's share of history, ideas about the unity of life have inhabited the realm of the religious, spiritual and philosophical. As globalization and technology have taken hold, the unity principle -- the idea that everything is part of an interconnected whole -- has become a more tangible and felt experience of everyday modern life.

The way we touch each other now, through consumer bits and digital bytes, has the potential to connect us to everyone and everything. As never before in history, big data dashboards are helping us see our web of relationships in real time by mapping the pathways of cause and effect, even when they are remote in space and time or wildly indirect. And trending data allows us to predict future outcomes with a fair amount of accuracy.

This new era of data driven insight about the true nature of our interconnected world calls upon us to re-calibrate how we understand our moral and ethical "duty" to each other and the earth. The concept of duty has existed throughout the world and across recorded history and means "to have a moral or legal obligation or responsibility." Duty is rooted in doing the right thing -- and the human heart wants to do the right thing, which can differ based on culture, context and circumstances.

In the U.S., there is a famous U.S. negligence case, Palsgraf v Long Is. R.R. Co., which had a profound cultural impact on how we think about our duty of care to each other. For one to be considered negligent of a duty, according to the Palsgraf "proximate cause" test, the injury in question has to be both foreseeable and closely connected in the chain of causation. While this reasoning is legally efficient because causation can trace infinitely backward and without restriction would create legal chaos, it discourages us from embracing a more holistic sense of duty to each other. Under Palsgraf, duty is treated as scant and transactional, rather than as something vital that runs deeply between beings connected at a fundamental and spiritual core.

In the case of Palsgraf, a man was running for a train carrying a package of firecrackers. Train employees tried to help him beat the closing doors by pushing him onto the train. His package slipped creating an explosion that caused a large scale to fall at the other end of the platform, thereby injuring a bystander, Mrs. Palsgraf. The court found that Mrs. Palsgraf's injury could not have been foreseen, and that the explosion was not close enough in the chain of events leading to her injury to create a direct duty of care to Mrs. Palsgraf. Because the actions of the man carrying the firecrackers and the conductors were not the "proximate cause" of her injury, as defined by the court, the case was dismissed.

In the case's dissenting opinion, the judge described how the "proximate cause" rule is a twist in reason:

As we have said, we cannot trace the effect of an act to the end, if end there is. Again, however, we may trace it part of the way. A murder at Serajevo may be the necessary antecedent to an assassination in London twenty years hence. An overturned lantern may burn all Chicago. We may follow the fire from the shed to the last building. We rightly say the fire started by the lantern caused its destruction.

A cause, but not the proximate cause. What we do mean by the word "proximate" is, that because of convenience, of public policy, of a rough sense of justice, the law arbitrarily declines to trace a series of events beyond a certain point. This is not logic. It is practical politics.

The decision was made during the bloom of industrialization, and courts had an interest in limiting liability to protect economic expansion. By drawing a tight circle around what would be legally considered "causation," companies like the railroads and others driving the industrial revolution would have fewer barriers to investing in growth. While legal scholars still argue about whether Palsgraf was rightly decided (a question that is beyond the scope of this essay), the case constructed a narrow view of duty when it created the legal fiction that causation should be determined by foreseeability and proximity.

As we reap the benefits and burdens of industrialization and press on into the Knowledge Age, figuring out how to do the right thing is becoming harder, yet the need to protect our ecosystem and build a more empathic global community demands that we confront the complex nature of causation. The gift of the Knowledge Age is that it gives us the ability to "see" across time and space, yielding new levels of hindsight, foresight and insight, and increasing our capacity to become more conscious beings.

Over the past century since Palsgraf was decided, our scientific understanding of cause and effect has expanded to include things like Chaos Theory with its popularized concept of the Butterfly Effect, in which a small change in one part of the system, like the flap of a butterfly's wing, can have a huge and unpredictable impact somewhere else in the system, like the development of a hurricane. The ideas captured by the Butterfly Effect can be the basis for articulating a new and corresponding way of understanding our duty to each other -- the Butterfly Duty. The notion that a very small action taken by someone living on one side of the earth can have an enormous and unpredictable consequence half-way around the world -- good, bad or indifferent -- is the key underpinning for developing a new way of approaching our duty to each other as global citizens.

The Butterfly Duty creates a new obligation to increase our awareness of the complex relationships that shape our interdependent world, and calls upon us to increase our efforts to avoid being the cause of others' suffering and to be the source of others' healing, even to distant and unknown places in the system. Our ability to fulfill this duty requires that we make a proactive effort to be informed about the nature of cause and effect, and to consider the potential role we play in complex processes by understanding our own agency and capacity to impact others and the whole living system. We need to use our investigative capacity, imagination, empathy and compassion to take advantage of the data feedback loop we have created and align our actions with the hunger of the human heart to do the right thing.

A more expansive sense of duty to each other cannot mean we are held responsible for every single thing that emanates from our living because that would be impossible and paralyzing. But we can have a far greater obligation to become aware of and understand the impact of our actions even when they are beyond our line of sight. In contrast to the image of the three wise monkeys, who cover their eyes, ears and mouth as a symbol of shrinking from engagement and responsibility, the Butterfly Duty asks us to scan the horizon to see if we are needed, listen carefully for clues that our actions are implicated, speak out to subvert unethical wrongdoing and do the right thing.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "compassion is a verb," and contains the motivation to engage with the suffering in the world and try and heal it however one can. If we can embrace a more expansive sense of duty that goes beyond our proximate line of sight and appreciates the vast distance and complexity of our potential impact on each other and the earth, we can step closer toward the promise envisioned by spiritual leaders, prophets and sages of a more unified world.

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