Amoral Codes


Does it ever feel like the modern world is inhuman? Like a big machine where everything works perfectly but basic human needs are increasingly out of the picture? My resource explores this phenomena using the notion of ‘amoral codes.’ It explains what an ‘amoral’ code is, how they work, and how they shape your daily life in a hundred different ways. We will explore three codes: Games, Educational Assessments, and The Legal System.

There are two essential things to remember about these codes. The first is that are made up of language. They are social systems which rely on a community of speakers to work and run. The second is that they are tools. They are designed to let us do things – to coordinate ourselves, to organise information, to structure an activity. These things can be used for good or for evil: hence why I call them amoral rather than immoral codes. Nonetheless, as we will soon find, this does not make them morally irrelevant: like all tools, they are both ethically and morally charged.

Come, let us explore these codes. Together we will piece together how the world works.

Amoral Codes

If you prefer learning by reading, this
section will present a quick outline of the topic. I will not cover everything
in the video resource, however, and recommend watching it for fun as a

Let us begin. You and I live in a
modern society, but how does this society function? The answer lies in ‘social
systems.’ These are large, complex patterns of social behaviour which provide a
crucial role in day to day life: they organise and sort information. They sort
information using a special labelling scheme known as their ‘code.’ There are
numerous examples. There is the legal system, which uses labels such as
‘illegal’, or ‘liable’ as its code. Then there is the education system, which
uses the code of ‘correct/incorrect’ to assess your ability to carry out its
exams. Or the economic system, which operates according to ‘value/no value’,
and is capable of putting a price tag on anything. These codes are pervasive,
powerful, and control virtually every aspect of your life.  

Consider a simple example: you walk
into a store to buy some eggs. You pick up the eggs and take them to the
counter, but you don’t have ‘enough money.’ We are in the economic system: the
code says you have insufficient economic value to make the exchange. Perhaps
you run out with the eggs without paying. Now we are in the legal system: the
law gives you the code of ‘thief.’ The headmistress sees this label and you are
excluded from school; you cannot sit your exams. We are in the education system
and you have been coded F for failure. Now you try to get a job, but the legal
code of ‘felon’ and educational code of ‘failure’ make you unemployable: you
get the economic code of ‘valueless.’ Your labour has no value and you cannot
exchange it for money. Return to start.

This was a short walk through the code
system: you can see how even the simplest of transactions can implicate a range
of codes, many of which intimately determine how your life goes. The key to
understanding a social system is to understand how it applies its code. We call
this guideline its ‘algorithm.’ Each social system has a unique algorithm: the
legal system has legal sources, such as statutes and cases; the economic system
uses a market to set prices and values; the education system uses marking
criteria. According to a social system, only things with its code matter: you
cannot go to court and make purely moral arguments, or try to pay for your eggs
using your family lineage, or score highly in an exam by being brave or kind.
The algorithm  - the guide for how to apply
the code – is therefore crucial. The key to understanding algorithms lies in
how they transform and ignore things. The market only cares about what it can put
a price on. You cannot get points in an exam for your skills or personality if
the marking criteria cannot measure them. The legal system will not recognise
defences – or alternative arguments – disconnected from the legal sources. The
algorithm is selective.

This is a simple but profound fact. Perhaps
now you will see how artificial these codes are; how much of the world their
algorithms cut out and distort. You take art in high school. Now you must do an
‘art exam’, but it only measures your abilities in terms of quantifiable
numbers. You can get a 6 for creativity. You can get a 3 for the connection of
the art to your personal experience. If you spend long enough in the system,
you might start seeing the world in terms of its code. You stop caring about
being original and start fixating on getting ‘originality points.’ You ignore
different mediums because the marking criteria does not include them. Or you
enter the economic system with an intention to live a happy, fulfilling life,
but find these have no clear price tags. What does have a price tag is your
ability to do a certain job, and over time you start seeing everything – your
value, the value of others – in terms of this price tag. Having a code applied
to you externally can feel disempowering, but internalising it, letting it subtly
shape and control everything you see and do, is a more complete form of

What then is to be done about social
systems? You have a variety of options. You can reject social systems and their
codes altogether. Quit school, break the law (or ignore it, which, in the eyes
of the law, is often the same thing), and abandon the notion of money. This is
option ‘FIGHT’, but keep in mind the social and personal cost of doing so can
be immense. Another approach is to ‘opt-out’ of the social system and join a
different one: you can home-school your children, live on international waters,
and live in a communist commune. Consider this option ‘ESCAPE.’ Or you can try
to change the social system. Perhaps we can make exams fairer and more
holistic? Or we can reform the law to bring it closer to morality? This is
option ‘REFORM.’ Choosing which you prefer is one of the most important
decisions in your life. If you choose the third one, as most do, remember this
simple message above all: if you enter the system to change it, over time it may
change you. Five years in corporate law becomes ten, and soon, under the
immense workloads and hefty salary, you start asking the question ‘how much are
my moral convictions really worth?’

This is a
quote from the pioneer of systems theory Niklas Luhmann:

"We have to
come to terms, once and for all, with a society without human happiness and, of
course, without taste, without solidarity, without similarity of living
conditions. It makes no sense to insist on these aspirations, to revitalize or
to supplement the list by renewing old names such as civil society or
community. This can only mean dreaming up new utopias and generating new
disappointments in the narrow span of political possibilities.”

Video Resource

Resource activities


Create your own social system!


Activity questions

  • 1. What is an amoral code? How does it relate to social systems and do these systems have a single purpose?
  • 2. How do different codes and social systems work together?
  • 3. Is there any way to escape a social system?

Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading