The Law of Social Entropy
The irresistible force pushing society to equality — and animal rights
In the late 18th century, in an era of slavery and patriarchy, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham offered a defense of human equality. Many ridiculed this radical idea. A Cambridge philosopher, Thomas Taylor, sarcastically argued in 1792 that if women’s equality were accepted, then rights for animals would have to be accepted, too.
But history has sided with Bentham. As of 2023, all 193 member states of the United Nations have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which condemns discrimination on the basis of race or sex. Even far-right organizations champion their commitment to equality. The Proud Boys – the Trump-loving group that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 – note that they are a movement that “includes all races, religions, and sexual preferences.”
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It is only a mild exaggeration, in short, to say that the philosophical battle over equality is over. Jeremy Bentham won.
Bentham’s argument for equality, however, did not stop with human beings. “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny,” he wrote in 1789. And while many great thinkers – such as Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer – have echoed Bentham in arguing that animals should be included within our conception of equality, few have noted that Bentham’s claim was not just an ethical position but a historical prediction: that animals will be included in our conception of equality.
I’ve spent most of the last 20 years of my life asking whether Bentham was right in predicting the long-run inevitability of animal rights. But it is only in the last few weeks, much of which I spent pacing back and forth in a jail cell, that I’ve come to an answer that is conceptually satisfactory. What I’ve found, almost accidentally, while reading a book by the physicist Brian Greene, is a theory as to why animal rights is not just a righteous path but a realistic one. And it all starts, surprisingly, with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Laws of the Universe
These two words represent the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the most evidence-tested rules of the universe. Einstein said this Second Law was the one rule in physics that “will never be overthrown.” But the simplicity of the Second Law disguises many layers of nuance.
Let’s start with the basics. Entropy, informally, is a measure of disorder. The Second Law can thus be restated: “Disorder increases.” And the reason disorder increases is that order, i.e. systemic regularity, is hard to maintain.1
Consider the game of Jenga. A skinny tower of wooden blocks is built up, about 2 feet high. Each level of the tower has 3 blocks. The game is played by removing blocks from the tower, one by one, without causing the tower to fall.
Jenga is a demonstration of the Second Law because the tower’s order is hard to maintain. The slightest push in the wrong place will cause the entire thing to come crumbling down. In contrast, a collapsed pile of blocks (i.e., disorder) is easy to maintain. You can jiggle the blocks all you want. The pile’s irregular configuration2 — scattered blocks on the ground — won’t change.
What is true of Jenga is true of the universe. All forms of order — physical, chemical, and cosmological — are hard to maintain. Rocks erode and fall apart. Chemical bonds break. Even the order of our galaxy will end when the stars burn out and explode, dispersing their rocky children (i.e., planets like Earth) into the dark of space. Indeed, the existence of any order in a universe ruled by disorder is a significant paradox – and beyond the scope of this piece.3
But “entropy as disorder” is not actually scientifically precise. It turns out that, after decades of scientific observation, the most general version of the Second Law is not a physical rule but a statistical one: namely, versions of the world that are more statistically numerous are more statistically likely.
Consider, again, the Jenga Tower. There are many versions of the world where the tower falls. An accidental push. A fan blowing a little too much air. Or an overly-excitable dog. In contrast, there are very few versions of the world — perpetual stillness — where the tower remains standing. In the long term, this means the tower will almost always fall. This is why, if a friend tells you the Jenga Tower in his living room has been standing for 365 days, you might doubt him. In contrast, if your friend shows you a messy pile of Jenga blocks and says, “It’s been like that for 365 days!” you will hardly make note. Of course, the blocks have been in a messy pile. There are so many ways – versions of the world — for a Jenga Tower to crumble into a pile. This is (statistical) entropy at work.
In short, the precise Second Law is not a rule of disorder. It is a rule of statistical stability. What we call “disorder” – i.e., systemic irregularity – just tends to be more statistically numerous and therefore stable than other configurations of the world. But this is just the first layer of nuance in our understanding of entropy. Because the precise Second Law — a rule of statistics rather than physics — has implications not just for physical systems like Jenga, but for the social systems in which human beings live.
From Physics to Sociology
“Social entropy increases.”
Like physical systems, order in social systems is hard to maintain. If Johnny promises the dishes will be washed at 7pm, there is, provisionally, only one way for that order to be maintained: he washes the dishes at 7. (Call the configuration of the world where the dishes are washed at 7pm the “Dishwashing Order.”)
Sadly, there are nearly countless ways for the Dishwashing Order to be broken. Johnny might forget to do his job. Or get sick. Or accidentally cause the dishwasher to break. Over time, the Dishwashing Order will fall. It’s statistically certain that something, someday, will pull Johnny away.
What is true of the Dishwashing Order is true of all other social systems. It’s difficult to maintain order in even a small household. Dishes are unwashed. Music is too loud. Relationships fray. There are so many versions of the world where the household order fails. And what is true of our household relations is even more true of society at large.
The one indisputable rule of history is that all civilizations die. The Roman Empire. The Islamic Caliphate. And someday, the United States of America. All fail the challenge of social entropy. Invariably some jiggle — a revolution, a climate crisis, or even just an election outcome — will cause even the most robust civilization to collapse.
But how do we know the system will jiggle? Physicists long ago discovered that there is an inherent jiggling of matter and energy written into the laws of the universe, called quantum fluctuation. Particles flip in and out of existence, seemingly at random. Strange forms of entanglement can create impacts across the universe, defying the speed of light. (Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.”) What is true at the quantum level is true at the social level. A conflict erupts here. A resignation happens there. Uncertainty makes social jiggling inevitable, and if the right jiggle happens in the right place in the social order, the structure will collapse.
This understanding of entropy has led many great thinkers to a dark place. The legendary mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell mused cynically about our species’ inevitable path to universal disorder and death. In the long run, Russell is correct. Even if humans become a peaceful intergalactic species, modern physics predicts that 1030 years from now (i.e., a thousand billion billion billion years), all the stars will be sucked into black holes. The universe will literally go dark.
But 1030 years is a long time. And while universal death is one possible result of entropy, it is not the only one. To understand why, we have to re-examine the Jenga Tower and the Dishwashing Order. And introduce the concept of interchangeability.
Surviving Social Entropy
The problem with both the Jenga Tower and the Dishwashing Order is that jiggles create gaps. Those gaps, in turn, cause instability that lead the system to collapse. In Jenga, moving a block the wrong way causes a literal gap that imbalances the tower. In the Dishwashing Order, when Johnny gets sick, there’s no one to take his place. The only way for either system to survive this social entropy is for something or someone to fill the gap.
How can that be done? Imagine a Jenga Tower where an adjacent block immediately expands to fill holes when one block is moved. The equivalent situation in the Dishwashing Order would be one where Johnny’s housemate Jimmy, who normally mows the lawn, takes on the dishwashing role when he sees that Johnny is sick. Both systems suddenly become more stable because there are processes that automatically fill the gaps.
This is the idea behind interchangeability. You can jiggle the parts and processes in the system, but something always fills the gaps. And if a system is perfectly interchangeable, it is perfectly stable. No matter what jiggles occur, they never create a gap because there’s always a replacement process or part.
Interchangeability shows us, precisely, why entropy and disorder are not the same. Order can survive entropy. It just has to be a flexible order that can survive the statistically-inevitable jiggles of life. This flexibility is what interchangeability creates. And it is the only path to preventing Bertrand Russell’s universal disorder and death.
Of course, real-world systems are much more complex than a Jenga Tower or Dishwashing Order. Liberal democracy, nuclear disarmament, or even a modern corporation have vastly more processes and parts than a simple social game. How do we know if these real-world systems have the interchangeability to survive?
Quite simply: we test their most vulnerable parts.
The Moral Stress Test
In engineering and economics, testing the vulnerable parts of a system — a “stress test” — is standard practice. After all, the vulnerable parts of a system are those most likely to collapse. For engineers, the blocks bearing the most weight in a tower are the ones most likely to break. In economics, banks with high levels of debt are those most likely to start a panic. What is true of towers and banks is true of all social order. The ones who face the most stress in a society are those most likely to revolt.
I spoke about “moral stress tests” at Yale University in 2020.
But there’s something curious about vulnerability in social systems. While a jiggle often starts in the most vulnerable places, it almost always spreads. Gandhi lived a comfortable life in Britain — then somehow led the fight against British imperialism. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the son of a wealthy minister who lived in an integrated neighborhood — then risked his life to challenge racial segregation. These two figures — and many others in their movements — were not particularly vulnerable to the gaps in their social systems. The reason they still jiggled was because, in certain systems, vulnerability flows upstream. It spreads from parts that are more vulnerable to those that are more secure. A jiggle in the most vulnerable parts of a system therefore can shake the entire system to collapse.
Why does vulnerability flow upstream? There are three reasons this is the case. First, the vulnerable parts of a system, when shaken, often jiggle the adjacent blocks. A Jenga block at the bottom of the tower doesn’t just bear the most weight; it supports all the blocks above. When jiggled, that vulnerable block sends reverberations throughout the tower. Similarly, in a social system, a billionaire tycoon may seem happy with the social order. But if the workers revolt, even billionaires may suffer or starve when all production stops.
Second, in social systems, jiggling doesn’t just shake the parts; sometimes, it flips their positions. When I graduated from law school in 2006, there were few jobs more prestigious than Wall Street. Just two years later, when the financial system crashed, those same jobs brought with them great shame. When status and power flip in a social configuration, any vulnerability in the system can be experienced by all. Those Wall Street lawyers felt mighty in 2006. But when they were laid off in 2008 – and joined the ranks of the unemployed – they sorely missed our nation’s lack of guaranteed health care.
Third, vulnerability flows upstream because social systems are prone to vulnerability cascades. Non-vulnerable parts of the system will often spontaneously jiggle if the vulnerable parts are being stressed. This phenomenon comes by many names in social science: threshold models, critical points, or Erica Chenoweth’s Rule of 3.5%.
The central idea in each is the same. Unlike Jenga blocks, human social blocks — people, organizations, etc. — do not require an external force acting on them directly before they start to shake. When we see others being stressed, it is part of our nature as social animals to sometimes jiggle in response. This is how Black Lives Matter mobilized thousands of white people in Berkeley; how #MeToo became a political force among male feminists in Hollywood; and why the struggle of Gazans has become the struggle of American teenagers on TikTok. Vulnerability in one part of the system, in each case, became a source of social momentum in others.
The point here is not that vulnerability always triggers a cascade but, rather, that vulnerable parts of a system are much more likely to cause one. This is why Black Lives Matter inspired a movement, but White Lives Matter has mostly fallen flat. There is a moral asymmetry, caused by differences in vulnerability, that lead some cascades to have more potential than others.
If vulnerability flows upstream, testing the interchangeability of the most vulnerable parts of society is sufficient to prove the stability of the entire system. This is because, when the vulnerable parts jiggle, the entire system jiggles. So, if the system can survive jiggles in its most vulnerable parts, it can survive jiggles anywhere.
But interchangeability takes on a special dimension in social systems. When we say a vulnerable position is interchangeable, we are saying something about the willingness of everyone in a society to accept that position, despite its vulnerability. Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, must be ok with being the janitor at Tesla, at least to the extent that he declines to revolt if placed in that position. That requires an important form of equality. All positions in society, even the most vulnerable, must be equally tolerable. If there is any position that does not meet the standard of interchangeability, a jiggle of some sort – a disgruntled janitor, an angry inmate, or even a distressed animal in a factory farm – will eventually cause a collapse.
We have now proven Bentham’s prediction of equality and devised a test for it, too, i.e., the moral stress test. Social systems that offer sufficient protection to the most vulnerable parts, via interchangeability and equality, are more likely to survive social entropy. Over time, that will make equality inevitable, given the increase in entropy mandated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
From Protests to Pigs
But what does any of this have to do with animals? A pig will never join a protest. A cow will never command a movement. Did Bentham go a step too far in predicting equality would extend to animal rights?
Let’s return to the three reasons that vulnerability flows upstream: adjacent jiggles, flips, and vulnerability cascades. We can dispose of the first reason in regard to animals, i.e., adjacent jiggles. Human beings do depend on animals, but we’ve created a system of industrially-produced replacement parts: factory farming. No human is directly hurt when an unhappy pig cries out or dies.
The other two reasons, however, apply with full force.
First, the social structures and processes used to harm animals are never used only against animals. Positions inevitably flip. It is no surprise that the largest pig farm in the nation, Circle Four Farms, has also been implicated in human slavery. Systems that ignore the cries of mother pigs will ignore the cries of human victims, too. Thomas Taylor (who compared equality for women to equality for “brutes”) was right, as a matter of sociology. Inequality directed at one group threatens our commitment to equality for all the rest.
Second, the plight of animals is prime material for a vulnerability cascade. Animals, like young children, can never be blamed for their own victimization; they are incapable of committing crimes. This leads to a discrepancy in vulnerability, i.e., moral asymmetry, that creates great potential for a cascade. Put another way, while 80% of voters describe farm animal cruelty as a personal moral concern, there are virtually no moral defenses of the status quo. Instead, the industry relies on ignorance and tradition to justify its existence. As Princeton’s Anthony Appiah has argued, these are the flimsy defenses of a system that is highly susceptible to a vulnerability cascade. While we can’t say when or where a cascade will occur, social entropy makes such a cascade virtually inevitable over time.
We’ve now come full circle. We started with two simple assumptions:
Social jiggling is inevitable.
Vulnerability to jiggling flows upstream.
With those two assumptions and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we have offered proof of Bentham’s radical prediction. Pushed by entropy, social systems will move inevitably towards equality — and animal rights.
There are, of course, many objections to this analysis. The terminology and concepts I use in this piece are imprecise. And my bias is clear: I am an animal activist, through and through. But ignore my biases and look at the data. Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking work shows that inequality leads to revolution. Daron Acemoglu’s research shows that nations fail when they have extractive elites. And, increasingly, people care about the most vulnerable among us, including animals – and are willing to take action to see them rescued from abuse. The Law of Social Entropy is unfolding before our eyes. And, over the long term, we will be asked to choose: equality or extinction? There is no other way.
Towards (Animal) Equality?
Every few years, I have an idea that seems important.
In 2007, based on a growing body of sociological research, I first put forth the idea that animal rights was too focused on consumer change. One of the most loved/hated articles in animal rights history, “Boycott Veganism,” was born.
In 2011, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, I began to recognize the power of dense networks of connected activists. “Create. Connect. Inspire.” became my new battle cry.
In 2013, I first experienced the viral power of disruption by watching a guerilla musical by a group called Improv Everywhere; that was the genesis of Direct Action Everywhere.
The first DxE demonstration was a “guerilla poem” modeled after Improv Everywhere.
And, in 2015, I began pushing the right to rescue — not just as a tactic but as the embodiment of animal rights. It was the most important idea of my life.
The Law of Social Entropy — which is, to be clear, a hypothesis rather than a true law — is important because of its dramatic implications. If true, corporations will need happier janitors to thrive. Religions will have to respect their least influential members to grow. And entire nations will live or die based on the status they give to those with the least power — including animals. All this, and more, are driven by the irresistible force pushing systems towards statistical stability.
But the Law of Social Entropy is also important because it provides a clear, testable framework for the health of human civilization. For example, a prediction: the happiness of the bottom 10% of a social group will lead to stability for all the rest. With the massive and unprecedented increase in social data, this and other predictions can be put to the test.
What does all of this mean for you and me? If you are like me, the push towards equality is not just a scientific probability, but a moral imperative. Every moment of delay is causing suffering at an unfathomable scale. The Law of Social Entropy, first, should give us confidence that our efforts are not futile. Like Bentham, those of us who defend the most vulnerable in our society have history on our side.
But a second implication is even more important. The Law of Social Entropy shows how the smallest of jiggles can cause an entire system to transform. The fates of all sentient beings on this earth, like the blocks in a Jenga tower, are linked by the laws of the universe. Any action you or I take might seem small in the scheme of things. But when we understand the interconnections, we can see how, in the irresistible drive towards equality, each of us has a role to play.
For the purpose of this piece, “order” can be defined as any regularity or pattern in a system. That regularity can be physical (e.g., a repeated configuration of the same physical components of a system), chronological (e.g., a recurring event in a system at a fixed point in time) or even relational (e.g, a recurring dynamic between two component parts in a system).
I’ll use the terms “configuration” and “system” to mean the same thing: a pattern of components, including relations between them.
Brian Green offers an explanation for the existence of order, despite the Second Law, by relying on what he calls an “entropic two-step.” In short, there are cases where the creation of order in one system creates more disorder in another. Because the Second Law is a rule of net entropy, the creation of some order does not violate the principles of thermodynamics.