S1E1-C: Defining Ethics under a Complexity Lens

A new definition of Ethics using the cultural perspective and a new interpretation of reality under the "complexity lens".

The number one problem of grand ethical theories, such as Utilitarianism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics or even Emotivism, is a problem of consistent application in real-life dilemmas; the ideas in themselves are partly right as they represent an aspect of reality, but the issue is that we cannot apply them consistently because we don’t have a solid way to analyse situations in a structured format.  The aim of this section is to present a new way to interpret reality using complexity theory. With this in mind, let us begin with a brief explanation of what does it means to use complexity theory to study society.

Complexity theory refers to the study of complex and chaotic systems in an effort to understand their behaviours at a micro and macro level. A system is in essence is a term that refers to a group of multiple elements that interact with each other within a certain space. Perfect examples of a system are the weather system (with temperature, pressure, wind, humidity, etc.)  or an ecological system (with animals, plants, weather, etc.).  The reason why I bring complexity theory to the table is because what has been originally a field exclusively focused on physics has slowly moved into the social sciences. As such we can begin to apply concepts such as chaos, system flows, entropy, structures, network density and interdependency while studying and interpreting human interaction.

Before I go deeper on the topic, I would like to highlight two big sources of inspiration:

First by the work of maestro Ralph Stacey, a British professor who focuses on the application of complexity theory to study the Management of corporations. He built a theory called “Complex Responsive Systems”, where he combines complexity theory with the work of sociologists such as Bourdieu and Foucault among others. A marvellous work that has given me so many hints of inspiration.

Second has been the work by the Santa Fe Institute, a research institute entirely dedicated to the study of complex adaptive systems, they really push the boundaries of how we can apply complexity theory while studying any phenomena, and among their research, they have plenty perspectives on human societies. They have a fantastic podcast hosted by Michael Garfield where they explain in simple words the work their scientist is currently working on. Their work is fascinating and very entertaining, I strongly recommend it.

Moving on with this episode,  I would like to give you a little example of how to understand society under the complexity theory lens, I have a perfect example for this but I first need to introduce one more concept.

Society as a Complex Adaptive System.

Within complexity theory, Society is commonly understood as a Complex adaptive system (CAS). This type of system is composed of autonomous individuals that are interdependent, with the ability to self-organize themselves according to an adaptation process to the external environment. Given their high flexibility of behaviour (driven by their individual autonomy and the external pressure of the environment), they are highly unpredictable in the direction they will go.

Using this definition of a CAS, society clearly resembles one as is composed of autonomous individuals that self-organize while pursuing an objective and adapting to circumstances. Let me give you an example of this CAS phenomenon in society, I’ll share with you the story of how a group of friends opened a Mexican Taco Restaurant, which we will call “El Rojo”, the same as where you purchase two campechanas before.

At first, it was just two friends with an idea of a cool restaurant, one knows how to make salsas and another how to sell stuff. everyone does a bit of everything, from cooking to serving, finding customers, marketing, etc. Eventually, they get small success and begin to hire more people, at this point division of labour kicks in and a bit of structure takes place; functions begin to formalize and people spend more time in a particular area. Two years later, Tacos “El Rojo” has 20 more restaurants, Is composed of 500 people and there is already a big structure in place: The Cooking division, the restaurant management, the accounting team. Etc . What once was two people doing everything now it is 500 people, each doing very specific functions, all of them working as a unit, all of them connected and dependent of the others.

Once the organization has grown to such a big size, it would be logical to say they have some sort of corporate culture, which we could visualize it by the slogan  “doing things El Rojo way”. This “Rojo way” has an ideology, value system, traditions, norms, and a hierarchy system which is pretty much in line with the definition of Culture given by Hinrichs (a “body of practices, techniques, heuristics, tools, motivations, values, and beliefs). Using Complexity theory lens, we can see how a group of autonomous individuals operate in an interdependent manner and generate new behaviours to adapt to their environment, and while doing so they create a culture; in other words, complexity theory describes culture in a similar way to what anthropology conceives it but is different in the understanding of how its culture is composed and operates.

Society as a collection of systems. A roleplaying species.

I think by now you have a small idea of what I mean when I refer to culture as a system, but  to help you visualize things further, the easiest way to see a system in society is by thinking of a “system” as any set of interactions between people within a relational space

  • Your family can be perceived as a system if we consider the set of individuals playing father, mother, brother, uncles, your house, neighbours. Etc…
  • Your Work can be perceived as a system if we consider your boss, employee, colleague, customers, the office… etc.
  • And when you are at the restaurant… we can perceive this as a system if we consider the individuals playing customer, cashier, cook…the food etc.

All of them influence each other and operate in a reactive manner.

“To a certain degree we can say we live life’s moving from field to field, system to system from the family, going to work, spending time the friends and playing football with the team. We spend most of our time playing a role within a system or field.”

It is here that we reach a critical point in this thesis, by using this conception of reality we can conclude that we move from field to field, or system to system. And with this idea at hand I dare to say that we as individuals are a very unique type of species, I defined individuals as “Polyfunctional Roleplaying Semi-automated actors

  • Polyfunctional, because we can easily change the function we play depending on the group we are in; In the morning I am the caring father, then I am the head of sales, and afterwards I am the agile basketball player
  • Roleplaying, because all these roles have a certain set of behaviours and expectations linked with the role we play. We know how to behave in this role, and if we are replaced the new person knows how to play the role.
  • Semi-automated, as the behaviours we use in those roles are kind of “embodied”, to a large degree instinctive. This is an essential feature to reduce cognitive load as we move from role to role.

To highlight this uncanny ability to be polyfunctional, roleplaying semi-automated actors, let me give you an example:

Supposed is Thursday night and you are having a drink with your friends watching a film, think about the way you talk to them …. think about the way you make decisions… think about the ways to make jokes, the language that is cool in this group. Now In the middle of the film your boss calls you on your mobile, this is a very authoritarian boss, not the one you want to invite for a weekend dinner. As you answer the phone you immediately change your tone, you use different words and you might even change your body posture. It just needed one person for you to change how you act and how you should speak, the moment your boss is on the phone you don’t even notice the words you use or the body language you have.  It is precisely here that you changed roles, from friend to employee, and with this, you highlight a different side of you, you embody a new role.

The idea that we move from system to system playing different roles and that we are roleplaying at all times is essential to understanding the whole DREMIS theory. I will call this perspective “complexity lenses”. I will mention it a lot, and every time I will refer to the same idea, of a roleplaying reality.

This view that we can consider a “system” as any group of individuals within a space is comparable to the concept of “field” presented by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He referred to a field as a “structured social space, a field of forces, in which each field had its own social mechanics, class systems, hierarchies” (paraphrased from his writings). To visualize this concept he used the example of a football field where a game is played; The field has boundaries, the field has players playing a specific position, the field has a pre-defined set of rules that we all expect to learn and follow and the physical conditions of the field matter, is not the same game if it’s raining, snowy or if the surface is grass or dirt.  He talked in detail about the academic field, but his field concept can be applied to pretty much any area, like the political field, the field of arts or the economic field; in a similar way, when I say that we move from system to system, I use the same idea as the concept of the field from Bourdieu, I just use “system” because it fits better the complexity theory lens.

A system of expectations connected by Roles.

To fully grasp the implications of this complexity lense, It is important to dive deeper into the impact of playing a role. Roles, not only tell us how to behave, but it tells others what to expect from us. In other words, roles are connected with social expectations and these social expectations are not only about responsibilities but access to rewards. Hence I argue that the role one plays leads to implicit and explicit social expectations and that only by understanding the role we can judge the actions of an individual. It is the role that determines the judgment:

  • Because of the role, we can judge the father for not taking care of his child
  • Because of the role, we can judge the Capitan of the ship if it’s he leaves first while the boat is sinking
  • And because of the role, we can judge the best friend for not standing with you during a problem

It is the role that set the expectations for judgment and this will be the magic ingredient we will use in this thesis to judge ethical expectations. By using role-based social expectations, we will build a new definition of ethics that takes into consideration the roleplaying nature of individuals.

An updated definition of ethics using a complexity lens.

With all this said, the new definition of ethics:

“Ethics It is a cultural feature in the shape of informal social expectations,  that incentivize a role-playing agent through a shaming and praising process connected to a local prestige system,   to minimize injuries to others during role interaction. Hence increasing the trust and willingness to be within a group  And reinforcing the local ideology”

In other words, ethics are the social expectations that apply to our roles, which help us to avoid causing injuries to others within a relational space. The argument is that by using “Complexity lenses”,  we can identify the role we play within a group and with this, we can confirm the social expectations that apply and therefore do a better judgement.

This definition of ethics lies heavily in three aspects:

  • First, The idea of ethics as a set of group expectations, with the functional objective to reduce injuries during interaction
  • Second, The concept of Role as the best way to identify the social expectations that apply to an individual within a system or field.
  • Third, The idea is that all situations imply a judgement based on roleplaying.

I consider this definition of ethics to be slightly unique, especially on the usage role, expectations and Injuries but is just the starting point. The closest work that I have seen that has similar ideas is from Philosopher Christina Bicchieri. She has explored in-depth the concept of Social Expectations and is an authority in the research of Social norms. She has a fantastic book called “Norms in the wild” where she presents in great detail how group expectations play such a strong influence on behaviour. She introduces concepts such as behavioural scripts and schemata, which are similar to what I refer as roleplaying. The main difference in our work is that I explore the concept of ethics under a specific objective, the minimization of injuries and push it all the way into a dynamic methodology.

With this, we finish the first part of this episode that provides a working definition of ethics. To summarize it briefly,

  • From anthropology, we know that Ethics is a part of Culture and that we learn it as a process that includes an ideology, reward-punishment mechanism and a prestige system.
  • From complexity theory, we know that Societies can be perceived as a combination of multiple systems, where individual play moves from system to system playing a role, roles that carry social expectations in the same shape as social norms
  • Together I propose that ethics is the art of minimizing injury to others during roleplaying.  
  • In other words, understating role expectations and choosing the action that causes the least harm.

In the next section, I want to polish the definition of ethics by highlighting its limitations, and its relationship with other major cultural concepts such as other social norms and altruism.

NEXT: S1E1-D: Sharpening the ethical sword.

Pride by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

S1E9 – A: State Dilemmas – Announcement

Hola my dear readers, In episode nine of this series we are meant to analyse the ethical dilemmas that governments face, it has been a long journey and this is one of the last stops in this theory. While individual and business dilemmas were relatively easy to analyse using the DREMSI method, it has taken

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle of the Moneybags

S1E8 – D: Extended accountabilities

In this final section of Companies Dilemmas, we handle the controversial topic of Extended Accountabilities, aiming to define how far is a company responsible for the actions of external parties when running a business.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle of the Moneybags

S1E8 – C: Companies and the Greater good

In this episode, we handle how companies should consider solving «Greater Good» Dilemmas such as inequality and sustainability. A very common and valid question that doesn’t have an easy answer and even at times relies more on the government and the consumer than the company in itself.

Scroll al inicio