S1E1-D: Sharpening the Ethical sword

With the definition of ethics in place, it becomes critical to clarify what is the essence of the definition, what makes it sharp!! and subsequentely what is not included in the concept.

In order to make the definition of ethics sharp, like a good samurai sword. It is not only important to highlight the blade of the sword, to highlight its clear objective but to polish the concept and remove unnecessary objectives, conceptions and expectations on ethics. Just like a samurai sword shouldn’t be used to peel potatoes, ethics shouldn’t be used to solve all problems.

In this section ill first and foremost clarify what do I mean by “minimization of injuries” as the main objective of ethics. Later on, ill clarify three areas that we need to limit in order to make this view of ethics clear:

  • We need to limit the objective of ethics, as it will only focus on injuries and not on benefits
  • We need to limit its position with other social norms, as it will always be conditional,  in particular to the law.
  • We need to limit its usage based on social expectations, making it officially distinct from altruism and social change.

Ethics as Minimization of Injuries. An instinctive quantitative approach.

When I say that ethics should focus only on the minimization of injuries, I refer to “injuries” as in the classical conceptions of harm, I mean that being ethical is the effort to minimize suffering, hurting others or damaging someone’s dignity. In other words, the objective of Ethics is to reduce actions that could be classified as physical, emotional, reputation and economical injuries towards an individual.

I have done further research towards a new interpretation of injuries, especially under the complexity lens. Using the fact that we are roleplaying actors, we can explore the question: “How does one injure a roleplaying actor?” an interesting question with a compelling answer, in which I consider three ways to injure a roleplaying actor:

  • By affecting the core of the actor, which is shared across roles, …. Like your body, mind or personal assets..
  • By affecting the role the actor plays, which is space-specific …. Like the role you play at work
  • By affecting the relationship agreements, which are stakeholder specific… like the promise you make to your friend

For the moment we don’t need to get too deep into the details, a standard conversion of injuries is enough to get the ball rolling. A very important remark to highlight in this work is that by injuries I don’t mean expressions of pain. Although pain is an important indicator, it can be a misleading pointer of injuries within a relational space, hence it is not a pre-requisite to determining injury. As such an injury is much better perceived if we consider an action that will hinder the interest of an individual within a given space, let me give you a couple of examples:

  • A kid doesn’t feel pain if his parents do not give him an education… but we know that he is being injured.
  • A Mexican person might have thick skin and ignore the funny comments during team meetings…but we know what discrimination is.

In most of the cases, pain will be associated with injury, after all, ethics is a rudimentary tool for social interaction that is highly connected with emotions. However, since the objective is to find a methodology that can be applied consistently across situations, using pain in the equation proves problematic due to the high subjectivity of it. Everyone feels pain differently and with variances in intensities, it hence becomes too problematic to measure consistently.

The most important aspect of having an exclusive focus on injuries, comes with our intuitive ability to quantify injuries. Although is not perfect quantitative process, we can intuitively estimate what causes more damage between actions:

  • Is not the same to steal a piece of bread compared to stealing the whole shop
  • It is certainly not the same to get punch in the face compared to getting shot in the leg..

When I say that we should use a quantitative approach to injuries, I do not mean to get a metric, such as from 1 to 10. What I mean is to assign thresholds of intensity. Thresholds that give us an idea of how intense is the damage to the other party and what set of actions are permissible. To give you a rough idea of these thresholds, I use a very basic three levels of intensity:

  • Level one for micro-injuries, for actions that make a relationship uncomfortable, minor damage to another party that is easily repairable.
  • Level two for serious injuries, for actions that place a big burden in the relationship, damages we have to apologize for and are expensive to repay.
  • And Level three for critical injuries, for things that will break our relationship, damages that are unforgivable.

By using thresholds instead of single-digit metrics, we are better able to compare actions and in turn make better decisions. With this argument in place, within the DREMSI Method we use thresholds of intensity to make a judgement on the actions. From a philosophical perspective, this makes the thesis utilitarian, but let’s hold this discussion for a bit later as I want to finish this section first.

So far I have explained the blade of the sword, and now it is time to polish it by addressing the three limits of this new definition of ethics.

First limit, DREMSI only focuses on injuries and stakeholders.

The first limitation comes with the removal of “the benefits” in decision making. I argue that to make decisions under an ethical judgment, one should focus exclusively on injuries and only towards the other party, the stakeholder. Meaning ethics shouldn’t care about what happens to oneself, and ethics shouldn’t care about the benefits the action might bring.

Although this might sound logical, in many instances the benefits of an action cloud the judgement while making a decision. It is normally in the name of “the greater good” that we commit the greater atrocities”. By removing “the good” from decision making in ethics, we begin the path of transformation of the field from its current position as the almighty answer of right and wrong, into a more humble but effective focus in the minimization of injuries.

With this in mind, ethics will not give you a satisfactory answer to questions like this: “Should you punch a stranger in the face, if by doing so you and the stranger will get one million euros each?” Under the light of ethics, punching someone would be considered unethical, so ethics will say, “This is unethical!!”, but I am sure many people would consider punching someone as the right decision in that scenario. That example was perhaps too simple, but it gives you a hint of the complexity and tradeoffs that are predominant at the government level, for example, the answer to the question: “Should one open the borders of the country for all foreigners?” It has many tradeoffs to consider, where the benefits will have an impact on the final decision. As such if we want to give ethics a sit on the table we need to have one clear perspective for judgement.

With all this said, under the DREMSI theory, ethics will always focus on the injuries to other parties and by doing so it will only provide a single perspective. This won’t be comprehensive enough in certain situations but it gives ethics a very strong standpoint for decision making,  as it owns injuries, clear and simple.

Second limit, the interaction between ethics and other social norms.

Another important boundary we must discuss comes in its position of ethics within other social norms. By other social norms I mean traditions, taboos folkways and the law; for example: making a line outside of the cashier, giving your sit at the bus to an older person or wearing a suit for an office meeting. All of these are different types of social norms.

In real life dilemmas, multiple social norms might apply at the moment of taking a decision and while some of the norms will have a focus on injuries, many will have different functional objectives. This is easier to visualize this is with «the law», as it covers such a large spectrum of functions, from parking procedures and marriage certificates all the way to homicide investigations, discrimination cases and international treaties, etc.  All those regulations covered by the law have many types of objectives other than just injury prevention. Because of this, in many instances, an effort to reduce injuries will clash with an existing law.

In the same line of thought, Taboos, traditions and folkways cover other multiple functions, some of which are not entirely visible to us. For example, in some societies marrying your first-degree cousins is seen very negatively but if we look at the basic action it might look harmless, both of them happy, what could go wrong? What happens is that after experiencing the negative aspects of having many cases of close relatives’ marriage, a taboo was formed in society without having a full understanding of the situation. Nowadays we now know that it is actually beneficial to avoid birth defects, but when the taboo was formed we had only a feeling and no scientific proof, hence some of the benefits of the taboo are not clearly visible or understood within everyday interaction.

And so in this thesis and methodology while deciding which type of action to take one has to acknowledge the influence of other social norms in the decision. In other words, despite the ethical judgement we have on the action (if it’s ethical or not), before taking action we have to evaluate the disruption to other social norms and the legality of this action.

To help you visualize it, I’ll use the law as the social norm and how ethics will clash with it

  • Should one steal bread from the store in order to feed their dying child?
  • Should one break into a house in order to save a person with a heart attack?
  • In both cases, one has to break the law in order to minimize injuries

It is here that having thresholds of injury intensity help to make a decision,  as I argue that anything that causes critical damages is entitled to challenge other social norms. I guess we can all agree that it is not justifiable to break the speed limit while going to the hospital if the injury is just a broken toe but is a different situation if it’s a woman about to give birth.

Having recognized the overlap and conditionality of ethics towards other social norms I want to move on and address a conceptual issue that hunted me for many weeks, an issue that is actually a bit of an illusion, as it’s a concept that looks like ethics but it is not, the issue I refer is the famous concept of “altruism”

Third Limit. The relationship of ethics and altruism.

For a long period I have had challenges fitting altruism within the definition of ethics I present, it just simply didn’t fit! After going back and forth with it I was finally able to pin down the problem. The reason why altruism should not be considered the same as ethics comes in the aspect of social expectations.

As shared earlier, Ethics are social expectations of behaviour, hence if there are no social expectations then the behaviour doesn’t call for ethical judgement. This is precisely the point of altruism, altruism is going beyond social expectations: altruism is when you give money to a charity without anyone expecting it from you, altruism is when you help a person in distress, even when no one is expecting you to. In the same light, it is not altruism if there are expectations on you: your mom is not altruistic for making you breakfast and the professor is not altruistic for giving you a good grade if you clearly deserve it.

Expectations are the fine line between ethics and altruism, and my conclusion is that anything beyond social expectations is not handled by ethics as a concept. The interesting part is that once one officially separates ethics from altruism, one gets to explore further the realm of “Beyond social expectations”. I have gotten the chance to make a few trips to this realm and I have identified two concepts beyond social expectations that interact with ethics.

  • First, Altruism, which is the effort to help others without any social expectations
  • Second, Social change, which is the effort of helping others by changing social expectations.

Both help in the minimization of injuries, but have different conditions towards social expectations; altruism doesn’t want to change them while social change does. In the same light, altruism is normally doing something that is already considered good, hence highly appreciated. On the opposite side, in many instances, social change will be faced with resistance and rejection, a very costly endeavour. I will delve further into their characteristics in episode five.

The point I am trying to make is that after performing an ethical judgement of an action, it is necessary to ask ourselves: Should we go beyond expectations and behave altruistically in this case? Should we go beyond expectations and aim for social change?

Both actions come with a cost for the individual and my argument is that, by using thresholds of injury intensity, we can justify and puts pressure on choosing to go the extra mile. For example: if one sees a homeless person in the street, nobody is expecting you to help them, so its up to you if you are altruistic. however, if the homeless person begins showing distress symptoms such as a heart attack, I would argue that you would let a critical injury happen and so I would put pressure to behave altruistically. I guess by now we can begin to see the value of having injury intensity thresholds at hand while making decisions.

Even though altruism is not officially part of ethics, it will still play a role in this work. In order to facilitate the decision if one should go the extra mile, I plan to integrate both concepts, altruism and social change, within the methodology for decision taking and within the ethical frameworks that I plan to present to you in episodes 9 and 10

By now I have highlighted the sharpness of ethics, and the respective boundaries of the concept. This section has been very complicated to write, while building it I felt like Archangel Michael having to slay demons that used to be angels but are actually not. I’m somehow pleased with the outcome but I certainly plan to revisit this episode in the future. It is now time to on to the final section of this episode in which I formalise the DREMSI methodology.

NEXT: S1E1-E: DREMSI theory in a nutshell

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