S1E5 – B: The DREMSI Method, selecting the least harm.

In this section we discuss in detail how to organize the options at hand and select the one that causes the least injury, a very intuitive process but with intresting mechanics behind every action.

A classic in the history of literature is the Divine Comedy from Dante Alighieri, a fascinating adventure through hell and paradise. In Dante’s description of hell, he presented nine circles of torment, each circle portraying a bigger offence; in the first level of hell, limbo, you can find the virtuous people that were not aware of the Christian doctrine, and in the deepest circle you find the treacherous, those despicable humans that share space with Lucifer, Judas and Brutus. In similar light as the work of Dante, a feature of the DREMSI theory is the idea that there is a way to classify injuries according to an intensity of damages, that we can formalize a hierarchy of evils.

In this section, we continue the explanation of the normative part of DREMSI, where we aim to take a decision on an ethical dilemma. The logic was shared in the section before and now we will discuss the first steps in the process:

  • Step 1, A preliminary rank of the standpoints from lowest injury to highest. The idea is that we will choose the action with the lowest harm. In the case of apparent equal damage, there needs to be a tiebreaker logic, a second metric to measure the standpoints.
  • Step 2, A check if the actions contrast with other social norms, in more practical terms, to review if they are legal. If it’s legal, the action is permitted but in the case its illegal you have to review the next available option. As highlighted before, in the case the action can avoid critical damage without causing one, you are strongly recommended to break the law or other social norms.

These two steps help us to take a decision based on the role we play. This however would not be enough to ensure our decisions lead to the best minimization of injuries in the larger picture, hence I complement the process with an additional step:

  • Step 3, Beyond Social expectations, once there is a clear option in the forefront, we ask ourselves if we should consider going beyond expectations, meaning going beyond the role and acting according to ideals. Here is where altruism lies and I include social change as well.

By implementing these three steps, we not only ensure we make the best of our role, but we cover any pitfalls that arise from the ambiguity of roles and responsibility, placing the prevention of injuries in a higher importance while respective the “role-based rules of interaction”.

Step 1 – Ranking of options based on injury level

The first step on the journey is to look at the standpoints available and organize them from best to worse. There is an explicit ranking of standpoints based on the ethical label assigned, the lowest are injuries of uncomfortable nature, followed by serious and finally critical.

While the ranking seems very intuitive and straightforward, there are two issues I would like to address.

  • First, we have to focus on a net-value of injuries, meaning to adjust for risk and time perspective.
  • Second, in many instances we will have to have to solve tiebreakers, forcing us to implement an additional metric to aid in decision making

The net-value of injuries

To come to an accurate decision on the damages we have to estimate the net-value of each offence. By net-value I mean the expected final value of the action after we take the time and the probability into consideration. In other words, for the net-value of an offence we have to estimate the probability risk of the damage happening and a damage grading if the injury doesn’t happen at one present moment but in the future or through a series of moments.

Adjustments by Probability

Given that the future and consequences are always uncertain, all standpoints are affected by a level of confidence. If we recall the ethical problem we discussed in the previous episode, where one is challenged to tell her friend about the rumours of the boyfriend flirting with another woman, there is the risk that the rumours are false and we end up making a larger damage.

To estimate the damage “net-value”, we can follow a similar process as its done in finance, where the value is “discounted” by probability. An example of how it works can be seen with two options:

  • if I have 10% of probability that I get 100 euros, I can estimate its net value as 10€,
  • which will be lower if I have a 50% chance of getting 50€, as its net value would be 25€

In a similar fashion, if I know I have a high probability of small damage, this would be higher damage than a very thing probability of a critical damage. Although we don’t have perfect metrics we know that if it’s a very low probability it might not happen at all, and if it’s a high probability we have to consider it as almost likely to happen.

Adjust by Time

Just like we did with probability, we have to take considerations about time perspective; for example, Is a pain in three months worse than a pain now?, when debating if a person shouldn’t go to school due to social anxiety, is the issue of social anxiety at school worse than not having a high school degree in three years?

In economics, when evaluating a project you can do a time discount on values, meaning one dollar now is more valuable than one dollar in one year; I wish we could apply such simple logic to injuries but unfortunately, this is not the case, as the anxiety of knowing about that the injury can trigger a constant pain through the whole period, making it harder to estimate the additional injury through the process. While I feel comfortable with endorsing a probability-based grading of injuries, time perspectives are still tricky any more research needs to be done.  Hence for the time being I’ll stick with only using probability-based decisions and handle each time perspective on a case-by-case scenario.

Tiebreakers logics

Because the threshold system is simple with only three levels of intensity, there will be many instances in which it will not be possible to distinguish which of the standpoints is better than the other. In many dilemmas we will have to decide among equally looking damages, hence we will need to apply a tiebreaker logic, a logic that helps us distinguish which injury is worst in the larger perspective of things.

Given that both options have apparently the same damage value, we confirm that we already satisfy the ethical objective to minimize the injuries; therefore, the tiebreaker logic becomes an add-on objective to fulfil, a “nice to have” feature that is important in the larger picture. This is something common on sports, where teams compete on points but when they have the same amount, a second criteria such as goals, number of victories or strength of rivals come into play to make a distinction.

Among the many tiebreaker logics available, I believe there are six kinds worth discussing, here is my overview of them:

Tiebreaker by type of injury

  • To prioritize injuries based on the type of injuries. As highlighted before we could injure the core, the role, or the relationship of an actor. It seems intuitive to consider that injuries that affect the core of the individual will be more important than injuries on a relationship level.
  • For example, when having equal level injuries, we choose to prevent a bodily injury (a punch) over a relationship injury (breaking a promise)

Tiebreaker by ethical principle

  • To prioritize based on ethical principles, such as honesty, loyalty or responsibility. This implies a kind of hierarchy of values within a space or a person, where a value is given more importance than others.
  • For example, when having equal-level injuries, we choose honesty over loyalty.

Tiebreaker by stakeholders

  • A tribal approach is to use the affected stakeholder as the tiebreaker. In other words, we choose based on the person or group affected.
  • For example, when having equal-level injuries we choose our family over strangers.

Tiebreaker by role

  • Strongly connected with a stakeholder approach, we can use the role we play as tiebreaker, meaning we use the role that is more important to us among the ones that are in the situation.
  • For example, when having equal-level injuries I prioritize my role as a father than as a worker.

Tiebreaker by the Greater Good

  • A very professional approach, which is common when looking into large complex multi-stakeholder dilemmas, is to use the greater good as a tiebreaker. The greater good refers to the ultimate objective of a group, in which the group could be as grandiose as a society or as small as a family, it is the ideal status the group aims to achieve. Ill delve much deeper into this in a future episode, but to make it practical one can equate it with political ideologies or religions.
  • For example, when having equal-level injuries, I prioritize the one that fits better the objectives of my religion, or the one that takes us closer to the ideal state

Tiebreaker by repayment cost

  • A very calculative approach would be to choose a tiebreaker based on our ability to repay the damages we make. In this case either by fixing the type of offence or by calling in favours to a specific stakeholder. This concept is closely related to the idea of an Ethical Banking and Conscious accounting (more on this concept in episode 10), which is the idea that we have a kind of relationship account in which we make deposits and take debits with our actions. The objective is to have a positive account with the group and stakeholders.
  • For example, when choosing between a punch or a betrayal, I choose based on the one I can repay the easiest.. in the case I am rich, a hospital bill is easier than a betrayal.

Choosing a tiebreaker

With everything said so far, all of the different tiebreakers might be appropriate depending on the settings of the situation. Since we already minimize the injuries to the lowest level and now is only an option of equal damages, then for the time being I would live it to the discretion of the user to select the criteria that match best. In my mind, role-based priority, repayment cost and greater good seem appropriate within the larger scheme, while stakeholder and type of injury seem good for the everyday interactions. Using ethical principles as a tiebreaker is for me the weakest of all options, as is much less tangible in outcomes compared to all other forms. In my eyes, doing things for the sake of “honesty” or “democracy” is too ambiguous and mostly satisfies selfish objectives.

Step 2 – Interacting with social norms and the law.

With the ranking of options finalized, the last step of the methodology is to see if the option selected clashes with other social norms. Does this action break a tradition? will this cause any legal problem? Is this against common etiquette?

Although is easy to see why we should care about the law, I guess some of you might wonder why should we care about taboos or traditions? The reason why I cluster all social norms together is because all of them play a function in society, a function that in many instances is not visible during regular interaction. For example, it is taboo to marry your siblings and even first-degree cousins, not because it leads to immediate unhappiness but because there is a high risk of causing a problem for the future child’s. In a similar fashion traditions play a big role in unifying the group, they give way to a different sense of community that has large benefits for the group. Because of these non-obvious benefits of informal social norms, I advise that ethical actions should not simply break through them for the sake of injuries, as the tradition might be preventing a larger injury invisible at the time.

When interacting with social norms, the general guidance is to Select the option that doesn’t break any social norm. However, this could lead to a lot of troubles, where we would permit a high level of injuries just for the sake of following the rules. Because of this, when interacting with social norms I advise the following:

 “Based on the role we play; we should minimize the injuries we cause to others without breaking other social norms. We might break other social norms in the prevention of critical injuries, so long we don’t cause another critical injury. “

This definition works well to achieve the general objective, on one end, one would not make a scene during a wedding for the prevention of an uncomfortable injury, but one would steal bread from the shop in order to feed a hungry child.

At the moment I advocate applying exceptions when critical injuries are in jeopardy, however, I believe serious injuries should as well be discussed in a case-by-case situation; many laws and traditions are vestiges with very little value in society, hence I believe that when one is fully aware of the reasons and consequences connected to the law or the tradition, and breaking the social norm can save a serious harm, one should go ahead and do it. In this regard, parking illegally to save a serious injury is appropriate.

Closing and Next section

Once we have chosen the action that causes the least harm and that works well with the respective social norms, we have reached a point where can confidently select the option that works best for the role we play. It might not be the nicest of all options, but it is the one that causes the least damage and for this, it is the most ethical. It is not easy to reach this point, just like Dante had to experience every circle of Inferno, one has to experience, feel and imagine the different degrees of injury each standpoint at hand represents, this requires a high level of empathy and awareness; definitely not the easiest exercise but extremely relevant if one wants to make consistent decisions through our everyday lives.

NEXT S1E5 – C: The DREMSI Method, beyond role’s expectations.

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.

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