S1E6 – A: The ethical dance: action-reaction – group reaction.

To better utilize the DREMSI method, it is essential to visualize how does it applies after someone "broke expectations". In this episode we explore the cycle of Ethics, addressing the many feedback loops in the process of formalizing social expectations.

NOTE: This episode is an addition to this work, because of this many of the comments are not reflected in previous episodes.

Have you ever taken dancing lessons?

During my college years, I join a salsa class to become at least decent at dancing; one of my friends was in love with the professor so I had a partner in crime to join me. I wasn’t really good at dancing during my teenage years, however, once I got instructed by a professional, I was surprised by how mechanical the dance is, as it relies entirely on a 1-2-3 step sequence: one can apply it as a one-step forward-  step backwards- step forward, or you one can do it forward-sideways-forward or sideways-backwards- forward, the possibilities are endless. Once you practice a few times, you start to feel how to apply the logic according to the music, to your partner and to the movements of the group.

In a more granular look at the 1-2-3 step, the first step sets the tone, the second complements and the third returns to a position so that the process can begin again. This process is very interesting, as one learns how to correct mistakes and reacts to the group as everyone makes their first or second steps, in a way you are always acting and reacting to the group, truly fascinating.

I argue that ethics operates in a similar fashion to the salsa dance, in which we keep moving in accordance to a 1-2-3 tempo. In more specific, we dance in an “action – reaction – group reaction” format, which begins with an ethical injury (step 1), followed by a reaction of the people involved (step 2), where their voice their discontent and exercise a punishment, and lastly there is a group reaction to the outcome (step 3), where the group expresses their comfort or discomfort to the reaction.

In this episode, we will look at the cycle of ethics. So far, I have only reviewed situations when the dilemma happens, at a static point of time, now is time to evaluate what happens afterwards, as everything is part of a self-reinforcement cycle of shaping role-based social expectations. By the end of the episode, I would have not only explained the cycle of ethics, but would have disclose the DREMSI guidance on how to review this from an ethical perspective.

As such the progression of this episode will be as follow.

  • In section A we get an introduction to the cycle, with insides from a systems and cultural perspective. Ill disclose the main steps and key activities related to each step. This is complemented with a general direction of how the DREMSI method will apply during this process.
  • In Section B we take a closer look at three key activities, Punishment sanction, Reparation and Validation, including a small guidance on how they are incorporated in the DREMSI method.
  • Finally in Section C, based on the previous section messages we review how the “reaction & group reaction” phases unfold, concluding with a few considerations to make the process better.

This episode is unique in many ways, as I don’t recall any ethical theory that looks into the full cycle of ethics, hence Ill take a bit of extra time to explain some basic concepts properly so that one doesn’t get too confused in the end. With all this said, let us begin!

A system perspective

Through this work, I have spoken consistently of using complexity theory to analyze society, along these lines it comes in handy to discuss a critical aspect of any system, feedback loops. Within any adaptive system exist feedback loops that help to regulate its inflows and outflows as it pursues its interest; for example, adjusting the interest rate due to high inflation is a feedback loop within the economic system, correcting the wrong behaviour of your child during dinner is a feedback loop within your family, and changing your eating behaviour because you gained weight on the holidays is another kind of feedback loop. In other words, feedback loops are reactions to the previous actions that aim to correct a situation regarding a specific objective.

The key idea is that ethics operates with a feedback loop process. In which we begin with an action based on a dilemma, and then there are feedback loop reactions to regulate the behaviour within a space. In a more specific view, given that the role-based social expectations are the critical component for us to make ethical judgements, the feedback process is focused precisely on the social expectations, in other words:

 “The ethical cycle is a process composed of feedback loops that either reinforced, modify or change the current social expectations in jeopardy “

The idea is simple, there are social expectations in place and if someone breaks them, it’s a signal to the group that the expectations didn’t work, hence there has to be a reaction within the group to either validate it, modify the social expectation or to resist and counteract the initial action. If we formalize the process it would be something like this:

  • Step 0, Status quo, the group has a set of social expectations for each role within their space, lets’s take for example that a friend should be loyal to his friend and shouldn’t date his sister.
  • Step 1, Action, an actor faces a dilemma and chooses to either maintain or break the social expectations, for example, the actor decides to date his friend’s sister
  • Step 2, Reaction (first feedback loop), given that the initial expectations were broken, expectations are placed on a stakeholder to correct the behaviour. In this regard, the brother has to react to the situation and the expectation is to provide negative feedback to fix the situation. The brother either reacts with negative feedback towards his friend or alternative can give positive feedback, encouraging a change in expectations. For the sake of the explanation, let’s assume he gives positive feedback, breaking his expectations
  • Step 3, Group reaction, given that the expectations were broken (by both the friend and the brother) and an effort to change them has been called, its time for the group to react to this situation, the group authority might intervene and the space-related stakeholder might either resist the change of social expectations or embrace it. In this example it could be the acceptance or rejection from the family, or the shaming of their group of friends, condemning such actions.

The ethical cycle is a process of social expectations refinement, in which every action is evaluated and either constrained or promoted within the space in the effort to harmonize the social expectations of a role.

A critical aspect of the cycle is that it aims to provide stability and adaptability in the group. On one side, it has a learning component, as everyone in the group learns based on the actions and reactions of others. On the other side, it has a self-reinforcement format, as it shows initial resistance to change, essential for stability and resources management. The process is rigid yet flexible, which ensures consistency in behavior while it allows for changes that can improve performance for the group as a whole.

Using systems theory we can have a good visualization of the process; however, it will be very beneficial to complement it with a view from a cultural perspective.

A cultural perspective

Taking a different angle on the situation, ethics is pretty much a guidance of behaviour, is a way of doing things within a social context. Ethics in the shape of social norms is a part of culture, hence is something we learn through the cultural acquisition process, a process that relies on social interaction. Since we are constantly playing a role in society, shifting from situation to situation, the aim is for behaviours to be internalized, to become semi-automatic and instinctive as this makes the behavior less costly (in brainpower) and easier to execute in complex situations. As such the learning process is highly emotional and social with the objective to become instinctive.

Although there are many factors that contribute to the acquisition of culture, there are two in particular that are interesting for our discussion.

  • First, we have the primitive yet effective reward/punishment mechanism; based on our behaviour we receive rewards if it complies with or exceeds expectations, and we receive a form of punishment if our behaviour is not in line.
  • Second, we are social learners, wired to constantly observe others not only to understand the situation but to mimic good behaviour; within this process, we are constantly learning from others, as we don’t have to actually have to make the mistake to know that an action is wrong.

The cycle of ethics

Connecting everything together, the cycle of ethics can be seen as three key activities, that are used not only for ethics but across multiple aspects of cultural learning:

  • There is a punishment sanction and immediate reaction to the offence in the shape of a punishment.
  • There is a reparation from the offender, a recognition by the offender of the mistake.
  • There is a group response, I call it validation as it is a judgement on the actions and outcomes during the feedback loop.

These three activities are present in different degrees anytime someone breaks a social expectation. While some actions might not be entitled for a punishment sanction and an apology is enough, in other cases the whole community has to get involved in the judgement and the sanction.

It is important to clarify, that even if this process of cultural acquisition has a positive a negative feedback loop (positive when we encourage behavior and negative when we sanction it), for the purpose of this work we will only be looking at the negative feedback aspect of the cycle. We will mostly be discussing what happens when someone breaks expectations and behaves unethical

To describe the ethical cycle in a more orderly format, an unethical action happens, which leads to a Punishment Sanction, which can be connected with a Reparation, ultimately concluding with the Group Validation. This process begins locally but depending on the severity of the situation it expands to the whole relational space, the cycle keeps repeating every time a social expectation is broken or there is an effort to change it. Ultimately the cycle must stop when everyone agrees or the space authority intervenes.

Group pressure in awareness, the rise of expectations

An interesting condition of this cycle is that it relies on awareness and visibility of actions. We judge others based on social expectations, and it is only when one breaks an expectation that one is unethical; with this in mind, the formation of social expectations depends on the level of awareness in the group about the unethical action. In other words, if one commits an unethical action, the level of feedback response is proportional to the level of group awareness; i guess is easy to imagine that if we punch someone and everyone sees us, it becomes a big deal that has a lot of responses, but if we punch someone in secret with nobody seeing, then some of the expectations are not raised.

In a similar direction to the statement above, social expectations can be raised even if one didn’t even commit the crime. So long everyone believes one lied, one will be expected to apologise, regardless if the person lied or not. This is the sad but important aspect to recognize about the reality we play in, much of our behaviour doesn’t rely on facts, but on social opinion.

Group learning by visibility

Because the objective of the cycle is the standardization of behavior within the group, the cycle relies on the visibility of the actions, the outcomes of the situation and the opinions to the larger group. Due to the pressure of social learning, we might want people to know that we punish the kid that stole the candies, we might want people to know that we apologize for lying to the professor and we might want people to know that one supported the victim during an offence. In other words, through the whole cycle the question of “how visible should this action be?” becomes important.

The degree of how visible we make it will depend mostly on the intensity of the injury and the change of behaviours, if we are doing “things as usual” the need to make it visible will be much lower compared to a drastic change that requires everyone attention. Lets not forget that we love novelty, and to an equal degree, we love to spot misbehaviour. A more detailed view of the level of visibility that actions require will be addressed in the next episodes as we explore each activity in detail.

DREMSI and the cycle of ethics.

Now that the process has been explained, let us get into detail about how shall this be handled under the DREMSI umbrella.

So far the main objective of this work has been the minimization of injuries, this will continue to be the case but is important to recognize that this method works within a specific cultural process, a process of social expectations refinement that leads to standardized behaviours. Given that this process is essential for culture, it would be foolish to try to modify it, hence a secondary objective for the Dremsi method will be to harmonize as much as possible with the behavioural reinforcement mechanism within culture. In other words:

DREMSI aims for the minimization of injuries during interaction, without compromising the cycle of learning and reinforcing mechanism of social behaviours.

In more practical terms, while the act to punish someone is in itself an injury, it is recognized as part of the cultural acquisition process, hence it is not rejected within the DREMSI objective. This, however, doesn’t mean that any punishment is excused, the idea is to minimize the level of injuries while we implement the process, hence it is important to highlight the points where the actions are crossing the line and becoming excessive. To summarize, we know that during interaction we should aim for the lowest injuries, but once the damage is done we should aim for a feedback loop process that doesn’t cause additional damages and still achieve its objective.

The process of punishment and behavioural learning has been improving significantly through the past years: we have begun to minimize the impact of our emotions in our judgements, we have begun to prioritize learning instead of vengeance when installing sanctions and we have begun to understand the significance of the environment in behaviour.

Using the DREMSI method will help us to better apply the cycle without inferring additional injuries and in particular, there are two observations that will help a lot to achieve this.

Social Expectations

All the key activities (punishment sanction, reparation and group validation) are social expectations in themselves, hence we can easily apply them to roles and use the same method without much confusion. The punishment sanction is therefore not an injury, the reparation becomes an injury if it’s not fulfilled, and the group validation is not an injury if even if it’s uncomfortable for the offender.

By having the activities as social expectations we place limits on them, as one has to punish in accordance to the group and not their own judgement. The same applies to reparation and group validation.

Role Integrity

Social expectations apply to specific roles, which are automatically created as a consequence of the first reaction. The idea is to keep the integrity of the roles and respect the “division of labour”, in other words, one shouldn’t “take justice under their own hands”

To give you an idea of the roles involved, on the first loop, as a reaction of the offense we have:

  • A Judge, that is in charge to make a sentence and determine the sanction for the offense
  • A Victim, that is one that received the offence and should receive the reparation
  • An Offender, that is the one that caused the damage and should repair it

During the second loop, when the group validation takes place:

  • A Space related authority, the ultimate judge and responsible for the space, like the parents or the government.
  • Secondary stakeholders, such as the family or friends of the affected ones.
  • Space-related stakeholders, individuals that are within the space but not directly involved, for example other students within the same classroom. Affected by the outcomes of the dilemma.

The process described works seamlessly with the objectives of the DREMSI theory, as we continue to use role-based social expectations as a guiding format for judgment and we remain with the aim to minimize injuries during the process. The general objective will be to apply the three activities without inferring serious or critical injuries.

All in all, I’m convinced these measurements we will make the whole process more humane, more sensitive to inequalities and more effective in the objective of learning behaviours. To use the analogy I began this episode with, the aim of this episode is to share with you the dynamics behind each of the three steps so that one can better at dancing, by listening to the tempo of the music, feeling the movements of one’s partner and reading the reactions of all the dancing couples in the floor. Dancing is a process of feeling the space, adjusting our movements and sometimes correcting others, all while the music is playing and everyone is dancing.

With the first section finished, is time to review in more detail the three key activities, punishment sanctions, reparations and group validation.

NEXT: S1E6 – B: The three key actions after an unethical behaviour.

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S1E8 – D: Extended accountabilities

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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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