S1E6 – C: The Feedback loops in Ethics

Time to get further details about each of the feedback loops that normally happen when someone behaves unethically. In this Section we not only discuss the loops but as well some considerations to make the process better.

“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction; or, the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.” Newton’s third law of physics

In 1687, Isaac Newton revealed the three laws of motion in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica where he explained the motion of many physical objects and systems. I couldn’t resist the urge to bring the statement to this episode as in a way resembles the cycle we are describing. For every action there is a reaction or equal intensity, in DREMSI terms, we could say that for every serious injury there is a serious punishment sanction and a serious reparation needed. Sounds intuitive and to a large degree it is, as the objective is to harmonize the situation with a balancing action, this is a process that keeps repeating until a sort of balance is achieved within the system, or the balance is broken to a degree that the system can no longer remain the same.

Getting into the final section of this episode, it is time to provide clarity on the general expectations that apply during the feedback loops. We will begin with general observations that will influence the process, following up with the review of the feedback loops and concluding with small observations that can make the whole process more aligned with the DREMSI Method.

Size of the group matters, third-party involvements.

Without further saying let us begin with the general observations, and in particular, we should set the tone by discussing the most relevant one, which is the size of the group.

In simple terms, the size of the group will have a large impact on how the feedback loop runs, in particular on the level of formality within the process and the availability of third parties within the feedback. The way the reaction happens is different if it’s a group of friends, a small family or a large corporation, all varying in the level of formality, the involvement of an authority figure and the processes in place.

Responsibility for the judgement

In a similar light, a critical question that happens during the reaction phase is to determine, who is responsible to place the judgment and punishment sanction? It is not always easy to determine if the victim should handle it or should report it to the authorities. It is common to expect the victim to take responsibility, but not all the victims have the strength to take the punishment into their own hands, for example, if a father hits their child, the child is powerless to take ownership.  So long it is not clear who is in charge of punishing, or even when someone is in charge but it doesn’t act, others might believe that the expectation applies to them. For example, in the absence of anyone punishing the person that hit a little boy, his brother might want to take ownership of the punishment.

Ultimately, when is not clear who is responsible to make the judgement and the victim cannot afford to do it, it is the relational space owner to take this responsibility. By owner I mean the one that looks after the space: the parents in the house, the government in the society or the boss in the company. If in the end nobody places a punishment sanction on the offence, then it is possible that everyone in the space starts believing this behaviour is acceptable, hence modifying the social expectations.

Visibility of the actions

A very important aspect to clarify is how Visible should the action be. As described before, the objective of the feedback loop is to reinforce or modify social expectations, and for this we benefit from social learning, learning what happened to others when an unethical behaviour happened.

While executing the three key actions, we are constantly considering the level of visibility within the group this action deserves, should I keep it secret or make the whole group aware of this action? A simple approach is to make the situation and actions visible when we consider the discrepancy between the behaviour and the ideal behaviour is big enough, when the misbehaviour is too large to ignore, hence the group should see it. In a very pragmatic format, we can use the injury intensity thresholds to drive some guidance:

  • If the injury is uncomfortable, visibility of the group is optional
  • When the injury is serious, visibility of the process is important for the relevant stakeholders.
  • When the injury is critical, visibility of the process is important for the whole relational space.

As such, if someone made you uncomfortable, it is not a need for everyone to see you complaining about it, but if someone stole from you, then by all means inform the group!

With these few considerations explained, let us get move on to a review of the Feedback loops.

The First loop –  the reaction

We begin with the reaction, the first feedback loop to a dilemma. During this phase, the stakeholders involved are the Judge, the Offender and the Victim, with the chance that the victim plays the judge role at the same time. Although there are many ways that the dilemma can be solved we are concerned with the idea of breaking expectations. Once this happens, the following expectations per role apply.

  • An individual gets the responsibility to judge and apply a punishment sanction. In large groups, this is done by an external party but in smaller settings, the victim is likely to take over. In the case of ambiguity, even a close by stakeholder might get the responsibility.
  • The offender not only might get a punishment sanction but is expected to provide a repair.

As we can see, this is a pretty basic arrangement and if everyone behaves according to expectations then the order within the system is maintained.

The most common challenges are:

  • The victim might want to take “justice under his/her own hands” disregarding common practices of punishment or ignoring the fact that there is a judge in place
  • The offender might try to excuse the offence or simply ignore it, pretending of having done nothing wrong.
  • The judge doesn’t take fact base criteria to judge the situation, taking a tribal or vengeance approach to the situation instead of looking into the social expectations aspect of it.

The second loop – the group reaction.

Let us shift gears and move into the second feedback loop, the group reaction, which is the reaction to the initial reaction (hence the second feedback loop). At this point, secondary stakeholders, space-related stakeholders and space owner have the possibility to voice their comfort and discomfort depending on the outcome. Not only should they voice their opinion but in some cases, the space owner might have to intervene, especially if there has been a problem with the application of the punishment sanction.

This feedback loop is a bit more complex, as there are two different scenarios that might happen:

  • In scenario one, social expectations are maintained in the first loop. If the injury was serious or critical, stakeholders might comment on it to reinforce the expectation of the group.
  • in scenario two, one or multiple social expectations were broken during the first feedback loop, either by the judge not placing a sanction, by the victim not recognizing the offence or by the offender failing to acknowledge the mistake and repair it. At this point the space-related stakeholders have the chance to voice their comfort or discomfort about this, supporting a reinforcement or change of social expectations.

Most common challenges

Among the common challenges that can appear at this stage, the most pressing one is the tribalistic and virtue signalling aspect of the process; with this I mean that it is very common for people to voice their opinion with the intention to show our favouritism towards individuals instead of looking into the social expectation.

In a different view, it can as well be common for close and space-related stakeholders to want to be part of the punishment process, to contribute in the punishment of the offender. To do this we might resort to shame the offender in excessive manners, despite the fact that a punishment has already been in place. Too much punishment by the group is hence a major risk, especially combined with tribalistic behaviour

Considerations, we have to play the game.

By now I have provided an in-depth view of the whole ethical dance, with plenty of observations on how to visualize and evaluate each feedback loop. I would like to close this episode with a couple of considerations that I believe would make the whole process better.

As a starting point, I want to emphasise that it is imperative that we take ownership of our roles and embrace the expectations assigned, the group dances better when everyone is following the 1-2-3 rhythm. The victim has to make it known that there was an injury, the offender has to acknowledge mistakes, the judge has to put in place a sanction and the group has to show signals of approval or disapproval, all this contributes to the acquisition and maintenance of behaviours, which in turn make the group stronger. In this regard, I love the quote from Joseph Henrich:

“to survive in a world governed by social rules enforced by third parties and reputations, we became norm learners with prosocial biases, norm adherers internalizing key motivations, norm-violation spotters, and reputation managers”

If look at this from a social progress perspective, in which we keep improving our society by getting rid of poor behaviours, it becomes even more important that we look at this from an objective perspective and support the process even when it might not be popular to do, even when it may take a reputational cost. In this regard, I am referring to the importance of contributing to the transformation of social norms by actively supporting or rejecting social movements. These social movements rely precisely on the opinion of the group to either get momentum or disappear, I like how Desmund Tutu phrased it:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

One doesn’t have to be the perfect example of virtues to have a right to an opinion; one only needs to be part of the space or strive to contribute to the minimization of injuries. One has to speak up!

Considerations, the importance of the judging role.

My last remark on this episode is about the importance of the judging role. This role dictates much of how the situation will unfold and if it is played poorly it automatically leads to chaos. In a simple look, one may believe that the role has the only responsibility to install a sanction on the offender, but in a much deeper perspective, the judge has to balance not only the sanction but the learning aspect of it, by the group and the offender.  Let’s take for example a professor of a class, when a student misbehaves, it has to consider the sanction in regards to the objective, that the class reinforces a certain behaviour and that the student actually learns about it.

The way the judge handles the punishment is an essential skill to train, not only is to determine the sanction, but the timing and the way this is communicated and installed, the judge has too many possibilities to influence the first feedback loop and in turn, minimize the injuries trough out the process. Perhaps the most important aspect of a good judge is the impartiality and fact-based perspective on the goal of the activity, the judge has to remove emotional burst and tribalism tendencies from their mind so that it can provide a judgement that truly benefits everyone. This is so hard to achieve that having an external party doing it has proven to be an effective solution.

Given how critical the judge role is and we all have to play it, I plan to make a few remarks on this during phase four, where we discuss an ethical framework

Closing remarks

With this last observation finished we have reached the end of this episode. Although it is an intuitive process, it becomes much easier to analyze if we see it from a systems perspective, when we think about actions and reactions within a system.

The DREMSI Method remains the same across all stages of the cycle, we continue to use role-based expectations to evaluate injuries and we aim for the action that causes the least damage. The important contribution of this episode lies in the fact that we have now a much clearer perspective on the social expectations that appear due to the initial action.

On a personal side, I am having a small celebration drink at this point, a small glass of wine to commemorate the finalization of this phase that has been quite complex to analyze and write. This phase was necessary as it will make things much easier to explain while solving dilemmas, hence I am very glad it’s done and I will continue to improve it as we uncover more important points.

NEXT – PHASE 3, S1E7 – A: Individual Dilemmas

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