Cynefin & Ethics (1 of 2)

December 18, 2021

Arrows 6268063Three things triggered today’s post: a LinkedIn request for ethical-decision making frameworks; the blatant manipulation of the ‘rules’ in the FI final race to manufacture TV Ratings and finally a New Scientist article with the title Survival of the friendliest: Why Homo sapiens outlived other humans. That article looks at the evidence for why Homo Sapiens, despite being a late arrival, ended up as the only species left standing out of five. We shared the ability to make tools and the ability to think symbolically (art is a marker here) with other species and intelligence is a factor, but that of itself is evolutionary in nature, so these may not be sufficient. Instead, the article here talks about our ability to network with strangers, forming alliances beyond our kinship groups. That allowed specialisation within a specific population. The evidence for care of injured members of a tribe reduced the risk of hunting for the individual and that sense of responsibility and reference for age (evidenced by funeral rights) allowed grandparents to have a role in child care and knowledge transfer. Now collaboration within a group is one thing but the key thing is the ability to create relationships outside of that group and at a significant distance in respect of trade. That also meant that capability was not lost when a specific population died out. The article includes some very interesting material on associated generic change and, to my mind critically, the ability to find forms of expression that “enables greater communication and makes you less threatening”.

Note the physical nature of this, which will be key later and of course all of those developed in sophisticated languages. 

“Becoming more connected and tolerant towards other people face us treated strength as a community, but our underlying drive to please others and belong to a group also makes individuals vulnerable to being lonely, depressed and anxious.”

For every upside, there is, as they say, a downside and some of you will probably be starting to guess where I am going, in part, in respect of the banal amorality (not immorality & a hat tip to Arendt there) of social media.  This ability allowed our early ancestors to cope with major climate instability.  The authors suggest that but for disruption, other species such as Neanderthals might have been better equipped.  That said there is growing evidence of extensive interbreeding between Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthals which probably indicates closer interaction and collaboration and we mostly have Neanderthal genes in our mix.

Given that we are a symbolic and reflective species (or at least some members are) reflection on those interactions and their nature result in the whole field of ethics, jurisprudence and law and so on.  Camus suggested that A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world (I might need to say attributed to Camus there but I am trying to hunt down the source) and one might say, with that, that the crude neo-Darwinian ideas of survival of the fittest (and I would include Dawkins in that) just turn out to be wrong, which is (sic) no bad thing,

On Philosophy

Now a warning here, readers probably also need to know that my primary interests when I first read philosophy were the fields of ethics and aesthetics.  As it happens were taught respectively by the two Professors in the Philosophy Department at Lancaster namely Prof John Benson (who also had the misfortune to be my tutor) and Prof Frank Sibley.  They were very different characters.  John was originally an English major and started his course on ethics with a treatment of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Prof Sibley (I don’t think anyone called him Frank) was firmly in the analytical school and when I proposed (as a student representative on the faculty committee) a course in Existentialism told me firmly that if I wanted to study European Literature I belonged in another department.  John organised a memorable weekend with Bernard Williams in the Shap Wells Hotel north of Lancaster, an event which was formative for me, especially his demolition of Utilitarianism.  We also had Richard Hare who had also taught Williams the following year and was prepared to enter into a spirited late-night debate with a very naive second year student around consequentialism; the memory of that still makes me cringe but he was very generous in his treatment.

The consequence of that education and a lifelong interest in the subjects which has continued to the current day is that I am not foolish enough to attempt to deal with the multiple philosophical debates in a single blog post. What follows is informed by that work but my intent here is far more pragmatic. I will say that I reject (and to a degree despise) any philosophy based on calculation (see earlier reference to Bernard Williams) or on the idea that all personal preferences are equally valid. Midgley, Anscombe, Murdoch, Foot and Warnock were a more or less unique group of female philosophers who all ended up in Oxford when most male contemporaries were at war and this achieved greater prominence that might otherwise have happened. In large part, their work, especially that of Murdoch, was informed by a clear imperative to be able to say that some things were just wrong. Philosophy has a clear role here; Midgley vamoosing compared Philosophy with plumbing – no one notices it until it goes wrong and at which point you have to rip up the floorboards and find out what is going wrong and come up with some ways of improving things. I should also say that on one memorable day and Hay, Midgley said that I had asked a good question and I’ve never been better complimented. I suspect her work on the idea that the Gaia hypothesis has both scientific and religious aspects is going to be of more importance than people realised when she first put it forwards.

There is also a recognition of historical context here – people criticise Hobbes but forget the context in which he was writing and so on. I’m currently reading The Dawn of Everything which challenges the whole Enlightenment way of thinking and challenges the idea that there was a sudden breakpoint in human development with the discovery of agriculture. More reflections on that in future posts, but for the moment I note it and the need with any philosophy, but in particular ethics and politics, to look at the historical context in which people were writing. In the main philosophy comes into its own when our basic assumptions come under challenge. the compass of this work also includes aspects of Law and its role within a state and internationally. We live in a world where Westphalian assumptions are increasingly challenged and, with the US and the UK conscious, and I would go so far as to say shameless, attempts are being made to privilege the needs of populist politicians over the restraint of electoral law and the need for judicial review. The precariousness of our legal systems comes at a time where the precariousness of our ecological environment is at a level of existential crisis. Without an underpinning set of ethical norms and assumptions, all legal systems face threats and the ideologies or rampant individualism threaten our survival as a species. In a sense, it is almost as if we have chosen to forget our past. The role of religion is interesting here. When it is a part of the way we do things a social norm provides a set of enabling constraints that stabilise society. When it becomes a series of competing ideologies it destabilises and rampant atheism is no substitute – the Enlightenment myth of rationality is just that, a myth and the new Atheists were rightly criticised by Midgley as being the high priests of Scientism. Iterative, pragmatic sequential forms of discourse, on which the law is based break down in the face of ideology.

Cynefin and ethics

Despite the qualification that I am not writing an article on Philosophy, I will confess that I a drawing in part on Virtue Ethics and Pragmatism within a wider context of (new) materialism.  I thought I had better declare that upfront.  I’m also picking up on one of a series of discussions with Alicia Juarrero and others over the years in which we have talked about the way that complexity theory allows us to move towards a resolution long-standing debates about free will and the hard problem of consciousness and many issues in the field of ethics.  Alicia famously did this in respect of intentionality (often expressed as how do you tell the difference between a wink and a blink).  Anil Seth’s use of a typology and a focus on the real problem(s) of consciousness also utilises this and I strongly recommend Being You and plan some posts on that in 2022.

Cynefin by sueCynefin is about a recognition that there are very different contexts within which we make decisions and is based on the assumption that what works in one domain/context will not work in another.  So applying it to the fields of ethics and law has been interesting and it’s taken me over a week rather than the day I promised.  In effect,  I am using the framework to create a series of different ways of thinking about the subject.  I’ve inserted one of Sue Borchardt’s images from the Cynefin Birthday Book to act as a reminder if the current version of the framework and the core approaches in each of the four main domains.  In doing this I am also going to be referencing key aspects of the EU Field Guide, in particular the aporetic turn.  As a general point, the ordered domains represent a regime of law and rules while complex allows for more possibilities awaiting the emergence of new norms that may or may not be codified into rules or processes.  Per the field Guide, if you are in chaos you high tail it to the aporetic, keeping as many options open as possible.  All the liminal aspects of the domains are important and I will elaborate on each of them as a separate point.  There are overlaps here with my emerging Estuarine Framework and ideas of constraints, constructors and counterfactuals for those following that work.

  1. In the clear domain there are clearly understood rules and mores to which people confirm, other than in exceptional circumstances where temporary non-compliance is legitimate or where they think they can get away with it and moreover want to or believe the rules don’t apply to them, just everyone else.  There are no real issues here, but a question of enforcement and detection and social ostracisation acts to reinforce the formal system.
  2. However, if the exceptional circumstances start to multiple, or the underlying mores of the community goes through significant change then we are approaching the phase shift to chaos, the catastrophic failure that arises when the rules are de-facto unenforceable.  Hypocrisy in the governing class or leadership can bring this on very quickly.  My barber the other day, when I said “I gather you can’t trim the beard under the new COVID rules” responded to the effect that if the Prime Minister could attend parties in defiance of his own rules, then he was going to trim my beard and to hell with the rules.  As always in Cynefin avoiding that catastrophic fold is key.
  3. In the complicated domain then some people know what is the right thing to do by virtue of education, training or experience and further, and this is key, there is consensus in the wider community to accept their expertise and consequently authority.  Religion once occupied this space, but less so these days.  Post WWII in general European and US Societies placed trust in experts and scientists in particular but of recent years that started to break down.  We had the unedifying spectacle this week of one Member of our Parliament, best known for some second rate acting who felt her authority as an elected member outranked the Chief Medical Officer in terms of public health.  And anyone alive to the news can quote similar examples.  When people start not to trust expertise, and do so at sufficient scale then we are starting to shift through confused into aporetic; if we are luckily and that should be the strategy or two confusion and collapse if we are not.  Defending experts beyond a certain point, even if they are right, can still result in a breakdown.  You have to shift the emerging negative consensus through disruption as its an emergent pattern and finding the line(s) of flight is not obvious.
  4. There is a special case, identified in the field guide where the experts themselves fail to agree.  That is the small liminal area of complicated which can grow rapidly.  The longer you allow entrenched positions to develop the less likely it is that some new synthesis will emerge.   It’s was for that, and for transdisciplinary work in general that we developed the Triopticon method.  That is a half to four day structured set of interactions that allows novel ideas to emerge that transcend traditional paradigms and also make visible to decision makers what they should do.  This animation, produced by Colin in our open source wiki illustrates that process.  Note the basic principle of complexity work applies here, we change and ritualise a different type of interaction.   You could also use dialogic techniques but to my mind they are too facilitator dependent and over dependent on the attitude of the participants to engage.  In a crisis there will be conflict and gaming and we devised the Tripticon with that in mind; part of the pragmatism of complexity thinking over the idealism of systems thinking.  (Sorry couldn’t resist that, take as a tongue in cheek comment)
  5. In the event of being plunged into chaos then we starting to look for authority and the rapid imposition of same.  Remember in the field guide we argue that the role of the leader is not to resolve the issue, but to create a sufficient level of constraint to allow us to start to create aporia that trigger different ways of thinking and allow us to move ascents of the issue to the other three domains as appropriate. In a series of three posts, of which this is the first, I identified various approaches to this.
  6. Then life gets interesting, in the complex domain there are multiple hypotheses about how we should behave.  If we can get to the liminal state those are starting to narrow down but as frequently they are on the border with chaos and we have to find a way to understand and test for coherence and determine where we focus both constructer and destructive energy.  We also can’t impose a rational approach, indeed its questionable if there is one anyway.  There are also path dependencies and contextual aspects here.  Remember it was only a few hundred years ago that attending a public hanging was considered a good family day out.  This is where we need very different approaches and ideas of entanglement and empathy are key.

Now I have left the last point hanging (sic) as I think it deserves a post in its own right, and I will do that tomorrow.


Thanks to Rhiannon Davies of the Cynefin Centre for her literature review & original reflections on International Law
(although she is not responsible for what I have done with the material)

Banner image is cropped from an original by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash Opening image is by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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