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Cynefin & Ethics (2 of 2)

December 19, 2021

45314933155 857732a553 oIn yesterday’s post, I made it clear that I wasn’t writing a philosophical article per se, but rather responding to the idea put forward on social media that Cynefin might act as a framework for understanding ethics, and more specifically how we make decisions.  In doing this I am taking a pragmatic approach based on basic ideas that different contexts allow, or rather necessitate different approaches so I’m playing around with the application of ethics, but that includes normative approaches and has implications for meta-ethics.  In particular, I would argue that the ideas of emergence and also constructors have a significant impact on our understanding of what it means to do the next right thing.   Deontology, consequentialism, hedonism, stoicism and so all have their adherents but I’ve never really been happy with the idea that any of those theories are, of themselves, right or wrong.  But I’m pretty sure that a professional philosopher would be fairly quick to put what I am talking about in a category to two.  Mind you I’ve always thought that Philosophy needs to be amateur in the sense of gifted amateurism and trans-disciplinary: philosophy and physics, anthropology, biology etc. and in extremis sociology.  But I’m firmly in the naturalistic and materialist traditions so you would expect that.

The next few paragraphs are going to provide some of the theoretical background to what I am going to talk about.  Remember the theme here is Cynefin and this post is all about the complex domain of Cynefin as well as its liminal extension into chaos.  In the complex domain, we are dealing with inherent uncertainty and all that follows is about mapping what we can know and determining, how to take action in context.  If you don’t want to know the background jump to the What does this mean? heading and start from there.

When I was formally studying philosophy, before I knew anything about complexity science and only had a vague and naive understanding of cognitive evolution, I could always argue that, in context, any of those approaches had value.  So while in general, you should not derive an ought from an is, what IS acts both as an enabling and a governing constraint in different circumstances.  Social Darwinism is something I have always seen as a great evil and some aspects of post-modernism which de-facto legitimise whatever perspective or practice people have I’d dump somewhere in Dante’s Inferno given half a chance.  As I said yesterday I’m with Iris Murdoch and others in saying that any valid approach to ethics must be able to say that some things are just wrong.  But it doesn’t follow from that that what IS the case is not a part of the moral question.   One way I have been talking about that of late, as one of a set of mapping frameworks, typologies and questions that I am developing as a part of the Estuarine Framework (it will probably have a welsh name when it is complete, but that is the working title) is to ask three questions in respect of (i) who or what has agency, (ii) what affordances are realistically available to those with agency, and at what level of factuality, and (iii) what assemblage (or maybe more accurately, what form of territorialisation has stabilised assemblages and (some circularity here) what affordances, based on what agency are available for de-territorialisation.  To all three of those questions, we have to look at their temporal nature, remembering that kairos is not chronos, and also aspects of context including counterfactuals and energy gradients.  Put more simply, knowing what is not possible and how resilient that assumption is (counterfactuals) is important and moreover, if the energy cost of sin is lower than that of virtue, sin will always win out.

Those last few sentences are a little technical and I hazard them at an early stage of thinking about this.  I’ll be working on them over the Christmas Break: if the weather is good I will be walking/climbing and thinking, if bad then I will be writing/reading/structuring.  For those who want to parallel some of this then I’m working with DeLanda’s use of the original work of Deleuze and Guattari.  Affordance goes back to Gibson in 1966 and one of his definitions comes from his 1979 book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

Kairos is about the right or opportune moment to make a decision or to act and carries with it ideas of consequence and imposition.  The etymology of word is from the right moment to fire an arrow, or when a shuttle could be passed through the threads on a loom.  Chronos is sequential time and both are relevant here; there is also a whole body of work on the anthropology of time which its worth getting to know.

What does this mean?

The essence of any management in the complex domain is to know where you are and what is possible/plausible in terms of next steps.  It’s not about idealistic statements about how things should be, though we can use aspirational statements as guiding principles, but not (God help us) as a North Star, it make make a lot more sense to head South-by-South-West.

The reason I am developing the Estuarine model is that an estuary is tidal, the flow goes both ways and there are moments between the tides of stability and calm.  If the cliffs on one side of the estuary are granite with no underpinning faults then I map them once and don’t need to check again.  The sandbanks on the other hand may be constantly shifting and need shorter periods of mapping, or even dredging to create a channel.  Often we have to read the surface of the water to gain an understanding of what may lie beneath and so on.   Some of the mapping here is expert-based and objective, some will require deeper local knowledge – the pilot and so on.  At all times we need to be alert, what is possible at one moment may not be possible in the next and so on.

So how do we map?  I’m still working on this but here are some basics:

  1. Counterfactuals What is not going to happen or change, or more precisely what cannot change, what could change over what time-period (chronos) and at what energy cost (kairos in part), even if we could it may not be worth the cost, or for all we know the unintended consequences (the only certainty in a complex system) may not be manageable so the risk is too high,  The constraint mapping technique in the EU field guide is one way to identity counterfactuals and the formalisation of that is on my agenda at the moment.  It can also be used to identify constructors.  In the field of ethics, most societies would draw now draw a limit on infanticide, while in the past it was acceptable social practice.  Understanding the limits of acceptable behaviour and the context in which that might change is key.  Think Sophie’s choice if you can bear it.  In any organisation, there are common stories of failure that create counterfactuals, places where people will not willingly go again.
  2. Constructors In any system, there are stabilising elements.   Ritual in human systems creates consistency of identity triggering to perform complex tasks such as operations, consistently over multiple actors.  In the estuary a reef or shoal will produce consistent patterns  of flow within a range.  The election cycle in a western style democracy creates periods of consistency for good or bad, as did the life and death of a monarch.  We need to understand what these are, and we need to experiment with creating them; the parallel safe-to-fail-probes of the complex domain of Cynefin. Presenting ethical dilemmas (a type of aporia) to the whole workforce and seeking their stories and interpretations with SenseMaker® allow us to map both counterfactuals and constructors at scale and with secondary interrogation to test the resilience and temporarily of them

Presenting ethical dilemmas (a type of aporia) to the whole workforce and seeking their stories and interpretations with SenseMaker® allow us to map both counterfactuals and constructors at scale and with secondary interrogation to test the resilience and temporarily of them, it can also be done in a workshop and the approach can focus on both strategy and tactics as well as ethics. It’s better to take that more general approach as all things take place in an interwoven context of dependencies.  Creating human sensor networks for this at an organisational as well as a society level is a key aspect of the EU Guide and for society it worth reading our recent white paper on Citizen Engagement.  That white paper, as well as the EU Field Guide also provides guidance to map within the liminal extension of complex into chaotic, when we try and sense weak signals and opportunities.

Then we move to the three ”A”s

  1. Agency It’s all very well to talk about choice but that is never an absolute.  We can all agree that Ivory poaching is wrong, but if the only way of avoiding starvation for your family is to work with the poachers then you don’t realistically have agency to make a moral choice.  Child prostitution and slavery would also be examples.   If you want to allow people to make choices then you need to pay attention to who (or what, it can also be a economic process) truly has agency.  So mapping reality and then identifying where changes would maximise impact for minimal energy is a key aspect of taking a practical approach to ethical behaviour and interactions in an organisation as much as a society.  When I was in IBM on one memorable occasion I saw someone literally shit themselves with fear going into a review.  There the process gave agency to the wrong type of personality.  A winner takes all electoral system too easily attracts clinical narcissists and so on.  In general I think it is more about the process than the behaviour, one enables or gives rise to the other but that is not always the case.  Whatever you need to map it and then determine when and where you should change it – always kairos, rarely chronos.
  2. Affordance There are lots of lots of models and ideal behaviour out there and in general they tend to be pushed by communities with significant budgets.  When your hygiene factors (I really don’t like Maslow but I’ll use the idea here) are satisfied you have lots of room to manouveur.  When you are cash starved it’s very different, the focus  on cash will involve some sacrifice.   One of the upsides of a crisis is that new affordances open up to you.  Constraint mapping and the identification of counterfactuals and constructors (I’m still not 100% behind those terms by the way) goes a long way to telling you what is probable, possible and maybe plausible in a particular context.  Mapping ethical dilemmas as described above is another.   Fractality comes in here as well.  I remember doing some ethnography in the mid-west of the USA where rural communities, mainly through their Churches had high cohesion and support mechanisms that could not be translated into a New York Project, but there were overlays if political ideology that both had in common.  So in a narrative map we represent the system at the level of the agent (someone or something or entity which has agency) to act, to do something which makes a difference.
  3. Assemblage History matters and path dependency is a key aspect of any human system.  This can be good or bad.  In the Brexit campaign, the pro-leave group played to an assemblage based (to my view) on a poorly and incomplete memory of past imperial greatness.  But regardless of accuracy, it informed decision making at a mass level.  Competing with a pattern of narratives, territorialised by evocative phrases and images is difficult and can rarely be achieved through the use of facts.  To be clear here, even if a system provides the affordance for change, the assemblages may prevent action, or even visibility of the opportunity.  The mores of individual freedom regardless of costs to others is a part of current raging debates on vaccine passports in the context of COVID.  It’s not about the facts, and anyway the facts cannot be fully known.  But this is also the area where radical change is possible.  One of the key ideas I have talked about in a recent webinar with Nora Bateson and also in another series with Indigenous groups is the concept of entangling people and communities using micro-narratives that engender multiple points of disruption that are, in effect a micro, self awareness approach to de-territoralisation.  Expect a lot more of this in the future and the picture of fishing nets should serve as a metaphor here

So I’ve talked about an approach, which is based on mapping and small movements rather than grand visions.  In effect by looking as aspects of the situation and asking lots of small questions, the wider or more sustainable ethical framework is more likely to emerge.  Its a lot easier to reach agreement on what we should do in a micro-context, than attempt to resolve a wider theoretical position and apply it.  That said we also have to address wider issues such as trust and integrity.  If you agree on actions there has to be some shared basis on which such actions can take place.  We also only have a certain energy to put into how we expect people to behave.   Most of the time, in practice, we trust people to keep their word, to drive on the right side of the road and so on and they don’t just do that because they afraid of punishment, we do it because we are social creatures.

Now that means taking some risks, especially if you want to move at speed. and I’ve taken a lot of risks with people in my life and in the trusting people pays off.  Sometimes it doesn’t; the banner picture was taken shortly after I discovered that someone I had thought I could trust proved to have been economical with the truth at the very least.  The fishing nets on the other hand come from attending a birthday party for someone, whose despite constant arguments, I know I could trust with my life.  Both pcitures represent the wider idea of entnaglment, one natural the other a human artifact.  People’s capacity for self-dillusion is also important.  I remember someone once insisting, after committing an act of what I considered gross betrayal, that I should accept that they were acting with integrity.  I’m not immune to that tendency, we all are more than capable of it, so at a personal level its always, within limits, staying open to the possibility for forgiveness but maybe not to forgetting.  We should be informed by the past, but not over constrained by it.

 I mention this as the personal aspect of human interaction is key and we can’t neglect it. But it’s not enough in itself. Appropriate transparency of process, the narrative structure of what is done or not done, the hypocrisy or otherwise of leaders, water cooler gossip and oh so many things make up the complex nexus of what is or is not acceptable in an organisation or society. It’s not something that can be resolved in one step. I referenced Anil Seth’s Being You earlier and he has a good approach to the hard problem of consciousness. He doesn’t try and solve it but creates a typology of real problems to which we can find resolutions and in finding those resolutions the bigger issues may become clearer or easier to solve. That is the essence of parallel probe-sense-respond interventions in the complex domain of Cynefin and it’s why I now deprecate the use of experiment. Parrel probes change our perspective not only on the solution but also on how we define problems. Starting journeys with a sense of direction rather than having rigid goals leaves open the possibility of discovering new and more interesting pathways and I think the same is true of ethics. By mapping and then seeking small agreements to changes with feedback loops is I think more effective than either grandiose abstractions or assuming that anything goes. The essence of understanding ethics in complexity is to do the next right thing or more likely things and then look again. In this post, I’ve tried to create a structure to do that, and also, in the first post to legitimise more formal processes where appropriate.

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Cynefin & Ethics (1 of 2)

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