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The ethical dimension of complex decision making – a metalogue

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Salviati: Hello Simplicio, it is good to see you again, my friend. What are you up to these days?

Simplicio: Good to see you too, Salviati.  I have been doing a class on decision making as part of my MBA degree. It is nice to go over something one already knows well…and even nicer that I was able to convince my employer to pay for the course.

Saliviati: Well done!  What is the most important thing you have learnt so far?

Simplicio: Let me see…um, I think it is that decisions should be based on hard facts and evidence.

Salviati: Hmm. It is true that most decision-making approaches will tell you to focus on facts and evidence – that is, what you know or can find out about the problem. However, it is often difficult to find hard facts and evidence, particularly in situations where facts are scarce or contested. In such situations, you have no choice but to pay attention to what you don’t know, the uncertainties.

Simplicio: That does not make sense. How can you pay attention to something you don’t know?

Salviati: Let me give you an example. You have done projects before, haven’t you?

Simplicio: Of course, you know from our earlier conversation that I’m a project manager by profession.

Salviati: OK, so what are the key variables in a project?

Simplicio: Time and cost, two apexes of the iron triangle.

Salviati: That’s right. Whatever the project might be, you know that time and cost are key variables. However, you do not know their values upfront. Your job as a project manager, is to come up with good estimates for these. Is that right?

Simplicio: Uh huh.

Salviati:  OK, so you need to understand this uncertainty and to do so you must pay attention to it. The interesting thing about uncertainty associated with time and cost is that it is quantifiable. That is, you can develop numerical estimates for these variables using a range of techniques like, say, Monte Carlo simulation. The point I want to make is that regardless of the technique used, quantifying uncertainty involving known variables is a rational and logical process. Would you agree?

Simplicio: Yes, that makes sense.

Salviati: Now consider another problem, that of formulating a business strategy. What are the key variables in this case?

Simplicio: Hmmm…that’s a difficult one. It depends on several factors, the financial position of the organization, market share, the environment, business forecasts…oh, so many things.

Salviati: What information would you need in order to figure out which of these factors is important?

Simplicio: Oh, that’s impossible to tell without knowing more about the situation. There are so many things that could be important. You need to know a lot more about the business and its operating context before you can figure that out.

Salviati: Yes, that’s true, and I should also point out that no amount of data, number crunching or logical analysis is going to get you anywhere until you figure out what is important. Would you agree?

Simplicio: Yes.

Salviati: So, let me ask you: what do people in your organization do when they develop their business strategy?

Simplicio: Ah, they ask the experts of course – they engage Big 4 consultancies.

Salviati: Right…who better than a rank outsider to tell you what to do? At an inflated billing rate too! Surely there is a better way.

Simplicio: Like what?

Salviati: I’ll get to that in a bit, but I first want to make another point. A few minutes ago, I said that dealing with project estimation is essentially a rational and logical process. Let me ask you now: what kind of process do you think strategy formulation is?

Simplicio: What do you mean?

Salviati: Well, it isn’t logical…but it obviously isn’t arbitrary either. So, what is it?

Simplicio: I’m not sure I understand what you are getting at.

Salviati:  This is a difficult question so let me approach it in another way. We agreed that the difficult part in strategy formulation is to figure out what is important, right?

[Simplicio nods]

Salviati: So, let me ask you: important to whom?

Simplicio: to management, of course!

Salviati: Do employees not matter?

Simplicio: They do…but their job is to do as they are told.

Salviati: Really? You think it as Lord Tennyson noted: “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”

Simplicio: That is over the top, Salviati. The situation of an employee in a modern-day organization is not comparable to the poor soldiers in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Nobody dies.

Salviati: May be not, but I think the analogy is justified. There are so many cases of ill-fated strategies that could have, should have, been questioned before implementation, but weren’t.  The consequences for employees, though admittedly not fatal, are disastrous…and the point is, employees are rarely given a voice in the decision. It is akin to the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Simplicio: OK, maybe it is, but what is your point?

Salviati: Strategy development and implementation ought to be treated as ethical matters rather than a logical ones.

Simplicio: Yes, I suppose they are. But that begs the question: how does one develop a strategy in an ethical manner?

Salviati: That, my friend, is the key question and it is a difficult one. The difficulty arises from the fact that ethics is hard to talk about meaningfully. Indeed, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to state that ethics cannot be articulated. His point is that the term “ethics” is meaningful only in the context of actions, not words. (Editor’s note: see this lecture by Heinz von Foerster for more on Wittgenstein’s take on ethics)

Simplicio: So how does one act ethically in this context?

Salviati: To answer that question, I will turn to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative: act always to increase choices. (Editor’s note: see this lecture for more on von Foerster’s ethical imperative)

Simplicio: Umm…please explain.

Salviati: It is simple: if you do things that increase everyone’s choices then you are behaving ethically.

Simplicio: OK…but how do you “increase everyone’s choices” in practice?

Salviati: By involving them in the decision of course, and there are ways to do that. However, let me be clear, the aim is not to make a decision that satisfies everyone. That is impossible. It is to get as many different perspectives on the problem before making a decision. If you think about it, this is the only way to ensure that you do not miss important factors that could cause your decision to fall apart later.

Simplicio: That sounds idealistic and impractical.

Salviati: It might be idealistic, but it is not impractical. The basic idea is to make the different perspectives on the problem explicit.  This can be done by eliciting the preferred options of the different stakeholder groups and documenting arguments for and against them. There is a visual notation called IBIS (Issue Based Information System) that facilitates this. With IBIS, we can visualize the informal logic of conversation using three types of nodes: questions (or issues), which capture the problem being discussed; ideas, which are options offered by the different stakeholders; and arguments for and against those options (pros and cons).  By making the different viewpoints and the arguments explicit, you set the stage for making an ethical decision. Of course, one must also have in place the conditions that allow for open dialogue, and there are ways to do that as well.

Simplicio: So, the choices are matters of opinion, not fact? That does not sound right.

Salviati: Of course not. If someone makes a claim that needs to be validated or is factually incorrect, it can be challenged by others, even after the debate.

Simplicio: Ah, I see.  This is interesting, I’d love to see how it works.

Salviati: I’ll send you some books, papers and articles on IBIS (Editor’s note: here are some articles and a couple of books.). 

Simplicio: But I still don’t see how this makes the decision ethical.

Salviati: If you think about it, ethics is about doing what is good. The problem is if you try to define what is good and what is not good, you will tie yourself up in knots. It is impossible to come up with a meaningful universal definition of “goodness.” Wittgenstein was right when he claimed that it is impossible to talk about ethics.  If one cannot speak about ethics meaningfully, the only possibility is to do it… and that is what von Foerster’s dictum is about.  It tells us that ethical action is about doing things that increase choices for everyone. By eliciting multiple perspectives, you are increasing choices for the group. If the environment is one in which open dialogue can occur, then the choices can be freely debated by all and a decision reached. Even if the final decision does not make everyone happy – which it won’t, of course – everyone will agree that the process followed was inherently ethical.

Simplicio: OK, I think I see now. Since complex problems are multifaceted, one has to elicit diverse viewpoints on the problem to ensure one has not missed something important…and by doing so, one is also acting ethically.

Salviati: That’s exactly right! Incidentally, such complex, multifaceted problems are often called wicked problems. Much of the literature on wicked problems focuses on the surfacing and debating diverse perspectives, but very few writers (if any) comment on the inherently ethical nature of this process.

Simplicio: This is fascinating Salviati, thank you for broadening my perspective on complex decisions.

Salviati: My pleasure…but you should keep in mind that the process discussed will ensure that you surface and debate options comprehensively. The decision itself is yet to be made.

Simplicio: Oh! So, how does one make the decision.

Salviati: Unfortunately, there is no formula for that Simplicio. As you will appreciate, this is not simply a matter of picking the best option because different stakeholder groups may have different opinions on which one is best.

Simplicio: Hmmm, so what does the decision maker do if the group cannot settle on an option?

Salviati: Well then, the decision maker must make the call.

Simplicio: On what basis?

Salviati: I think I have already answered that. He must choose so as to maximise the number of future choices for all.

Simplicio: Hmm, we have already gone through that…

Salviati: There is no algorithm I can give you for this, if there were it would be a calculation not a decision – a matter of logic rather than ethics. All I can say is that, you, the decision maker must decide how you must act…and that should be in a way that increases choices for the greatest number of stakeholders. It may be further discussion or something else, it depends on the specifics of the situation. Regardless, it is a call you must make…and the choice you make says more about you anything else.

Simplicio: That is an unsatisfying answer.

Salviati: I’m sorry, but its as simple as that…and that is what makes it so hard.



metalogue is a real or imaginary conversation whose structure resembles the topic being discussed. This piece is inspired by Gregory Bateson’s metalogues in Part 1 of his book, Steps To an Ecology of Mind.

The characters in this metalogue are borrowed from Galileo’s  Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems in which the character Salviati is a proponent of the Copernican “heresy” that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe whereas Simplicio favours the Geocentric view proposed by the Greek philosopher Ptolemy.

Written by K

October 17, 2022 at 8:23 pm

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