Ethics as choice and love - Forrest Landry

"The ethical gap is essentially a reference to the difference between what our technology gives us the capacity to do and what our wisdom is to know what we should do."
-Forrest Landry

Long and chewy, but highly recommended. I’ll be listening to this a second time and would love to discuss it if anyone’s interested.

Edit: This seems incredibly powerful as a psychotechnology (so I’ve moved it from the Visioning category to the Tools category).

It’s been much on my mind for the past couple of days, since I first listened to it.


Key distinctions from the interview

  • ethics of symmetry vs ethics of continuity
  • decisions (cutting options) vs choice (generating options)

Symmetry - important for external phenomena (or ‘objective’ framing?) - integrity is expressed by same content in different contexts (eye for an eye and Golden Rule)

Continuity - important for subjective phenomena - integrity is expressed by gradual rate of change, like our sense of a continuous self, not hard edges. I wrote ‘gradual rate of change’ in my notes, but I’m considering it more as a rate of change we can adapt to, make sense of.

Symmetry and discontinuity (different content in the same context) go together.
Continuity and asymmetry go together.

Problems often arise when we assume symmetry should be applied to (complex) phenomena which are better understood in the continuity frame.


I’ve also been using these distinctions to reframe my sense-making on:

  • Cynefin framework - Obvious/Complicated (symmetry principles) vs Complex (continuity principles) … with Chaos mostly feeling opaque to our morals/ethics

  • Dunbar’s number (~150 close relationships) - continuity of relationship, trust and structuring organisations and relationships (roles, blockchain etc) on symmetry assumptions. We create and seek to enforce boundaries (role definitions, laws and policing, cryptographic security) to handle relationships outside our capacity for dealing with complexity using continuity principles.

  • The Graves model of human development / Spiral Dynamics - increasing ability to see complexity, apply ethics of continuity rather than symmetry, and use choice (rather than decision) to expand the search space --> increasing freedom, reduced fear observed by Graves

  • Resonance with Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning (probably should be ethical rather than moral) - levels are also representative of increasing ability to generate options and get ourselves in sync with the continuities in complexity.

  • Dave Snowden - fixed constraints, governing constraints, enabling constraints


And then, I’ve also been considering various relationship struggles in the past in light of where the people in relationship were working from, ethically speaking. How expectations were broken through different assumptions about what the moral/ethical rules/principles were.

For example, while I was temporarily working in another’s management role some years ago, the team expected that their relationships with the role (their manager) wouldn’t change, while the expectations of my senior manager were based on the person (me) rather than the role. My senior manager asked me to perform a task suited to me-in-that-role, which the team’s usual manager would probably not have performed at all (if they were even asked to). In carrying out that task, I remained the same person (integrity in terms of continuity) I always was … but the combination of different-task-and-different-person in the same role completely broke the assumptions the team had in terms of role symmetry.

One of the things I’ve been playing with over the past few days since listening to this podcast is the idea of Dunbar’s number as pointing not only to our capacity for meaningful relationships, but rather, to a more ‘core’ capacity of human cognitive function, much as the ‘magic number’ of 7 +/- 2 indicates the capacity of our short-term memory function.

We scale the utility of our short-term memory function by chunking information in our long-term memory and manipulating those chunks instead of raw data. The idea I’m playing with is that we use the same ‘scaling’ technique in dealing with complexity - i.e. we chunk aspects of complexity — including, but not restricted to , human relationship — into ‘expectation-models’ that we can retrieve and use for in-the-moment sense-making and choice-making. (I’d love a better term than ‘expectation-models’, by the way — all too frequently I just can’t language good. “Use your words!” is an ongoing joke in my household.)

Anyway, in the podcast, Forrest talks about two patterns we use for our ‘expectation-models’: Symmetry and Continuity. Symmetry, as I understood it, measures ‘sameness’ of content across different contexts (e.g. the Golden Rule). Continuity measures ‘rate of change’ across content and context (e.g. the ongoing coherent sense of self), so to me, this seems to be the pattern more ‘fit’ for dealing with complexity in general.

So, what I’m hypothesising here is that maybe Dunbar’s number is actually pointing to our cognitive capacity for continuity sense-making and choice-making, not just social sense-making and choice-making. Would anyone like to join me in playing with this hypothesis? :slightly_smiling_face: