How malleable is an “ethic”? A dose of system thinking reality

How malleable is an “ethic”? A dose of system thinking reality
Michele Battle-Fisher
Unpublished manuscript
Orgcomplexity Blog July 29, 2013
Before I begin, what do I mean by “ethic”? Ethics are, in the end, a study of moral justification of our actions (or inaction). Most simply put, ethics are a set of moral judgments that can influence and later dictate a person’s or a group’s behavior. This supports for an often overlooked but necessary link to “system thinking” to ethics. When I was chosen as a Visiting Scholar to the Hastings Center ( in 2010, this was the leap of faith that I wanted to make. Medical ethics (or bioethics) has often ascribed to the negotiation of needs and morality as a linear action with no feedbacks, such as doctor/patient (or any other personal coupling). I knew so many ethicists grappling with beneficence and autonomy from this angle. It is a legitimate angle to take. But how do we really grapple with our moral compass? We are social. We are embedded with people, situations and environments which all tug at our ethical decisions every moment that we breathe. I wish to add to these ethical discussions by allowing the lens of systems to shed light on the messiness of ethical negotiation. Some bioethicists may say that this is not ethical work at all. Sure, I am not so interested in the high-brow spheres of “what is good” or “what is moral?” As we engage with our environment, “good” or “moral” compasses change, making such declarations temporally and situational bound rather than universal law or socially proclaimed policy. I call this ethical malleability, whereby a person may “change” his ethical stance to suit his present belief system (Battle-Fisher, 2010). As I wrote in my article published in the Online Journal of Health Ethics (2010), human agency and the ability (though not coercion) to change one’s mind can make even a con a probable yes in the future. The question central for me is good and morality based on social influence and personal proclivity to take a side. In the end, we are linked in networks that influence our stances.
Next, let’s touch on affirming ethics. Does the affirming of bioethics require relevance, novelty or something else altogether? Susceptibility to opinion leaders’ beliefs may be due to resultant centrality within a particular network. There are true power brokers who may sway other enough to influence a choice in ethical decisions. Does this counter the ideal of autonomy? I say no as this malleability serves as a reality check to often unobtainable true autonomy. While we remain social creatures, autonomy will be a striving toward a pinnacle of self-realization. We operate along that journey toward this heightened state of actualization; therefore we are ethically susceptible to malleability. Might an ethic be “innovative” with the ability to diffuse across a network? Could a person change his mind and reverse the “innovation” or is it just a new feedback loop into cycle of innovation with no consequence? For instance if a person has a high measure of trust “closure” plus a high level of “closeness” which makes it easier to find others to influence, imagine the ability to influence ethics under this scenario. Is there really no consequence for not accepting a diffused ethical position posed by influencers (same as opinion leaders)? An ethic can be changed until it is acted upon. Even after it is acted upon, a person may regret that moral decision then revert back and have to deal with the collateral damage of that choice. An ethic is NOT the action but a necessary precondition to action. But we ultimately must pay for our actions so we indirectly pay for our ethical positions in the end.
Have you ever been the lone voice of discordance within a network? What were the situations that you decided to bend to the will of the majority? I implore that the last thing that we should do is blame the person for changing an ethic. An ethic may never necessarily be displayed as a discernible action or even need to be articulated. Must an ethic be communicated to count? Is it something else when discussed (by morphing into a value or norm)? No. Yes. Add in the wrinkle of persuasion and you have a party on your hands. Granovetter (1978) presented a cool idea he called the threshold model of collective behavior. Granovetter (1978) seeks a decision as a binary (such as pro donation, con donation) based on a threshold of others’ participation. Valente (1995) later wrote of the idea of “network thresholds” which should be measured in terms of exposure to “direct communication ties” (degree) but not as a threshold measured for the whole social system. This threshold shows the point where a node will be convinced to adopt. Valente (1995) found that opinion leaders have lower network thresholds; they need the least convincing to innovate. However, these opinion leaders must influence more resistant nodes in the network-those later adopters. But often in health, we do not have enough buy-in of the public. Therefore, increasing the availability of related living organ donors relies on changes in personal ethical systems of the possible donors.
As diffusion is a long-term proposition, is diffusion the best model for ethical deliberation? Someone can change an ethic so perhaps definition of adoption proportion may be less meaningful over the long term. I still see the idea of diffusion spread as important though any conclusions should be taken in light of this time-based restriction. The use of a longitudinal network approach would be the go-to guy. However before any node is mapped, we must discern the nature of the ethic first in order for this network approach to become meaningful.

Battle-Fisher, M. (Dec. 2010). Organ donation ethics: are donors autonomous within Collective

networks? [electronic version] OJHE Online Journal of Health Ethics. 6(2). Retrieved from

Granovetter, M. (1978) Threshold models of collective behavior. The American Journal of
Sociology. 83(6), 1420-43.

Valente, T.W. (1995). Network models of the diffusion of innovations. Cresskill, NJ:
Hampton Press.


About Michele Battle-Fisher

This is an archive of the Orgcomplexity Blog. Please follow me at the following sites: Michele Battle-Fisher (Facebook author page) mbattlefisher (Twitter) michele.battle.fisher (Skype) Author Website

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