3. Equitable Moral Relations

The third structure of moral-emotional relations in brain sequence, though the third examined in terms of experienced order, is the equitable. At a very early point in life human beings develop a sense of perception of fairness, especially as it comes to the distribution of goods or punishments. This sense easily becomes a metaphoric sense of moral-emotional evaluation of a wide range of activities and social processes.


Figure 3: Equitable distribution of relational goods

Dynamic situations and those of high levels of complexity call for a more complex moral system than those of the familial or the hierarchical. While many different forms of visual metaphors might serve to function in more complex environments, it is not immediately obvious what the next visual-neurological step might be. Using algebraic conceptualizations of brain performance Fiske (1991) suggests that interval structures are the next step. Interval relations are those of reciprocity and turn-taking. In general ethical terms this is the realm of fairness, of distributive justice and the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Processed as a visual metaphor, distributive justice suggests radial relations based on the circumference of a circle and oriented in three dimensions, both radially out and vertically up. 

The radius is the distance from center to the circumference of a circle and it is always the same. For those who form a moral-relational circle, fairness is the over-whelming moral emotion. Starting from one’s experience inside the familial circle where generosity is the norm, the equivalent idea applied to many individuals or groups is fairness. Fairness is the metaphoric equi-distance of the members from the universal point of orientation. For those who form the circumference the question is how far one is from the centre and consequently, whether the distance is fair—appropriate in relation to the distribution of resources in the group. The resources involved may be simple practical goods but can easily extend to abstract goods like justice or good government. If the distribution (positive rewards or negative punishments) is perceived as apt in relation to the group as a whole, then one feels a strong sense of moral satisfaction—it’s fair! The more fairness is experienced the higher one feels in moral terms, but any fairness is morally right. This sense applies not only to oneself but to all others on the circumference of the circle.  

The same is true for the experience of punishments. Negative distributions can be tolerated if they are experienced as fair, that is equivalent to what others would go through in the same circumstances. It is as if we have a moral distributor in our head that takes turns sending out negative outcomes, and as long as they seem equal to all who get their turn, then the negatives are morally acceptable. However, if there is an imbalance in distribution then there is a profound sense of injustice and moral wrongness. 

It is possible this moral-emotion is negatively skewed, thus oriented more to the elimination of unfairness than to the development of new types of fairness. The human brain with its intrinsic heuristics seems oriented more toward anxiety and the fear of loss rather than the possibility of gain (Gigerenzer, 2007; Kahneman, 2011). This suggests stronger moral-emotional intensity will arise around circumstances where current balances are negatively affected such as when justice appears to be violated rather than where justice is achieved. Certainly legal systems are drawn into disrepute far more quickly by a few bad decisions than by hundreds of thousands of good decisions. It’s probably true that all issues of fairness are more distressing when violated than satisfying when sustained.

Another psychological possibility to consider is that of dopamine release (pleasure) in the context of the perceived experience of radial distribution.  This is due to how the sense of fairness develops in the brain over time. If the primary developmental context for this is childhood distribution of rewards and, less often, punishments, then it is possible that for some people the primitive reward structures of the brain will be linked directly to this moral-emotional mode. Later in life this set of circuits will be re-engaged when encountering fairness (or unfairness) is more abstract contexts. Regardless, this is likely to be a powerfully emotional experience for many.

A metaphor for justice

At this point it is not hard to understand that this moral sense is easily abstract rather than concrete. We have no problem standing in line if everyone gets an equal opportunity for service but physically standing spaced equally with others is not experienced as a moral act in itself under most circumstances. Where both the power and the abstraction of this moral emotion appear is when the geometric perceptions in the brain are applied to complex situations through metaphoric integration. Waiting for equal service at a restaurant or bank easily becomes the more important metaphoric waiting for equal access to democracy or justice or health care (in countries with socialized medicine). The result is an infinitely flexible moral measure, one that allows its holder to assess all social experiences of both self and empathically perceived others along an important moral scale—how are goods being distributed to all? Is what I’m getting the same as others?

The flexibility of this form of relational analysis is important. As individuals, groups and cultures assess social change the perceived radial impact of large scale change is easily intuited. If those around us are finding it harder to get justice, then we perceive it is harder for all to achieve justice. Conversely, if suddenly the sense of the quality of education for our children goes up we believe that the quality of education has gone up for all. In particular, it is easy to interpret how change leads to the addition of or displacement of participants from the sharing circle and thus how change is having a moral impact. Immigrants provide a sense of moral diminishment as a larger circle intuitively suggests the same social resources being distributed equally among more. Recognizing women as fully human means they emotionally belong inside the circle of distribution of rights.  

As a radial metaphor the equitable has a relationship with the familial because for both visual metaphors the boundary conditions are important though it different ways. For the familial moral relationship participants are equal because they are all inside the boundary. For the equitable, participation is the boundary of the distribution, another metaphoric circle. This new kind of boundary explains the difficulty of human beings historically to identify new individuals for participation in the circle of distribution. Adding new participants violates the integrity of the circle in terms reflective of familial identity. Thus women and other minorities have traditionally been difficult to include in the circle of fairness. In more abstract terms, this is a critique Badiou (2001) applies to the ethics of human rights, one of the most sophisticated applications of radial distribution. Rights only apply to those who successfully pass the test for inclusion in humanity and human beings always exclude some from the circle of rights distribution. Thus fairness becomes a more limited concept in practice than in theory. The sense of fairness is shared, but only once one has been admitted to the distribution circle. Those outside must demonstrate the justice of their inclusion in the circle, something that does not always easily pass the brain’s inherent efforts to discriminate.

Ontology vs. Teleology

It is important to note that with Equitable there is a profound shift of moral emphasis from the Familial, and Hierarchical. The others are ontological relational structures in that they are inherent in being a participant in the relational network. This is the realm of identity, and thus of the intrinsic reality of Being. However, the Equitable, as is also the case with the subsequent moral-emotional relationships, is a teleological structure. It is a framework for action with implicit or explicit goals. The ontological frameworks imply a static or universal framework within which morality functions primarily through obedient participation in a given structure. On the other hand, a teleological framework applies universal dynamics to discreet moral goals in complex and dynamic circumstances. They invite rational discourse and planning. These are the moral frameworks able to orient personal and collective moral behaviour to create a mass sense of fairness, especially under conditions of social, technological, or ecological change.

Kantian Deontology, Rawls, Human Rights & Democratic Ethics

As a moral-emotional relational system this approach to ethics encompasses Fiske’s (1991) Equality Matching and provides the internal framework for Haidt’s (2012) Fairness/cheating moral flavour. However, this form of moral thinking extends far beyond these simple sets of inter-personal observation to complex and abstract ethical systems. This approach forms the basis of Kantian deontology or Rawls (1973) ideas of justice. Rawls’ “Original Position” is structurally identical to being unable to identify where one is in relation to the radius of the circle. This is also a political morality. For democratic cultures this is the measure of all social relations and it seems likely to underlie most conceptions of human rights in application (though the nature of specific rights must lie outside of the morality of their distribution).  

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sought a rigorous universal for ethics and thought he found it in the categorical imperative, act as you would have others act toward you. Kant believed that if all human beings acted in this way a universally better world could be produced. Since if one could find a universal ethics one had a rational duty to obey it this became known as Kantian deontology. The most brilliant follower of Kant’s perspective was the American philosopher, John Rawls (1921-2002), especially his A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls, following Kant, worked to develop a theory of justice that could be agreed upon by everyone. He found such a position in the moral framework underlying liberal democracy and the recognition of universal and equal value for all persons and their equal status under the law.

Both Kant and Rawls could be said to be the guiding ethical forces behind first the idea of liberal democracy and then the social-democratic liberal state. Their ethics give many tools for evaluating actions and inherently accept the complexity of the human decision making environment. For organizations using deontological ethics, as many do, the moral question is, what must always be a right action for our organization? For example, it is always wrong for an organization to break the law (it acts as an equal constraint on all organizations) so most organizations have a moral orientation to being law abiding. Similarly, it is always wrong to lie because that places the legitimacy of all information in doubt and would damage the standing of any person.

The primary weakness of contemporary forms of deontological ethics is that the concept of reason which underlies Kant and Rawls is not by itself an adequate source for human ethics. While reason is extremely powerful as a tool, it does not by itself reveal objective reality, especially objective moral reality. Every moral system is built upon moral assumptions and these assumptions are then the framework upon which reason functions. Moral assumptions are not necessarily reasonable or universal. This complex theoretical perspective shows up very quickly in practices such as when there is a debate around which human duties or rights are universal and which are cultural. It turns out all human rights are in some respects cultural rather than fully or rigorously reasonable. Even the focus on law, a particular strong-point of deontological ethics, turns out to be problematic in a global world where cultures have profoundly different legal systems and ways of understanding what laws should lead to. For example, many Western countries have a basic reasonable premise of innocence until proven guilty. Other Western countries think the opposite premise, guilty until proven innocent, is just as basic and reasonable. Deontological ethics provides no way of determining which of these important cultural perspectives is correct.

One of the most valuable contributions of this way of thinking has been the human rights tradition. While it is not possible to argue ontologically for a rich human rights tradition, as a pragmatic way to organize large scale cultures in order to provide a modicum of satisfaction by all those involved has been to identify and embrace a set of human rights. So while liberal democracies cannot anchor their rights in a cosmic purpose, by enacting human rights they provide a practical environment within which people generally (but not always) thrive. For most folks this is good enough.

Regardless, these philosophical perspectives, despite their weaknesses, show how powerful the simple brain metaphor of radial distribution can be when applied to large-scale and complex situations. It is an example of the power of the brain to work from simple systems to highly complex processes merely by expanding the application of a geometric relationship developed through evolution.   

Organizational Applications

There are a wide range of organizational applications for equitable moral relations, though they are not usually directly related to the purposes or direct operations of a company. However, they typically show up in two places within organizations, human resources and customer relations. The result is that leaders often miss the impact of these moral forms of relationship while staff within feel the equitability impacts of decisions in a negative (or positive) ways.

Human Resource departments are typically the least respected within organizations and while there are many reasons for this disregard, one of them is their normal focus on aspects of equitability within an organization. While equitability-oriented processes are typically identified with worker rights, unions, slow processes, worker support, and other barriers to productivity, they have much to contribute to a worker’s sense of the fairness of the organization. Fair processes, where relatively equivalent workers are treated equivalently without favouritism or based on stereotypes or surface qualities, may be linked to issues of employee engagement. Certainly, in the absence of other positive moral emotions, the absence of a sense of equitability can be important.

In addition, in customer relations the moral sense of equitability is very important. Customers want to be treated fairly in terms of their exchange relations with the organization (appropriate value for fees paid), but also one customer to another. Customers who do not sense equitability will seek alternative sources of goods. At the same time, customer service staff typically pick up the same moral sense, either through their personal commitments or through working with customers and being infected by customer moral sensibilities.

Thus while organizations are not centrally driven by the moral-emotional sense of relational equitability, as they function in practice they must often pay careful attention to this framework. Failure to act justly in relations between staff or with customers will be felt as demonstrating the intrinsic immorality of the organization. The consequences will be significant for all involved. Thinking equitably is important for all, even if it sometimes seems like a foreign or aberrant ethics framework. It’s natural to the brain and thus natural to all human contexts.

References & Additional Readings

Badiou, Alain. (2001). Ethics: An essay on the understanding of Evil, trans. P. Hallward. New York: Verso.

Fiske, A.P. (1991). Structures of Social Life: The four elementary forms of human relations. New York: Macmillan.

Fiske, A. P. (2004). Relational Models Theory 2.0. Relational Models Theory: A contemporary overview, ed. Nick Haslam, pp. 3-26. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gigerenzer, Gerd. (2007).  Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. New York: Penguin.

Haidt, Jonathan. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. (1966). A Short History of Ethics: A history of moral philosophy from the Homeric age to the twentieth century. New York NY: Macmillan.

Rawls, John. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Study Terms:

Deontology, Kant, Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Heuristics, Human Rights