2. Hierarchical Moral Relations

The second structure of moral-emotional relations is the Hierarchical. While rarely recognized as a formal framework of moral reasoning, it is one of the most common and powerful forms of moral analysis human beings use to manage their existence.


Figure 2: The vertical array of relative order

As soon as a person senses distinct others with the possibility of unique relationships to the self then the simple moral-metaphor of the circle and its boundary conditions becomes inadequate. The immediate question upon realization of distinct others is that of their threat (implicit moral badness) or asset (implicit moral goodness) capacity. As visual relationships go, this leads to the metaphor of vertical relationship, of circles rising or falling (becoming better or worse) in relation to the self or the others. It applies in some respects to any situation more complex than that of identity formation.  It is also a flexible structure since any two persons or groups may be ranked along or more scales of meaning.

It is easy to see this as the basic perceptual or relational framework for social pyramids or any hierarchical relations. It is a structure of dominance and a ladder to excellence. This sense of order can be interpreted in many different ways, from religious, social and military hierarchies in rigid social frameworks, to places of competence, growth, and good order in looser social frameworks. Since the morally positive direction is up, cultures with strong social hierarchies will validate power relationships as intrinsically good, though the sense of order will also lead to commitments of role related honour or noblesse oblige to those below, and corresponding obedience and service by lower participants in the structure. Alternatively, a social system of competence (role excellence) relations will reward performance with upward movement (promotion) and support a meritocracy.

Given the flexibility and effectiveness of this moral geometry in the context of complex and well-established group relations this is probably one of the most common of human moral geometries. It allows people to work together to accomplish goals, manage conflicts, have a sense of order, and maintain an upward openness leading to positive moral feelings under a broad range of conditions.

Many forms of ethics or social structures of meaning draw upon a hierarchical moral mindset. Fiske’s (1991) relational model of Authority Ranking is one such. Haidt’s (2012) Authority/subversion and Care/harm moralities flow out of hierarchical moral arrangements and probably represent universal instantiations of hierarchical mindsets rooted in fundamental human relational needs. Where this moral framework becomes vibrant is within organizational life. Be it the tribe, the corporation, the nation, or the religious congregation, a strong morality of roles regulates the goodness of human life. Clearly most ethics of duty are metaphoric applications of intuitive notions of hierarchical morality. Religious ethics, with a God or gods at the “top” find easy application as moral hierarchies. This is also the home of some forms of virtue ethics where moralities themselves are ranked.

With the capacity of hierarchical moral structures to flexibly respond to all aspects of life, at least insofar as they remain relatively static, this is the first moral-relational framework to have totalizing possibilities. While moral intuitions in the transcendent or familial frameworks may be very powerful, the ability of a hierarchical framework to organize and apply those intuitions at the detailed operational level through mechanisms of social learning and cultural traditions means the simplest way of turning insights of existence and identity into strong moral frameworks is through the applications of hierarchies. Any behavioural possibility can be inserted into a hierarchy, especially if the God or the God-king has so ordained. The result may be that in some social contexts hierarchies become all important social mechanisms. While not necessarily appearing rational, hierarchical moral structures ring of certain kinds of powerful truth as long as they reflect actual power structures experienced in daily life.

More Virtue Ethics & Deontology, the Clan

Almost every list of virtues ranks those virtues in a hierarchy thus while drawing primarily upon issues of identity for their ethics, most virtue systems also implicitly or often, as in religious systems, draw deeply from the well of hierarchy, to make sense of their ethical systems. But there are ethics of duty (deontology) which are deeply hierarchical. All hierarchies have a strong sense of duty attached to them and as people function in organized groups, whether a business or an agency of government, a team or a charity, they typically organize hierarchies with ranks and orders of belonging.

The virtues of hierarchy are those of obedience and conformity. They are also the roots of compassion and noblesse oblige. Typically, there is a great deal of comfort to being part of a strong hierarchy and fitting within its expectations. Most ethical systems developed in hierarchies such as a religion or the military seek to match a person with a place or role in the order that gives them room to move up and strong rewards for commitment to the order itself. 

One particularly important arrangement of virtues and order emerges in the clan. This is one of the most powerful ethical systems known to humanity since it combines features of a strong ethics of identity with a hierarchical order that is deeply committed to the well-being of its members. A good clan is a relatively unitary body where members are equal in value and access to resources, and where there is strong obedience to the emergent hierarchies around clan leaders and sex roles. Like many hierarchies, clans use honour and shame as core moral markers. These emotions are used to regulate the behaviour of members and belong not to the individuals but to the group as a whole (Weiner, 2013). 

Organizational Applications

Structures of order are essential to the moral lives of all complex organizations. They may be as simple as a memorized list of instructions or as complex as a massive list of codes and structures. What unites them is their development in response to situational demands that order them on the basis of priority or ranking in the organization. While many forms of moral reasoning arise in terms of situational demands, most are somewhat arbitrary and held together by marks of rank or organizational systems of priority. When a process is used because it is what has always been used (rather than a case-by-case assessment) then it is a case of a hierarchical moral-emotional system in action. To the degree that such an approach is enforced it can be a powerful form of moral motivation.

At a more neutral, and more useful level in most organizations, is the job description or the policy manual. These are typically rationally developed and carefully attuned to the needs of the specific role and rank in the organization. They are adjusted periodically, even receiving regular and required review. Acting in harmony with these systems of direction would be in keeping with a hierarchical moral-emotion

Of course there are always processes that result because someone high in the organization’s rank has decided, this is so! These are the purest form of authority ranking or hierarchically motivated moral emotions and they can be highly effective at producing appropriate behavioural outcomes throughout an organization. One might hope that over time they are reviewed and integrated through a more rational process, but often they are not and instead move into the character of the culture and the role/rank expectations. 

References & Additional Readings

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.

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

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.

Weiner, M. (2013). The Rule of the Clan: What an ancient form of social organization reveals about the future of individual freedom. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.