5. Strategic Moral Relations

Strategic moral relations are relatively common, though not without some discomfort to their users. They don’t fit tidy systems like the equitable or tactical and they can easily mistake surface similarity for deep congruence. Yet for all their problems they are present everywhere from the strategic planning exercise to the development of an effective code of ethics, to the reliability of systems of measurement. Throughout the workplace, individuals and groups are busy matching the nature of people, systems, outputs, and products to standards, types, and codes. Comparing one thing to another, with a moral framework for supporting the action, is one of the standard operational characteristics. This is the essence of strategic morality, sometimes wrongly called relativism


Figure 5: Strategic (matching) relationships

The strategic moral-emotional framework of relational analysis is the simple matching function of the brain: does A = B? Any A may be matched to any B, with a resulting perception of the degree of fit between them and the resulting moral-emotional product of that analysis. They may match, producing a sense of satisfaction, or they may not match, producing a sense of disgust.

This can be an extremely complex set of relations, despite the simplicity of the underlying brain process. When understanding a strategic plan, the producers need to match very complex environmental conditions with the correct operational systems. It is a difficult process of comparing many elements and looking for their interplay as a match. Do our products match the competitors’ for quality and price? How do we correctly which components of a new market fit our existing marketing plan and which parts need revision? Or it can be a straightforward match, such as when one asks whether there is the 11”x17” paper for the printer available for the document you wish to produce.

All these comparisons have a moral-emotional component. When we find a match, it feels good. Thus, it is normal to feel good when square pegs fit in square holes merely because they fit. Conversely, is disgust the normal response to finding a set of relationships where a match does not appear when expected?

The essence of the strategic moral-emotion does the possibility of our brain perceive a match. Within our visual cortex, as it does its double duty as the centre of abstract thinking, does one shape appear to be the same as another? This may involve mental rotation in space and other forms of multi-dimensional analysis. It may mean metaphorical transformation as one thing is seen as “like” another along some important line of analysis so it can be compared. The results are then fed through the rest of the brain and end up, along with a series of emotional responses, in the pre-frontal cortex for decision making.

Despite its complexity as a form of analysis, it is relatively simple as a form of brain processing. Using visual-spatial relations as has been the case to this point, the simplest geometric possibility relating multiple shapes is their visual similarity. Human beings appear to seek the correct match between shapes or between shapes and context and then find emotional satisfaction once a match is made. This satisfaction can be found in the context of a child’s play through sophisticated mechanical-operational processes, to the metaphoric and abstract-conceptual. It does not mean this is an easy form of visual processing since the possibility of multiple dimensions of matching in space/time requires high brain energy levels. It is likely the brain looks first for relatively simple, even simplistic and stereotyped, similarities for the sense of match before undertaking the hard work of more complex matches.

Objects may be rotated in space for examination, and the simplest form of examination is between appearance from one perspective and assessment of actuality from other perspectives. The first application of this form of analysis is sorting, categorizing like and unlike in qualitative terms, and consequentially, sorting fit from unfit for specific personal and social uses. At the most pragmatic level, this way of relationally engaging permits one to make gross generalizations about the persons and things one encounters and quickly assess them for their usefulness to oneself or one's group. One sort of seed-stock, widgets, genres, or professionals against standards of type looking for the best fit and the clearest usefulness. A good fit produces a sense of satisfaction and the accomplishment of moral good—a good fit means the world is as it should be or should become.

However, as noted, matches can be metaphoric and quite complex strings of relationships can be developed through matching various characteristics that are part of a person, thing, or process. A match between one aspect and another of two objects might, or might not, be appropriate. If appropriate, they might then lead to linkages between yet another aspect between them or between the two and a third object. Thus parts and whole can be matched independently for complex forms of analysis. Add to this the impact of memory and emotion, which are also matched to the perceptions in ways that feel appropriate. It is already easy to see this as a multi-dimensional tool capable of great sophistication. It is not hard to see why this becomes an important form of human analysis and a core component of most education. Human beings are trained, by each other, to understand why specific forms of similarity are appropriate, and others are not to enable effective responses to specific situations and issues.

It is not hard to see why this should be an important form of moral assessment. A dentist is not a general practice doctor or a physicist, and ensuring one has found the correct type of Dr. is essential to feeling a good outcome when one has a sore tooth. When one finds a good fit, one feels good because the universe has demonstrated excellence in matching itself to one’s needs. Those needs may be both intense and personal, and thus the sense of moral accomplishment may be powerful.

Metaphorically this is the morality of truthful-aptness. There seems to be built into human beings a strong sense that symbolic structures “should” match the objects under analysis and interactions should fit needs. This drive appears to be more emotional than rational, and the sense of betrayal when an appearance fails to match the necessary reality can be profound. This morality may be weighted to the negative, and those using it become more upset about a violation of an expected match than a failure to create a full match. To find that the person working on our teeth is a physicist would be far more upsetting than learning our teeth were in the hands of an accomplished student dentist. While the physicist may be the Dr., the student is the closest fit to our need, and our sense of violation would be far less in the latter case than in the former.

This type of relational evaluation permits significantly more abstract forms of thinking than do the other relational models and richer moral analysis. Strategic thinking, the ability to accomplish long-term goals, arises from examining the fit between short and long-term goals, methods and outcomes, and the various alternate sets of tactics. This might also be the moral framework that leads us to seek matches between signifiers, signified maps and terrains, or even lover and beloved. Marketing campaigns and weigh scales also find their moral place within this metaphoric form of relations. They are all about apt-fit, the closeness of type between promise and reality. By sorting in space, looking for equivalence at both the direct and metaphoric levels, individuals and groups are enabled to make a vast array of important discriminations. Many personal and social goods may be accomplished through strategic evaluation and selection of matches.

It may be significant that these discriminations are routinely most useful in the largest scale of human organizations. Strategic matching works best under conditions where individuals are unknown to each other and work almost exclusively through social systems. One need not trust that a Dr. is a dentist if personally known. However, in the context of large-system impersonality all connections to that person are at more than one remove. Thus as moral-emotional analysis it is highly useful in the realm of thousands of people or more. It is about mass culture and mass relationships where no one individual can grasp the needed nuances, but where sorting and standards are highly effective at accomplishing personal and social objectives. In addition, systematic thought of an academic type might effectively “match” aspects of the other moral geometries to larger goals and inter-group cooperation.

Situational, Professional & Theological Ethics

Significantly, this moral-emotional relationship makes sense of two forms of poorly understood ethics, Situational ethics and Professional ethics. Situational ethics is regularly accused of being relativistic and thus avoiding the absolutes most people feel comfortable affirming when thinking consciously of morality, and yet the reality is that all people attempt to match the specific configuration of ethics to the correct context. Similarly, the ethical frameworks of most organizations and professional bodies are often incoherent when perceived rationally from any of the standard ethical frameworks. Their power results from the match of ethical axioms to specific situations, leading to the most apt embodiment of the standards needed to guide the organization or its members through their specific types of ethical quandaries (criteria of salience). It is also possible that this is the realm of theological ethics, of the careful academic analysis of religious precepts and the attempt to organize them into coherent wholes, despite the non-rational framework which is their origin. Regardless, almost all attempts at using a pragmatic and contextually alive form of moral thought will be deeply rooted in this moral-emotional approach.

From a negative point of view, this may be the form of ethics that drives racism and other forms of stereotyped negative judgements. These are cases of category misalignment where the category of analysis used to determine moral goodness does not match the correct dimension of analysis for ascertaining moral worth. If this is the case it points out just how much moral analysis is a function of quick and intrinsic heuristics rather than rational or even cultural training. 

Within the world of ethics, a special category relates to the ethical codes of professions. Most have one. Under close examination they tend to be a hodge-podge of various types of ethical statements all designed to fit the consequences of engaging in a specific professional activity. What unites them may be a formal principle or merely the actions of a committee trying to compile the best list of virtues for the specific field of action. What separates them from ethics of identity is they are not concerned with identity but actions and consequences—the details of life as lived outwardly rather than the nature of being within the closed confines of the group. They succeed to the degree they match the constraints and needs of those seeking to act in that way, and they are typically modified whenever they begin to rub against operational limits.

This makes these kinds of ethics profoundly situational. They are not situational in the sense that they only seek what is good in a situation as perceived by an individual, but they are situational in that they are about how one engages types of situations effectively as reflected upon from the point of view of the professional group as a whole. They feel good to the degree that the match works for the oversite body, even if not for all the practitioners.

One important group of strategic ethicists are theologians, those responsible for translating divine revelation into day to day life. They may be Imams, Priests, or Rabbis, but their key job is finding a match between day-to-day activities of those within their religious framework and the revelations, texts, traditions, rites, and rituals handed down from previous generations. This is a highly imaginative work that typically functions in a complex web of interplay between other authorities, rules about best practices (such as hermeneutics—rules for interpreting texts), and the changing social circumstances faced by their adherents. While most who engage in the task see themselves as engaging in a very conservative task, in fact it takes little philosophical or historical examination to recognize that the work is both radical and creative (Kaufman, 1995).

Organizational Applications

Situational fit is one of the vital aspects of senior management decisions and innovation in processes. A strong ability to fit good applications, both of new and existing resources, leads to essential conditions for environmental responsiveness and long-term success. As the key framework for long range planning it is a vital aspect of the senior levels of an organization. It’s absence as a live system of thought indicates an organization which is highly vulnerable to environmental shifts, unable to either innovate effectively or develop long-range plans.

Human resource planning…


However, one of the weaknesses of this form of moral-emotional reasoning is that it rarely feels good in terms of the other moral-emotional frames of reference. Matching often leaves process participants feeling boundaries have been transgressed (often they have) and essential fairness has been overlooked (quite possibly the case) especially in the outcome includes process change or innovation in operations. Change disrupts existing relationships, always an outcome of negative moral affect. The consequence is that while vital to organizations, it is quite common for participants in matching processes to seek alternative ways of expressing these outcomes, i.e. in terms of profits or growth or market fairness, or ever law or identity. They may also find that as persons they are seen as marginal or a poor fit with the organization as a whole, a case of matching ethics being applied unconsciously to the detriment of those who are best at it.

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.

Kaufman, Gordon. (1995). An Essay on Theological Method, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.

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.