4. Tactical Moral Relations

The forth structure of moral-emotional relations, in brain sequence, is the tactical. This is the simple one dimensional vectored translation of the circle in space-time. The human brain finds it easy to see objects getting larger (or smaller) in space over time and from that imputing moral goodness on the basis of what it is that is directly (or metaphorically) becoming bigger (or smaller). 


Figure 4: Tactical (vectored) improvement in relational goods

Equitability is a widely recognized root for ethics, such as human rights or Kantian deontology, and it has a geometric metaphor at its base. This raises the question of whether there is an underlying geometric form to utilitarian or consequentialist ethics, their main ethical alternative. There should be, and it is likely to be, the simple geometry of a perceived experiential ratio: is a specific good getting bigger or smaller? Is it moving forward or backward? The metaphoric perception of bigger or smaller or forward or backward (the same visual relationship) permits the assessment of a wide range of better or worse moral conditions. If this experience is located in time, this permits many judgements regarding the growth and the rate of growth. If in space, this permits judgments of relational value as one’s shape’s size or change is compared with another. The easiest such comparisons are with similar concepts, objects or metaphors. Thus it is possible to talk about the greatest good for the greatest number or the consequences of particular growth trajectories. Since this is incremental in action, it can be understood as a tactical moral-emotion, though never neglecting the underlying sense of growth.

Comparisons of size are based on the understanding that shapes are containers, masses, or amounts for people. As metaphoric representatives of valuables, they may be increasing or decreasing in size. This leads to the need to assess the relative size, especially the trajectory of relative size (in time or space) and the production of a moral emotion oriented around gain in size. A sense of moral satisfaction comes from “doing well,” that is, perceiving the increase in the size of observed masses in relation to others. Therefore one easily moves to the moral-emotional perspective that any improvement in proportions means improving one’s position and/or group. However, at a certain level, it is not the size that is important but the vector of transformation that is most important. Moral evaluation is based around the question: Is the condition one of ongoing improvement (feeling better) through improving size or ongoing decline (feeling worse) as one’s perceived circle shrinks? 

Tactical moral dynamics are very flexible given the simplicity of their dynamic and the wide range of possible visual metaphors. Since there is no inherent specification of the central value, only growth as the outcome, that may be applied to any context where a human being can conceive of a good that is dynamic. Since human beings work through metaphoric relations, there is little that cannot be so conceived. Any good can be experienced as growing or shrinking and thus subject to a simple consequential moral analysis.

So, for example, as children, something as simple as growing physically bigger provides a profound sense of well-being. As adults, we measure many aspects of the world around us and determine if they are growing in relation to us, either as an opportunity/gain or threat. Those other things include material possessions, physical attributes, and relational capacities. Growth in that which we desire is always a satisfying moral good. On the other hand, as things we desire to shrink or as threats grow, it is easy to gain a sense of a world gone morally awry.

Measuring change is thus important, which brings into play the possibility of money as a moral phenomenon. Money is an easy concept for which growth (or shrinkage) is easy to grasp. This leads to the easy confluence in market economies between financial profit and an intrinsic sense of moral good. The risk is that in the absence of an appropriate contextual awareness of other ethical realities, money may be perceived as an ultimate value and personal accumulation as the ultimate good. Given the possibility of strategically (relational model no. six) exchanging money for some of the goods available through the other moral-relational frameworks, this feeling of financial growth can be immensely morally satisfying even as it violates the intrinsic moral structures of other participants in the social encounter. As money indicates, simple trajectorial (vectored) analysis is not morally adequate on its own to gain a sense of ultimate morality, even if it creates powerful feelings of moral good when it is experienced even in limited contexts or forms which may indicate long-term negative outcomes.

Given the structural simplicity of tactical moral-emotional dynamics and their developmental tie to simple rewards, it is possible this moral emotion could be tied into fundamental pleasure dynamics in the brain. It is not hard to conceive of individuals who experience dopamine release (pleasure) in response to perceptions of growth. Many developmental contexts could lead to such a linkage around this moral framework. If so, then not only are the moral-emotional conditions of satisfaction met through growth, there may be the direct experience of pleasure based on the experience of growth alone. If the brain’s negative outcomes bias comes into effect, then the experience of negative transformation may lead very quickly away from rational analysis toward intuitive disgust. Either possibility (pleasure or disgust) would make this moral-emotion quite powerful for those who experience it. If this is the case, then it is important to recognize that the sense of morality emerges from the scope or the gain or loss, not the area of human action in which there is gain or loss. The target may be immaterial or even highly negative such as military “body counts,” which provide a sense of moral value (negative if “ours,” positive if “theirs”) even if they are due to the deaths of human beings. Similarly, a cancer ward might have patients boasting that their cancer is “worse” than others. It is bigger that provides a sense of good feeling.

While, as with many things, there is the possibility of a negative action bias (more worry about shrinkage than pleasure in growth) built into the brain, there may be an additional intrinsic problem with this moral framework. It is possible that growth can become the moral evaluation of value or importance itself. Thus a bigger problem may be experienced as a better problem than is a small problem. An encroaching deadline may be perceived as more important than one in the distance, regardless of the importance of the project facing the deadline. If this is true, then human beings face the possibility of a negative moral bias around any action that leads to a reduction in scope or capacity of the organism, regardless of the rationality or appropriateness of the reduction. Such moral experiences are fundamentally irrational but might feel natural to the participants and lead to problematic behaviour and destructive outcomes.

Teleologies, Utilitarian Ethics & the Implicit Ethics of Capitalism

There are a wide range of existing or traditional ethical systems rooted in the tactical moral-emotion. However, since the concept of growth does not by itself provide moral weight to the outcome itself (just its attainment), it is usually philosophically organized in other terms such as the absolute value of human life or of how specific types of gain inherently or always contribute to human well-being.

The connection of the Tactical moral-emotional framework to Utilitarian ethical approaches is obvious. The greatest good for the greatest number, the hallmark of Utilitarian ethics, is clearly a tactical progression. Haidt’s moral binary of Liberty/oppression is logically an open-ended progression with abject slavery at one end and an idealized possible complete liberty at the other. (This may be a cultural universal as Haidt supposes, since ratios of liberty may be constructed in most cultural circumstances.) Money is a near-universal human transactional system, and thus profitability might be another near-universal moral valuation like liberty. This moral-emotional framework can be applied to any human good that is intrinsically dynamic, as most are.

Given the dependence of the approach outline here on the work of Alan Page Fiske (1991), it’s surprising that this is not more similar to the relational framework Fiske identifies as Market Pricing. Fiske’s Market Pricing assumes a type of moneyed economy. It does so by conflating what I suspect are two different sets of mental operations, the tactical identified here (growing or shrinking) and the strategic (similarity or difference of type). As such, his relational framework requires two geometric translations to accomplish its moral sense. It seems more appropriate to break this into two distinct ethical structures. While it may well be true that people combine the two under most circumstances, such combinations are common for this moral mode. As noted, while growth may make us feel good (or bad), it tells nothing about the value of the outcome. That always requires an additional framework. That framework maybe, as in Fiske’s case, what I indicate is the Strategic. But it could also be the Familial or Hierarchical, or any other of the moral-emotional frameworks.

As formal ethical enactments of the tactical moral-emotional mode, teleological or utilitarian ethics seem well suited to this form of moral-emotional perception. “Teleos” is the Greek word meaning “goal.” Teleology is a focus on goals, ends, or consequences of actions. Such a goal may be profits or “greatest good” or “what’s good for me.” Any use of goals as the fundamental basis for examining ethics (with the supporting actions as secondary) is a type of teleological ethics. There is a wide range of ethics measured based on progress toward an outcome:

                      Utilitarian (Act or Rule)(Must produce the greatest good for the greatest number.)

                      Social Contract ethics (What we all agree is the best for most of us.)

                      Egoistic ethics (What is in it for me?)

                      Pragmatic ethics (What is the best we can do, to the best of our knowledge, within the limits of our current resources?)

However, the primary weakness of teleological ethics is that they neglect the complexity of human morality and decision-making and inherently over-simplify ethical problems. As a stakeholder analysis indicates, every organization is connected to a web of stakeholders. A simple focus on organizational goals misses most of these relationships and quickly becomes extremely inaccurate as an indicator even of simple outcomes. A more complex form of ethical reasoning is required to fit the complexity of organizational existence. 

The pursuit of profit appears to be an important way of living out teleological ethics, or the tactical moral-emotional mindset as it emerges in capitalism. For example, one of the more outspoken advocates of a pure teleological approach to ethics in the twentieth century was economist Milton Friedman, who argued that the sole moral purpose was to earn profits for its shareholders. This advocacy of profits within a capitalist economic framework is morally bankrupt when examined from any other framework. Yet its appeal is unmistakable and emotional to the degree that from within it appears to be self-validating.

Organizational Applications

All ethical approaches based on growth have significant strengths in organizational contexts. All organizations are inherently goal directed so they all have a progressive component. Thus this easily becomes the most important framework for organizational ethics. Given the way this framework provides ease of analysis and decision making, this is especially true. Focusing on those goals and incremental progress toward them simplifies decision making and in the rapid paced world of organizational life that is a strong encouragement to use this as the primary focus of ethics.

A helpful part of this moral-emotional framework is the way it permits incremental analysis of goodness. The other forms of moral analysis all involve a certain sense of absolute nature or clear boundary conditions. By focusing on the way something is getting bigger (or smaller) it becomes possible to examine and morally evaluate the progressive steps being made. Each step becomes a moral accomplishment with a sense of right (or wrong) depending on the progress for the project or organization as a whole.

Oddly, one of the problems with this moral-emotion is the way apparent success can interfere with true appreciation of the actual success and even cause organizational reversals. Growth in size is one of the easiest transformations to perceive and therefore the easiest to appreciate as a moral positive. However, growth in size is not by itself necessarily good. Rapid growth in particular can cause serious problems for an organization even while it feels very good to those participating in the growth. It’s a case of the surface sense of goodness leading to errors in perception regarding the underlying vector. Conversely, an organization that pulls back from growth is size to focus on competence, quality, innovation, or profitability may be perceived as a moral failure, less than appropriately courageous, or bad even while it is becoming what is in many respects a better organization.

All organizations are deeply tied into this moral-emotional strategy. It is essential that it be understood in all its strengths, weaknesses, and implications. It is easy for an organization to make serious moral errors even while feeling morally good about the progress being made.  Given the way individual brains can skew this set of perceptions the results can be deeply conflictual and problematic, even as they are in wide scale or popular use.

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.

Study Terms:

Utilitarianism, Pragmatism, Incrementalism