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Vertical vs Horizontal Morality


Phi for All
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The concept may not be new, but I recently heard this argument phrased in a way that really resonated with me. Many people, including many religious people, view morality as a vertical scale, with their deity or moral mentor at the top, those they disagree with below them, and themselves and everyone else ranked somewhere between. It's a hierarchy from which they can strive to do better, and recognize when they do worse. But it's also a perspective of subjective judgement, and I think it's responsible for much of the inequality in our societies.

Horizontal morality asks us to look around at each other from a side-by-side perspective, and recognize that nobody is inherently better or worse than anybody else. It requires us to assess the impact of our actions based on how they affect those around us, and to adjust based on the individuals and circumstances. It tends not to judge groups of people, and it seems like a better framework for diverse societies to deal with each other.

What do you think?

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You could equally well call those the 'civilized' and 'primitive' world-views. 

What we usually refer to as civilizations are all hierarchical, pyramidal structures, with a broad base of workers/peasants, distinct specialized artisan, military, clerical and merchant classes, culminating in a small elite and a single powerful head. Civilized societies tend to be strictly stratified, with the rulers (the great and the good, as the British used to say) being considered most valuable, while the lives of the ruled are worth relatively little. Laws and directives, as well as allocation of resources come from the top.  Such societies tend to become urbanized, with concentrated populations that result in overcrowding, and therefore suffer cyclic shortage and require growth of territory - usually achieved through conquest of other peoples... who, being non-consenting subjects, must then be ruled with force and fear. 

Primitive societies tend to be more egalitarian, with a generalized labour pool, with all able-bodied adults and children contributing as needed -  hunter and warrior and canoe-maker and fisher; builder and gatherer and shoemaker and butcher  -  and so is  division of resources.  They usually have no surplus population, so that each individual is needed for the welfare of the group, and no unaccounted surplus of supplies, which affords less opportunity for hoarding and gouging. They're usually monolithic in ethnicity, related by blood, plus incomers by marriage. If they war with other tribes (when you have no disposable manpower, this is not something undertaken lightly, or on a large scale), the captives are either killed outright, sold for ransom or assimilated. Governance is commonly by consent of the governed and law is administered by a council of elders or leaders.

Morality is a function of life-style: what works in the group whose relationships it regulates. The model on which religions are based are a direct illustration of the world-view of the people who adhere to that religion. Even Christianity, which is structured on the Roman model of governance, works differently in each of its denominations, and quite differently on the level of a church as a whole from the level of single parish or monastic order.   

Edited by Peterkin
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I think horizontal vs vertical morality is also a function of scale.  To Peterkin's point, the vertical component is, I believe, reflective of such large groups of people that they cannot all know the other members of the group well, so that they resort to judgements, rules, and such, while in smaller groups of people, such as mentioned by Peterkin, a situation more akin to horizontal morality prevails.  I'm reminded of my college days where a small group of students (including myself) worked together on our studies.  I am firmly in the camp that believes horizontal morality is preferable, but think there may be some critical point where our inability to personally know everyone leads to vertical morality.

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I don't think the link to numbers is a direct one; I think the situation (or etiology of vertical morality) is more complex than simple arithmetic. It's more like geometry. As number grow, and because of the means by which numbers grow, so does the complexity of a social structure. The more complex and stratified it becomes, the more up-to-down control is required to keep order, and the more agencies are put in place to exert that control.

How large numbers of human population come about is a major factor. It's not normally though the growth of a single genetic grouping. If that were so, the society would simply keep its same world-view and divide into satellite colonies, the way that ant societies do.

Rather, it tends to come about through expansion by conquest and domination. When one group dominates another, the up-down system of governance and law-making is established. The subjugated group is inferior in power and readily seen as inferior in every other way. (My guns are  bigger than your spears. My king can beat your chief. My God can out-magic your gods. I'm better than you.) Humans enjoy a sense of superiority, so the rulers exploit that desire in their agents. This is why all despots have willing minions to carry out their will on the less powerful: they like it. In this way, and with the aid of other forms of coercion and manipulation, they can establish an entire system of belief and values to displace the subject people's original belief and value system. This is how the Roman Empire spread Christianity and how the successive Muslim empires spread Islam into territories that were previously pagan.  

Edited by Peterkin
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20 hours ago, Peterkin said:

I don't think the link to numbers is a direct one; I think the situation (or etiology of vertical morality) is more complex than simple arithmetic. It's more like geometry. As number grow, and because of the means by which numbers grow, so does the complexity of a social structure. The more complex and stratified it becomes, the more up-to-down control is required to keep order, and the more agencies are put in place to exert that control.

 

+1  I'm not convinced that conquest and expansion are always factors (the last paragraph of  your post), but the geometry view (above) seems to me to be spot on.  While it is somewhat removed form the morality question originally posed, I.m intrigued by the similarity to the origins of the US-- which started as a loose confederacy (more horizontal) but voluntarily switched to a more vertical arrangement as governance got more complex.

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When was anything in the colonial Americas horizontal? No, that's not a fair question, because some things were - and still are, Seventh Day Adventists and a number of functional communes, as well as consensus-based undertakings, being cases in point. These tend to be small numbers, but can be diverse in membership. 

I mean, it was really both, wasn't it? On the community/discrete settlement level, there may have been a social contract that bound all the white men to one another in a mutual respect, mutually dependent relationship, but it didn't include Natives or women. At the same time, all of the colonies were legally ruled, indirectly through governors and garrisons, by the kings of their respective parent nations, and morally ruled, through priests, pastors and ministers, by the church hierarchy of their denominations. Except the Quakers, who had a remarkably different take on morality from the mainstream Christians of their day.    https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/history-of-quakerism

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I make a distinction - with some trepidation, since they're so closely related - between morality and governance.

I reduce it to the fundamental question at the center of each.

Horizontal morality asks "Is this fair to my fellows?" while vertical morality asks, "Will this please the Man Upstairs?"

Horizontal government asks "What works for the most citizens?" while vertical government asks "Who gives the orders?"

Edited by Peterkin
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So you rank your 'horizontal' morality higher than those who have a 'vertical' morality ?
have you substituted the hierarchy of 'vertical' morality with varying angles from you ideal 'angle' of morality ?

All morality is subjective.
Assigning subjective orientations to abstract concepts doesn't get anyone anywhere.
But it may make you feel better, or superior to others, with subjective ideas of morality.

Not meant as a personal attack, Phi, but this is like saying "The way I love my family is better than the way you love yours".
You are assigning a subjective quality to an abstract subjective concept.

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9 hours ago, MigL said:

So you rank your 'horizontal' morality higher than those who have a 'vertical' morality ?
have you substituted the hierarchy of 'vertical' morality with varying angles from you ideal 'angle' of morality ?

This shows how you're thinking, assigning an above/below hierarchy instead of looking at efficacy and impact on those around you. It's more akin to choosing the tools you work with for specific parts of your job. A hammer isn't a ranked choice if you're trying to calibrate gas mixtures on a sensitive machine, it's just not right at all. The hammer isn't a poor tool, it's simply not a choice in this instance. 

Trapped in an elevator with five other people and no outside communication, some folks make vertical judgements about how to organize their rescue. They might immediately dismiss the idea that women could help beyond screaming for help. They might think a foreigner knows nothing about this country's elevators. They might consider anyone in a wheelchair to be useless in this situation. They probably look for whoever among the six is the strongest.

Horizontal thinkers in the same situation might get everyone's ideas and input, and assess the situation based on that. They might get rescued by an idea the foreigner had, or by having a smaller woman stand on the arms of a wheelchair to reach the escape hatch in the roof. It seems to me that this way of approaching problems has a higher degree of correctly valuing the people involved. There are situations where vertical ranking is appropriate, but I think it's being applied incorrectly when used as a general rule.

10 hours ago, MigL said:

All morality is subjective.
Assigning subjective orientations to abstract concepts doesn't get anyone anywhere.
But it may make you feel better, or superior to others, with subjective ideas of morality.

I think it does get me somewhere to avoid vertical ranking. And again, horizontal morality is absolutely NOT about feeling superior to others. Horizontal morality is saying nobody is better than anybody else, we all just make choices based on who's around us in the situation we find ourselves in. My religious aunt thinks sitting naked in a hot tub is immoral, period, every time, all the time. I think it depends on who's with me, if anyone.

11 hours ago, MigL said:

Not meant as a personal attack, Phi, but this is like saying "The way I love my family is better than the way you love yours".
You are assigning a subjective quality to an abstract subjective concept.

That vertical, ranked thinking is hard to get away from, isn't it?!

Actually, the way horizontal morality works is that seeing you loving your family shows me how I should interact with you. I immediately know some behavior choices that would be appropriate, and some that would be inappropriate. I don't have to judge the way you love your family, I just have to smile, use appropriate language around your spouse and kids, respect that you're here with them, and let you all find your own joys with each other. My interaction with you and your family is then free to change depending on circumstances, and isn't rooted in some vertical hierarchy that can't change and often makes incorrect objective judgements.

 

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13 hours ago, MigL said:

So you rank your 'horizontal' morality higher than those who have a 'vertical' morality ?

Rank? I described how societies work, what models are likely in use in which kind of organization, and made some reference to why they choose one path rather than another. I don't see anybody ranking anything.

13 hours ago, MigL said:

All morality is subjective.

Within the dynamics of a group, yes, but any moral precept works only as long as the basic world-view and value structure is generally shared by members of the group. When it's not, the society begins to disintegrate. Both the functional application of a system and its breakdown can be described, without necessarily subscribing to the particular model.

13 hours ago, MigL said:

Assigning subjective orientations to abstract concepts doesn't get anyone anywhere.

Oddly enough, it does help to communicate and explain a great many concepts.

Edited by Peterkin
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23 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

Oddly enough, it does help to communicate and explain a great many concepts.

Gender pronouns come to mind. Vertically, I'm ranking your choice based on what I think it should be, horizontally I find out your preferences because our encounters are more productive when you're comfortable.

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Yes, like that. In moral systems, it would be something like: Vertically, I will give you the full pound of potatoes for your penny, because if I'm caught with my thumb on the scale, I could lose my vendor's license. Horizontally, I give you full value, because that's your due and what I expect in return. It's the same behaviour; both instances result in fair dealing  - as long people are bound by, and believe in, the same rules. In daily life in modern society, we routinely use both kinds of interaction, as we deem appropriate to a situation.  

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I'm sorry Phi.
If I'm stuck in an elevator with a science forum administrator, and a woman in a wheelchair, who used to be an elevator repair person, I will rank the woman in a wheelchair's advice higher than the forum administrator's.

Is that vertical, horizontal, or upside dowwn and sideways morality ?

Edited by MigL
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To me, morality is something we are saddled with because of our evolution. There is no good or bad, except in our inherited common attitudes. Having said that, I'm saddle with it just like everyone else, and I generally like the way current attitudes are heading around the world, even if change is slow. 

For me, the true test of a society, is how we treat people who are different to us. It's easy to identify with people who look and sound like us and our families. In Germany in the thirties, people were very nice to other Germans. But people like Jews and Gypsies were that little bit different, and people didn't see them the same way. They found it easy to hate, because of the differences. 

Women look and sound different to men, and historically men found it easy to class them as inferior humans. Israeli Jews are strongly bonded to fellow Jews, but treat the non-jews like shit. 

It's the same everywhere, or nearly everywhere. And it's inside all of our heads, naturally inherited, but some people override the instinct because of their upbringing and peer pressure. 

I think if you want to avoid trouble, you have to limit the speed at which "different" people move into your society. Everything might be just dandy when people are relatively prosperous, but when things get really tough, the newcomers will get seriously picked on, depending on how different they still look and sound and behave.

That's what Hitler exploited, and more people are struggling, the more Hitlers will come to the fore. 

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2 hours ago, MigL said:

I'm sorry Phi.
If I'm stuck in an elevator with a science forum administrator, and a woman in a wheelchair, who used to be an elevator repair person, I will rank the woman in a wheelchair's advice higher than the forum administrator's.

Is that vertical, horizontal, or upside dowwn and sideways morality ?

Didn't you just make a decision based on the situation and the skills of the people right around you (you obviously asked about employment)? That's horizontal morality. You didn't decide based on what you think their appearances makes them capable of. You didn't rank them based on "Asian woman in a wheelchair" and "6' 3" white man". 

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I'm not quite following how the attempt to get out of an elevator - i.e. serving one's self-interest - is related to morality. Wouldn't this come under lateral problem-solving, or team-building, rather than ethics?

Even the mightiest king or pope would resort to the expert knowledge of a social inferior when they needed a horse shod or a holy relic saved from a flood. That doesn't mean they would feel obliged to do more than throw the vassal a coin as reward, or treat him like an equal thereafter.  It's the same with the crippled elevator repair-woman: you consult her for specialized knowledge, then you use the strongest navvy to hoist the most agile youngster through the little escape hatch... without ever wondering who died and put you in charge.

You all get out of the elevator. Your social status doesn't change. Once you/they are out of that car, the privileged go right on feeling superior; the religious go right on believing they're more virtuous. Because they live in a vertically stratified society, and that's how things work.

In a horizontally organized group dynamic, chances are, the oldest person present would be expected to seek opinions and consensus, then organize the co-operative effort, because that's how things usually work in their society. But that's not about morality, either; it's about habits of thought.  

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