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The Four Quadrants Of Ethics

Applying the 4 Quadrants/4 Elements Model To Ethics And Morality

“The sword and the good should go hand in hand.”

– Masasaki Hatsumi

We can also use our Four Elements model when talking about what’s right/not right, ok or not ok to do, and in order to help us clarify our own objectives and more rationally make our decisions.

Morality in general, and ethics more specifically – are a mess.

They don’t translate cross culturally, and they never function well as universal constants through vertical levels of development.

For example – growing up as a child in a working class family, and then living on the streets (not couch surfing with a neighbor – but literally being a feral urban kid sleeping outside in big cities and scrounging and scheming for my food) and then becoming completely independent, international and not location/employment centered as an adult, and always being a “foreigner” and being outside of the consensus reality left me with a very different moral view than most people’s.

So – How can we use our 4 Quadrants/4 Elements model to think more rationally about morality and ethics, and in a way that is less culturally conditioned?

“Martial arts without martial virtue are useless for the ways of warfare.”

– Nakae Toju

Let’s look at the model again:

As we mentioned – we can break these 4 quadrants (of life, of processes, of phenomena) down into:

  • Internal personal
  • Internal group
  • External personal
  • External group

When we’re evaluating a decision that we have to make, or any kind of action that we may have to take, we can quickly run the math against this model.

“To be a good martial artist, the qualities that make one effective must be augmented and guided by qualities of character such as compassion, courage and self-control.”

– Jean Jacques Rousseau

First, we have to think about:

Whether the decision or action will result in positive or negative outcomes in the internal-personal quadrant? 

For example, will it cause you to have a better, or worse self-image, or feel good, better, bad or worse about ourselves)?

Will the decision or action create gain or loss for us in the external-group quadrant?

For example – will this positively or negatively affect the group(s) we’re a part of, such as our family, social group, business community, etc.

Will the decision or action create gain or loss for us in the internal-group quadrant?

For example – creating a strategic imbalance which is out of our favor?

Will the decision or action create benefit or disadvantage for us in the external-personal quadrant?

Will it positively or negatively affect the way we are in relation to the world around us?

We then have to consider the two following qualifications:

  1. Decisions or actions which create gain/loss in the internal quadrants can be called useful or not useful.
  2. Decisions or actions which create gain/loss in the external quadrants can be called noble or ignoble.

Therefore, when qualifying your decisions or actions, you can run them against a simple prioritized evaluation, going from the greatest good to the worst bad:

  1. Useful and noble
  2. Useless and noble
  3. Useful and ignoble
  4. Useless and ignoble

Using this type of model can allow us to quickly and easily process our decision making.

To give a very oversimplified example – one of the 10 commandments is “Thou shall not kill”.

That’s pretty broad.

Let’s use a more specific example, such as hunting.

If hunting an animal is useful (you need to eat urgently) and noble (your family or your group needs to eat urgently) – it is a useful and noble thing to do.

If, on the other hand – You don’t need to eat urgently, but you are hunting for sport, entertainment, because of a need to feel power over something else, etc. and nobody else needs to eat urgently or lacks food – it is a useless and ignoble thing to do.

Again – A model of reality is not reality…

The purpose of using a model like this is to allow you some flexibility in thought and to not be bound up by dogmatic ideas which are neither useful nor noble – depending on the situation in which you might find yourself.

The model is also not an absolute, and doesn’t need to be absolutely adhered to.

But, in situations where you have competing subjective or cultural values and you’ve reached an impasse in making decisions –

A Four Elements decision making model can be useful in individuals and the group gaining clarity, and building consensus towards a desired or necessary result, rather than staying gridlocked in analysis paralysis brought on by subjective ethics and cultural morality.

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