The Four Interactions

The Theory of the Economics of Morality explains that value goes beyond money, includes intangible value such as the value of relationships or personal moral values, and ppredicts that choices are made by ordering options into more or less valuable along a value hierarchy. The value hierarchy can include the effect of time. Each person has their own value hirearchy, based on what gives them the most happiness or suffering, and this hierarchy cannot be readily manipulated. From this, we can look at the choices one makes, and determine something about their value hierarchy, and therefore something about their values.

The Four Interactions deal principally with how someone handles a relationship with another person, or with God or Nature. If happiness and suffering comes from an individual’s values, what happens when you have two individuals in a relationship of some kind, and they find a difference in their values? The answer lies in the four possible choices they can take, and how often they choose each.

Suffering cannot be avoided

Perhaps this is over some very profound moral matter, or voer something as simple as how to fold laundry, but along the whole scale, when these two have a difference in their value hierarchy, it means that a decision that affects both necessarily means that one will have more happiness or suffering than the other, therefore one must suffer the other.

Four Interactions

To use the laundry example, if we have a married couple, and one spuse prefers to fold shirts in half and half again, and the other prefers halves, then thirds, to avoid a crease in the middle, then when one spouse does the laundry, they have to choose one of the following four options:

  • Coercion: The first person imposes suffering on the second, or at least tries to. (My way is better)
  • Concession: The first person willingly suffers the second, letting them have all the happiness. (I love you more than getting my way)
  • Negotiation: The two negotiate a solution where both suffer, and both benefit (The one who does the work gets to choose)
  • Separation: The two cease to be in relationship (Fold your own laundry! … as one spouse throws it at the other)

Anyone who has been in a marriage, close friendship, family, or long-term business relationship has run into all of these interactions at some point. Even with short-term interactions, you may notice people who put themselves first, are open to anything, are assertive but not overbearing, or who appear to maintain distance to avoid conflict. And further, in certain situations the same person may make different choices about how to deal with a difference or conflict. This is the person’s value hierarchy being expressed, in real time, using the Four Interactions.

Interactions in Time

Along with being in relationships with people outside of ourselves, there is also a relationship with ourselves, in time. This is a special relationship, in that one is always in a state of total concession to the past self, and total coercion to the future self. In other words, you cannot change or bargain with the past. But you, in the present, are also the “past self” to some future self, and the decisions you make right now are going to be carried forward to that future self.

Each choice, therefore, creates a trajectory in which one is either giving or taking value from the future self, thus adding either happiness or suffering to an overall “account” of money, personal and spiritual relationships, possessions, health, and more. Certain choices can be very clearly seen as taking from the future self for gain in the present - perhaps destroying a friendship to win an argument, going into debt to purchase clothing or a nice meal, or remaining lazy and missing opportunities. Other choices clearly add value over time, such as self-discipline to cheive clear goals, learning patience in order to navigate difficulties as we strengthen valuable relationships, or learning courage to sever destructive relationships.

Interactions with God and Nature

At this point we have talked about interactions between people, but we also understand that there are rellationships in which we are dealing with someone or something that is not another person, and we might call these relationships a relationship with God, the Spiritual, Nature, or Reality. What makes this class of relationships different is that you may not always have all of the available options. Nature can be coerced in some situations, but it also may act in ways we cannot control. The religions (including non-religious worldviews about spirituality) differentiate themselves by having different views about how one can interact with God, or the Spiritual. Atheist philosophers hae suggested that God proceeds from the human imagination, which is a state of coercion. On the opposite end, you have religions saying that humans have no power over God or anything else spiritual, a state of concession. Still more suggest more complex relationships that allow negotiation with spiritual entities.

How one perceives the available options affects the choices they may make, and in turn, affects real actions. Since the different relgions and philosophies recommend different actions, it should also be clear that different actions will lead to different outcomes, which means that a thorough study of history and observation of people in the present will be able to tell us much about which philosophies are either creating or destroying value, and further, what kinds of value are created or destroyed by each.

Moral Implications of the Four Interactions

One question about the Four Interactions is whether there is a moral implication for choosing each one. In reality, the interactions on their own tell us nothing about morality. Each has a legitimate situation in which it can be chosen, and therefore the use of each in a given situation requires a value hierarchy to determine the relative morality of each action. If we have such a value hierarchy, we can gauge how each interaction is either creating value (good) or destroying value (bad) each time.

Is there an absolute hierarchy, perhaps an absolute measure by which we can gauge all interactions? I do think it is possible, if there is a Reality that cannot be coerced, but does, in turn, affect us. In order to have the greatest happiness, and the least suffering, we would need to understand what it is, and learn to live in accordance with that Reality. To refuse it would become the equivalent of banging one’s head on a wall - attempting to coerce that which cannot be moved.

My belief is that history is the search for that Reality, the epic story of those crashing their will against it, and others finding that awe-inspiring moment of God saying “Here I am.” Without the time component of choice, all decisions are arbitrary. But with time, and the reality of having to look at past decisions while consiering the future, the creation and destruction of wealth, whether it be spiritual, relational, or physical, will be revealed.