Who Is the King of the Castle?

We have to start using our brains against COVID-19, not against each other.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

No one in the history of our species ever willingly sacrificed their life to save the stock market from dipping a few points. On the other hand, people regularly put themselves in danger—often deadly danger—for the sake of their families, their communities, their honor, or their duty. Some of them—medics in particular—are doing this right now.

Why am I telling you something so stunningly obvious?

Because some of our communities are becoming very confused as they try to balance the needs of the economy with the duties of medical care as we fight COVID-19. And confusion is the last thing any of us need right now. Let me give you an example of what I mean by "confusion":

Let’s say one person sees sex as a saleable commodity, while another sees it as something that should only follow from deep personal commitment. These people are going to find one another confusing at best, and grotesque at worst. Imagine someone offering you money for a family member, and then responding to your outrage by reaching for their wallet again and saying, "My apologies, was that not enough?”

Once again, this seems obvious—but it took anthropologists pointing out precisely this kind of obvious confusion to prevent one well-intentioned but ham-fisted ambassadorial intervention in the middle east. A proposal to bribe people to give up sacred land just gave offense. Offering them a bigger bribe just made things worse.

Humans have differing, and often incompatible, ways of making sense of their identities and responsibilities. Reflection on these conflicts is the terrain of moral philosophy, but these days many sophisticated people are scared of explicitly using such terms, as if post-modernism has rendered such thinking passé.

Of course, humans haven’t really risen above our need to make moral sense of the world. One sign of this is that the same sophisticated people try to get away with saying that something is “problematic,” rather than saying what they actually mean: “wrong.” This evasion is only funny up to a point.

Real humans can’t live real lives believing that there is no such thing as right and wrong, but we all have trouble making sense of the very real moral conflicts that arise between conflicting values and conflicting kinds of values. Science cannot decide on moral issues, but it can help make sense of moral conflict. One of the sources of the conflicts is that our sense of values is rooted in four very different mechanisms—at least three of them solidly grounded in our evolved history. 

Among anthropologists, Alan Fiske is the clearest exponent of what I am talking about here—social relations theory. Having collated linguistic and behavioral information from numerous cultures, across time and space, he realized that every culture had four distinct ways of framing moral issues. Each mode has its own unique understandings of personal and group identity, allocating resources, and modeling interactions. This is the crucial part: If someone understands an issue in one of these modes, then they will typically talk past, or be offended by, those who frame it in another way. They will be in the position of those people offered money to give up their sacred land.

What are these four social modes? Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. I’ll share something briefly about each, to show how understanding this can help make sense of our current confusion.

Communal Sharing (CS)

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

The first way of framing moral issues arises directly from the logic of inclusive fitness: Hamilton realized that kin, sharing altruistic genes from common descent, could be selected to favor one another even at a cost to themselves. He showed that a genes’ eye perspective made it possible for genuine altruism to exist in the world.

In the Communal Sharing mode of moral appreciation, we see others as family. The ethic is of share and share alike, and the language we use when in this mode is quasi biological, evoking feelings of family: The Motherland, The Sisterhood, A Band of Brothers. Blood is thicker than water. When Steve Buscemi quietly re-joined the firefighters during the 9/11 attack, he explained simply, "They are my brothers." It was the language of the Irish government I talked about in last week’s blog.

Authority Ranking (AR)

"Do as you are told."

Authority ranking arises from the dominance and submission relations of our hierarchical primate ancestors. All things being equal, a big one dominates a little one, and the language we use when in this mode is folk physics: size, and weightiness. "He is looking down on you." "He looks up to her." "Your Majesty." "Your Highness." The big chief who must be obeyed.

Did you know that 18 out of the last 19 US presidential run-offs have been won by the taller candidate? The effect is so marked that they equalize the heights in presidential debates with podiums corrected for this factor. Big chiefs—easily distinguishable by having the shiniest, flashiest possessions—can enforce their version of the truth. Those who disobey are traitors who are publicly put in their place. Ask yourself who, if anyone, fits this description.

Equality Matching (EM)

"Quid pro quo."

Equality Matching comes from the logic of reciprocity. Give and take. The language here is of fair exchange between equals.

Market Pricing (MP)

"Whatever the market will bear."

Arguably, this fourth mode of social cognition is an extension and formalization of the third, with the abstraction of money. Although money is quite a recent invention, humans are all able to rapidly acquire a sense of abstract trade and commodify goods and services. People sometimes blame money for the skewed values of the world but that is unfair. Money just expresses those values—or, at least, one mode of values.

How does this picture help in the current confusion? We need to co-ordinate our efforts against COVID-19. If one set of people see the pandemic as a test of co-ordination and togetherness (CS) while others see it as an exercise of dominance (AR), while still others are concerned only with the bottom line (EM/MP), then it is worse than simple disagreement—we lack a common frame of reference to discuss the issues at all. We will just talk past one another. This is what is happening.

Furthermore, if you think that the best thing in an emergency is to look to the "Big Chief" for leadership, then you accept their (AR) version of reality. Disobedience—including disagreeing with his version of science—must be punished. You had better hope that objective reality aligns with his version of it. How strong is your faith?

If you see the crisis as primarily an economic issue, then you will, of course, look to what the market can bear. Your language will be of bottom lines and accountancy. However, do not be shocked when others do not see the deaths of their families with the same bloodless "clarity" that you feel you have.

Humans do not have the luxury of time to be confused. Viruses don’t have social modes of understanding. Viruses don’t have morality. Theirs is the only version of the truth that we need to align with to defeat them.


Fiske, A. P. (1991). Structures of social life: The four elementary forms of human relations: Communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, market pricing. Free Press.

Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour. II. Journal of theoretical biology, 7(1), 17-52.