“Life is all about priorities. Year after year, day after day, and even minute after minute you have to embrace what is more important and essential for you and not look back. When others don’t understand or admonish you for your choices don’t give it any energy because they are telling you that their wants are more significant than yours.”
Carl Henegan, Darkness Left Undone
Prioritisation is, in essence, the problem of economics or the scarcity of resources at the level of human actions. Like with governmental leaders or a person living on a fixed income in life, we have to decide between competing desires and interests limited by the paucity of resources and time. In the case of moral action, we are limited by our singularity and limited abilities and thus forced to choose between carrying out our duties to one person or group or another. As we must choose, we require a systematic approach to inform our choices.
Hierarchy of Duty
The hierarchy of duty provides a clear and consistent framework for decision-making when there are competing duties to two or more people or groups. Providing a logical hierarchy of duty allows adherents to easily prioritise between duties to individuals and duties themselves at all times. The fundamental principle is that the higher up the hierarchy a duty or individual sits, the greater their precedence is. This order of precedence allows for consistency to be maintained, as whenever there are conflicting demands, the relative precedence of the demands can be weighed, and the conflict resolved. Under this system, an individual remains bound to the canon of the duties and to all the individuals who a duty is owed at all times. However, as precedence is clear, if they are physically unable to meet two or more of their responsibilities, they must only meet the superior duty’s obligations. This principle is quite self-apparent, yet to be workable while being logically consistent, it requires a method of characterising each individual.
The mechanism that meets this requirement is Relational Proximity (RP). This principle holds that the precedence of a duty or an individual’s precedence is directly related to the Individual Purpose, namely the long-term survival of your family. The more vital the object is to the Individual Purpose’s achievement, the higher its Relational Proximity is. In calculating an individual’s position in this framework, it should be no surprise that those within the family come first, followed by those who are members of your community and, finally, those who have no formal relation to you and your family. We begin with the individual ‘subject’.
Relational Proximity Level 1: Family - Primary Branch
The individual ‘subject’, or simply you, is the first and initially the most important person to your achievement of the Individual Purpose. From birth, we instinctively possess what the Stoics called self-love, that which we call the drive for self-preservation and self-gratification. As we will discuss later, this drive is not a license for selfish and self-centred behaviour but merely an acceptance that you as an individual has value in and of itself. This instinct is to be seen as an indication that we are to place our own survival front and centre of our focuses. We are the starting point of life and the beginning of any endeavour. As such, we begin at Relational Proximity Level 1 (RP1), the closest level of proximity to the achievement of the purpose.
Once you reach maturity and select a suitable partner/spouse, the number of individuals at RP level 1 begins to increase. First, your spouse joins you at the highest level. Your spouse—male or female—occupies the position directly behind yourself in the RP level 1 hierarchy. This inclusion is recognition of their importance in the achievement of the purpose and the reciprocal duty owed between spouses. While at the same time recognising that as they are not carrying your genes, they are less critical to the achievement of the purpose than yourself or your offspring.
At this point, it is vital that we briefly touch on the most fundamental principle of the relationship between spouses. This principle is the mutual reciprocally of duties between spouses. This reciprocity means, in practice, that spouses take on mutual responsibility for the duties of each other. This expansion of duty is managed using the same principle as espoused in placing the spouse one down from the individual in question. You assume your spouse’s duties, but they are always hierarchically slightly lower in priority than your own duties.
The most significant change occurs when you and your spouse have children. Up to this time, you have occupied pole position. Once your first child is born, you are demoted into second place as any parent will tell you. Having children is life-changing; once you have a child, your instinct for self-preservation becomes secondary to your instinct to ensure your child’s survival. This reprioritisation is both natural and right and is more proof of the rightness of the purpose which we espouse.
The Individual Purpose is concerned with the continuation of life expressed in our case through the production and survival of children. Their survival is of paramount importance to the continuation of life, and as every parent knows, it is more important than their own individual survival. The below figure illustrates this changing hierarchy:
When you and your spouse have subsequent children, you encounter the same prioritisation problem as before. How to prioritise between two individuals of equal value. If you were forced to prioritise between two or more of your children, how would you choose?
Ultimately, when we discuss prioritisation, we are talking about life or death decisions, such as the impossible question that parents face only too often, which child do you save when you can only save one? These are horrible situations that I hope we never face; however, any system cannot be a guide only in good times but must retain its validity in the worst of times. In the hardest of situations, we must remember the Individual Purpose and choose based on only two criteria. One, which person is, considering the facts known to you, most likely to survive and fulfil the purpose, and two, if this is undeterminable, we must prioritise the youngest individual.
The assumption implicit in prioritising the youngest individual where all else is equal is that youth equates to potential. Therefore, in differentiating between two individuals at the same Relational Proximity level in the same danger and with the same overall chances of survival, it is the youngest individual who should be considered to have the greatest proximity to the Purpose. This prioritisation of youth is an essential principle in Relational Proximity theory, forming a general rule for the prioritisation of individuals within RP levels. This principle is also consistent with the prioritisation of your children over yourself.
This process continues when your children have children of their own. Your grandchildren as the next generation of your offspring join the Relational Proximity level 1 with a nominal prioritisation based on their age. Your children’s spouses also join RP1 but will assume the position directly behind that of your spouse. As with your spouse, by including your children’s spouse in the highest level of the hierarchy of duty, it recognises their having joined your family and the duties resulting from this. While at the same time recognising that they are not of your blood and have only an ancillary role in the achievement of your purpose. On incorporating the preceding elements, we end up with the hierarchy below for a standard reproductive family:
Relational Proximity Level 2: Family - Secondary Branch
The next Relational Proximity Level 2 (RP2) contains the secondary branches of your family. This branch includes both your birth family and that of your in-laws. The relative priority of each individual within this level is again determined by two criteria. One, which person is, considering the facts known to you, most likely to survive and fulfil the purpose, and two, if this is undeterminable, then the youngest individual is prioritised. This prioritisation results in a nominal hierarchy where your birth family is hierarchically placed one up from your spouse’s birth family (your-in-laws).
This position is not to imply that all members of your birth family’s secondary branches must be prioritised above all members of your spouse’s siblings’ families. Thus far, we have put forward the general principle that as youth generally equates to a potential to fulfil the Purpose, the younger individual typically has a closer proximity to the purpose than an older person. Hence, they have a higher priority in the hierarchy of duty. However, when we examine the prioritisation of persons outside of the primary family branch, the situation becomes more complicated. The reciprocally of duties between spouses, intended to assist both spouses in achieving the purpose, create a reciprocal union between the Individual Purpose of each spouse. As such, only differentiating individuals based on age is not enough. To solve this problem, we must consider the situation from the perspective of the Individual Purpose.
As the Individual Purpose is concerned with successful reproduction, it is evident that there must be a natural differentiation of people based on their reproductive fitness. In general, this divides people into four broad categories based on their age and reproductive fitness. The first category is Pre-Maturity, consisting of individuals from birth until they reach maturity at twenty years old. The second category is Maturity. This grouping consists of individuals who are reproductively able between the ages of twenty (20) to forty-five (45). This age corresponds in both men and women to the years of reproductive capability, after which reproduction is either impossible or highly problematic. The third grouping is Post-Maturity. This grouping consists of individuals who are not or are no longer reproductively able. This grouping consists of individuals older than forty-five (45) and those unfortunate individuals who are reproductively disabled. The final grouping is that of the Unfortunates. The Unfortunates membership is limited to those individuals who, through disability, are substantively unable to reproduce. Consistent with the principle of youth having priority, the Pre-Matures have the highest prioritisation, followed by the Matures, and finally, the Post-Matures.
These categorisations make our problem of prioritisation between our siblings and your spouse’s siblings much more straightforward, allowing us to effectively support the achievement of the Individual Purpose. In doing this, we first place each member of our families’ secondary branches into the appropriate grouping with our spouse’s family members just below our own. Once this is done, we can build our nominal hierarchy. To illustrate what is meant by this, let’s consider the case where both you and your spouse have two siblings. Each of these siblings has a spouse of their own and two young children. The details of each individual are listed in the table below:
Firstly, we place the Pre-Matures onto the list from youngest to oldest, starting with our blood relations and then our spouse’s relations. Once this is done, we add the matures onto the list. We do this in the same way as with the pre-matures, placing blood relations on first, their spouses next, and then our spouse’s relations. Finally, we add the Post-Matures on in the same way. One thing to note here is that spouses are always one position behind the relation. We can demonstrate this in that even though Suzie is a Mature and your brother Brian is a Post-mature, her priority is one below his. Once this is done, we end up with the following prioritisation list:
From RP Level 3 (RP3) onward, your obligation to an individual is based on a combination of their past actions and the considered probability of them assisting you and your family in the future. The quantification of these measures relies on the principles of Relational Reliability.
Relational Reliability refers to the balance of probabilities that a person will assist you and your family in the future. This is by necessity a speculative judgement, which, in practice, can only be approximated. This approximation is achieved by weighing an individual’s history of reciprocity or Relational Obligation (RO) with your relative position in their Relational Proximity hierarchy or Relative Relational Proximity (RRP) to form a judgment of their future reliability. Relation Obligation is considered to be twice as meaningful as RRP in assessing future behaviour.
Relational obligation refers to the level of obligation which you fall under due to the past actions of an individual or group of individuals. It is based on the fundamental concept that our responsibilities to others are based largely on their past actions. We build relations with others in general by a process of sounding out their reliability by small tests of reciprocal actions. As a person proves their reliability to you and your family, their priority will increase as their role in assisting you in achieving your Individual Purpose increases.
The level of obligation implied can range from the mundane such as if a co-worker does you a small favour by buying you a coffee. Creating as a consequence a minor relational obligation which requires you to reciprocate by returning another small favour. To the far more substantial such as if a person saves your life or the life of one of your children. In this case, the relational obligation would be far more significant, creating an enduring obligation to that person and their family only one step below that of your siblings and their families. These obligations should not be understood as being transactional, whereby individuals return benefits received on a one for one basis. Instead, they should be seen as the links in the chains of reciprocity which bind us together as a community.
It is these chains of reciprocal obligation that are the difference between an individual who is part of your community and one who is not. The strength of these chains allows us to differentiate between an acquaintance and a friend, between a friend and those who are part of your ‘family’. We create these chains by the offering and acceptance of obligations. For example, when you meet someone new, you may offer to buy them a drink. While you are physically offering a drink, you are offering much more. You are offering the person a chance to start a new relational obligation chain. You are signalling that you are interested in knowing them. Their acceptance creates an obligation between the two of you, which if they choose to reciprocate is the foundation for your future relationship. As we get to know the person, we make judgements about them, and if those judgements are favourable, we offer them more trust. If they accept the trust and reciprocate, our relationship will become stronger.
These trust levels can be quantified by assuming that there are five levels of relationships measured by RO; ranging from those who have shown themselves as able to be trusted to protect your children or who have saved your life in the past to those you have no previous obligations to. Each RO level is defined below:
Relational Obligation 1 (RP1) “Family”:
This level of relational obligation consists of those who are part of your family, or who have saved your life or the life of someone in your reproductive family.
Relational Obligation 2 (RO2) “Friends”:
This level is for those individuals who have provided consistent support to yourself and your family. Generally, those we consider close friends.
Relational Obligation 3 (RO3) “Community”:
This level is the default level in which all members of your community sit.
RO4 is where all those people to whom you share a level of mutual responsibility sit. This level includes workmates, members of friendly communities, fellow passengers, and everyone else whom you know personally but who do not fit into any of the higher groupings.
This level connotes those individuals who are unknown to you, belong to non-friendly communities, or otherwise have no prior relationship with you. This level is the default level for all beings not otherwise categorised.
In this way, at RP level 3 and below, a person’s RP is based mainly on their past actions. Implicit in this is the expectation that an individual’s past actions are positively correlated with the probability of their future actions. We expect that if a person has previously fulfilled their duties to us, they are likely to do so in the future. However, as past behaviour is only partially indicative of future actions in similar circumstances, we must be cautious. There is always uncertainty in what a person may do in the future, and we must never forget that, like us, they have responsibilities to those higher in their RP hierarchy, which must come first.
This mutual prioritisation is factored into the RP hierarchy by recognising that everyone prioritises people who sit higher in their RP hierarchy in the same way as we do. The implication of this is that the higher we sit in an individual’s RP hierarchy, the more likely we are to be prioritised compared to others. The more likely we are to be prioritised, the more likely they are to assist us in a crisis. For clarity, this is defined as Relative Relational Proximity (RRP). This outcome is logical if we consider that the lower an individual’s RP level is, the more people come before them in a crisis.
RRP can be conceptualised by understanding that the RRP and RP are fundamentally the same but from a different viewpoint. RP is where people relate to you, and RRP is where you sit on a person’s RP hierarchy. For clarity’s sake, anyone who is not a RP 1 or 2 receives a nominal RRP value of 3.
We can demonstrate this by comparing the position of one of your siblings to that of your child. In a crisis, your child’s survival comes first as they are an RP1, your sibling comes second as an RP2. This precept means that if only one of the two can survive, your sibling would be left to die. From your sibling’s view, this would be clear as well. He would know that your child and you would come first in your RP hierarchy as you both have RRPs of 1 while he has an RRP of 2. Just as you would know to him, he would come first as his RRP to himself is RRP1, followed by your child and then yourself as RRP 2s.
We use these two figures to calculate our Relational reliability, which equates directly with the individuals RP level. This calculation is done by multiplying the Relational Obligation value by 2 (to account for its greater reliability) and then adding the Relative Relation Obligation. The equation used is below:
By expanding this with all RO levels from 1-5 and with all RRP levels, we get a table of results as illustrated below:
To explain this concept further, we will now describe the process using a few examples. Your parents and grandparents generally occupy the pinnacle of the relationships defined by reciprocal altruism, RP3. This relationship is defined as are all others based on the Relational reliability metrics of Relational Obligation (RO) and Relative Relational Proximity (RRP). In most cases, your parents’ claim to superior RO status has been established through their actions throughout your childhood.
In this period of your life, your survival was dependant on your parents in every respect. It can safely be assumed that they have saved your life many times over. They have fed you, clothed you, educated you, protected you, etc. Your whole existence is owed to them, which can be objectively seen to have created the most profound relational obligation possible. These past actions would place them squarely at RO1. Next, we consider our RRP.
Your position in their RP hierarchy is RP1 as their purpose runs through to you directly in the same way as it does to your children. This results in an RRP1 ranking, placing you and your family ahead of virtually all other considerations for your parents. Next, to calculate their RP level, we add two times the RO level with the RRP level. In this case, it would result in an RR of 3 or an RP level of RP3 ((RO1)*2+(RRP1)=3)
If, however, your grandparents had not played a significant part in your life or perhaps one of your parents had been absent from your life, the result would be different. The process followed would be the same. You would first determine what level of RO existed between yourself and the individual in question. Let us assume that, in this instance, they had been entirely absent from your life and are not members of your community, resulting in a RO of 4. Your RRP would still not have changed as you are still their grandchild with an RP to them of 1. This results in an RRP of 1. Calculating this, you get an RP level of 9 (4*2+1=9).
From here, the process of prioritisation follows the same method as that expressed in RP2. The individuals are broken into the various groupings based on reproductive maturity and sorted internally by age. Blood family again comes first, followed by stepparents, and then in-laws. Below is a nominal hierarchy of priority at RP3 for a standard family consisting of you and your spouse’s parents and grandparents:
This process can again be demonstrated using any other individual. Let us take a non-related friend as an example. We will assume that they have built a good relationship with you having exchanged favours and obligations over a couple of years. This relationship you rate as being an RO2 level relationship (close friendship). As you are not in their reproductive chain, you will have an RRP of 3. If we calculate this out, we can find their relative RR. RO2 times two equals four added to RRP3 results in an RP of seven. Again, if you have multiple people at RR7, the standard prioritisation process will provide you with a nominal hierarchy. This nominal hierarchy is, as described previously, ordered by common-sense, maturity classification, blood relationship, and age.
The last part of Relational Reliability, which we have not yet discussed, is how it is related to the reproductive families of those persons who are part of your Relational Proximity hierarchy. From RP3 onwards, everyone occupies a position related to their past actions in support of you or your family’s survival. It is logical as we all aim after our families’ long-term survival that the support provided by other people should be reciprocated. We achieve this by placing all persons with an RP of 1 with an individual in your hierarchy at the same level as those in your RP hierarchy when no other relationship exists. This means that if your friend has an RR/RP level of 7, their spouse, children, and grandchildren will also become RP7s. If you develop a relationship with any of these individuals, they will maintain their reflected RP while it is higher than their (earned) RP value. This process creates a clear requirement for friends and community members to protect each other’s families prioritised by their RR/RP levels while also allowing them to develop relationships with friends and acquaintance’s family members.
For added clarity, the table below illustrates this by showing the relative ranking of a diverse set of individuals at RR7:
This hierarchical structure allows us to place all individuals into a clear hierarchy of priority quickly, allowing us to prioritise between individuals easily at all times. However, there is one further prioritisation mechanism required. So far, we have discussed prioritisation between individuals. However, one other complication occurs when there are groups involved. With internally homogenous groups, we utilise the RP mechanism choosing the groups that have the highest RP level as we did with individuals. This mechanism also works when the groups are internally heterogeneous, again, we choose the group which has the individual with the highest RP in it. This mechanism breaks down when we are faced with choosing between two or more groups that consist of individuals with the same RP level.
Prioritising between Groups
In this case, Relational Proximity cannot help you prioritise between them. To better illustrate and aid in conceptualising the problem, we will introduce the trolley problem as introduced by Frank Chapman Sharp and or Philippa Foot. In the original form of this thought experiment, you are placed in the position of ‘driver of a runaway tram which can only be steered from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track you enter is bound to be killed’. For our purposes, each of the men have the same RP as each other. Which way do we turn?
To answer this question, we need to consider the problem from the perspective of the purpose of life. In this case, each person is of equal value to us in achieving our Individual Purpose. To decide, we need to determine their potential. We used age to approximate this earlier, yet it does not work here. This is because not only are the ages of the individuals unlikely to be known to us in real life, but it is not apparent how one would estimate the potential of a group without the use of mathematical formulations, which would prove themselves to be unviable in the cut and thrust of life. Instead, we will satisfice as we did with age by saying that if we must choose between harming two groups with the same RP level, we should choose the option that will result in the least harm. In this case, by steering onto the track with the single man on it, not the one with five men.
This solution solves this dilemma, but as any of you familiar with the trolley problem would have recognised, there are several other versions of the problem that need to be examined. The next problem is the related ‘fat man problem’. ‘As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you push him?’ Again, we will assume that all involved individuals are at the same RP level.
At first glance, the problem looks to be the same as the traditional trolley problem; however, it is not. The core difference is that the fat man is not in danger while the single man on the track is due to his location. To advocate for the fat man’s killing is to implicitly allow for unbridled expansion of risk, which will make none of us ever safe. This problem becomes more evident in the derivative of this problem developed by Judith Jarvis Thomson, coined the ‘Transplant thought experiment’.
In this experiment, ‘A transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveller, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine check-up. In the course of doing the check-up, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Do you support the morality of the doctor to kill that tourist and provide his healthy organs to those five dying people and save their lives?’ If the same assumptions apply as with the fat man experiment, you will perhaps see more viscerally the danger of equating the fat man with the worker on the line.
The difference comes down to the potentiality of the event. In the case of the workers on the line, all six persons are in danger due to the potentiality of a runaway trolley while working on a track and the dichotomy of the switch. In the case of the fat man and the traveller, the potentiality does not exist or at least does not exist without your direct action. Without your direct action, there is no chance of the fat man being pushed in front of the trolley just as there is no potentiality of a standard medical check-up being fatal. To allow for potentiality to be expanded would result in a situation whereby nowhere is safe, compromising the achievement of the purpose.
By this, we mean that if we expand potentiality from the situation to the wider world, we effectively create a situation where we are, at all times, in danger of being sacrificed from some apparent greater good. By limiting ourselves to those at risk from the potentialities of the event, we allow ourselves to prioritise where a choice must be made, while at the same time, preventing undesirable externalities. We will discuss the morality of these choices in the next chapter.