Epistemology and Morality

Epistemology and Morality October 6, 2017

Back in my second ever post on The Tippling Philosopher, I mentioned my fusing of Maslow (1969), Schwartz (1992), and Kohlberg (1977). The reasoning behind this was simple enough, Maslow’s well-known pyramid is a hierarchy of needs, and Kohlberg’s was a stage model of moral development – Schwartz’s model sits in between them, as it speaks of the transition from values to morality. To paraphrase Schwartz (2012): Values are (1) beliefs about (2) goals or behaviours, that are (3) trans-situational, and (4) evaluative of individuals, acts, and occurrences, that (5) stand in relation to each other, and thereby (6) establish an implicit moral system. Beliefs are things that we hold, either because of facts, or in spite of them. Necessarily, if one is in possession of better facts about that which one values and has as a goal, one should be able to do better at obtaining it, though that says nothing about the validity of valuing it in the first place.


Maslow, Schwartz, Kohlberg

My original take on the relationship between Maslow, Schwartz and Kohlberg,
with no changes to the order in which the levels (stages) appeared.

I spoke in that second post of a need for a stronger Needs->Motivations/Values->Morals theory that harmonised some of the lumpiness of the original fusion of the three models. I have also suggested that there is a relationship between morality and epistemology (starting here). There are arguments about whether moral facts are facts at all, but morals do arise from values, and values relate to the appraisal of things in one’s environment, and the things in one’s environment can be described by collections of facts, so there is some kind of relationship.


With the three models side-by-side, the one model that seems to require a tweak in order to harmonise with the other two is Maslow. I am by no means the first person to suggest changing Maslow, however, the change I intend to make is minor and, to my knowledge, a new one. It is also a little odd, as it relies on work that predates the 1969 version of Maslow that I use. (The canonical version, see below, does not include Self-Transcendence and dates from 1943 and 1954.)

The change I intend to make is to move Safety Needs up, and Belongingness & Love and Esteem Needs down, and the justification for this is to be found in the work of Harry Harlow. In the mid-50s Harry Harlow undertook the now (in)famous cloth mother/wire mother experiments, the upshot of which was that infant macaques would cling to a comforting cloth “mother” even when the wire mother was a source of actual sustenance. This might almost justify putting Belongingness below Physiological, but I think that would be a bridge too far. The concept of putting one’s self in harm’s way “for love” is a fairly entrenched idea in everything from Hollywood movies to classical literature.



This version of Maslow’s pyramid found at SimplyPsychology


One can certainly see why, logically, Safety should precede Belongingness and Love but, as a social species, we cling to intimate relationships (starting with the parent-child bond), and often to the detriment of safety. We see this in everything from Pip’s various relationships with female protagonists in Great Expectations, to Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) in The Day After Tomorrow. In addition, the mother-child bond, in particular, brings with it sustenance and safety so, as a heuristic, it is sensible – less so if there is no parental figure (or near equivalent).

In the above version of Maslow’s pyramid, the levels are grouped as Basic, Psychological, and Self-Fulfilment Needs. This is along the lines of what one usually sees, but I want to suggest that it is also wrong. Instead I think the levels can be clustered together as Physical, Emotional, and Intellectual Needs. What I will present below is a breakdown of all three models, with their respective levels clustered together to illustrate how a need, gives rise to motivations and values, which give rise to types of morality. In addition, the epistemological aspect is, in part, down to my suggestion that the interpretation of each level is slightly different, depending upon whether we are looking at infants, children, or adults. I will make notes throughout to try and clarify this.



We are phsyical beings, whether you believe in souls or not. We necesssarily start here.


Maslow, 1969: Physiological Needs

Seeks to obtain the basic necessities of life.

This, at least, hardly seems controversial.


Schwartz, 1992: Openness to Change

Stimulation – Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.

It should be noted that infants have no choice but to be open to change, they have no baseline. Children seem naturally interested in difference, albeit that by this stage, they have a mental list of things to avoid, which they continue to add to, into adulthood. By the time people get to adulthood, some continue to seek stimulation (liberals, libertarians), and some are less inclined to do so, or more constrained in the areas in which they do so (conservatives).


Schwartz, 1992: Openness to Change

Schwartz, 1992: Hedonism – Pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself.

I have said elsewhere that Hedonism, whilst accurate as a terminology, can be confusing. It is not purely “pleasure and sensuous gratification” (the positive pole), but also avoidance of unpleasant sensations (the negative pole). The latter, in particular giving rise to punishment avoidance (what varies is whether avoidance is by not misbehaving, or through deceit). I have called Hedonism Self-Discovery in my work.


Kohlberg, 1977: Pre-Conventional

Obedience and Punishment Orientation – The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences.

Because sensory stimulation is such a big part of the lives of infants and children, it is no surprise that their morality is related to the appraisal of egoistic physical consequence.


Physical and Basic Emotional

Maslow, 1969: Belongingness/Love Needs

Seeks affiliation with a group.

As mentioned above, belongingness starts with individual child/caregiver attachment. We know that attachment forms the template for all other inter-personal relationships. Belongingness and Love give rise to safety (in numbers: starting with the number two), hence why, in mammals, and particularly primates, and especially humans, Belongingness and Love precede Safety as a need. Indeed, in a communal society the biggest risk to an infant is adult males within that society, not aggressors from outside. From an infant’s point of view, Belongingness/Love are strategic alliances.


Schwartz, 1992: Self-Enhancement

Achievement – Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.

Power – Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources

Again, we see a need to differentiate between what an infant or child might experience as achievement/power, and what an adult might experience.

For Infants, it is reaching externally imposed goals and (maybe) receiving praise from the attachment figure, and then being allowed (or able) to do more, previously disallowed (or impossible) things. For children, it is reaching externally imposed goals and receiving praise from attachment and authority figures (parents, extended family, teachers, etc.), and then being allowed (or able) to do yet more, previously disallowed (or impossible) things. The broad pattern seems to be the same for adults, but achievement and power are much more explicitly related to hierarchy.


Kohlberg, 1978: Instrumental-Relativist Orientation

Right actions consist of that which instrumentally satisfies one’s own needs, and occasionally the needs of others.

This is very clearly the egoistic, hasn’t yet learned to share (or is disinclined to share) orientation of children – some notice how their actions benefit others, some don’t (or don’t care). Of course, some adults engage in this too. Some from a position of being disinclined to care about the impact of their actions, some because they don’t recognise the impact of their actions in order to care, and some because, just at that moment, they have other needs influencing their ability to cognise the impact of their actions.


Complex Emotional

I have made the distinction between basic emotional and complex emotional to indicate the transition. I don’t want to get sidelined into the debate about the validity of Paul Ekman’s work, but there are plenty of variants on the idea that there are basic emotions, and that these interact to give rise to more complex emotions, or that we interpret them as feelings, which is a more cognitive process.


Maslow, 1969: Safety Needs

Seeks security through order and law.

Once one has established what one needs physiologically, and in the case of more basic emotions, one would wish to maintain this, i.e. remain safe.


Schwartz, 1992: Security

Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.

Safety and security are pretty much synonyms – this is unlikely to be controversial.


Schwartz, 1992: Conservation

Conformity – Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.

One way to remain safe is to not change the environment in which that safety has occurred.


Kohlberg, 1977: Interpersonal Concordance Orientation

Good behaviour is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or natural behaviour.

And if we all agree to not change, we can maintain the feelings of safety and security.


Emotional and Intellectual

As mentioned above, we have basic emotions that give rise to complex emotions and feelings. Here we are dealing with those feelings even more cognitively, something we can only do when our cognitive resources are not being spent on purchasing safety and security.


Schwartz, 1992: Tradition

Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide.

Tradition is simply the aforementioned safety and security, plus time. However, whilst tradition attempts to be constant, it ignores the only true constant, change.


Kohlberg, 1977: Conventional

Law and Order Orientation

There is orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behaviour consists of doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.

Law and order are particular instances of tradition. Laws may give rise to order, but they don’t necessarily give rise to justice, which is the stated aim. Some people focus on the order, and some peopel focus on the lack of justice. Justice is unlikely to be achieved with a rigidified system of interlocking laws that can’t help but over-simplify issues of intent, context and interaction.


Maslow, 1969: Self-Actualization

Seeks fulfilment of personal potential.

Self-actualization generally only occurs when our Physiological needs are met, when we feel Belongingness and Safety. We can however manufacture those feelings for ourselves (even infants can self-soothe to an extent).


Schwartz, 1992: Self-Transcendence

Benevolence – Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact.

It may seem odd to put benevolence after self-actualization, however, consider that doing things for others not only feels good (and people who do it are almost always happier), but it also raises us in the estimation of others, and increases safety (and informal debts of gratitude), and so on. Notice that benevolence is specifically “people with whom one is in frequent personal contact”.


Kohlberg, 1978: Social Contract/Legalistic Orientation

Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis upon procedural rules for reaching consensus.

A step beyond law and order is a flexibility of interpreting “the spirit of the law”, or “the intent of the framers of the constitution”, or whatever. Of course, such interpretation often helps “people with whom one is in frequent personal contact”.



Whilst it may be true that, as Hume suggested, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” it is nevertheless possible to think dispassionately. Sometimes this is good, as when thinking about physics and chemistry (though, presumably, Physicists and Chemists are such because they “love” the topic), and sometimes bad, as when thinking about people (or rather, when choosing to think of people instrumentally, as things).

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s work on “Flow”, wherein one loses one’s sense of self and awareness of time, whilst engaging in a task that requires the application of specific knowledge, seems relevant here.


Maslow, 1969: Self-Transcendence

Seeks to further a cause beyond the self and to experience a communion beyond the boundaries of the self through peak experience.

The achievement of self-transcendence, then, may be an intellectual pursuit, albeit one grounded in our emotional selves.


Schwartz, 1992: Self-Transcendence

Universalism – Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.

The Self-Transcendence of Benevolence is the Transcendence of other people before self, but it is other “people with whom one is in frequent personal contact”. With universalism it is “all people,” and all things.


Post-Conventional (Kohlberg, 1977)

Universal Ethical Principles Orientation – Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency.

It is only through looking at all approaches to a particular problem that it is possible to find comprehensive and universal ethical principles (assuming such is even possible). And the only way that is possible is through being open to new information.


Openness to Change (Schwartz, 1992)

Self-Direction – Independent thought and action: choosing, creating, exploring.

The other Openness to Change values (Stimulation and Hedonism, or Self Discovery as I call the latter) are the start of the epistemological cycle that I am proposing, but they gain their relevance through the self-direction that gives rise to the opportunity (or necessity) to engage with them. An infant may be a slave to its bodily needs, the ability to have those needs fulfilled by those around them, and its immature mental faculties. It is nevertheless – indeed, unavoidably – open to and aware of, changes in circumstance, and with some ability to change circumstance (by crying). At the adult end of the process, it is only through understanding enough to move forward, or indeed understanding that you know very little, that you independently choose to explore, and attempt to understand.



It is the fact that we value things that causes us to seek them out, understand them, and master them. We then teach each other how to do so, and then teach still others, and then use that knowledge to gain more things that we value. So, whilst moral facts may be a contentious concept, it seems that there is a relationship between our individual moralities – made up, as they are, of idiosyncratic interlocking sets of values – and the facts that we become aware of through seeking objects or behaviours of value. With what I have said above, and here, I am trying to show a more explicit link between our values and our epistemological process.

What we value and how we value are limiting factors on what we know and how we know.

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