The Angelic Ladder
Oooh, sounds spooky, right? It’s actually just a way, brought to us by mid-20th century philosopher R. M. Hare, to understand the many-layered nature of moral discussions, even under consequentialism.
And this understanding is vitally useful for Christianity; not just for moral decisionmaking, but also for various questions of theology and theodicy.
The “Rule” Snag
Consequentialism is roughly the doctrine that moral/ethical* decisionmaking is “mostly about” seeking goals or interests, rather than being “mostly about” following rules. Upon hearing this, some recoil and shout, “If it’s mostly about seeking goals or interests, then rules don’t matter at all!” They combine this first premise with the knowledge that moral discussions are very “rule-y,” finally concluding that moral decisionmaking must not be “mostly about” seeking goals or interests.
* (Morality and ethics are the same thing. Those who claim otherwise cannot agree on what the differences ought to be.)
But that first premise is false. Moral decisionmaking being “mostly about” seeking goals or interests does not mean that “rules don’t matter at all.” The Angelic Ladder is a great way to illustrate why that is.
Meet the Two Characters
The first character is the “Archangel.” It’s just an illustrative figure. The Archangel is totally aware and totally wise. By “totally aware,” I mean that she knows everything there is to know. By “totally wise,” I mean that she can use that knowledge — how the universe works, at every infinitesimal moment, from the distant past to the distant future, from the largest galaxy to the smallest subparticle — to make perfect “forecasting” decisions, like a cosmic Al Roker, in service of her interests.
Furthermore, because the Archangel is fully aware and fully wise, she is never bound by methodological rules. In other words, she needs no “cheat sheet” to augment her decisionmaking abilities; her decisionmaking abilities are already perfect. As such, if somebody handed her a guidebook, she would either immediately reject it, or it would be redundant to what she already knows.
The second character is the “Prole.” The Prole is completely unaware and completely stupid. By “completely unaware,” I mean that he has no idea what’s currently going on. By “completely stupid,” I mean that he has no idea how the universe works, and so even if he did know what was going in, he cannot fathom any of the prospective (“future-looking”) consequences of his actions.
Because he is so senseless and dim, he is always bound by methodological rules. He needs a “cheat sheet” to make any headway toward his interests.
Note: We cannot turn our Prole into what A. I. engineers call “an expert system” by bombarding him with innumerable rules in an exhaustive, astronomically large guidebook. He’s a blockhead, remember. His “cheat sheet” needs to fit on a note card.
Does this mean that all Archangels make the same decisions, and all Proles follow the same guidebook?
That’s because different beings have different interests. There’s one for every color of the rainbow! The Archangel in the lower-right wants to optimize “maximum amount of ice-cream” and “minimum amount of planets.” The Prole in the upper-right wants to be the best fiddle player in the galaxy and to live as long as possible, and to violently shove his enemies at every opportunity.
These examples are silly, but it doesn’t really matter what these interests are, exactly. All that matters is that each being can have his or her own interest set, and within that interest set, there may be interests that are circumstantially incommensurable (in other words, there may be moments where total interest satisfaction is logically impossible, no matter how powerful or wise the decisionmaker may be).
Let’s get rid of that variable for now, and assume we’re dealing with an Archangel and Prole that have a perfect alignment of interests.
We can place these two characters on a ladder-like scale — Archangel on top, Prole down below.
Archangel and Prole, after all, are two extremes. Most of us are just pretty unaware and quite stupid, but not completely. And so our proper place on the Ladder might be slightly higher than our hopeless Prole.
Look what happens! We have a little flag of slight wisdom atop our dunce caps. We have one eye open. And the rule list to which we’re fully bound is a little shorter.
In other words, add a dash of awareness and wisdom, and the legislation becomes a little less strict and prescriptive.
Now, every being with interests has a “proper place” along the ladder, as a function of his or her actual wisdom and awareness. But it’s certainly possible that a being will think he is wiser and/or more aware than he really is, and violate rules to which he should adhere. The cost of that violation is a failure to optimally seek his interests.
It’s also possible that a being will think she is more stupid and/or less aware than she really is, and conform to a rule she should violate. The cost of that conformity is a failure to optimally seek her interests. See the pattern here?
It also may be that a being may fail to recognize another being’s proper place along the ladder. A parent might think their child more bright than she actually is, and allow her to bend rules she shouldn’t. Another parent might think their child less bright than he really is, and subject him to rules he should be free to bend when he finds it justified.
Ladder-Climbing 101 for Individuals and Groups
In none of this, however, should it be implied that our place on the Ladder is fixed and rigid. Our proper place, as I wrote above, is a function of our actual wisdom and awareness. Refine and train your predictive skills, improve your critical thinking, and research and learn how things — both simple and abstract — work, and you’ll probably increase in wisdom and awareness, climbing the Ladder thereby.
As always, we can group-up a large number of individuals and talk about the interests, decisions, and Ladder position of that aggregate.
For example, an ancient oligarchic council may recognize that the citizens of their stone city, in aggregate, are generally bad at making decisions in service of that aggregate’s higher-order (roughly, “big picture”) interests, and may warrant a healthy dose of laws, regulation, and micromanagement. Centuries later, after dramatic technological, scientific, and philosophical development, and building robust educational systems, the new council may find it fitting to relax or revoke various laws and regulations.
And this isn’t to say those laws and regulations were always bad; they might have been helpful when the aggregate was dull, but only to a point — like a gravity well at some specific Ladder rung, helping anything below, and burdening anything above.
The Inscrutable Archangel
Finally, it’s important to understand that even if the Archangel and near-Prole share the same interest set (“color”), the Archangel will plausibly not only violate the rules to which the near-Proles are called to submit, but may make all sorts of “bad now” decisions in investment service of a big-picture payoff down the road (“bad” in terms of the shared interest set). The near-Prole may be completely perplexed as to how those decisions could possibly be justified.
I feed my dog twice a day. I also throw him scraps from time to time, and let him eat treats from friends’ hands. But while on a walk, if he sees a treat on the ground, I grip the leash and prevent him from gobbling it up, because I have a higher knowledge that strange food can be dangerous. He probably thinks I’m just silly sometimes, with my odd restrictions, and shrugs it off.
We humans are pretty creative, though, and so the over-eager near-Prole human might rush to act “above his paygrade,” using his pathetic brain to imagine up and and announce explanations that could have nothing whatsoever to do with the real chain of prospective events that will, eventually, justify those “troughs.” And, indeed, his embarrassing attempts will probably be crude, ill-conceived, and even horrific.
A more “at paygrade” approach, if he sincerely believes the Archangel is on “his side” in terms of shared big-picture interests, is to practice a hope in a down-the-road justification, offer abstract possibilities humbly and carefully, and hasten to admit his ignorance.
Less Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad, Dr. Pangloss, and Pat Robertson. More Elihu and post-storm Job.
Rules Rule… Usually
By now, I think you’ll agree that when we take the “epistemological vector” (the measure of knowledge) into account, there’s all sorts of room for rules under consequentialism, especially given the fact that we know that we’re terrible at understanding the full breadth of how the universe works and the full consequential fallout of each action. We can’t even reliably predict the weather more than a few days out — a cosmic Al Roker, we’re not.
And thus, even if we accept that morality proceeds consequentially, we can still say, “Follow the rules… unless you have a really, really good reason not to.”