A Four-Dimensional Fractal Approach to Ethics

How the fractal nature of the integral four-quadrant model can help (dis)solve the paradoxes within ethics.

The Big Three and Wilber’s Four Quadrants

In his books, Wilber speaks of the so-called “Big Three”: Truth, Beauty, and (normative) Goodness. The idea about these three separate domains of inquiry has run through Western philosophy as a red thread since Plato introduced the triad 2500 years ago — until Wilber finally broke with the tradition and added a fourth. Kind of.

  • Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781 (truth)
  • Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788 (goodness)
  • Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790 (beauty)
  • World 1: Objects. The realm of states and processes as typically studied by the natural sciences. These include the states and processes that we seek to explain by physics and by chemistry, and also those states and processes that subsequently emerge with life and which we seek to explain by biology. (Truth)
  • World 2: Subjects. The realm of mental states and processes. These include sensations and thoughts, and include both conscious and unconscious mental states and processes. World 2 includes all animal, as well as human, mental experience. Mental states and processes only emerged as a product (or by-product) of biological activity by living organisms, and so only emerged subsequently to the emergence of living organisms within World 1. Mental states and processes are the products of evolutionary developments in the World 1 of animal brains and nervous systems, but constitute a new realm of World 2 that co-evolved by its interaction with the World 1 of brains and nervous systems. (Beauty)
  • World 3: Intersubjectivity. The realm of the “products of thought” when considered as objects in their own right. These products emerge from human “World 2” activity, but when considered as World 3 objects in their own right they have rebound effects on human World 2 thought processes. Through these rebound effects, World 3 “objects” may — via World 2-motivated human action on World 1 — have an indirect but powerful effect on World 1. In Popper’s view, World 3 “objects” encompass a very wide range of entities, from scientific theories to works of art, from laws to institutions. (Goodness)
  • Propositional truth (referring to an objective state of affairs, World 1)
  • Subjective truthfulness (or sincerity, World 2)
  • Normative rightness (cultural justness or appropriateness, World 3)

Wilber’s Four Quadrants

Many of my dear readers are already familiar with Wilber’s four quadrants, so I’ll keep it brief. To those of you who still don’t get it after my presentation here, I’ll recommend you look up the four-quadrant model and Wilber’s integral philosophy elsewhere — or simply ask in the metamodern community online. Plenty of metamodernists come from the integral scene.

  • Interior / individual: The transcendental idea of “beauty”, which corresponds to Popper’s World 2 of subjective truthfulness, belongs to the upper left, subjective quadrant in the model above. That is because this is the dimension of the individual’s inner mental experiences, including aesthetic experiences (as the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). Consequently, the upper left quadrant is about the states of affairs that can be stated in “I-language”: the realm of consciousness, phenomenology, psychology in many of its modes, and spirituality.
  • Interior / collective: The transcendental idea of “goodness”, World 3, belongs to the lower left, intersubjective quadrant. This is the dimension of normative rightness, of social constructed reality of symbols and discourses. These properties belong to the interior left half of the four-quadrant model, just like beauty, since they cannot be accounted for objectively. But since questions of ethics and symbolic meaning is not just about single individuals, but the relation between individuals, it belongs to the collective half of the model. The lower left is therefore concerning state of affairs that can be stated in “we-language”: the realm of culture, ethics, hermeneutics, and symbols.
  • Exterior / individual: The upper right quadrant is thus the dimension of objective matters that can be assessed individually: empirical facts that are true in-and-of-themselves; states of affairs that can be stated in “it-language”.
  • Exterior / collective: And finally, in the lower right corner, this is where you find the inter-objective quadrant. This is the dimension of objective matters that can only be understood systemically (viz. the collective lower half of the model); state of affairs that can be stated in what might be termed an “its-language”: what are the systems that create the ebbs and flows of economies, weather, living organisms, ant colonies, and so forth. What makes an ant colony into just that? It’s not a matter of simply adding up the list of 30.000 ants. It has to do with how the relatively simple behaviors of each ant together create something that is not exactly “one thing”, but exists quit objectively nevertheless, as a set of relations: the colony. The system. The whole.
And by “rationalism” here, I mean the philosophical tradition of emphasizing people’s own rational thinking in finding out what’s true. I.e., it emphasizes the truth of rational thinking, of our conscious processes, not of the facts in and of themselves.

The Four Schools of Ethics

It is commonly agreed upon that normative ethics can be divided into three major categories: Deontological Ethics, Teleological Ethics (or “consequentialism” which will be the term I use in the following) and Virtue Ethics. I would argue, however, that deontological ethics ought to be divided into two separate schools, namely: rule-based ethics and contractualism.

Rule-based Ethics

Rule-based ethics is perhaps best explained by Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative signifies an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative is as follows:

  • In its positive form stated as: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”
  • In its negative form stated as: “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.”
  • It is wrong to steal because the concept of “stealing” in itself implies that there exists such a thing as property rights — otherwise you wouldn’t steal but merely take. This means that by declaring that you or anyone else stole something, you simultaneously imply that an ethical principle was broken, namely the right of property.
  • It is wrong to lie because the act of speaking in itself implies conveying what one believes to be true. If you do not tell the truth, you violate the implied premise that by speaking you are passing on correct information. Consequently, if lying became a universal law (categorical imperative), speech would be rendered meaningless — which I guess we can agree defeats the purpose of speaking.


Contractualism, or social contract theory, revolves around the idea that the foundation of our governments and their legal frameworks, and the social rules we conform by, are derived from implicit social contracts or unspoken agreements that we have entered into with each other because we have a self-interest in everyone upholding them and because they serve the common good. This also means that the social contracts are negotiable, just like the authority of governments, and that the rules can change over time.

Virtue-based Ethics

Virtue-based ethics can be traced back to Greek antiquity and is one of the oldest moral philosophies. Virtue-based ethics is not concerned with labeling actions good or bad, but rather with determining the moral character of agents. For example, rather than asking whether lying is right or wrong, it is the concern of whether a person is honest or dishonest that is important here. A knife is neither good nor bad, but either sharp or dull. Similarly, a horse can be said to be strong or fast, simply calling it “good” would be meaningless to an advocate of virtue-based ethics.


Consequentialism is a class of ethics that includes a large number of sub-categories such as utilitarianism, rule consequentialism, state consequentialism, ethical egoism, ethical altruism, two-level consequentialism, and negative consequentialism, that all have in common that it is the consequences of an action or rule that are the ultimate basis for any normative judgment. Each of these mentioned forms of consequentialism emphasizes the individual versus the collective to varying degrees, and many of them combine elements from the other three main schools of ethics. In the last regard, utilitarianism is consequentialism in its purest form. This class of consequentialism can be summed up by the mantra “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The main idea here is that the proper course of action is the one maximizing overall happiness and reducing overall suffering.

  • The validity claim of rule-based ethics is that an action has to be in accordance with universal principles that can be justified a priori and deduced from self-evident premises derived from the action itself in order to be considered ethically valid — ultimately regardless of context.
  • Contractualism’s validity claim is that the rules regulating our conduct have to be based on a priori principles that must be mutually agreed upon by reference to the relationship between actors in order to be considered ethically valid.
  • The validity claim of virtue-based ethics is that an action cannot merely be judged as good or bad in itself, but what matters is the moral character of the agent which can only be judged a posteriori, and then only by reference to a description of the action or property itself viewed through the lens of its particular social context.
  • Consequentialism’s validity claim is that actions can only be considered ethically valid if the outcome of these a posteriori happen to have preferable consequences overall, and then only by reference to some collective end based on the relationship between all actors.

How The Fours Schools of Ethics Fit into Wilber’s Four Quadrants

Now we have finally reached the exciting part where I get to demonstrate the fractal nature of the four quadrants. When we zoom in on the lower left quadrant (the dimension of intersubjectivity, of which the domain of ethics is part) we can divide the quadrant into four sub-quadrants — one for each of the four schools of ethics.

Rule-Based Ethics

  • Why interior? Rule-based ethics belongs to the interior half of the four-quadrant model since it is concerned with ethical reasoning proceeding from theoretical deduction a priori, rather than observation or experience a posteriori. (A priori knowledge is knowledge that is acquired independently of any sensory experience, as opposed to a posteriori knowledge which is derived from experience.) The universally valid principles that rule-based ethics is looking for can thus only be found by gazing inwards and by determining through deductive logic what constitutes sound moral reasoning.
  • Why individual? Rule-based ethics belongs to the individual upper half since it focuses on the ethical validity of singular actions, categories of actions or properties in themselves. Unlike contractualism where it is the relationship between individuals that determines whether an action is ethically valid, rule-based ethics does not need to take the social context into consideration. It merely seeks to determine whether this or that action is ethically valid in itself. This is what gives rule-based ethics the “self-referential” tag.
  • Tags: “a priori” and “self-referential”.


Contractualism has been placed in the lower left quadrant; the dimension of Popper’s intersubjective World 3, or Wilber’s domain of “we-language”. Contractualism is thus interior and collective.

  • Why interior? Contractualism belongs to the interior left half since knowledge about the social contract, just like its deontological cousin rule-based ethics, can only be attained through deduction a priori. The social contract is not a piece of legislation, like a country’s constitution, that we can learn about through our experience of simply reading it. Only through heuristic thought experiments, like that of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, or by simply trying to unravel the social logics of a community by gazing inwards towards the hidden discourses and social imaginaries of a culture, can we deduce why we have the rules we have and whether they are sufficiently justified and upheld.
  • Why collective? The reason why contractualism belongs to the collective lower half is because of the inherent social aspect to this school of thought. This is where it differs from its deontological cousin, rule-based ethics, and the reason why I believe it is important to sharply distinguish between these two forms of deontological ethics. Contractualism is not really interested, unlike rule-based ethics, in finding out what is ethically valid in absolutist terms. It is the relation between individuals (or individuals and groups of individuals) that determine the ethical validity of actions, and furthermore the ethical validity of institutions (which per definition are relational or collective state of affairs). This is what gives contractualism the “relational” tag.
  • Tags: “a priori” and “relational”.

Virtue-Based Ethics

Virtue-based ethics has been placed in the upper right quadrant, Popper’s objective World 1, Wilber’s “it-language”. Virtue-based ethics is thus exterior and individual.

  • Why exterior? Virtue-based ethics belongs to the exterior half of the model because its ethical claims are derived from actions and properties in the objective world that we can only learn about a posteriori. Obviously, we can only assert that a knife is sharp or that a horse is fast after having observed, in the physical world, whether that is the case or not. The same applies to whether someone should be considered a good and caring parent: you have to glean the virtue (or lack of it) from their behavior. Whereas rule-based ethics is concerned with whether honesty is a virtue or not, which must be established a priori, virtue-based ethics is more concerned with whether a person is honest or not — which obviously, only can be established a posteriori.
  • Why individual? What virtue-based and rule-based ethics have in common, however, is that they are both concerned with singular actions, properties or categories. Reasoning within virtue-based ethics does not, much like rule-based ethics, need to take the social context in which an action takes place into consideration. Virtue-based ethics thus earns the “self-referential” tag because the ethical qualities of an action or property is simply derived from the action or property itself and not from its relation to any other entities. (Although MacIntyre’s form of virtue ethics derive virtues from social contexts to justify their existence, this is actually a way of using the relational logic of contractualism to create a more solid foundation for virtue-based ethics. More about this later.)
  • Tags: “a posteriori” and “self-referential”.


The last of the four major schools of ethics, consequentialism, has been placed in the lower right quadrant. Just like virtue-based ethics it also belongs to the objective dimension of Popper’s World 1, but in the four-quadrant model it belongs to the separate dimension of interobjectivity, Wilber’s domain of “its-language”—the dimension missed by the classic “big three” model.

  • Why exterior? Consequentialism belongs to the exterior right half of the model since it can only be determined whether an action is good or bad after having observed the consequences of that action. Thus, induction, rather than deduction, is the method employed by this school of thought. That means consequentialism, just like virtue ethics, gets the a posteriori tag.
  • Why collective?: Consequentialism belongs to the collective lower half of the model because of its inherent relational and collective nature. Just like social contract ethics, the ethical validity of actions within consequentialism is determined systemically. That means that ethical reasoning is not derived from observing and evaluating the action itself, but from its interactions and interconnectedness with a greater whole. Few consequentialists would argue that it is just about maximizing the good consequences and minimizing the bad consequences for a single individual. Utilitarianism, for instance, is fundamentally about the greater good: the greatest good for the greatest number. Since such an outcome can only be determined by considering the relation between multiple actors, this school of thought earns the “relational” tag.
  • Tags: “a posteriori” and “relational”.

How the four schools of ethics complement and collapse into each other

It should be obvious by now that “taking sides” regarding which school of ethics to follow is a foolish endeavor. The same can be said of any impulse to entirely discard one or more of the schools. Obviously, all four schools have important perspectives to offer. But the question still remains how exactly to use them and how to manage and reconcile their differences. Just knowing about the four schools and how they fit into the fours quadrants does not in itself suffice to resolve ethical paradoxes.

A) Rule-based ethics is ultimately teleological

It is impossible to entirely divorce rule-based ethics from consequentialism. When you follow Kant’s advice and ask if you would want a certain type of action to become the basis for a universal law, the answer will ultimately rely on a posteriori conditions — and these stem from one’s experiences with the objective world.

B) Consequentialism is ultimately deontological

Consequentialism cannot be divorced from rule-based ethics either. In the end, consequentialism is ultimately based on deontological principles. In the case of utilitarianism, for instance: the principle of utility — which is to be deduced a priori, not induced a posteriori. Simply put: “So maximize happiness and minimize suffering for as many as possible. Sure. But making that argument is not in and of itself a maximization of happiness and minimization of suffering, is it? You just made it up, out of thin air.”

C) Virtue-based ethics and contractualism also depend on each other

Remember that virtue-based ethics received the self-referential tag? (The reason why it was positioned in the upper individual half of the four-quadrant model) That is because this school of thought is focused on determining the ethical value of actions in themselves. But whether a type of action should be seen as a virtue or a vice more often than not depends on the social context.

What’s it all good for?

So, what are we going to do with these insights? Well, I believe that beyond the benefit of better seeing how the different theories on normative ethics complement each other and fit within an integral framework, this model can also be used as a practical guide when making ethical decisions.

  • Rule-based ethics + virtue-based ethics: Good for personal decision-making.
  • Consequentialism + contractualism: Good for political decision-making.
  • Rule-based ethics + contractualism: Best overall principles.
  • Consequentialism + virtue-based ethics: Best overall consequences. (Of interest for metamodern politics)

Even More Fractal Ethics…

I bet some readers are still thinking about the fractal nature of the four-quadrant model that I showed you before and may be asking, what happens if we zoom in one additional level? Congratulations, you’re a true nerd and may save the world one day.



Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ .

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Hanzi Freinacht

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ .