Wiksell’s Hierarchy of Deeds

I was thinking this morning about what motivates us to do what we do. Why we make certain choices, and why we later stick them, or abandon them. As I thought about it, I realized that there is a spectrum of motivations behind our actions, from the very weak to the very strong. The very weak motivations produce no consistent pattern or reliability of behavior, and the very strong ones can define our very essence and identity.

Yes, the title of this post is a shameless pun, but (speaking of motives) the pun was not the motivation behind the post… it came after I’d already gotten the idea.

Following is my “Hierarchy of Deeds”, from weak to strong: Chance – Whim – Habit – Preference – Phase – Commitment – Contract – Covenant. Let’s presume that each of the deeds being evaluated here is a positive one, and “rewards” refers to the result of following through on the decision to act, and “consequences” refers to the result of failure to act according to the stated motivation.

A few things that I think are interesting about this hierarchy:

-Whim, Habit, Preference and Phase go together as factors of preference. Whim is fleeting preference, habit is past preference that affects the present, and phase is prolonged preference.

-Commitment, Contract and Covenant have similar consequences: social punishment, criminal punishment, divine punishment, respectively. A commitment is an arrangement between two relative equals, with no formal accountability. A contract is between to relative equals, under the accountability of a higher entity. And a covenant is between a higher entity and a lower one.


Motivation: arbitrary happenstance; involuntary action or re-action
Rewards: random luck
Consequences: random misfortune
Example: walking left or right around a pole in the sidewalk


Motivation: fleeting preference; mindless habit
Rewards: trivial or random
Consequences: a sense of inconsistency or inconvenience
Example: walking to avoid cracks on the sidewalk


Motivation: past preference or necessity extrapolated to the present
Rewards: ordered lifestyle
Consequences: unpredictability, loss of efficiency or pattern
Example: walking fast while at work, to appear busy


Motivation: personal taste; past experience
Rewards: pleasure; fun; satisfaction
Consequences: disappointment
Example: walking the dog on the quiet street instead of the busy one.


Motivation: prolonged preference; peer pressure
Rewards: belonging; personal identity; enjoyable lifestyle
Consequences: outsider reputation, dullness
Example: walking with a “gangsta” limp


Motivation: conviction; belief in a cause or group
Rewards: community or relationship; making a difference
Consequences: social punishment; alienation or distrust
Example: walking a group of children to school every Monday


Motivation: business or employment; legal agreement or relationship
Rewards: profit; mutual benefit; legal mandate
Consequences: criminal punishment; civil litigation
Example: walking your rounds as a security guard


Motivation: devotion; unconditional love; faith in a higher power
Rewards: temporal and eternal favor and blessings
Consequences: divine punishment and/or damnation (but God forgives)
Example: walking with God as a disciple of Jesus

Of course, Covenant is the most interesting to me, especially because of the way God establishes his covenant with Abram. Abram is scared to death to enter into this covenant, because he knows God is perfect, and as soon as he walks through the blood (another example of walking) he’s a dead man. Covenants in the Old Testament were punishable by death. But instead, God himself passes through the blood, taking the entire weight of the covenant upon himself.

I’ve heard the marriage is a covenant, and also that marriage is more of a contract, because covenants are made only by unequal partners, i.e. man and God. It’s true that in a legal sense a marriage really is a contract (and a commitment) but in a spiritual sense I believe it is a covenant, because it’s an agreement between each spouse and God himself. That they make a covenant with God, together, in the presence of the community.

But it is not a covenant that is punishable by death, as in the Old Testament, since God took all the punishment upon himself in the form of his son, Jesus.

The ending to this post is going to seem abrupt, because I didn’t really have a big finish in mind. Just wanted to express my highly analytical side for a change.

Thanks for humoring me.

2 thoughts on “Wiksell’s Hierarchy of Deeds

  1. Pretty much just what I said. But to be more specific, I was thinking about volunteers, and their levels of commitment, and how some churches have people sign membership contracts, and the difference between a simple commitment and a contract. Then it just got worse.

    Is it really that tangential, though? Seems relevant enough to me.

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