Comments on “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence”

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Emanuel Rylke 2015-10-12

You say “People in stage 3 tend to misunderstand stage 4 as being stage 2” and hint at the possibility for a similar error at stage 4 “Stages 3 and 5 both tolerate contradictions”[1]. I think that’s not just a coincidence but a reason for why we can make a reliable distinction between these stages in the first place. If you view cognitive development as a river then sections where progress lies in a direction that looks backwards create a sort of reservoir. Basically there progress is counter intuitive so people slow down a lot and pile up. These then can more easily recognized as separate stages compared to a continuously flowing river.

[1] I myself got hung up on this superficial similarity for multiple years.

David Chapman 2015-10-12

It’s very interesting that you picked up on this point! The footnote about the different ways 3 and 5 tolerate contradictions is sufficiently important that I intend to expand it into a whole post, over on the Meaningness book site. Concerning “postrationalism,” nihilism, and the difficulty of the 4->5 transition (with reference to the LessWrong exodus). Next week, probably!

Garet Church 2015-10-12

can’t wait!

nufdriew 2015-10-12
This summary of Kegan’s work cannot be read as a casual blog post. It is better to approach it like a section of a textbook; you may need to read it slowly and carefully. The model is conceptually complex and difficult; to explain it properly takes a book. I hope some readers will find this summary makes sense, and that others will be motivated to read Kegan. His two relevant books are The Evolving Self, which covers all the stages, and In Over Our Heads, which is about the difficulty and importance of the stage 3 to 4 transition specifically.

In conversation on Silver V’s blog, maybe a year or two ago, you recommended Kegan’s Evolving Self. Based on that conversation I got a copy, read it and also have been strongly influenced by it. Thank you for that!

It’s a dense book and quite expensive. Ultimately I thought it was worth it. But if anyone else is contemplating getting it and put off by the expense and time constraints, I made copious notes from each chapter and I’ll post them over at

I like how you’ve summarized Kegan’s approach here. My notes are not an overview, or a summary. They could provide some background detail for people who want to understand the themes and their conceptual lineage in more depth. I’ve pulled a lot of quotes from the book. They should give a flavor of Kegan’s writing style in The Evolving Self.

I haven’t read In over our heads. The Evolving Self made good sense of relationships and personalities; it helped me understand better where different people are coming from, and how to respond helpfully to people with quite different perspectives. I’m wondering whether In over our heads can add much to that…I guess I’ll have to read it to see.

Thanks for this series so far, I’ve enjoyed it. My notes from The Evolving Self start at:

nannus 2015-10-12

It seems to me that this model is a bit simplistic in one respect: in this model, it seems as if everybody goes along the same trajectory. However, I think there are differences in personality type that have to be taken into account and therefore, the model must be extended.

One could define a spectrum of personality types from very extrovert, communicative people on one side to more introvert - and in the extreme cases autistic - people on the other side. There are more introvert personality types that are simply unable to act in the way described here as stage 3. These people will appear as excentric loners, they might sometimes be perceived as strange or even cold to the more social personality types (although they are not cold at all). They don’t have many friends and will, as adolescents or adults, not define themselves through their friendships or relationships. But just putting them into stage 2 because of that is wrong. They are nerds and geeks. As you might have guessed, I am one of them.

I think that such people proceed from stage 2 to stage 4 directly without going through stage 3. You describe stage 3 people as being very sensitive of what others think of them. People belonging to the “nerd personality types” will not be like that, they lack the ability to be like that, they are excentric individualists. You write: “One takes on other people’s emotions, values, interests, and situational experiences without clearly identifying them as someone else’s. This mixture becomes the subject: that is, the unthematized innermost self.” This is something the “nerdish” person is simply unable to do, but he/she will be able to think and act in terms of systems, duties, responsibilities and values and to go beyond that, developing an ethics based on systems and principles or beyond that, something belonging to stage 4 or 5, although they might not be able to act “normal” in personal or emotional relationships (I would say they are also normal, but in another way). People belonging to such personality types often seem to be in the STEM areas. It might be easy for them to go to stage 4 because they have no affinity to (or even ability for) stage 3.

roughgarden 2015-10-12

Stage 5: Seeing Through: Emptiness and Networks of Power

Dan 2015-10-12

Your summary seems very clear to me, thanks! One thing confuses me, though:

<q>ethics is not an autonomous domain … our general cognitive capacity … all these progress in sync through a series of five stages</q>

<q>It’s impossible to reach stage 5 without going through stage 4.</q>

<q>I’ve made small changes to the account of stage 5, partly based on my understanding of Vajrayana</q>

So, are you saying that Vajrayana teaches stage 5? But how can that be, if (as you’ve just informed us) premodern Buddhism never got as far as a stage-4/systematic approach to ethics? Or is it more that Vajrayana has a vaguely stage-5-ish approach in some other field where Buddhists did systematize (ontology, perhaps)?

mariearamos 2015-10-13

“Nebulosity and pattern are inherent in all systems, and are therefore inseparable.”
Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.
And buddhist practices can possibly provide the practical tools to realize this from one’s direct experience?
Waiting with baited breath for the next post …

mariearamos 2015-10-13

Typo - that should be ‘bated breath’.

David Chapman 2015-10-13

nufdriew — Thank you! I have linked to your blog in the body of this post.

Dan — Yes, “more that Vajrayana has a vaguely stage-5-ish approach in some other field.” My next post is partly about that. As mariearamos says: “Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha”: Form is emptiness, emptiness is also form…

mariearamos — “And buddhist practices can possibly provide the practical tools to realize this from one’s direct experience?” That’s my impression! :-) “Waiting with baited breath for the next post”: Nothing you don’t already know, I’m afraid! But maybe a slightly different presentation.

Nick 2015-10-13

Hey David, out of curiousity, have you looked at the Cook-Greuter nine stage model? (‘14%2097p[1].pdf )
It starts off similarly but in the later stages goes further, more explicitly, into stream-entry sort of territory.

David Chapman 2015-10-13

nannus — These are interesting points! Personally as well as theoretically, since I’m highly introverted myself.

There’s a couple of general questions here. First, is it possible to skip stages? I’m not sure how good the evidence is, but I would guess the data do not rule out that possibility. There’s strong statistical support for the stage sequence, but outliers are possible unless the data sets are vast, and I think they are on the order of hundreds, not thousands or more. There’s also an a priori reason to believe in the sequence; I’ll come back to that.

The second general question is, are there other personality differences that ought to be taken into account as a correction/extension to the theory? I don’t know. There’s one detailed argument in the literature along these lines. Back in the ’80s, there was a famous critique of Kohlberg by the feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, who noted that women test as stage 3 more often, and men as stage 4 more often. She suggested that stage 4 was not actually an advance over stage 3, but simply a different emphasis, based on the stereotypically different personalities of women and men (nurturant vs. instrumental). Kegan and others took this very seriously. Both theory and subsequent empirical investigations suggested that she was wrong, but I’m not sure either is definitive.

Relatedly, no one (as far as I know) has integrated Kegan’s work with Haidt’s moral foundations theory, which concerns non-sequential personality-like individual differences in moral responses. I think a fruitful synthesis might be possible.

And now, specifically about geeks. The a priori reason to think it may not be not possible to skip stage 3 is that systems organize relationships and emotions. If you don’t have relationships and emotions, you can’t build a system to organize them. Extreme autists maybe can’t form relationships at all; and they also don’t seem to be able to operate at stage 4. But people who are merely geeky/Aspie do have relationships and emotions; we just process them differently from neurotypicals.

I’m a geek/Aspie, although one who can pass as neurotypical in most situations. Your description mostly fits me (and many of my friends). I think I entered stage 3 late, and exited it quickly. However, I did have a stage 3 period in my late teens, in which I felt flooded by other people’s feelings. Probably people a little further along the autism spectrum never experience that. Conversely, I am probably less naturally sensitive to other people’s feelings than neurotypicals are.

I, and many other geeks I talk to, feel that we have to “simulate in software” some emotional/social processing that neurotypicals “execute in hardware.” In other words, we use conscious, rational cognition where neurotypicals use unconscious, intuitive emotions. If we’re good at that, we can get the same answers (and sometimes better answers), although it tends to take longer (which can be awkward).

So, can geeks go directly from stage 2 to 4? I don’t know… but here’s a hypothesis. (Let me know what you think about it!) Perhaps even those who never experience “flooding” and “merging” do have a stage 3 period, in which one learns to relate to others by “software simulation.” It’s stage-3-ish in that one has not yet subordinated relationships to a systematic structure. At this stage, it’s hard enough to maintain individual relationships without figuring out how relationships relate to each other!

David Chapman 2015-10-13

Nick — Thanks, yes, that’s one of the models I alluded to in the footnote about stages beyond 5. I think there’s some important insights in her stage 5/6 description. I mentioned that I’d modified Kegan’s stage 5 description somewhat, in the light of Vajrayana; some of what I said (about “conjuring” for example) may go beyond Kegan, and is similar to Cook-Greuter’s 5/6.

I’m less sympathetic to her stage 6. It seems to draw on Wilber-style monism, which I think is badly mistaken. Some of what she says there seems right, however.

I’m not sure whether clear distinctions between stages 5, 5/6, and 6 are currently possible, given the state of empirical knowledge (as she acknowledges). So I collapsed everything beyond stage 4.5 into a single stage.

Since Western Buddhism is almost entirely at stage 3, and very few people even make it to stage 5, anything beyond is pretty much irrelevant in practice… but certainly very interesting to think about!

nufdriew 2015-10-14

In Kegan’s language ‘stage 3 to 4 transition’ is a pressing developmental growth for Western cultures, and for building strong Buddhist institutions. I just posted my notes from the chapter in his book most relevant to this transition:

roughgarden 2015-10-14

This is a response to your last half dozen posts. You started off by arguing in several posts that 1) traditional Asian Buddhism doesn’t have an ethical system, it requires a personal morality; 2) the “Buddhist ethics” that we know today is NOT Buddhist, but a wholesale import of [variously] Western-Christian-Modern ethical systems into Buddhism. Here are a few quotes I pulled from your posts to illustrate your point and mine:

“Modern “Buddhist ethics” is indistinguishable from current secular ethics and has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality.
So, where did it come from, and why?
The short answer is that Buddhist modernizers simply replaced traditional Buddhist morality with whatever was the most prestigious Western ethical system at the time. They decorated that with vaguely-relevant scriptural quotes, said “compassion” a lot, and declared victory.”

“Current “Buddhist ethics” is identical to current Western leftish secular ethics. How can Buddhist leaders pretend that it has anything to do with Buddhism?”

“Tantric Buddhist view, for several reasons:
1 I think, at these points of conflict, Tantra is ethically correct, and “Buddhist ethics” is wrong.
2 Western Buddhist Tantra was suppressed in the early 1990s partly because of these conflicts. Explaining the Tantric view may help reopen a door that has been closed for two decades.
3 An attractive, genuinely Buddhist alternative to “Buddhist ethics” might be possible.
4 Middle-class American secular values are failing many people—but are taken for granted, with no obvious alternative available. Tantra might be a weapon for throwing them off and constructing a more satisfactory way of being.”

You attempt to, as you say, totally destroy Buddhist ethics by showing that it’s not Buddhist, it’s a Western import. You offer, instead, the ethical systems of Robert Kegan, which was built on earlier work by Lawrence Kohlberg. Both Kegan’s and Kohlberg’s ethical systems are WESTERN, BASED ON WESTERN SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY. They are, moreover, based on the WESTERN ACADEMIC tradition, which is based on a WESTERN view of the Individual, that is markedly different from the Asian view of the the Individual. As the WESTERN ACADEMIC view of ethics, rooted in WESTERN moral culture, it is also BOURGEOISIE, what you call and disdain as MIDDLE CLASS. Furthermore, WESTERN MORAL CULTURE has its deep cultural roots in CHRISTIANITY. [you want to argue about that? read Foucault.] The ethical system that you propose has NOTHING TO DO WITH BUDDHISM. It’s not Buddhist in any way.

You argue that we should get rid of “Buddhist ethics” because it’s not Buddhist, but a Western import. You then proceed to import yet another Middle Class Western ethical system that in it’s roots is culturally Christian, and then call that Buddhist ethics.

Although I like the system you propose very much and I would heartily support using Keegan’s system, I don’t see that you have done anything different than the Western Buddhist predecessors you criticized, who imported the Western ethical systems of their day. In other words, if I can practice Keegan’s system as a Buddhist, then I can practice any of the other proffered ethical systems as a Buddhist as well.

Shane 2015-10-15

Hi roughgarden,

I am sure David can respond to your points, but my interpretation is quite different from yours.

David has repeatedly argued that secular ethics is rooted in Christianity.

(e.g. “(Current secular morality, both left and right, derives primarily from Christian morality…Protestantism is the basis for secular Western ethics, quietly replacing Buddhist values with Protestant ones was the key move in constructing “Buddhist ethics.” /how-asian-buddhism-imported-western-ethics

And I believe he has argued that this form of ethics is a great improvement on “traditional” (non-tantric) Buddhist ethics (as much as such a thing exists). So, on the whole, David appears to like western ethical systems (to a degree), and is not arguing for getting rid of them (or to “destroy” it). He is just pointing out that one shouldn’t be under the illusion that modern buddhist ethics is “buddhist”.

And while David appear to quite like western ethics, as someone who likes to tinker and improve stuff (the engineering mindset) my understanding is that this series is heading to trying to show how a form of buddhist ethics (vajrayana/tantra) might help develop or improve upon current western secular ethics. In the Kegan framework, when you move from stages (i.e. stage 4 to stage 5), each stage keeps the advantages of the previous stages (i.e. western secular stage 4 ethics wouldn’t be replaced, just improved upon in stage 5).

David Chapman 2015-10-15


The ethical system that you propose has NOTHING TO DO WITH BUDDHISM. It’s not Buddhist in any way... You then proceed to import yet another Middle Class Western ethical system that in it’s roots is culturally Christian, and then call that Buddhist ethics.

No, I haven’t done that. I have not proposed any ethical system for Buddhism. I am not going to propose any ethical system for Buddhism. I have not imported, or advocated importing, Kegan’s model into Buddhism, nor will I.

This post references Buddhism only once, tangentially: “I’ve made small changes to the account of stage 5, partly based on my understanding of Vajrayana.” That might be construed as importing Buddhism into Kegan, but certainly not Kegan into Buddhism.

This is a response to your last half dozen posts.

No, it is a response to things I didn’t say. They are things I could not reasonably have been misunderstood as saying.

Based on your extensive use of CAPITALIZED WORDS, you appear quite upset about things I didn’t say. This is at least the fourth time you have written a long, apparently angry response to things I didn’t say. I’ve pointed this out before and asked you to stop doing it. It’s probably unpleasant for you; it wastes my time replying; and it probably confuses or annoys some other readers.

If you are careful to reply only to things I actually do say, you may get just as upset, but at least you will be addressing a reality, instead of imaginary demons that exist only in your own head.

But actually, I would suggest that if you find my blog upsetting, you stop reading it. I am a random nobody with a blog. The web has millions of those, just like me. Every day, we write millions of posts that are STUPID AND OFFENSIVE AND WRONG. Arguing with us is a complete waste of your time. We will continue to be STUPID AND OFFENSIVE AND WRONG, millions of times a day, no matter how often you point it out.

The only reason to read the blog of a random nobody is that you enjoy it.

If you denounce things I haven’t said again, I may block you from commenting, without further warning.

David Chapman 2015-10-15

Shane — Thanks, you have understood this very well!

Foster Ryan 2015-10-16

A question comes to mind here- actually many have been triggered by this discussion- but the one that seems most relevant that I am pondering (and can now share, now that I have repaired my laptop and rescued it from my doberman pinscher-induced heath crisis) is of Where are the raw materials in our culture for a vajrayana/dzogchen style ethics systems. We have gone through a period of postmodernism and moral relativism- Okay, we know that none of these systems are absolute, so let’s disassemble there moral imperative power (like a punk rock urge to destroy)- but then replace it with what? We can’t just retreat to pre-Enlightenment systems (as many religious groups would have us do, and are trying very hard to make us do), and nobody believes the pure rationalist systems of enlightenment thought (except libertarians and Ayn Rand fans, maybe?) When I look back on my own history I think that’s how I ended up in tantra. Are there Western thinkers who have come up with something serviceable as a raw material for this? One of the important aspects of vajrayana style ethics is that outwardly one acts according to earlier systems, but inwardly according to tantric views. I certainly have seen nothing remotely like this mentioned in western thought. Nietsche proclaimed part of this, the aspect of liberation and embracing the world in a positive manner, but that leaves out the compassion aspect and led to Ayn Rand and libertarianism. At that point tantra entered the picture in the west, so I have to think that some thinker somewhere has addressed this.

David Chapman 2015-10-16

Hi, Foster — you are anticipating some of the topics of my next post! I intended to publish it today, but had some new thoughts yesterday and am revising it, so probably Monday.

You point out accurately the problem of ethics in postmodernity. And then:

Where are the raw materials in our culture for a vajrayana/dzogchen style ethics systems.

The answer is “there are precious few,” as far as I know. I have found only half a dozen works that are even tangentially relevant. The whole field of moral philosophy is still stuck arguing eternalism vs nihilism and can’t get past that.

This is where I think Vajrayana does have something important to offer Western ethics. Nothing specific, but mostly just the point that eternalism and nihilism are both wrong and do not exhaust the possibilities. This seems obvious to us, but there’s virtually no one in the Western ethical tradition who has grasped that point.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-16

Tantra has lots of things to add to the West, of course, and certainly in terms of a vision. Most of us who switched to Eastern traditions did it because it had some some things our culture was lacking and there was no real way to get it here. Of course, different cultures are also interesting just for their difference and also as a place to go if we don’t like the local offering for whatever reason. It’s good to have more than one place to shop- competition is good.

I think that there are a number of things going on with the development of Western versions of tantra. The first step was to notice that there was something lacking, and it is likely that when Westerners encountered Eastern teachings they noticed that the East had something that the West was lacking. Next, in the 1960s and 70s people started experimenting with tantric ideas in their Eastern form and started to get some sense of what they were about- and made countless mistakes in the experiments, but that’s how growth occurs and maturity develops. Then thinkers like Ken Wilber and related thinkers- think what one will of the exact details of his ideas- started to survey the landscape of thought related to tantra and pointed out some of the dimensions of its thought and where we needed to learn things from tantric thought. Even thought he is non-academic, he’s onto the right line of questioning and is no doubt inspiring lots of future thinkers. Also, the idea of tantra and Eastern thought not being belief systems so much as practices is another idea that Western culture is chewing on. There are groups of Christians reviving ancient practice methods and bringing back Christian contemplative traditions and texts.

So, in general, it’s not like the West isn’t working on the projects, but more like it is still in the process of taking notes and experimenting with these traditions in their Eastern forms so that we can learn what they have to offer before possibly making our own versions. Many of us just switched to those traditions as they are the only ones on offer, In the meantime the West has been experiencing something of a crisis, as the moral vision needed to move forward not readily available, and probably not at all in Western garb. I believe that the Tantric traditions do hold the keys for resolving our own cultures crisis, and hence my and others adoptions of the the traditions. Over time Western thinkers are likely to make studies of these traditions and maybe in 20 years, or whenever it happens, come up with local products, likely inspired by the East. First, the West has to take Nagarjuna, Asanga, Mipham, and other Eastern philosophers seriously, but they are having a very hard time doing that it seems. As they say, science advances one funeral at a time. Maybe enough of the old guard has to die off and enough younger thinkers who read these things on their own have to come of age for this shift to occur. If this doesn’t happen then I guess a lot more of the West is likely to jump ship to Eastern traditions.

David Chapman 2015-10-16

So, I wound up splitting today’s post in two—part is up now, and part will run next week.

Foster, thanks for an interesting comment, which I generally strongly agree with.

I think you’ve left out of your brief history the period of experimentation with modernized tantra in the 1980s. We know from that experience that it can work, and something about how.

Re Ken Wilber, he has pointed to the importance of Dzogchen, and that is good. But he mainly mis-represents it as monist, and that is very bad. He has made it even more difficult to explain Dzogchen accurately to Westerners, because they think they understand it (and that it is monist).

the West has to take Nagarjuna, Asanga, Mipham, and other Eastern philosophers seriously, but they are having a very hard time doing that it seems.

Part of the problem is that those philosophers, despite having important insights, also got so much wrong that it’s hard to untangle what’s right.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-17

David- you mentioned that you have run across only a few western thinkers that seem to touch on the tantric/dzogchen level of thinking. Who would they be? Also, when you say that the eastern philosophers got so much wrong, do you include Mipham and his commentaries in that? It seems to me that it is in the commentary tradition that the evolution of thought really occurs in Vajrayana- along with the terma tradition.

I mentioned ‘Speech of Delight’ and Mipham’s commentary-Mipham is remarkable of course. In the commentary tradition I think we get some real philosophical thinking, thinking that probably stands up far better than the original texts from long ago. In this text, for example, he really intelligently balances madhyamaka and yogacara. He is well steeped in Buddhist logic- the texts of which crazily are not even translated into English yet (not that I’m anxious to read them) : (

David Chapman 2015-10-17
only a few western thinkers that seem to touch on the tantric/dzogchen level

I meant that there were only a few who acknowledge that ethics is inherently nebulous/empty, yet also patterned (meaningful). The clearest example is Will Buckingham’s Finding Our Sea-Legs. Two others are Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity” and Hans-Georg Möller’s The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality (recommended to me by Will, and coming from a Taoist perspective).

when you say that the eastern philosophers got so much wrong, do you include Mipham

Mipham was brilliant, but he was working within a tradition whose fundamental tenets were wrong, or at least severely confused; and much of his work was defensive polemics against Gelukpa fundamentalists. I would find it hard to dissect out his unadulterated positive insights from his (much more extensive) relative corrections of other people’s confusions. So, it is hard to say!

David Chapman 2015-10-17
against Gelukpa fundamentalists

… and against Zhentong monist-eternalist mysticism…

Foster Ryan 2015-10-18

So what is your take on the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and of Zygmunt Bauman, such as in “Postmodern Ethics”? Do you think that the above writings are more reflective of a dzogchen view? Thinking back on my travels I realize it was existentialist thought that first made me look for new solutions, and certainly postmodernism and the nihilism it provoked certainly pushed me further- so it’s interesting to me to see how these thinkers have wrestled with these issues. This discussion is making me remember how I got to where I am.. an interesting exploration

David Chapman 2015-10-18

I haven’t read Levinas, but I’ve read a lot about him, including a book on him by (again) Will Buckingham. My understanding is that Levinas’s major claim is that our responsibility to others is infinite, which I think is dangerously wrong. It’s anti-useful; it makes sensible action impossible. Maybe I missed something.

I also haven’t read Bauman, and don’t know much about him, although I’ve gone a bit beyond the Wikipedia article, and he’s on my short list of “ought to reads.” Thanks you very much for the pointer to his Postmodern Ethics; I’ll prioritize that one! (He seems to have written an awful lot, which makes it hard to know where to start. Any thoughts about that?)

Foster Ryan 2015-10-18

I have also only thought about the particular writers and their ideas in general and then read internet articles.

This article is interesting: In this article he mentions that Bauman based his thinking in Levinas
“In presenting his own basis for ethics Bauman draws heavily on the French philosopher Levinas, who describes the moral stance as one of ˜being for the Other. This is actually an elaboration of Kant’s dictum to treat the other always as an end and never as a means” . This shows a bit of the flow of the ideas. Honestly, I was looking over Levinas’s writing and they look awfully dense and I was having a hard time finding a succinct text like the Bauman text- which I am about to order or maybe look for in a bookstore today. Wait- The Last Bookstore is in downtown LA- this sounds like a good excuse for a fun Sunday adventure to look for it there.

David Chapman 2015-10-18

Ah, thank you, that’s a useful summary! So, FWIW, I think that’s a dead end. The critique of ethical eternalism (the attempt to find some ultimate rational/systematic foundation for ethics) is obviously right. However, the ethics of infinite responsibility seems like a regression to stage 3 to me. It’s “let’s all be extremely nice to each other and then somehow magically everything will work out.” That’s just dumb.

Will Buckingham’s book on Levinas includes a clear and reasonably brief summary. His book is also fairly interesting, although all the interesting bits are Will’s own thoughts, prompted by Levinas, rather than Levinas’s own.

Kate Gowen 2015-10-18

“Infinite responsibility” sounds a bit like Zen’s “Boundless Vows” to me. And– conceding that I know nothing of Levinas– those always struck me a bit like “PHAT!” [in effect.] They explode any possibility of resting in smug self-righteousness; that possibility seems to me to be the hazard in ethics generally.

In that way, Zen opens the door to the utter nebulosity of Dzogchen. My take, anyhow.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-18

Yet this indicates that he may be more about Stage 4, going beyond the limits of rational thought:

” Bauman and Levinas are contrasting two radically different types of human relationship. The first is ˜being with the other” which is a relationship defined by reciprocation, contractual rules and obligations and relies on fear of punishment or self interest for its ultimate effectiveness. (In other words, it is a relationship ultimately based on power.) This is contrasted with ˜being for the Other” which is a relationship of open ended responsibility and a response to the needs of the other. It is not a relationship that can be enforced or coerced into existence and cannot be justified in purely rational terms (in other words, it is a relationship based on love in its deepest possible meaning.)

It should be becoming clearer why Bauman’s (and Levinas’s) idea of morality is ˜beyond rationality”. Bauman is pointing to the fact that ultimately moral choice seems to be made without any recourse to reasoned argument. There seems to be a point beyond reasoning at which we make our deepest moral commitments. It is the moral impulse that precedes any later reasoning that Bauman is describing. Rational argument must inevitably speak the language of reasons and purposes, but ˜being for the Other” needs no further justification or reason. Morality, defined as ˜being for the Other”, is its own end; it is not a means to an end, at least where that end is thought of in terms such as self-interest or social harmony.

But does such a view of morality lead inevitably to moral relativism and ˜emotivism”? MacIntyre notes that modern moral debates have an ˜interminability” about them, because no ground for morality is sufficiently agreed or sufficiently persuasive to act as an agreed starting basis. He therefore claims that emotivism is the most characteristic moral philosophy of the modern age, with its insistence that moral ˜statements” are essentially only expressions of personal preference. According to emotivism, ultimately all moral debates, even if couched in the language of reason, must boil down to personal preference, therefore I must use every devious means available (and not necessarily pure rationality) to win any argument. MacIntyre argues that the attempt of modern philosophy to ground morality, firstly in human passions and desires (Hume), then in human reason (Kant), then finally in criterionless choice (Kierkegaard) failed ultimately to give us any persuasive reason to act morally. For MacIntyre, it is the failure of modern ethical philosophy that has inevitably led us to emotivism.” (From that link above)

BTW, Bauman seems to be quite the cultural critic too. He seems to be frequently cited regarding issues of life in our times and its issues. This looks like an interesting overview. He also has an interesting looking book called “Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty” which seems to be discussed a lot. You never know that these guys exist until you go looking I guess, or you’re still in college… which I have not been for a long time.- but I do like to sit in cafe’s and get in conversations, and read blogs- maybe that’s better.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-18

sorry, stage 5

David Chapman 2015-10-18
“Infinite responsibility” sounds a bit like Zen’s “Boundless Vows” to me.

Yes; or, the Bodhisattva vows in general, of which the Zen Boundless Vows are an adaptation.

Levinas is attractive to Buddhist intellectuals for exactly this reason.

I think they are both wrong, for the same reason. (I.e. I think Bodhisattvayana is an unworkable dead end.)

They explode any possibility of resting in smug self-righteousness; that possibility seems to me to be the hazard in ethics generally.

Yes, I agree. And overcoming self-righteous is a necessary prerequisite to any worthwhile ethics. But it’s nothing more than a prerequisite.

David Chapman 2015-10-18
he may be more about Stage [5], going beyond the limits of rational thought

Yes; he shares this with postmodernism in general. The very best of it goes to stage 5; much of the more reputable stuff is stage 4.5 nihilism. (The bulk of it is unfortunately just nonsense, usually justifying a stage 3 anti-systems attitude.)

Bauman seems to be quite the cultural critic too. He seems to be frequently cited regarding issues of life in our times and its issues.

Yes; I’m hoping he has some positive stage 5 stuff to say, and not just 4.5 deconstruction. But I haven’t read him yet. Thanks for the Smith reference!

mtraven 2015-10-22

I sort of agree with you about the idiocy of trolley problems, but looks like they might actually not be quite as idiotic as all that:

David Chapman 2015-10-22

Yes, that’s a good counterexample!

Problems like the trolley ones do come up sometimes in reality. My objection is that they are taken as prototypical, with the implicit or explicit suggestion that if we knew how to solve them, we’d be much of the way toward a general ethical theory. I think they are marginal, atypical, rare cases, which don’t provide much useful intuition for the central, typical, common ones.

Also that they are entirely decontextualized. In the case of self-driving cars, there will be a hugely complex context of legislation, case law, social attitudes, economic incentives, religious fulminations, and so on. Those will dominate any context-free ethical reasoning.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-26

I have been mulling over the basic arguments in these ethical systems and looking for correlates elsewhere. I have run across a few arguments related to this. The main version out there seems to be the argument between Positivism (the thinking of Science or of Modernism) and Post-Modernism. It is also sometimes called Positivism vs Idealism. This is a debate being had currently in many places. This debate is interesting to me because it is the same fundamental debate being had in many fields, with variations. I find it comes up all the time online in heated debates in acupuncture/Asian medicine professional groups (my profession) in debates between modernizers/integrative medicine people (like me) and traditionalists. Then there are positivists who are updating positivism with ‘post-positivism’- which seems to be an attempt to save positivism by loosening it slightly. In these debates the camps are something like: stay completely traditional Asian based (The Natural law folks, I suppose), make it completely scientific (the medical acupuncture people, such as MDs), and those of us in the middle (the post-moderns, I suppose) toggle between traditional principles and modern biomedical views and tools. The traditionalists say that all will be lost if we give an inch; the modernizers say that there is nothing real in the traditional models so they should all be abandoned; and us post-moderns who don’t mind switching back and forth where one model gives us the best tools, while mostly communicating in modern bio-medical language for marketability, novel diagnostic and treatment strategies, and communication ease. This debate is not unique to Buddhism.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-27

So, to continue: by thinking about these things this way I have a little clearer thinking about the situation in Buddhism. In the same way that 1) modernists (scientists, MDs) want to modernize Chinese medicine by stripping out of it all kinds of brilliant understanding that they have no clue about just to match their (limited) view of things; 2) traditionalists want to avoid any modern developments that would muddy their already beautiful system of Chinese medicine ; and 3) we integrative medicine practitioners vote for not dumping either but rather knowing both ways and using their two strengths while not abandoning either- use the traditional approach but communicate with modern language, while integrating modern tools, thereby also preserving us from extinction in the modern Western marketplace- the same lessons apply to Buddhism. These traditional methods from Asia do work and do possess incredible wisdom, even if the logic and language used for describing them is archaic, unscientific and unpacked. We should not abandon these traditional systems, but in fact should even revive the parts that were abandoned by Modernism. We can then think about and discuss them in Modern Western ways (while not abandoning Traditional views). We should not rush to abandon the parts that don’t make sense to us from a modern view (as the Consensus Buddhists did) because Modernism doesn’t know everything about the world and doesn’t have a lock on Truth. We should use Western understandings to enhance and to help describe these things- like a vast commentarial literature. We can adjust the presentation to suit the Western market too or it will not survive the marketplace- but not by destroying it or tinkering with it so much that the things it has to offer us are lost. Toggling between these views and understandings makes us richer.
In the case of ethics, this principle applies. Let’s use our ethical discussions as commentary on Buddhist teachings, and in the case of Tantra let’s try to understand Postmodern ethics because that’s probably a good-ish match- even if it probably transcends even these ethics.
It’s very useful to compare experiences in other areas of life with this topic because it does help to clarify what would be a pretty abstract topic by seeing parallels in less abstract experiences. It’s helping me, anyway- and not just here, but it’s helping to make those other arguments make more sense. I hadn’t really applied thinking about postmodernism to these topics, and frankly hadn’t thought about it at all since the 90s when it just seemed like a lot of useless nihilistic argument. Thank you for bringing this all up!

David Chapman 2015-10-27

I am glad it is useful!

A year ago I started writing a Kegan-style analysis of recent Western cultural, social, and psychological history, with the intention of providing better ways of navigating postmodernity, based partly in Vajrayana. It’s called Meaningness and Time, and you might find its summary introduction, and the first few bits, interesting. Unfortunately, like most of my writing, it’s stalled near the beginning. I decided I need to write more of the Meaningness book for it to make sense, did some of that, and then got side tracked into Buddhist ethics.

Anyway, my intention is that once Meaningness and Time is done, I’ll circle back here and apply it to the recent past and near future of Buddhism. I think it casts some light on how Buddhism can survive postmodernity (which I’ve argued elsewhere is far from certain).

I will probably die before getting to that, however, considering the rate at which I finish writing projects.

David Chapman 2015-10-27

Um, yeah, in particular, this summary page explicitly references Kegan and Vajrayana. Having reviewed Kegan in detail, I need to revise that page (which I wrote a year ago) slightly; my understanding of Kegan’s relevance has shifted a bit.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-27

David, do you like Spiral Dynamics? I notice that you go for Kegan and never mention SD. Do you have any particular issues with it?

David Chapman 2015-10-27

Well, Ken Wilber wrote a novel about Spiral Dynamics in which I am the central character. I wrote about that in “I seem to be a fiction.” That gives me a somewhat odd perspective on it. I don’t know much about Spiral Dynamics beyond the novel, although I’ve done some random web reading.

I think it has some useful insight, in applying a Kegan-like model to cultural/social/psychological history, rather than just individual development. I’m doing the same thing in Meaningness and Time.

On the other hand, my impression is that a lot of it is speculative, rather than empirically grounded. (However, I haven’t bothered to find out how much empirical grounding it does have.) It has Romantic and Perennialist tendencies, which I don’t approve of. The parts that aren’t speculative are mainly standard intellectual history. However, the framing of that history has some value, I think.

jayarava 2015-10-29

Hi David,

Catching up on my reading after being out of action for a while. For me, this is the most interesting post in the series so far because it explains more of your rationale for critiquing Buddhist ethics. Till now I did not really understand what you were getting at, or why you were trying to get at it. Things are much clearer in the light of this overview of the theory you are working from. And the Kegan model, as you present it, makes a lot more sense than the Kohlberg version you mentioned earlier. Being an overview guy, I would have liked to read this first, before seeing how you apply it, but such is life.

For me, this material raised many interesting reflections on my own situation viz a viz the stages of development and how the Triratna Order operates, in theory, at its best, and at its worst (I would say stage 5, stage 4/4.5, and stage 3?). I may write something about it.

I certainly the experienced the transition to systematic thinking between working as a library assistant, and studying library management and taking up a role in library middle management.
In making management decisions, based on organisational and office politics, budget constraints, knowledge of systems, etc., one of the concerns was how to communicate our decisions to our staff who simply did not have our level of expertise. To them, our decisions sometimes seemed arbitrary and sometimes foolish.

It might be interesting to re-read the work of Hannah and Antonio Damasio on the role of emotion in decision-making in the light of our account of this model. I think it’s in “Descarte’s Error” that AD describes the research on Phineas Gage and the results of damage to the ventro-medial-prefrontal cortex, i.e. poor decision making, especially in the social arena. My understanding is that emotions always play a role in decision making. We experience the salience of any given fact as an emotional resonance - our feelings tell us how important individual facts are so we can weigh up the relative merits of them and come to a decision. (Something your model suggests we might do poorly at in stage 3 where feelings can swamp our decision-making capacities). So is there a real change to this in stage 4/5 or is something else going on that masks the role of emotion in providing salience to facts. Perhaps it is that our experience of emotions is different - in fact, I suppose this is what you are saying, isn’t it?

One of the things that came out of my interview with Imperfect Buddha was that I am still at the stage of critiquing Buddhism. I can show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Buddhists have no workable model for karma; that no afterlife–including rebirth–is possible; that dependent arising is a lousy Theory of Everything, and so on. But it’s a pyrrhic victory, if it’s a victory at all, because there’s not much left. I have not succumbed to intellectual nihilism, but I don’t have much of a vision of how Buddhism will look if all my arguments were accepted. I think this adaptation of Kegan’s model is helpful in that sense.

All the best

David Chapman 2015-10-30

Jayarava — Very glad you are well again and back in action!

I would have liked to read this first

I can see how that might have been better… the arc of the series is from problem to solution (or sketch of possible solution), which is why this came here. To be honest, I wasn’t sure anyone would understand it at all; and if no one did, putting it at the beginning would have been bad. I’ve been pleased by how many people seem to have “gotten it” and tweeted enthusiastically about that. So in retrospect putting it at the beginning might have been good.

Have you read the follow-on post, which applies the model to Buddhism?

There’s supposed to be two more “solution” posts, but I’m probably not going to get time to finish writing them for a couple months at minimum.

how [a sangha] operates, in theory, at its best, and at its worst (I would say stage 5, stage 4/4.5, and stage 3?)

Yes… Realistically, any large sangha is going to have a lot of stage 3 people in it, and has to accommodate them. I have a fantasy that if I taught Buddhism I would refuse to accept any students who couldn’t pass a calculus test, which isn’t a perfect predictor of stage 4 capacity but at least correlates pretty well. Probably that’s not realistic, but a general stage 4 ethos can be. (In the follow-on post I suggest that Shambhala Training did that, e.g.)

Very few people can operate at stage 5 consistently, so it’s probably not feasible for even a small religious group to do so—although the ideal may be helpful.

So is there a real change to this in stage 4/5 or is something else going on that masks the role of emotion in providing salience to facts. Perhaps it is that our experience of emotions is different – in fact, I suppose this is what you are saying, isn’t it?

Well, each stage includes everything from the previous stage, but reorganizes it. So stage 4 has emotions the same way stage 3 does, but they fit into a structure that makes sense of them and gives you tools for how to use them (and not be used by them). This is sort of like Kahnemann’s System 1 vs 2 model (although not exactly).

Kegan’s last publication on this stuff was a quarter century ago, and we do know more about how decision-making and social cognition work (including the Damasio work, and Haidt’s, and others) than we did then. I would love to see Kegan’s insights brought up to date with current research. It’s unfortunate that he dropped his research program and no one else has furthered it.

at the stage of critiquing Buddhism

I think I’m probably done (as my most recent post says). I’ve said most of what I want to say, and also I think the dragon’s dead. Its tail will thrash convulsively for 10-20 years more, but the conditions that made Consensus Buddhism attractive no longer exist, and it’s not going to attract many new adherents.

I feel that I have a positive overview vision of what one new Buddhism—suitable for current conditions—could look like. I’m confident I could work out many of the details. That’s intellectually interesting to me (and I have a lot of notes and half-written draft pages).

What I don’t know is how to get from here to there in terms of a social structure. How would one actually build a sangha along the lines I have in mind? (Other than by giving people calculus exams!) I see many obstacles. If I were 25 years younger, I might just dive in, try to create something, make a lot of mistakes, learn from that, and eventually something good might come of it. Now, I think that’s probably not the best use of what remains of my lifetime—it’s a multi-decade project, and I have at most two decades of productivity left.

So maybe working out intellectually what it would look like, with the hope that someone younger takes some of the ideas and run with them, is worthwhile. But maybe anyone who is going to start something new needs to come up with their own vision. I don’t know.

Alf 2015-10-31

Stage 4 just sounds like autism.

Alf 2015-10-31

…but....I hadn’t read this “I’m a geek/Aspie, although one who can pass as neurotypical in most situations. ” - which I thought was probably the case from your thinking and communication style and occupation. Which is OK. Sometimes such folk miss things, not picking up on other’s emotional aspects of thinking, but sometimes such people say things that need saying when nobody else is willing or point out what others have overlooked for emotional reasons.

Dwig 2015-10-31

I just found this blog (actually, linked to it, but I’ve forgotten from where). So far, I’ve only read this post. I hope you’ll understand my comments in that perspective.

First, I’ll say that, overall, I find your model interesting, and evocative of many things I’ve been reading lately. Some of them will show up in the mild criticisms I have.

A couple of framing quotes: from a statistics professor: “All models are false, but some are useful”; from Alfred Korzybski: “The map is not the territory”. Of course, map-making is the best cognitive tool we have to articulate our emerging understanding of a rich, complex, and constantly changing territory.

Responding to the following quotes about “traditional” cultures:
“The communal mode is characteristic of pre-modern (“traditional”) cultures. It’s impossible to base a large-scale society on the communal mode, because it’s so ineffective at coordinating complex group activities.”
“Everything a traditional subsistence farmer can do, a modern person can learn to do; but someone from a traditional culture cannot fully function in a modern culture without developing to stage 4.”

It seems that these comments come from a simplistic model of “traditional cultures”, conflating the variety of non-industrial cultures into a model that can be used to sell modern folks on the idea that we’ve made tremendous progress over the benighted past, and will continue to do so forever.

As an antidote, I recommend the essays of Wendell Berry, particularly “People, Land and Ccommunity” in the book “Standing by Words”. A major theme of the essay is the long-term commitment to a piece of land, and willingness to learn continuously, to be able to farm it productively over many generations, while maintaining its ability to operate as a complete, viable ecosystem; this also requires the development of community; farmers don’t work in a vacuum. Of course, our “modern” approach to agriculture is to attempt to simplify and mechanize it, through the use of massive amounts of fossil energy inputs, and it’s now becoming painfully obvious that it’s destined to destroy the ability of land to support large numbers of people over many generations.

Another useful counter is Helena Norbert-Hodge’s book “Learning from Ladakh”, which describes a traditional community of rich and interwoven roles (think of a “spiritual ecosystem”). In fact, a community living in a complex, changing world, with only limited resources available, will need to be flexible and adaptable, as well as maintaining a “community memory” of times when things were different, because they may well come around again.

Still another: the works of Bernard Lietaer’s writings on the varieties of economic systems that have arisen around the world over long stretches of time – many of which have served their societies considerably better than the current one, and many of which have required considerable sophistication to be productively integrated into often heterogeneous societies.

In contrast, our modern society and economy are based on the fiction that we’ve somehow “conquered nature”, or at least achieved independence from it, and have freed ourselves of any need to adapt to external changing conditions. In some ways, the modern employee of a large corporation is conditioned to behave in stereotyped ways to an artificial culture, one which actively discourages the development of an “organic” community (and to avoid learning from, or even paying much attention to, the role of history and societal change – it wouldn’t be far off to describe our modern societies as “timeless”, and not in a good way). Socially, we’re encouraged to consider ourselves producers and consumers, but not citizens.

Re: “I’m a geek/Aspie, although one who can pass as neurotypical in most situations. ” If you haven’t gotten acquainted with John Michael Greer’s work (in his books, or blogs “The Archdruid Report” and “Well of Galabes”), you might find it worthwhile. He too is an “Aspie” (I’m assuming this refers to Asperger’s Syndrome) who has become the head of a modern “natural magic” society, and a recognized writer on the collapse of civilizations.

One last thought: your description of nebulous but patterned ethics reminded me of a quote from Mark Twain’s: “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

anon 2015-11-04

I understand how you convince someone at stage 4 to go to stage 4.5 nihilism. I don’t understand how you convince someone at 4 or 4.5 to go to your 5.

David Chapman 2015-11-04

anon: I don’t know—but I want to find out! And I plan to post some things about this soon.

I expect convincing isn’t the hard part. Stage 4.5 is pretty miserable, and stage 5 should look a lot more attractive. I would think the problem is more one of demonstrating stage 5 in a way that it’s understandable; or presenting a practical path to get there from 4 or from 4.5.

Kegan is quite vague about how that could work. I have various ideas, based partly in Vajrayana Buddhism, but it would/will take a lot of experimentation to find out what is effective.

1Z 2015-11-06

Stage 5 is reminiscent of reaching a certain level of artistic skill, where one knows formal rules of composition, and how to apply them, and when to apply the rules, and also when not to. (Formal rules means things like english grammar, principles of persepective, rules of musical compositon and so on).

David Chapman 2015-11-06

Yes, that seems right to me!

Kate Gowen 2015-11-07

“Stage 5 is reminiscent of reaching a certain level of artistic skill, where one knows formal rules of composition, and how to apply them, and when to apply the rules, and also when not to. (Formal rules means things like English grammar, principles of perspective, rules of musical composition and so on).”

This not only seems right, but quite familiar in its implicit connection to the Aro Lamas’ teachings.

Dwig 2015-11-08


Rereading my comment above, I realize that it could come across more harshly than I intended. I like what you’re doing, and intend to follow it, and maybe comment further. Apologies if I caused any friction.

J 2015-11-09

Your link “Nihilism” goes to I suspect it is supposed to go to

David Chapman 2015-11-09

Thank you very much! I have fixed it.

Foster Ryan 2015-11-13

David- I have been pondering the issue of post-modernethics and what they would look like, and reading the books you mentioned related to it- although only making my way through them at this time. One thing has struck me in this process, however, which I have been reminded of as I have gone through this process. There hasn’t really appeared any new ethical system in the West under postmodern pressure, mostly because we have been reviving an old one instead. If the 3 types seem to be: consequentialist (Utilitarian- the modern ethical approach that seems to have created a lot of the problems); deontological (the god mandated ethics that nobody likes but the evangelicals are trying to push on everybody else); and virtue ethics (abandoned at the time of modernism and replaced by utilitarianism). We rejected the failure of rational-based ethical systems as not credible in the end. This has left us with nothing, it seems. On, the contrary, however, what has actually happened is that the West seems to be reviving Virtue ethics.
The most famous of the revivers is Alasdair MacIntyre. Virtue ethics seems to be something that holds an appeal for many types of people- right and left, and is posited as an ethics that everybody can find common ground in. It arises from within ones’ own nature, is not mandated by a deity, and is more comprehensive than reason-based systems. Buddhisnm clearly is based in Virtue ethics, although it certainly does not frame its discussions purely in that language. It seems to use a lot of utilitarian discussion to explain it, but in the end its orientation seems to be rooted in virtue ethics. You can look at the ‘higher level’ Buddhisms as nothing more than ways of helping one realize those ethics. Tantra doesn’t take an approach of deliberately practicing the ethics, but rather gives methods for helping them spontaneously unfold within oneself- but still, they are the same paramitas that unfold. Dzogchen also takes it to another level- but again, same wisdoms unfolding. These deeper versions of dharma can be seen as more spontaneous and wiser versions of the same ethics- but nonetheless, the same virtues. These virtue ethics are not negated by further vehicles, but merely refined and made more flexible and real world adapted, and are no longer externally practiced but become spontaneous instead.
If you look at Levinas’s ideas it seems to me that he was just discussing a way of thinking about accessing the heart or source of the virtues, directly. The big debate in virtue ethics seems to be about the source of these ethics, or a reason for them to be followed. He offers one theory- but it does seem to fall in line with virtue ethics- even though he’s not considered a virtue ethicist.
Virtue ethics match post-modern ethical needs and it seems that the revival of this approach that is really what happened in these times.
Anyway, it clearly seems to be the ethical approach that has caught on in these times, and it certainly easily consistent with Buddhism- even if we can argue about the exact nature of Buddhist ethics. However, I can easily see that Buddhism can easily ride the relevancy of Virtue ethics as it can be posited as an effective way to realize these virtues in a more systematic and rational fashion than other offerings.

Foster Ryan 2015-11-13

Sorry, Virtue ethics were replaced in Christian times by Christian ethics, a Deontological system. Evangelicals want us to go back to this approach.

David Chapman 2015-11-13

Foster, thanks for some interesting points!

There hasn’t really appeared any new ethical system in the West under postmodern pressure

Well… postmodernism is post-systematic. One shouldn’t expect a new system; only a different attitude. I think we do have that, although it’s still tacit and incomplete. (SUPPOSEDLY I will write about that Real Soon Now.)

I do not have a high opinion of virtue ethics. I haven’t actually read MacIntyre, but I have read many summaries and commentaries on him. My favorite is a series of three essays by Scott Alexander, which seem to trash him pretty thoroughly:

(Note that, at the time Scott wrote these, he was a utilitarian. He’s backed off from that. I don’t think you need to be a utilitarian to agree with his critique of MacIntyre, because I’m not and I do!)

Buddhism clearly is based in Virtue ethics, although it certainly does not frame its discussions purely in that language.

This is controversial among Western Buddhist ethicists. This was first proposed by Keown, and has been rejected and (I think) refuted by several other Buddhist ethicists, notably Goodman and Garfield. There’s a summary of the issues in . I disagree with Goodman (who thinks Buddhist ethics are consequentialist) and agree with Garfield (who thinks Buddhism has no coherent story about ethics). Keown himself seems to have backed off from the virtue ethics interpretation; his more recent writing is in the no-coherent-story camp.

Virtue ethics match post-modern ethical needs

I think this is true, but (FWIW) I think it’s true only because virtue ethics are so vague and useless that you can safely ignore them, and/or justify anything with them.

Sorry to be contrary here. I think a worthwhile postmodern ethics is probably possible, but (based on my very incomplete knowledge) I don’t think virtue ethics is a helpful starting point.

Foster Ryan 2015-11-18

OK. So I have puzzling over this and I think it’s a little clearer to me. I liked your friend’s articles, BTW. Good points which helped me to get where you were coming from.
If we look at these ethical approaches as stages of development then your point works well, and matches up with both Kegan’s and Buddhist ideas, I think. I was listening to an amazing lama last weekend at my center and it really clicked for me. He was teaching on prajnaparamita, and how prajna (transcendent wisdom) is the supreme paramita which includes all the other paramitas (of course they all do, which is what makes them paramitas). I grabbed a simple PDF which elaborates (here:
This is of course a traditional presentation.
The first paramita of renunciation, dana, sets the stage for a transformation from normal habits to wise habits and the second paramita is sila, ethics. These belong comfortably within the realm of Virtue ethics as widely understood, and I suppose to stage 3. The next 2 easily fall into the realm of practical wisdom- patience (shanti) and Perseverence (virya). Within virya the article describes how we develop self-reliance and develop a strong and healthy mind. These are the kinds of traits connected to practical wisdom and correspond comfortably to development of the individual and to practical, and by extension, utilitarian thinking, or stage 4. Of course utilitarian thinking is discussed throughout Buddhism and by the Buddha, but I thinking these 2 paramitas do correspond well, and are developed after virtue ethics are emphasized. The last 2 paramitas are concentration (Dhyana) and transcendent wisdom (prajna). These point to the development of internal ethical wisdom, or non-dual wisdom. These would correspond to the type of ethical system you are referring to as post-modern, or in theory to the type of ethics of Levinas, or stage 5 ethics.
In this way we can see the paramitas as progressing from virtue ethics to consequentialist/utilitarian to non-dual ethical systems.
I don’t know how you could ever write a law based on these non-dual ethical systems, but perhaps build in a flexibility of interpretation to the law. Maybe this requires ending minimum mandatory sentencing and such things as no judicial discretion. Maybe we need a public language for this perspective as a possibility.
As far as virtue ethics goes, I still think that we have abandoned the idea too much in favor of utilitarian thinking and that we probably need to reintroduce virtue as part of our public conversation, an ethics that in theory could cross over all belief systems and at least give us some common language for virtuous behavior without having to resort to religious doctrine. We can develop a public understanding of these as stages of ethics and not as all-or-nothing competitors. The non-dual ethics being in there would be a great boon for everybody, especially for those for whom it is their point of reference.

David Chapman 2015-11-18
I still think that we have abandoned [virtue] too much in favor of utilitarian thinking and that we probably need to reintroduce virtue as part of our public conversation...

Yes, I agree with that strongly!

Rejection of “virtue” tout court is one of the pernicious lingering effects of the 1960s counter-culture. Simultaneously, there is a new de facto system of public virtue (“political correctness”) that has some limitations and defects.

Unfortunately, only social conservatives are allowed to say this. (I am not a social conservative! So I’m not allowed to say this.) The ongoing culture war makes mature discussion of ethics difficult.

protestmanager 2015-11-24

I’m trying to wrap my mind around “level 5”, and can’t come up with any logic or reason, at all.

Here’s where I am: I have models. Been human, my models are not perfect. Therefor, I should decide that there is no truth?


I don’t know how to cure all cancers. That doesn’t mean that cancer doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t mean that we’ll never be able to cure all cancer. It also doesn’t mean that I should consider any diagnosis of cancer to be an immediate death sentence.

Similarly, my models aren’t perfect. That doesn’t mean there is no reality out there, it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work hard to make my models accord to reality as close as is possible, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t judge and analyze my models, and update them as new understanding comes in.

Oh, and if you think “reality is fluid”, I invite you to jump out of a place at 20,000 feet, without a parachute, without an air supply, and without any other flying apparatus. Or, for a simpler example, you can kick a large boulder. If your foot goes through the boulder, reality is fluid. If you survive the jump out of the plane, reality is fluid.

If not, not.

David Chapman 2015-11-24
I’m trying to wrap my mind around “level 5”, and can’t come up with any logic or reason, at all.

Yes… I realize this will sound infuriatingly patronizing, and apologize in advance, but it can’t be understood from a stage 4 point of view. As Emanuel Rylke pointed out astutely above, stage 5 just looks like stage 3 when you are at stage 4.

Your subsequent discussion is nothing like stage 5. Stage 5 does not deny truth, physical reality, the existence of cancer, or the usefulness of imperfect models. It strongly upholds all those things.

I didn’t say enough about stage 5 for it to be understood from this post. Readers who are there will recognize it; readers who are not there won’t be able to make any sense of it.

I plan to explain it in detail over on another site. I hope to be able to make it make sense specifically to people with a STEM background. (I have mathematics and engineering degrees.) In the meantime, “How To Think Real Good” is a preliminary attempt (addressed specifically to rationalists). “Boundaries, Objects, and Connections” might be relevant to what you said about putting your foot through a boulder.

protestmanager 2015-11-27

What you just wrote seems in contradiction to this:

“But at some point you realize that all principles are somewhat arbitrary or relative. There is no ultimately true principle on which a correct system can be built. It’s not just that we don’t yet know what the absolute truth is; it is that there cannot be one. All systems come to seem inherently empty.”

protestmanager 2015-11-27

Note, I’m in agreement with “nannus”, I don’t believe I ever occupied Stage 3 for any noticeable length of time.

Before I write the rest, a definition from my Stage 4 (or maybe Stage 6, who knows? :-) ) perspective: a “principle” is a rule you follow even when you don’t like the outcome. A follow on assumption is that if your “principle” doesn’t lead you to situations where you don’t like what it says, it’s not actually a principle. The world is a fallen place, there is no perfection, any rules honestly followed will put you in unpleasant situations from time to time.

Now, from your description I find it very easy to separate out Stage 3 from Stage 5.

Stage 3 people are like sail boats without keels. They can try to travel from place to place, but even with the greatest of skill the wind of other people’s desires will often overpower them.

Stage 5 people, OTOH, appear to be unprincipled opportunists. Yes, all principles have something arbitrary at their base. So? If you want others to follow the principle when it advantages you, you have to follow it when it advantages them. And when I read that someone has “fluid” ethics, what I expect that means is that they have no principles, and the person looks a lot more like Stage 2 sociopath to me.

Or, to put it another way: I you think you’re an inherently good person, above the need for rules that bid those lesser beings, I think you’re a sociopath, and lying to either yourself, or to everyone else.

Steve Alexander 2015-12-29
I have a fantasy that if I taught Buddhism I would refuse to accept any students who couldn’t pass a calculus test, which isn’t a perfect predictor of stage 4 capacity but at least correlates pretty well.

How do you think the ability to pass a calculus test correlates with having a stage 4 capacity?

I think it would be largely irrelevant. There is very little “I” in calculus, so it doesn’t say much about how a person “makes themselves up” — what is subject or object to them. In Subject Object interviews, the main way that Kegan’s research group assesses subjects for developmental stage, talking and reasoning about calculus, even doing so competently, is simply “content”. The content of the interview doesn’t indicate order of mind; rather, it’s the way the interviewee makes meaning. A common error, according to the subject-object training materials, is to take themes in the content of an interview as evidence of a particular order of mind. So, talking about relationships and feelings does not necessarily say anything about whether the interviewee is at Stage 3. And talking about systems and concepts does not indicate stage 4.

I also observe that adolescents / young adults are taught and examined in calculus, in some schools. They are most often at the 2nd or 3rd stage, rarely at the 4th.

I use a variant on the Subject Object Interview when interviewing people to hire for jobs. I’ve found it’s a good way to quickly find whether someone makes meaning at Stage 3-ish or Stage 4-ish, which is important knowledge for creating effective self-managed teams.

Steve Alexander 2015-12-29

The Subject Object Interview format is referred to in In Over Our Heads, and described in great detail in A Guide to the Subject-Object Interview: Its Administration and Interpretation by Lahey, Souvaine, Kegan, Goodman, and Felix.

David Chapman 2015-12-29

Hi Steve, it’s great to be challenged by someone who knows this material far better than I do!

I also observe that adolescents / young adults are taught and examined in calculus, in some schools. They are most often at the 2nd or 3rd stage, rarely at the 4th.

This is a strong argument, yes.

So, part of my thinking is that stage 4 requires full formal operations (Piaget), and stage 3 does not. Ability to do calculus would also seem to require full formal operations? And the finding has been that the cognitive stages advance pretty much in lock step with the interpersonal/ethical/affective/self-construction ones. (Although I see from , which I hadn’t read before, that recent work repudiates this?)

Do you have a guess about what is going on here? One might be that kids who can do calculus have mastered full formal operations, but are not yet capable of applying them to interpersonal matters. (So this is a temporary exception to the claim that different sorts of development progress in lock step, if that still stands.)

Your observation that “talking about systems and concepts does not indicate stage 4” might be consonant with this. A 15-year-old who can do calculus may have a superficial facility with formal operations that he or she is unable to apply other than in a fixed classroom setting.

Having granted that your point is probably right, I’ll try to defend my original claim…

It’s based only on anecdotal, personal impressions from experience. Also, it may be culture-bound; I gather you are in Britain, where I understand calculus is taught to younger people much more often than it is in the US. Generally, in the US, calculus is taught only in four-year universities; not many high school students learn it, and then only in their senior year (ages 17 to 18).

I do know many scientists and engineers whose ethical/affective/interpersonal development seems to be at stage 3 (but I am not trained to judge this, so my impressions may be mistaken). So if my claim is true at all, it’s only as a correlation.

However, as a rough generalization, I find that people who have been trained in STEM fields are more likely to be able to differentiate roles from relationships; to understand and work in formally-structured social units; to recognize which issues are whose responsibility; to understand ethical issues in terms of rights, principles, obligations, and agreements rather than relatedness and communal harmony; and so on.

Stereotypically, STEM people are often not great at personal relationships and emotional processing. That may be due to having “rushed through” stage 3 without doing the developmental work in depth. Or maybe it’s just an innate difference, orthogonal to stage development.

Any thoughts about any of this?

(Thank you very much for the pointer to the interview book! Kegan’s earlier books often referred to the interview format, but when they were written it seems not to have been publicly documented.)

David Chapman 2015-12-29

Oh, just to be explicit, in case this wasn’t clear—my fantasy of using a calculus exam to select Buddhist students was almost entirely a joke, and also if being-at-stage-4 were what one wanted to select for, the Kegan interview would obviously be a better test.

As someone with a STEM background who has chosen not to be a Buddhist teacher partly because the modal Buddhist is tedious, the idea of having students who also have a STEM background makes it seem less unattractive. And, also, as a teacher I could probably be of more use to such people, due to shared world-view and experience.

Steve Alexander 2015-12-29

Thank you. I’m an enthusiastic amateur at this stuff, so it’s likely I’m getting some of it wrong. And, I wonder if my use of “schools” as “places where adolescents learn” gave away my British cultural affiliation :-)

Two initial thoughts…

I think you’re on the mark about people working in STEM fields needing to understand ethics, principles, and roles.

I would guess that learning and applying scientific method and research ethics encourages development from stage 3 to stage 4, more so than learning calculus does. This is because there is a requirement (and often mentoring) in using and discussing principles and values, and valuing them over emotional needs — for example, unbiased research over wanting a hypothesis to be shown to be true. How do we cope with wanting some research to bear fruit, while also wanting it to be valid science?

I wonder whether people who went to design school (school!) might have handled this kind of paradox too. Design students submit their work for public critique among their peers, so there’s a similar pattern of needing to engage feelings (to motivate getting quality work done), and submitting to blunt criticism in service of making the work better. The pattern in each case is, to work in this field, you need to act according to abstract principles, while still engaging creatively and wanting to succeed.

Kegan talks about Cognitive, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal lines of development. Perhaps being able to deal with abstractions (cognitive) is necessary but not sufficient for 4th order interpersonal and intrapersonal functioning?

For example, to get from 3rd to 4th, maybe I’d need these things to happen:

Wetware configured to be able to do 4th level reasoning
Pondered paradoxical experiences which can be resolved with radical ideas like “Perhaps I am not my emotions?”, “Perhaps I am not my thoughts?”, and fundamental attribution error.
At least one higher-developed person who can support me in resolving the paradoxes
A respite from the flood of teenaged hormones, so I’m not utterly overwhelmed by emotions

Steve Alexander 2015-12-29

I can appreciate wanting a set of students who are able, as a group, to trust that they can discuss and create without getting bogged down in basic faulty reasoning, or interpersonal dramas of the stage 3 kind.

While there are benefits (to oneself and others) of being in a group that has diverse orders of mind and diverse reasoning skills, there are also efficiencies in being among the “like minded”.

I can imagine a group that has an entrance exam that is a Cognitive Reflection Test along with a S-O interview?

I can also imagine a feeder group that helps develop these capabilities.

Would this be analogous to ngöndro to reach the base to walk the path?

David Chapman 2015-12-30

Steve, thanks, these are all interesting observations! I was afraid no one would be able to make sense of this post, and am gratified that it has actually reached a wide audience, with useful things to say about it.

There’s a lot of interest in mindfulness meditation in Silicon Valley currently, and particularly among the rationalist crowd (who see meditation as a kind of brain hacking).

“Mindfulness” as usually taught doesn’t go very far. Even the most “hardcore” versions are limited.

Interestingly, a fair fraction of students coming to the Aro gTér sangha are people who have done “hardcore” meditation in the contemporary Theravada-derived style, taken it as far as they could go, and still want to go deeper.

I was talking to a friend a couple days ago who teaches advanced Theravada-derived meditation. He says that it’s much more fun and interesting to teach in a secular format at tech companies than to teach Buddhists. Techies are bright and enthusiastic and actually follow the instructions and want to make it work (where Buddhists mostly want to be told that their neuroses are valid and significant and that everything will magically come out OK in the end).

“Advanced meditation for STEM people” seems like a business opportunity. Something that goes far beyond the Google “search inside yourself” program, for example.

Maybe “secularized Vajrayana” can be part of that.

Just thinking out loud!

Steve Alexander 2015-12-30

I’m very happy that mindfulness is becoming more mainstream. And it’s great for STEM-oriented people, providing a good counterpoint to “I am my thoughts and opinions”. And I also have little interest in getting personally involved with mindfulness, as it currently appears.

One of my teachers uses the phrase “cause and code”, which I take to mean “what I aim to accomplish and why” (cause) and “the principles of conduct” I adopt in getting there. I find it fits me better than a strictly utilitarian approach, and allows some blessed nebulosity between the “what” “why” and “how” of an endeavour.

Mindfulness, as I’ve encountered it, is all “cause” and no “code”. I’m rather unqualified to say, but Buddhism appears to have a strong code (no emptiness teachings until you have integrated compassion!), although perhaps the “hardcore” version you mention values the procedures of meditation more than the code?

The variant of Advaita I studied has a cause I follow (non-dual subtle awareness) and a code I bind myself to (a modern take on the yamas and niyamas — Hindu lesser and greater vows).

This seems like a place I could segue into talking about Advaita…

(And please let me know if this would be a conversation better held elsewhere.)

I’ve read the pages and comments in Meaningness that refer to Advaita and stances of monism and eternalism. Also various online forum discussions of Advaita vs Buddhism. I’m particularly interested in the Zen and Dzogchen concept of Emptiness and how it relates to Dependent Origination “all the way down” (as in Turtles). I want to look for what I’m missing in my current meditation practices, and I’m open to the idea that certain buddhist traditions might go deeper / more empty / more aware / less attached.

The other evening I had a long conversation with a good friend who has practiced Dzogchen for many years — although he’s not a teacher, and does not claim a particular level of attainment. We compared notes on meditation practices, something we hadn’t done before… and found a very close correspondence, including the take on tantra, and on devotional practices, and on formless awareness practices. Of course, unless I learned Dzogchen for many years, or he learned what I practice, it’s very hard to know if this correspondence is accurate or misleading.

The notable difference was around what I believe he called “void” and what I call “brahman”. And I’m wondering whether, for me, they might be the same. In Advaita, it is a matter of dogma that Brahman has no qualities, and is the substrate of everything, and each person’s “true self” or atman is in fact the same as Brahman, when you get rid of all the non-dual illusions.

I’m probably unorthodox, as I think of brahman as “voidness that has the capacity to support the emergence of pattern and nebulosity”. My atman and someone else’s atman are each void, and able to support such emergence. There is no “all is one” monism about it. The nearest I’d get is to acknowledge that our physical bodies are made of the same kind of stuff (atoms etc.), and our consciousness is made of the the same kind of stuff (brahman).

I welcome your thoughts on this, David, and also if you have advice on where, as a STEM-trained experienced meditator, I could learn more about what Buddhism offers.

David Chapman 2015-12-30
Mindfulness, as I’ve encountered it, is all “cause” and no “code”.

Hmm… this echoes the “ethics in mindfulness” debate I wrote about recently.

perhaps the “hardcore” version you mention values the procedures of meditation more than the code?

Very much so, yes.

I’m thinking of the system taught by Daniel Ingram. It’s the most STEM-friendly version of Buddhist currently. I like him as a person and I like many things about the approach. However, overall I have various doubts and reservations and wouldn’t actively recommend it. (But I wouldn’t recommend against it either.) It is Theravada-derived, so it’s very different from Dzogchen.

I have only very superficial knowledge of Advaita. Some of the Western Neo- versions seem clearly monist and eternalist, which I think is wrong and harmful. I don’t know whether that’s true of more traditional versions.

unless I learned Dzogchen for many years, or he learned what I practice, it’s very hard to know if this correspondence is accurate or misleading.

Yes; so I can’t really comment either.

There’s a bunch of metaphysics in the Dzogchen texts, most of which I don’t think is terribly useful, and some of which I think is outright nonsense. I do think its fourfold denial of nihilism, eternalism, monism, and dualism is important.

go deeper / more empty / more aware / less attached

Hmm… for what it’s worth, Vajrayana (= Tantra and Dzogchen) do not promote emptiness, and says that attachment is a good thing, not a bad one. So it may not be what you are looking for!

if you have advice on where, as a STEM-trained experienced meditator, I could learn more about what Buddhism offers

Unfortunately, currently, there is no STEM-friendly presentation of Vajrayana available. The available presentations of Buddhist tantra are nearly all supernaturalist and are deeply embedded in traditional culture. I think both of these are inessential, and “secular” versions without them would be feasible and valuable.

Dzogchen is less overtly supernaturalist, but it’s almost entirely inaccessible. The three books I mentioned in my most recent post would be good places to start if you wanted to learn more!

Steve Alexander 2016-01-01

Thanks David.

I concur with you about Advaita: I’ve seen Advaita presented as an elaboration on “we are all one”. I think some teachers and students would stop there, and be satisfied to rest in warm fuzzy feelings of connectedness. Other teachers would take “we are all one” as a (to borrow from Buddhism) Skillful Means of offering a dualistic presentation of something more subtle.

Wow… there’s a lot on the Ethics post! And a lot I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll read over the coming days, and comment there if I have anything to offer.

Thanks for the clarification on attachment/non-attachment. I now realize I’ve been equating the Buddhist idea of non-attachment with the Advaita notion of non-grasping or Aparigratha, and using the terms interchangeably. But it sounds like non-attachment is something quite different.

Thanks also for the pointer to “A Trackless Path”. I’ll check it out.

David Chapman 2016-01-01

The “ethics in mindfulness teaching” post is pretty much “inside baseball”; it’s probably not really relevant to someone who isn’t deeply involved in Buddhist politics. It’s part of a long series on Buddhist ethics more broadly. Given your interest in Dzogchen, though, it might be best to start at the end of that, with “Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics.” On the other hand, that is quite abstract and difficult.

I now realize I’ve been equating the Buddhist idea of non-attachment with the Advaita notion of non-grasping or Aparigratha, and using the terms interchangeably. But it sounds like non-attachment is something quite different.

I don’t know anything about Aparigratha, so I can’t say. However, Buddhist “attachment” means pretty much what one would think. Mainstream (“Sutric”) Buddhism says that it’s bad. Buddhist Tantra and Dzogchen mostly don’t say it is bad, and some versions say it is good.

Steve Alexander 2016-01-02

Continuing the comment thread on tests for development stages, there’s a Star Trek Next Generation episode where the sub-plot is about a test one needs to pass to become a Star Fleet bridge officer — to be qualified to potentially take command of a ship.

The test is a simulation constructed so that the only way for a candidate to succeed and save their ship is to send one person under their direct command to certain death.

As portrayed in the show, it is almost a test of Stage 3 to Stage 4. To make it actually work it would need a debrief after the test, to discuss what rationale the candidate used in making the decision. In other words, to understand how they made the situation meaningful — essentially, a Subject-Object interview on the topic of the candidate’s test.

For the same action, different rationales suggest working at different stages of development. For example “I’ll get court martialed if I lose the ship, so I’ll send my friend to his doom” suggests Stage 2; while “In the role of bridge commander, I have a duty of care to the ship even over my duty of care to individuals” suggests Stage 4. And, failing because “I guess I’ll have to stick to obviously ineffective strategies, because I can’t bear the thought of choosing between people I love equally” suggests Stage 3.

From someone working at Stage 3, seeing someone else shift from 3 into 4 might look like “Oh, bridge officers need to toughen up, to harden their hearts so that they can make difficult decisions. They must be unfeeling people.” Whereas in reality, the heart can be the same as at Stage 3, just now it’s not embedded in the self, but regulated within a larger structure. To someone at Stage 3, stages 2 and 4 can look the same.

This reminds me of the social psychology meme “X% of company executives are psychopaths“.

Dan 2016-01-09
I’m thinking of the system taught by Daniel Ingram. ...overall I have various doubts and reservations and wouldn’t actively recommend it. (But I wouldn’t recommend against it either.)

Care to elaborate on those doubts and reservations? I’ve been learning a lot from both you and Ingram lately, so I’d probably find your critique pretty useful.

David Chapman 2016-01-09

Well… I don’t have a critique, just vague skepticism. I don’t know enough about the system to have a well-informed opinion.

I have basically two qualms. One is whether the theoretical model is accurate; the other is whether the meditation instructions are optimal.

The theory concretizes a path/stage sequence that doesn’t seem plausible to me as a natural series of developments. My estimate of plausibility is based on my experience in other systems of meditation, and general knowledge of human psychology. Neither of these is directly relevant, so I have low confidence in my estimate. It does seem possible that if you do that specific type of meditation, you will naturally go through those specific stages. It also seems possible that if you expect to go through those specific stages, you’ll interpret whatever experiences you have as reflecting the theoretical model, and that may feed back into your practice in a way that reinforces the experience’s conforming to the model. But then, do you want to go through those stages? Do you have to? And, it also seems possible (from my mainly ignorant vantage point) that the stage theory is largely ungrounded in reality.

I gather the model itself is based on the Visuddhi Maga, which reads to me as a theoretical, speculative, religious fantasy about enlightenment, not a practical manual. It’s been reinterpreted as a practical manual because the Theravada tradition of vipassana was (probably) completely lost, and had to be recreated, and the Visuddhi Maga was one of only a handful of texts that seemed even vaguely relevant. The practice is based on early/mid-20th-century experiments which may have been based more in European Romantic Idealism than Buddhism. That Daniel Ingram believes in various sorts of magic enabled by the mind non-physically affecting physical reality, in ways I find implausible, is consonant with this. (Although, to be fair, such woo is also more-or-less consonant with traditional Buddhism.)

The other question is whether this method produces the best results. It seems unnecessarily complicated to me. It also seems to reliably produce highly unpleasant, and perhaps sometimes harmful, experiences (“the dark night”), whereas some Other Leading Brands may not. The fact that its early-20th-century inventors intended for it to be the final stage in a path of extreme renunciation, and the destruction of the self, ideally producing what seems to me a kind of living death, does not give me warm fuzzies.

The fact is, however, we don’t know nearly enough about the actual effects of even one meditation system. At this point, it’s impossible to compare them on the basis of statistically meaningful empirical data. One has to choose based on intuition, felt affinity, and perhaps some casual personal experimentation with different systems.

Summer 2016-01-19

Hi David – thanks for writing up this ridiculously thought-provoking post (and your many other thought-provoking posts).

You mention several times that each stage “contains” all previous ones – e.g. “stage 4 is superior to stage 3… because the ability to function at stage 4 includes all the same abilities as stage 3—and not vice versa.” But it seems to me that “systematic” people struggle to communicate with (or convince) “communal” people, even if the systematic people were previously communal themselves. I have a bunch of follow up questions there (regarding what this implies for the validity of the model), but I think there’s a high probability that I’m misunderstanding what you mean by “contains” or “includes all the abilities of”, so I wanted to check in about that. I guess I interpret “contains” as meaning “is still able to think from that perspective, and communicate with people at that stage in their own language”. Is that inaccurate?

(It’s also possible that the people I think of as Stage 4 are actually in Stage 3, among other possible mistakes, but it’s harder to check with you about those).

Steve Alexander 2016-01-19


There’s no special bell that sounds at the moment when we become capable of a new stage.

What tends to happen is, we become aware that other people are making (what now seem to us to be) poorer choices, that they appear unable to keep commitments they have made (because something came up that someone needed), or inconsistent in following principles (because someone “got emotional” about it so I had to compromise for them), or stressed and confused when faced with a conflict of interest (say between dinner with spouse and dinner with parents).

We are unaware that we would have been subject to these kinds of poorer choices and confusion in the past.

So, although we retain the capability of, say, noticing the emotional upset of someone, we don’t feel we’re a bad person for not being accommodating on account of it. We have more choice — although we might forget what it was like to feel subject to, and not at choice, about others’ feelings — if you’re upset about a decision I made then I am a bad person and I should feel guilty.

Steve Alexander 2016-01-19

There’s a fascinating section in Kegan’s In Over Our Heads discussing the well-intentioned advice about resolving conflicts “use ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements”.

Kegan makes the case that using “I” statements requires 4th order consciousness, both to construct such a statement meaningfully, and to receive and comprehend such a statement as distinct from a “you” statement. He also illustrates that no matter what lengths a Stage 4 offerer of an “I” statement goes to, no matter what pains they take in “owning” the feelings in the statement, if the receiver is listening from a Stage 3 consciousness, it will still be interpreted in a “you” statement manner.

So, yes, it is very difficult for someone at Stage 4 to communicate fourth-stage meaning to someone at Stage 3.

Perhaps this is the difficulty you have observed, Summer?

(If you have the book, bottom of page 119 onwards)

Summer 2016-01-19

Hi Steve – thanks so much for the reply; I fear I didn’t get my meaning across clearly. What I’m saying is that I think Stage 4 people struggle to communicate third-stage meaning to someone at Stage 3, which shouldn’t be the case if Stage 4 contains Stage 3 (and ditto for every other Stage n and n+1 pair).

I’m struggling to think of a good analogy but e.g. there are some math problems that can be solved both using calculus and without using calculus. Using calculus makes things much easier, but someone who reaches Stage Calculus is still capable of solving the problem without calculus, and therefore capable of explaining a non-calculus solution to someone who isn’t at Stage Calculus yet. As a result, I would accept that Stage Calculus is strictly superior.

Going back to Kegan: if, once we reach Stage 4, we are liable to “forget what it was like to feel subject to, and not at choice, about others’ feelings,” then it seems to me that we’re not able to operate at Stage 3 any more, and as a result I’m not clear how Stage 4 “contains” Stage 3.... and, importantly, I’m not sure that Stage 4 is necessarily superior to Stage 3 (in our world as it actually exists: i.e. in a world where most people are Stage 3ers, perhaps an articulate/persuasive Stage 3er can “do more good” because she’s more able to connect with others and speak “in their terms”, versus a Stage 4-er whose model is in some ways “better” but who can’t connect with other people). But again, I might be misunderstanding what “contains” means (I’m afraid I don’t have the book – appreciate the reference, though)

Steve Alexander 2016-01-20

If you search google for [“in over our heads” “I statements”] you may be able to read the couple of pages in Google Books.

I think I get what you’re asking, and it’s an interesting question.

Can you give an example of “communicate third-stage meaning”? What might someone want to communicate, but struggle with? That would help answer the question.

Kate Gowen 2016-01-21

Might these stages be similar to physiological growth stages, in that, while a person who has passed through puberty (for instance) can neither be as he or she was– before– nor explain what is different in prepubescent terms. For awhile, the difference might be very clear in mind, and could be explained to other postpubescents.

David Chapman 2016-01-21

Hi Summer — I think you’ve understood correctly what “contains” means. People in stage 4 are usually able to understand the thinking and feeling and actions of people in stage 3, but not vice versa. My impression is that there is quite a lot of empirical evidence for this.

The evidence is statistical, only, so there may be exceptions. Perhaps you are one. Perhaps exceptions are relatively common, although the general pattern is statistically valid.

Perhaps people with Aspergers/ASD tend to skip or “rush through” stage 3, which we don’t like much and aren’t particularly good at, and perhaps some of us allow that way of being to atrophy as soon as we can find a supportively aspie community. By contrast, most people reach stage 4 only after fully developing stage 3 functioning, which they retain.

(Sorry to be slow to reply; I’ve had little internet access for the past several days.)

Steve Alexander 2016-01-22

“What I’m saying is that I think Stage 4 people struggle to communicate third-stage meaning to someone at Stage 3, which shouldn’t be the case if Stage 4 contains Stage 3”

There are some math problems that can be solved both using calculus and without using calculus. Using calculus makes things much easier, but someone who reaches Stage Calculus is still capable of solving the problem without calculus, and therefore capable of explaining a non-calculus solution to someone who isn’t at Stage Calculus yet. As a result, I would accept that Stage Calculus is strictly superior.


Your calculus example is helpful. Let’s say you and I are talking about solving a math problem. You understand calculus, and I do not.

You are capable of explaining the solution using calculus (the elegant and straightforward way), or not using calculus (a more laborious way of explaining). I am capable of understanding only the latter explanation.

The issue is, what if you don’t have a name for this “calculus” that you know and I do not know? What if, of all the math you know at this point, you can’t tell which parts are calculus and which parts aren’t? It’s all just “the math I know” to you.

I don’t know what calculus is either, but you can see a confused or upset expression on my face when you mention dx or integrate. Or perhaps I calmly interpret your calculus jargon in some incorrect regular-math way, but I don’t realize it’s incorrect, and to me your explanation apparently makes sense, yet is clearly wrong.

So, you notice some parts of your explanation aren’t working, but you don’t know what to do. If only you knew which parts of your thinking were “calculus”, you could omit those from your explanation, and we’d be communicating well again. You remember all the basic non-calculus math, but it’s not classified in that way for you, in your head. So, while you have all the “Stage pre-calculus math” stuff still available to you, it’s now jumbled up with “Stage calculus” stuff.

Later on, you read David’s blog on development stages, or read Kegan’s book, (or their math-metaphor equivalents) and start to understand what math knowledge fits into “calculus” and “not calculus”. Once you’ve learned this, you can come back to me, and explain the problems just using basic math. And now I understand.

What a lot of effort, just to communicate!

Borbottio 2016-02-07

Hello David, wonderful suff, terribly interesting.
I don’t understand a few things, though, I hope you will be so kind as to clarify them to me.
I don’t understand your critique of infinite responsability: I take the bodhishattva vow every morning and try to apply it in a utilitarian way. Although I feel responsible for countless beings, I’m also aware that I’m a limited person with limited resources that are most effective to the well being and liberation of others when applied in a structured way, which in my current situations actually translates to not actually doing much helping of others but acquiring skills to deploy in the future. So in the present moment I hold myself accountable for my education. I don’t think or feel that this approach is incoherent with the bodhishattva vow, nor with the idea of infinite responsability.

Another related thing I don’t understand is the definition of “values more important than others” and “positive innovation” in you stage 5 description. How can you compare values and directions of innovations (discriminating negative from positive innovation) without a fixed ethical principle ? Isn’t a form of ethical measure needed in order to make choices ?

David Chapman 2016-02-07

Glad you find it interesting!

I too hold the Bodhisattva Vow, and take it seriously. And, like you, I’m a limited person with limited resources that are most effective when applied in a structured way.

So, we confront trade-offs, and have to make rational decisions about where to spend effort, and what to be accountable for. We may care about everyone and everything everywhere, but we have to explicitly choose not to do anything for almost anyone or anything anywhere. By putting effort into your education, or my blog, we are saying that we are not going to help distribute anti-malaria nets in Africa, and some African children may die as a result, and we are choosing that.

Mahayana tradition and scripture have almost nothing to say about such decisions, unfortunately. The Mahayana view is that if you become a Buddha, you will have unlimited cosmic power. For Buddhas, there are no trade-offs. Therefore, the only important thing is to become a Buddha as quickly as possible. (The Buddhist Singularity!) In the mean time, ethical action is significant only because it helps you become a Buddha—not for its pre-Buddhahood beneficial consequences, which are trivial in comparison.

How can you compare values and directions of innovations (discriminating negative from positive innovation) without a fixed ethical principle ? Isn’t a form of ethical measure needed in order to make choices?

These are exactly the questions that leads from stage 4 to stage 5. The answers are “there is no ‘how’—that’s what makes it stage 5” and “no, that’s stage 4.” These answers are inaccessible (nonsensical) from a stage 4 point of view. Really, even the question seems nonsensical; to be ethical is to be ethical according to principles by definition at stage 4.

One needs to get to stage 4.5 before the question comes into focus. At stage 4.5, you realize that fixed ethical principles can’t work, but you don’t yet see an alternative. Then asking “how, if not by principles?” becomes emotionally urgent, and then stage 5 answers may start to emerge.

Borbottio 2016-02-07

Thank you for your quick through response. I think you are generalizing a bit erroneously when speaking about mahayannah view of Buddhas, but I see what you meant about the vow.

Regarding stage 4/stage 5, I believe I’ve already confronted the problem of unfounded ethics, which is what sprung my interest in zen Buddhism, but the way I’ve sort of resolved it (at least in a way which settles emotional urgency about it) does not look like what you describe as stage 5. I’ve taken 2 similar parallel approaches, one being that since nihilism can’t guide my actions I can choose an ethical theory on top of it by which to leave my life, so I chose that which I found to be the most probably correct if nihilism is false(which is a possibility that seems to me to be possible at least out of esteem for the many philosophy scholars that believe so); the other stemming from my opaque, Watts influenced understanding of zen being that in the end there’s no self that has to choose an ethical theory and direct his actions according to it, just a stream of thoughts producing actions producing thoughts, so if these are currently going along an utilitarian path so be it, there’s no need nor possibility for a coherent ethical system.

The first therefore simply “brings me back” to stage 4,while the second one surely doesn’t enable me to discriminate between positive and negative ethical innovations. I don’t really see where to go from here, do you think a better understanding and refinement of “the zen answer” would enable me to understand your stage 5 perspective? Or if not what would?

David Chapman 2016-02-07

I don’t know much about Zen, so on the whole I can’t comment on that. What you describe sounds more like Existentialism than Buddhism, and my impression is that modern Zen is heavily influenced by Existentialism.

There isn’t really much support for the 4.5->5 transition currently. You could check out Kegan’s books, of course.

After re-reading Kegan, in order to write this page, I’ve re-thought my job as helping to create a path from 4.5 to 5. To the extent that I get time to write, some at least of my output will be aiming at that. Short of actually writing that, I’m not sure I can say much more!

DBDodd 2016-02-17

This model is interesting, but by assigning the properties of the 5th ethical stage to a stage that is a progression from the 4th stage, it ignores that ethical fluidity ought to be available as a resource for lower stages as much as for the 4th stage. There are two reasons to think that such fluidity of social outlook is available at every ethical stage, one is based on evolutionary theory, the other on empirical evidence.

In terms of evolutionary theory, the ability of human beings to ignore immediate threats to their survival in the interest of preserving a particular social system introduces what we could call the “lemming problem”. Namely, if every individual is focused on the social value of their actions, what happens when there are environmental threats to the survival of the social system itself? The ability to ignore non-social cues is a danger to survival of the gene pool unless there is some sort of off-switch. The off-switch would allow one or more individuals in a community to reason in direct response to non-social pressures, but to interpret the products of this reasoning as communication from social beings who are simply not conventional human members of the group. As long as the experience is intense and memorable enough, the off-switch individual can alter the behavior of the community without breaking the social frame.

In fact, the fields of anthropology, psychiatry, and increasingly medicine and neuroscience provide evidence of a just such a neurophysical off-switch. If an individual goes a long time without food, sleep, or other human company, she will begin to enter states in which she starts to acknowledge non-physical social beings. Furthermore, communities integrate the potential need for this mode of information into their social systems, either on an individual or collective basis. An individual may use drugs or stress situations to operate the off-switch as a shaman or in a rite of passage to a new social identity; the community as a whole may operate the off-switch in rituals of societal renewal. The work of the historian of religions Mircea Eliade is a repository of the forms these rituals can take.

As a Westerner, what is interesting about this off-switch is how we have totally pathologized its use. Individuals continue to have profound experiences of non-social reasoning and communication with the world, but any description of such experiences disqualifies one for speaking authoritatively in public. The historical reasons for this are easy enough to trace, but the practical effect is that the practice of science has laid claim to the entire field of non-social reasoning, and related tools for redirecting society, like art and politics, have been forced to acknowledge the claim of science, either through adoption of scientific-style reasoning, or its rejection. What is rare is acceptance of art or politics in terms of a direct vision of the artist or politician.

To reiterate, what is relevant here from an evolutionary, neurophysical standpoint is that an individual have vivid, memorable experiences that are comprehensible in terms of the social system she belongs to, but which do not take place in the physical consensus reality where the rest of her social interactions take place.

Rather than refer to this as the operation of a neurophysical off-switch, it makes more sense to provide a general category name for this type of experience. “Visionary experience” works particularly well, since it calls to mind both the unusual quality of the experience, and its purpose as a form of guidance for a community.

I have taken the term from the work of the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere; his recent book, “The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience” is very sophisticated example of how to talk about the meaning and social value of these kinds of experiences. Obeyesekere is from Sri Lanka and very comfortable with both Theravada and Hindu religious thought. The book has chapters on both the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, and Tibetan ritual around terma discovery, so it would seem to be relevant to your project of adapting Tantra to a Western context.

I think your fundamental insight about Buddhism, that it has careful, valid ontological and epistemological insights without pathologizing visionary experience, is a very productive one. Since it has been clear that Western scientific discourse, like all purely social discourses, has limits to its ability to adapt to ultimate (non)reality, it seems worthwhile to try and see how to integrate visionary experience into scientific practice in a philosophically responsible way. Buddhism, in its careful resistance to ontological commitment, strikes me as a very important, possibly irreplaceable tool for this.

A final resource I would direct you to is the work of David Kalupahana, who is a Theravadan Buddhist writing about Buddhism completely within the Western philosophical tradition. I’ve been very satisfied with what I’ve learned from his book “A History of Buddhist Thought”, but you can get a good feel for his perspective from an essay on Tantra that is posted here:

Kalupahana’s sense of the Buddhist philosopher keeping a settled (non)position of resistance to ontological commitment is very clear, and provides a necessary philosophical space for visionary experience without letting go of pragmatic obligations to a scientific world-view.

Francisco 2016-02-19

while Hegel is the “systematic” philosopher par excellence, his dialectical approach does not fall easily into category 4. His system is not akin to a bureaucratic, technocratic and transparent system, but requires going beyond classical logic, such as the law of noncontradiction. This is most obvious from the works of critical theorists such as Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, which are probably among the pinnacle of stage 5 thought.

David Chapman 2016-02-19

Yes, thanks, good catch! Hegel, for all his faults, is perhaps the first manifestation of meta-systematic thinking. I don’t know Adorno; I will investigate!

Francisco 2016-02-20

Adorno looks at the “compulsion” (see below) of thought to identify things, which leads to such concepts as substances, essences, reification etc. This always struck me as similar to buddhism, which also has a lot to say about the ‘tyranny’ of identity-thinking. Zen seems to me to postulate that freedom from this compulsion can only be found beyond discursive thought (but I’m not an expert here); Adorno asserts that one can beyond this limitation precisely through thought.
I’m skeptical about our ability to get this kind of system 5 thinking into our everyday life, Buddhism here seems to be the better alternative - but it is of course not without its own shortcomings.

“In their inalienably general elements, all philosophy, even those with the intention of freedom, carries along the unfreedom in which that of society is prolonged. It has the compulsion in itself; however this latter alone protects it from regression into caprice. Thinking is capable of critically cognizing the compulsory character immanent to it; its own inner compulsion is the medium of its emancipation.”

Sean 2016-02-23
After re-reading Kegan, in order to write this page, I’ve re-thought my job as helping to create a path from 4.5 to 5. To the extent that I get time to write, some at least of my output will be aiming at that. Short of actually writing that, I’m not sure I can say much more!

I haven’t delved deeply enough into this material to say for sure (and as you’ve noted this post doesn’t clarify it fully), but it does seem like the 4.5 -> 5 transition (as you’ve framed this progression) doesn’t have that concrete a path. One thing that struck me as particularly coherent is the transition from “is a” to “has a” relationships between these stages in the path, e.g., stage 3 people “are” emotions (i.e. they are defined primarily by those emotions with regard to the forthcoming considerations and decisions they make) whereas stage 4 people “have” emotions. Likewise stage 4 people “are” part of systems whereas stage 5 people “have” systems within which they play some role, or have some supportive quality. The problem is the extension of this pattern to the stage 5/6 transition. An understanding of the object for stage 6 is necessary in order to extend the pattern. We have to be able to say that stage 5 people “are” something that then stage 6 people just “have.” What could this thing be?

My impulse is to say that this thing is meta-systems, but that’s a bit unsatisfying, and probably wrong. That would mean that systems are meta-emotions (or generalized models for emotions), and that emotions are meta-needs (or generalized models for needs), which is vaguely correct but too general (or, maybe, the whole progression is not casted correctly). Systems are kind of like generalized models for emotions, under the assumption that they aren’t all identical but still objects from the same template, and thus won’t fit together symmetrically. Likewise, meta-systems (transparencies, I’ll call them) are truly like meta-systems. Many possible understandings can be overlaid on the state of things, and they might result in paradoxical characterizations of them. Which is okay, because things can serve two purposes. Parts of systems can work both for and against certain aims or ethics, and sometimes; this isn’t nonsensical.

A more complex level of coordination is required to produce ideal outcomes than individual systems can consider or accommodate. The concept of path dependency (in particular in its institutional form) comes to mind. Aims that are operationalized for the short term may actually counteract their long term fulfillment. Old systems, when adhered to despite an apparent change in context that makes them less useful, or despite obvious undesirable consequences, contradictions, or fallouts, clash with the new systems that have been developed and partially adopted in the meantime. And cause problems simply because they are no longer as relevant or useful as they once were, or because better alternatives have cropped up.

Stage 5 could be seen as an ability to navigate and play out the interactions between systems. This itself sounds kind of like a system, though, which leaves me a bit metaphysically unsatisfied. I’ll refer back to the table earlier in the article where you say that the subject of stage 5 is “meaning making”. Meaning making?! Alright, I won’t be too critical, since my offering “transparencies” is no better: it’s at best slightly more accurate, but at worst, totally abstract and meaningless and simply doesn’t bring any real ideas or extensions to the table. I think I see where you’re going, though. Systems correspond to singular purposes, and the composite units of the system play a role in achieving that purpose. Purpose here is a proxy for meaning, maybe they’re the same thing, but it the sentence looked better when I used the word purpose. Empathies correspond to singular systems, because trying to find a uniting system that works for all empathy is the problem that provokes movement from 3 -> 4. Likewise, needs correspond to singular empathies, which is the problem that provokes movement from 2 -> 3. So, systems correspond to singular purposes, which is the problem that provokes movement from 4 -> 5. At stage 5, purposes, or ethical systems, just become “ways of looking at things.” It seem to me like a balancing of systems would have some kind of statistical property. We need to think about how players in systems can dynamically switch between them, how instead of being a part of a system, we are a tool that gets used in an ad-hoc manner by a continuous dimension of systems. We need to see ourselves as players in unstructured networks of systems.

The computer science analogies at this point are just too much for me to bear. For heaven’s sake, already talked about “is-a” vs “has-a” relationships. Now all that can come to mind are the architectural concepts of composition, generalization, templates, and so on. And, in an unsavory way, I can’t help but wonder if this supports the concept that there is (possibly developmental) knowledge that gives people the foundation for initially grasping computational concepts, to the point where not having that knowledge can be a very challenging barrier. This would match lots of observations. Of course, there’s the very real possibility that when it comes to teaching, humanity has a long way to go.

Cecil-TheLion 2016-05-11

This just seems like intellectual construction to me. While many children/teenagers may go through a phase where they’re still developing theory of mind (stage 2), stages 3 and 4 seem to describe personality variants rather than some sort of arbitrary process of adult development. Most people tend to be people oriented and therefore finding stage 3 personalities is more common; stage 4 seems to describe, for instance, an introvert who favours reason over interpersonal relations, or the structures of work. Much of this appears to be speculation: “You no longer are in relationships that define you; you have relationships” (how can you assert that stage 3 people view relationships as a defining feature? Certainly you can find people who are inclined towards harmoniousness, but who nevertheless consider their relations as a non-defining feature of themselves – whatever that means).

I would also object to the strange linearity of the model – why is it asserted that you progress from 3 to 4, but still maintain the functions of stage 3? You concede immediately that people in stage 3 also behave in manners consistent with stage 4 when necessary. My guess is that this phenomenon is just people-oriented people behaving adaptively. I would finally accuse stage 5 as being some sort of post-modern assertion (“meta”) rather than a reliably measurable final developmental step.

I would usually accept that something of this nature as philosophy, but you assert empirical support (I don’t have the book, nor access to the studies).

note. This isn’t a comprehensive or correct critique, but rather my a collections of the thoughts I assembled immediately after reading.

Shaun Bartone 2016-05-26

Buddhist ethics is based on “moral psychology” or a neuroscience of morality: Jay L. Garfield: “Ask Not What Buddhism Can Do For Cognitive Neuroscience. . . ” p. 28. “6. Buddhism and Moral Psychology: A Real Contribution”

Jim 2016-07-02

Hi. I read this a few months ago, but only last week managed to get hold of the “In Over Our Heads” book from the library system. Heard you and Vince Horn discussing it further on a recent Buddhist Geeks podcast. The book really is worth seeking out and reading, it’s length is necessary given the complexity of the subject matter, and it’s well illustrated with examples. Main problem with it is its age… Some of the terms Kegan is using in the 1994 context have shifted or drifted somewhat, so I appreciate some of the suggested updates in the original blog post here.

David Chapman 2016-07-02

Yes; I would like to see Kegan’s work updated. He hasn’t done so; I’m not sure why it mostly hasn’t been taken up by other academics. Maybe it doesn’t fit the pomo narrative that the academy now demands.

Since publishing In Over Our Heads, Kegan himself has mainly worked on executive development, and has published several books on that. I haven’t read them (yet), so I don’t know why he changed fields. However, I suspect it may be that he thinks helping the leaders of systematic organizations (such as corporations) develop to later stages will help them help their employees forward too.

I’ve written recent posts roughly along those lines, here and here.

Jim 2016-07-02

In the interview with Vince Horn he talked about one of Kegan’s more recent books “Immunity to change” (one aimed at business executives) that contains a technique for uncovering hidden assumptions that may be holding back one’s development - as promised in the book’s subtitle “How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good)”. Sounds interesting enough so I’ve put the book on my ‘wish list’ though, it’s not cheap and it’s not in my public library systems. Reviews online say that althoug it’s ostensibly about leadership in organisations, it is just as easily can be read from the point of view of an individual making meaning at the higher orders.

David Chapman 2016-07-02

Yes—by coincidence, I just bought a Kindle edition copy yesterday! It had been recommended to me by Vince, by Meredith Patterson, and by The (pseudonymous) Lagrangian—three of the sharpest people I know!

christianhendriks 2016-08-20

First, apologies for dramatic comment thread necromancy.
Second, do you know if Kegan did longitudinal studies? By this I mean, how does Kegan determine that people always follow the stages in this order? I’ve looked into personal epistemology–a subject of education psychology that I think would interest anyone who is interested in the above–and its founder, Perry, did do longitudinal studies. While Perry’s method was flawed and his results iffy (subsequent work has been sharper), I think the longitudinal aspect really gives it its value. He looked at people working through each stage; while this is maybe more a pile of anecdotes rather than real data, it is a really big pile of anecdotes. So I’m wondering if Kegan has done the same sort of work and, if not, where is he getting the trajectory element from?

David Chapman 2016-08-20
apologies for dramatic comment thread necromancy.

I hope that things I write will remain relevant for several years at least—so discussion less than a year later is welcome!

Bill Perry was in the same Harvard Department of Education that Kegan was and still is in. I vaguely remember that Perry was one of Kegan’s mentors and main influences. (I also vaguely remember that Perry was a mentor for my first girlfriend, who was in the Harvard PSR department, and who first recommended Kegan’s work to me. However, I may be confused about that. It was several centuries ago, if I’m recalling correctly.)

do you know if Kegan did longitudinal studies?

My recollection is yes, but I’m not 100% certain. My recollection is that at the time In Over Our Heads was published, he and his collaborators had only preliminary data; and that the longitudinal studies, published a few years later, confirmed the theory. But, I’m not positive I have that right—you’d need to check. And I don’t know how good the methods are for any of their work. I mostly haven’t read the primary literature in this field.

Kegan’s theory was strongly influenced by several previous theories of adult development (including Perry’s and Kohlberg’s) that had been validated with longitudinal studies. But, it’s not the same as theirs, so it does need further experimental validation.

how does Kegan determine that people always follow the stages in this order?

Before the longitudinal studies, this was supported by the observation that the types of reasoning used at each stage are different, and that that anyone at stage n can reason in the stage n-1 way, but not vice versa.

Splintered Self 2016-11-01

Thanks for the link on Twitter. I find this model fascinating and potentially very helpful, but I’m hung up one one nagging detail, which Nannus also picks up on: the assignment of a single stage to each individual. My difficulty with this derives from several sources, but particularly my personal experience as an exceptionally gifted child (by formal testing and academic achievement) with an ADD-like developmental disability: dysexecutive syndrome. My primary symptom is extreme disorganization, mostly of the physical, not the cognitive realm: e.g., where did I put my keys? Constant “absent-mindedness” impairs my ability to execute plans, and makes a huge challenge of everyday life in the modern world.

If executive proficiency were necessary to achieve Stage 4; or if social proficiency were necessary for Stage 3, then there would be little hope for neuroatypicals to proceed through the stages. My experience, though, is that asynchronous development is a super helpful concept. My executive impairment makes it nearly impossible to function in the physical world at level 5; only occasionally can I manage 4. Yet intellectually, I find it very intuitive to grasp opposing systems and worldviews as complementary methods of organizing reality–I may use one system in one context, and a seeming opposite in another, and I’m aware of it. That doesn’t make me any more able to keep track of my belongings, nor does my difficulty with organization invalidate my intellectual development.

I know you don’t want to recreate anything like Wilber’s use of Spiral Dynamics, but one thing I did like about his system was that it allowed for different levels of development in different domains. I’m curious if you have any particular rationale not to do so, or if this is just an aspect of your model which you haven’t explored in as much detail.

David Chapman 2016-11-03

These are good questions… for which I don’t have definite answers.

I should say first that this isn’t my model, it’s primarily Robert Kegan’s, although he had (and has) many collaborators, and drew on other research groups’ work as well.

The theory is empirically based, and I haven’t dug into the experimental methods or data or data analysis. The question “can someone develop asynchronously in different domains” is an empirical one. I don’t know whether the available data can answer it. The general finding of the research is that most people develop more-or-less synchronously, but it may be that a substantial fraction of people are asynchronous.

Stage 3 doesn’t imply social proficiency, only that relationships and emotions are the way you structure your understanding. You can totally suck at them and be at stage 3. But you do make them the primary feature of your world. (Whereas someone at stage 2 is largely oblivious to them—they have emotions and relationships, but those aren’t structuring principles for them.)

Someone at stage 4 will be no worse at emotions and relationships than they were when they were at stage 3—and will probably be better at them. At stage 4 you manage emotions and relationships, whereas at stage 3 you experience them.

So, this is not a theory about personality types—it is not that stage 3 people are extroverted, warm, and socially gifted, whereas stage 4 people are introverted, analytical, and awkward. You could be either of those personality types at either stage.

That said, extroverts are probably more likely to find stage 3 easier to navigate and stage 4 more difficult, and vice versa for introverts.

I’m thinking a lot these days about the 4->5 transition. My tentative theory is that under current social conditions this will be easier for sci/tech people than anyone else; and that we can make the transition in the cognitive/epistemological realm before we can do it in an emotional/social one. (I wrote about that here recently.)

Kegan’s discussion of the 4->5 transition is mainly social/relational, so in order to develop a story about that, I’m having to extrapolate from first principles and from other literatures. This goes beyond the data, which is dubious, but it seems important to try anyway.

He said that in his dataset nobody transitions to stage 5 before the age of about 40. The transitions he describes are driven primarily by management experience, and probably you can’t get enough of that before about 40 to make the transition. (But this was in the late 80s in dull corporate settings; things might be different in Silicon Valley in 2016.)

My informal observation is that some STEM people make the transition in their late 20s or early 30s. Basically, you have to have worked with enough different formal systems in enough depth to start to see the patterns in how they succeed and fail and mutate and combine and differentiate and so on. You have to have done that while being the primary actor in the system—developing your own research program for example.

christianhendriks 2016-11-03

If I can interject to respond to Splintered Self…

I am no expert at all on developmental psychology, but I’ve done a tiny bit of work on personal epistemology, looking esp. at Perry’s original model (see above) and subsequent variations on it. I am a fan of Kuhn’s in particular, but Hofer’s is well-respected. Though it diverges in marked ways from Chapman’s model, Kuhn’s view of personal epistemology explicitly predicts that people will move from one stage to another asynchronously. Indeed, she’s found some empirical evidence to show that there is a particular order in which people update their knowledge domains.

From her stage called “absolutism” into her stage called “multiplism,” the taste domain transitions first, then the aesthetic domain, then the moral domain, then the social-political domain, then the scientific domain; these domains transition in the reverse order when moving from “multiplism” to “evaluatism,” though according to her, few people manage that transition. And nobody ever takes taste out of multiplism once it gets in there because taste is an aberration: multiplism does describe it best. Other scholars working in personal epistemology lack the longitudinal element that Kuhn has, but they do find that, at the moment they do the studies, people tend to have significant domain differences.

So asynchronous development seems well-documented in other developmental psychology models, though no one seems able to agree on, or conclusively demonstrate, any specific model.

But I also went to last year’s AERA conference, where I attended an interesting panel on how people manage discrepancies between the knowledge artifacts they encounter. One thing they mentioned is that they are moving away from a typology model. Yes, it’s true that some people prefer one kind of cognitive framework over another, but it’s not absolute. The goals a person has significantly determines the method they use. I wish I could remember the circumplex model they had: there were two independent factors, making for four specific types of engage with a knowledge artifact. Of course personality type or developmental stage might determine which of these types of engagement a person is more likely to have, and whether they are good at responding to it well, but the type of engagement is at least as important to subject’s thinking than anything else is.

So my hypothesis is that, whatever the best way to model human cognitive development happens to be, there will be domain differences, there will be goal-based differences (ie. everyone satisfices), and there will be contextual differences (ie. are you tired or angry at the time? are you working in your first language?). What evidence I’ve seen bears this out (which is why it’s my hypothesis!), but it’s far far from enough evidence to be conclusive.

tl;dr: Due to idiosyncratic but somewhat evidential experience with developmental models, I think I have some grounds for predicting that there will be asynchronous development.

Steve Alexander 2016-11-04

Kuhn’s model seems to me to be different from Kegan’s model in an important but subtle aspect.

Kuhn’s is about what someone does and how they make knowledge about their world.

Kegan’s is about what someone is capable of doing and what are the boundaries of how they are able to make knowledge about their world.

The Subject-Object Interview, the main empirical research tool Kegan’s research group uses, is designed to probe capability rather than habit or preference.

So, we might find that Kuhn’s work shows people develop preferences and habits asynchronously, and Kegan’s work shows that people’s capability develops synchronously. There need not be a conflict between these results, because preference and habit takes place within the boundaries of capability.

David Chapman 2016-11-05

Thanks, this is very interesting; I didn’t know about Kuhn’s work. I’ve read a little, and it makes good sense. Have more open in browser tabs :-)

Steve Alexander 2016-11-06

I just realized something…

If I’m right about Kuhn’s instrument measuring habit/preference/practice/doing, and Kegan’s measuring capability, I find that super exciting.

Because, if Kegan’s empirical results show capability grows in sync across different domains, and Kuhn’s results show doing grows asynchronously, it means a person’s Kuhn indications show in which domains growth will be easier.

For example — if a person is cognitively at “evaluatism”, and socially at “multiplism”, it suggests the person is already capable of more in the social dimension; immediate potential to grow.

christianhendriks 2016-11-06

Steve, I want to indicate that I read your comment and am thinking about it. The only concern I’d have is that I think applying a capability, as you call it, to a new domain does take skill, since domains are not structured identically empirically speaking (ie. some domains are predominately nomethetic, others are predominately idiographic,* others require an interplay of both)… but I also agree that it should be much easier applying a Subject-Object framework to a new domain if you’ve already developed it in another framework than if you’re developing it for the first time.

*Sorry to dump this stuff on you all, but I think it’s exciting and important. Nomethetic knowledge domains understand “explanation” as reference to universal laws/principles, and so spend most of their time pushing for more and more universal laws/principles; think most physical sciences, but also mathematics and maybe philosophy. Idiographic knowledge domains understand “explanation” as reference to specific local factors or details, and so spend most of their time building a comprehensive body of these factors and details; think most humanities, except perhaps for philosophy and occasional eruptions (ie. archetypal criticism and literary Darwinism in English lit). Social science disciplines tend to swing from one to the other generationally: students often take up the opposite of their professors as a corrective, only to find that their own students do the same.

Steve Alexander 2016-11-06

@christianhendriks Nomethetic / Idiographic sounds similar to hedgehog / fox

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that, if you’re inclined to read Venkatesh Rao’s writing on it.

Steve Alexander 2016-11-06


“applying a capability, as you call it, to a new domain does take skill”

Yes, indeed. As Kegan writes in In Over Our Heads, (paraphrasing) Stage 4 is necessary but not sufficient for doing stage 4-ish stuff and getting stage 4-ish outcomes. And the same for other stages.

Kegan writes about this in a number of contexts — here’s where he writes about it in relationship to diversity and authority.

“Yet the Ables are not quick to damn each other with characterizations of defensiveness at its first sign, because they have come to trust that such reactions are followed by genuine efforts to solve their differences in ways that leave standing the wholeness, integrity distinctness, and dignity of each person’s ‘culture of mind.’

Constructing the world at the fourth order does not guarantee that we will do this but that we can. There is no reason why the third or more of the adult population that can do this does not use the challenges of the diversity movement to practice doing this. That is, it is important for people in positions of authority, who do construct the world at the fourth order, to see that what is being asked of them by the diversity movement, for the most part, is not over their heads.”

Page 343-344, In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan

egoshards 2016-11-06

Thanks, Christian. I’m not formally versed in developmental psych either…but Kuhn looks interesting. If I weren’t preoccupied with philosophy PhD applications I’d read Kuhn and Kegan right away!

I asked someone I know who’s an expert in the field, and he said that asynchrony, to a lesser or greater degree, is generally a given in current psychological practice. He is familiar with Kegan and says there is no evidence that any models of development suggest lockstep progression, only that most people develop more-or-less holistically. I’ve also read that gifted kids–those who may be more likely to reach stage 5–tend, relatively, toward asynchronous development. My guess is this is more than just a random detail.


I apologize, dysexecutive syndrome can interfere with the nuances of language. I understand Kegan’s model, and didn’t mean to mistake the stages as representing proficiencies; I was responding to your description of Stage 4, about which you say “mastery implies competent executive functioning” (which confused me, given that the model is not about proficiency). By analogy, I assumed mastery of Stage 3 would require competent social functioning. Furthermore, it seems difficult to draw any simple lines between personality types vs stages, hence the debates in this comments thread.

“Basically, you have to have worked with enough different formal systems in enough depth to start to see the patterns in how they succeed and fail and mutate and combine and differentiate and so on.”

This is a brilliantly accurate description of what happened to me after a decade or so of intense, self-directed research into various areas of cognitive science, neuroimmunology, and philosophy. I was motivated by life-and-death concerns: doctors didn’t understand my mysterious neuropsychiatric symptoms, nor their causes (there is no uncontroversial diagnosis of stand-alone dysexecutive syndrome) so I had to figure them out myself, which I’m lucky to have more-or-less achieved (and recently found the responsible genetic polymorphisms), but I’m still working on implementation.
Philosophically, through the same time period, I was also exploring the “hard problem” of consciousness, which also seemed a matter of life or death.

But I had neither management experience nor institutionally formal STEM study, though I read through a lot of scientific journals. I would have gone through more conventional channels, had my executive skills permitted it.

“You have to have done that while being the primary actor in the system—developing your own research program for example.”

I suspect this is true. But in some systems, like my own, there is only one individual involved: the seeker of knowledge. I see the same sort of pattern in other independent thinkers and autodidacts. Sometimes I fear my experience is an irrelevant anomaly which contributes no meaning for others, but I’ve run into quite a few artists, musicians, writers and independent philosophers online who seem to have reached this cognitive stage.

Maybe I am part of a tiny and/or unimportant minority. I have no clue, but I hope this may be a useful data point for your engagement with Kegan’s model. I’d also be curious to see how his 5-stage model applies to other autodidacts, given his focus on the environment and context.

At least for me, Kegan’s model on its own is not particularly helpful, but combined with the generally-recognized phenomenon of asynchronous development, it goes a long way toward explaining what I had once termed my struggle with an “inverse hierarchy of needs.” I would even go so far as to say that the primary dilemma of the low-functioning autodidact could be that our cognitive stage of development far exceeds our development in other domains, and that this is often caused by the failure of a gifted child’s family and/or community to provide appropriate developmental support.

egoshards 2016-11-06

sorry, dysexecutive syndrome can be quite annoying! in case it is not obvious to everyone, I am also Splintered ;P

David Chapman 2016-11-11

Thank you very much for a long, thoughtful, and interesting comment; sorry I’m several days behind on replying!

My statement “mastery implies competent executive functioning” was certainly poorly-worded; probably misleading; and possibly wrong. What I didn’t mean was that this is a prerequisite to moving on to stage 5. Rather, that it is one possible display of unusual competence in this mode.

So, I’ve replaced that with “Effective institutional leadership is one way mastery of this stage can manifest” in the post.

gifted kids–those who may be more likely to reach stage 5–tend, relatively, toward asynchronous development. My guess is this is more than just a random detail.

That is very interesting—and my guess is that you are right!

I had neither management experience nor institutionally formal STEM study

Yes—definitely neither of these is necessary for the 4->5 transition. Kegan doesn’t mention STEM training anywhere at all, as far as I recall. It’s purely my conjecture (or hope) that under current cultural conditions the transition may be easier for STEM people than others. Before pomo screwed up humanities education, I think the reverse was true. STEM tends to hold you in stage 4: so it draws you forward from 3 but holds you back from 5.

Kegan does write about management experience as one factor that can support or precipitate the 4->5 transition; but he does not suggest it’s the only one. He’s disappointingly vague on 4->5, overall, but he does say that certain dynamics in romantic or marital relationships can also drive you toward a meta-systematic way of being.

the primary dilemma of the low-functioning autodidact could be that our cognitive stage of development far exceeds our development in other domains, and that this is often caused by the failure of a gifted child’s family and/or community to provide appropriate developmental support.

This resonates strongly for me. To some extent, based on my own life; but more from close friendships with many people whose experience seems to fit that pattern.

christianhendriks 2016-11-18

Steve: I am familiar with Isaiah Berlin’s fox/hedgehog concept. I know there was a book written about it, but I haven’t read the book. I see the connection you’re making but I think it’s a bit apples and oranges. Someone working in the humanities could be a hedgehog: for instance, a Marxist (very much a hedgehog) committed to historical materialism would take an idiographic approach to problems while assuming the “one big idea” all along. Meanwhile someone working the hard sciences could be a fox: for instance, a theoretical physicist might be trying to create a unified theory of some kind, but has no preconception about what it might be and is trying foxishly to tie together several pertinent observations in the nomethetic practice of the field. Indeed, I’d say these are typical; idiographic fields tend to rely on that ‘one big idea’ to collect their various strands in the first place, while nomethetic fields tend to avoid these preconceived big ideas, focusing instead on various evidences, in their attempt to unify everything into what will later be a big idea.

ernstnaezer 2016-12-13

Hello David,

recently I came across your site and it’s been an inspiring read so far. Thank you for your efforts you put into bringing this body of knowledge and reflections together. It’s been a fascinating source in the search for my own self.

Your piece on Kegan’s levels got me thinking and the following question popped up in the process; how does the Fluidity Level deal with disagreement in the (near) personal sphere?

The situation I’m imagining is a conflict between neighbours and loud music played well beyond socially accepted hours.

How would, in your opinion, a person who has reached fluidity deal with such a situation and how much of that maximum level would remain at that point in time?

In other words; can conflict be resolved with fluidity? Or does one fall back on a previous system that dictates a specific outcome, and do people operate within that mode until the conflict has been resolved?

Where on the spectrum between ‘Compassion and consensus’ and ‘Nebulous yet patterned’ would the needle fall in case of personal dispute?

And can fluidity lead to behaviour that, as observed from the outside, is indistinguishable from apathy, but from the inside is much more appreciative and calm?

Looking forward to learning your thoughts.

David Chapman 2016-12-13

I’m glad you’ve found this helpful!

Kegan’s books discuss personal conflict resolution at length—it’s one of his major topics. I don’t think I can give a good summary quickly, so I’d recommend going to the original source.

can fluidity lead to behaviour that, as observed from the outside, is indistinguishable from apathy, but from the inside is much more appreciative and calm?

It could—but that wouldn’t be typical, I think.

jayarava 2017-01-15

Just to be the Advocatus Diaboli for a moment. How would one falsify Kegan’s theory of development? I ask partly because it seem de rigueur in comments across David’s web-presence to treat the map as the territory. So let’s invoke the ghost of Karl Popper and forget trying to verify the unverifiable and discuss how one might falsify it.

Under what conditions would believers in this model stop being believers?

If there are no obvious conditions, then the community discussing it is suffering from severe cognitive bias.

Another reason to ask this question is the apparent lack of scholarly criticism of the idea: general searches of Google Scholar for example turn up no critical discussions of the model. Where is the critical discussion? I asked David about this and he didn’t really seem to have anything.

The third reason to pose this question is that psychology is currently melting down as the key findings from experimental psychology are not replicated. Since Kegan’s model is based on experiments from the period in which barely a third of experiments were replicated, we ought to be very skeptical about the conclusions that Kegan draws. They might just be fantasy.

Is there any rational assessment of the theory? As the proposer, David himself is excused - confirmation bias is a feature of argument production, not a bug. He puts forward the best argument for his proposal. It’s up to us to engage our reason and assess it.

Steve Alexander 2017-01-15

What are Kegan’s claims? I’ll have a go at this from memory.

  1. That a person has a constructive epistemic capability, and that this is evident in observing how that person makes meaning about the events and relationships in their life.
  2. This capability can be measured against an objective scale.
  3. This scale represents increasingly complex things moving from "subject" to "object" for a person, and that only "objects" can be discussed, reasoned about, worked with, critiqued, etc.
  4. The Subject-Object Interview is a research method that can be used to measure a person's capability, at a point in time, against the scale.
  5. The Subject-Object Interview is a stable measuring device: successive measures of the same person that are close in time give the same results. Repeated measures of the same person by different interviewers give the same results.
  6. When a person's capability is measured over a long period of time, it is seen generally to stay the same or to increase, but not to decrease.
  7. There is a correlation between having this capability and being able to function effectively in circumstances that are more cognitively, emotionally, or socially challenging.

Steve Alexander 2017-01-15

oh poo, the numbering disappeared

Steve Alexander 2017-01-15

I’m thinking next whether this set of claims is correct / complete. And, how the claims could be falsified.

David Chapman 2017-01-15

Although excused, I can say a little! First I should say that I have not done a proper literature review. That has been on my to-do list for a year but hasn’t gotten to top priority. So what follows is incomplete and impressionistic.

Second, some background. The Evolving Self was hot stuff when it was published. However, it did not generate a strong on-going academic research program. I think this was due to changing fashions, since it never seems to have been “debunked.” Kegan himself did not continue this line of academic work; In Over Our Heads is social theory far more than empirical psychology, and after that he mainly went into management consulting as far as I can tell. So if you want to find academic responses to his work, they’d mainly be published shortly after The Evolving Self, and may not be available online at all.

Third, Kegan’s story is largely a synthesis of several other, better-known and better-tested developmental theories. Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s were the two largest sources. Although there hasn’t been much good work on replicating Kegan’s specific theory, adult developmental psychology has continued. There have been an enormous number of replications and refinements of both Piaget and Kohlberg. In general, their approaches have stood up quite well (with some paradigm-maintaining normal-science modifications). The paradigm Kegan worked in is intact, so it may be wrong in details, but the approach is not a priori discredited.

There was one major challenge to Kohlberg and to The Evolving Self, which was Carol Gilligan’s feminist critique In A Different Voice. She argued that relational and systematic thinking were just different cognitive styles, and that there was not a sequential or hierarchical relationship between them. She argued that Kohlberg and Kegan’s privileging of systematic over relational thinking was due to androcentric bias, because systematic thinking is considered “male” and relational thinking “female.” In A Different Voice was also a big deal at the time. It was assigned reading in a developmental psychology course I took around 1980. I don’t remember the book very well, but I think its argument was a priori, rather than empirical. There was some careful empirical work done after that to test her theory vs. Kohlberg/Kegan, and the finding was that K/K were right and she was wrong.

That dev psych course was taught by Susan Carey, who made a big impression on me. One of the handful of teachers who most changed how I think. She’s still hard at work, publishing several times a year. Her most recent, by fortunate coincidence, is a review article on how Piaget’s stage theory has held up over the past few decades.

A developmental stage theory would be falsified if:

  • The criteria for what stage someone is in are unstable. Jane tests Abigail on Monday and says "stage 3" and Harry tests her on Thursday and say "stage 4." This possibility has been thoroughly investigated and rejected; the testing procedures are stable (inter-test agreement is probabilistically high). This is an easy experiment to do, and has been done many times to validate many stage-testing procedures. I'm pretty confident that this will hold up.
  • Supposed stages are found not to be sequential. An individual might revert from stage 4 to stage 3, or go from 3 to 5 skipping 4. This is a much more difficult test, because you need to re-test the same people over a period of many years. Work of this sort has been done many times, and has found that the stages are indeed sequential (with, again, some statistical margin of error). I haven't dug into the literature to find out how well these studies were done, or the details of the findings.
  • Supposed stages, although stable and sequential, have no interesting implications for life. This is maybe still harder to test. My impression is that most of the empirical work here has been done in management schools, and the methods look dubious. I personally have an impressionistic confidence that 3 vs 4 vs 5 makes a huge difference to people's professional effectiveness in careers that demand systematic thinking. It seems like this would have to be true of 3 vs 4, but it's possible that there's nothing much more than anecdata supporting it empirically.

Kegan’s account of 3 vs 4 is not much different from Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s. It’s possible that those will be discredited at some point, but short of that, it seems pretty solid.

Kegan’s 5 is where I would expect problems. His account of it is frustratingly vague, and it might be hard to falsify for that reason. He is explicit that the data in support of 5 are not extensive. The main empirical finding is that there is a set of people who can operate in 4, but who also are stably found to do “something more.” (In other words, re-tests of this group by different testers do repeatedly find that they are going beyond 4 in some way.)

4 corresponds to Piaget’s “formal operations,” which was the last stage Piaget posited. There are a number of Neo-Piagetian theories of “post-formal operations,” which I’ve only skimmed. They don’t look very good. Generally the word “dialectical” comes up a lot, meaning a comparison and synthesis of multiple systems—which is also what the “something beyond 4” finding seems to be. And so this is “meta-systematicity.”

Kohlberg’s stages ran up to 7, and again it’s empirically clear that some people do go beyond 4. However, his distinguishing of stages 5, 6, and 7 was not well-founded empirically (and looks conceptually dubious to me). Kegan smooshed all those together into one stage, basically for lack of solid data.

Stage 5 is most interesting to me personally, so its somewhat sketchy empirical basis is both a problem (maybe it is, indeed, a fantasy, or too vague to be usefully meaningful) and an opportunity (I think I can contribute to its understanding).

David Chapman 2017-01-15

Steve — I don’t know what happened to your numbering. I’ve edited your comment to add them.

David Chapman 2017-01-15

Steve’s answer came in while I was composing mine, and I didn’t see it before posting. One of his points I did not cover is Kegan’s observation that the stage shifts can be best characterized as material moving from subject to object.

This is an elegant and attractive idea, but highly abstract. I think it would be difficult to falsify. I think also that the truth and usefulness of his framework does not depend on it at all. It’s maybe most valuable as a mnemonic device for organizing the framework in one’s mind conceptually. I wouldn’t put weight on it beyond that.

Steve Alexander 2017-01-15

Kegan speaks to Carol Gilligan’s critique from “In A Different Voice” on page 203 of In Over Our Heads.

The point he makes is that Gilligan conflates cross-categorical knowing (level 3 knowing) with social sources of knowing. Kegan claims there is a difference between “being embedded in the psychological surround” and “getting knowledge via the psychological surround vs other sources of knowledge”, and that Gilligan did not take the subtle nature of this difference into account in her critique.

In various parts of In Over Our Heads, Kegan uses a story-telling style, and pairs a male “level 3” character with a female “level 4” character. He says he did this deliberately, to show the distinction between the male character’s “masculine” cognitive style (at level 3), and the female character’s “feminine” cognitive style (at level 4).

In addition, there are two tables, on pages 225 and 227, which attempt to show the distinction between “structural distinctions” and “voice distinctions”.

In my experience of discussing / using Kegan’s work with a variety of people, the “it’s about subject-object structure, and that’s all” aspect of the theory is the hardest to understand. It’s not an aspect most people are used to considering, and stereotypical accounts of “what some situation seems like at level 3” vs “what it seems like at level 4” tend to blur the “connected/separate” and “socialized/systemic” aspects, leading to confusion.

Steve Alexander 2017-01-15

David — I’m intrigued by the idea that Kegan’s framework can be useful without the S-O idea. I’d like to kick this around a bit, and see where it goes… I’d be grateful if you’d comment on the following.

In my mind, the S-O idea is an elegant, but kind of complex, way of saying “there are ideas/situations/relationships that were unworkable for me in the past, which are now workable for me”.

And “there are things that are unworkable for me now, which may become workable in the future”.

And this change in “workableness” happens due to a change in me and how I construct meaning in the world, rather than changes in the “stuff” itself.

And that the things that move into workability tend to move in batches of similar complexity.

What else is in the S-O theory besides this?

David Chapman 2017-01-15
In my experience of discussing / using Kegan’s work with a variety of people, the “it’s about subject-object structure, and that’s all” aspect of the theory is the hardest to understand. It’s not an aspect most people are used to considering, and stereotypical accounts of “what some situation seems like at level 3” vs “what it seems like at level 4” tend to blur the “connected/separate” and “socialized/systemic” aspects, leading to confusion.

That’s very interesting! Thanks, you’ve drawn that distinction more clearly than I have. I believe you are right that this is a main point of confusion, and I’ll bear it in mind when explaining in future.

And that the things that move into workability tend to move in batches of similar complexity.

Yes; but also particular types of material. So, in 2→3, interests move from structuring the self to being structured by relationships, which come to structure the self. In 3→4, relationships move from structuring the self to being structured by principled systems, which come to structure the self. In 4→5, systems move from structuring the self to being structured by “the meaning-making process itself,” which comes to structure the self.

So, to the extent that the SOI accurately tests “what structures the self,” validation of the SOI would confirm that each of the stage transitions does involve the corresponding change. I’m not sure how one could test the claim that the SOI does test that the self is structured, at each stage, by interests, relationships, systems, or meaning-making, respectively. This seems abstract and somewhat inherently subjective? But maybe that’s just a failure of scientific imagination (or effort) on my part. I’ve spent all of three minutes trying to think of an experiment, and haven’t come up with one so far!

Off-topic note: I’m not happy with “the meaning-making process itself.” That’s an awfully vague concept. One of several points where Kegan’s account of 5 is less specific than one would like.

Kaj Sotala 2017-04-04

Huh. It took me a while to finally get around reading this post (only a year and a half after you first posted it!), but now that I did… it’s striking how much strongly the various stages jump out to me as stages in my own development.

It’s interesting how utilitarianism sounds exactly like it should be a stage 4 thing (it is, as you said of Marxism, “systematic, technical, rational”), but my early naive utilitarianism was definitely a manifestation of stage 3 thinking, just dressed up in technical clothing. There was a strong element of thinking that if anyone feels bad, then I have a responsibility to fix it. (This did not mesh well with dating somebody with borderline personality disorder.) This was around my late teens, maybe; up to 2006 or so.

That evolved into a more sophisticated, stage 4 version of utilitarianism around 2006-2013, but ultimately that too felt unsatisfying. By 2014 I’d started transitioning out of it; you might find interesting my 2014 post on LessWrong about starting to reject stage 4 thinking. (Called “Two arguments for not thinking about ethics (too much)”; a previous version of this comment included a link, but I think it got caught and summarily deleted by a spam filter?)

David Chapman 2017-04-05

Thank you for a very interesting comment! Sorry about the spam filter.

I read your 2014 article back when you published it, with great interest. I thought it was terrific! I also did think then: “Oh, that’s great, he’s started to move beyond stage 4, I’m really glad!”

Your follow-up article from today is also great. (I’d recommend both of these to anyone reading these comments.)

Kegan’s stage theory doesn’t necessarily fit everyone’s experience, but it sounds like it may be a useful framing for yours particularly.

utilitarianism sounds exactly like it should be a stage 4 thing

Yes; I have a mostly-unwritten placeholder draft in my gigantic outline, which is supposed to explain just that.

This did not mesh well with dating somebody with borderline personality disorder.

Yeah, been there, done that (in my early 20s). Bad scene.

The pattern of stage 4 rationality leading to 4.5 depression seems to be particularly common among STEM folks (probably because we take serious things seriously, and aren’t willing to just say “oh, well, whatever”).

I have written a bunch of follow-on pages over on Meaningness, particularly about the 4→4.5→5 transitions, particularly among STEM folks. You might find interesting “A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse,” suggesting that creating an explicit path from stage 4 to 5, specifically for STEM people, may mitigate a particular existential risk. “What they don’t teach you in STEM school” sketches what such a path might look like. “A first lesson in meta-rationality” is step 1.

popeandronikos 2017-08-27

probably because we take serious things seriously, and aren’t willing to just say “oh, well, whatever”

This is important. If seems to me that as you move up on stages that you need to take a more cavalier or playful attitude towards what was once so serious to you. By the time you reach stage 5 then, how can you really take anything at all seriously? Even though obviously values and principles and relationships are all quite serious, it seems that once you reach the higher level you can switch seriousness about these objects on and off.

I personally think meditation practice is essential for this. When you start to realize that you exist behind your emotions and thoughts as an observer of them, that really opens the door to realizing that you’re an observer of your rational mind too.

Robert M Ellis 2017-11-25

Hi David, I read this some time ago, but wanted to come back and thank you for switching me on to Robert Kegan’s work. It’s been an invaluable discovery. This blog post includes some initial thoughts on Kegan in relation to Buddhism and the Middle Way, but I suspect there’s a lot more to come.

Steve Alexander 2018-01-02

There’s a wonderful example of a Stage 4 / Stage 5 conversation between Sam Harris and Eric Weinstein here:

(Waking Up with Sam Harris, episode 112, starting at 1:18:58, continuing for the next few minutes)

My paraphrasing:

Eric is introducing four sense-making “primitives”: Truth, Meaning, Fitness, and Grace. He’s describing them as systems that he can engage in different situations to achieve different results. Sam counters that he believes Eric is seeking coherence among these four aspects, and that a solution could potentially be found for a given situation that achieves Truth, Meaning, Fitness and Grace at once. Eric answers that this isn’t what he means at all, and that there are situations where he will (for example) temporarily disengage Truth in order to have some experience more fully.

Sam’s Stage 4 wants there to be a single coherent system that has Truth, Meaning, Fitness, and Grace aspects. While Eric’s Stage 5 wants to manage four distinct sense-making systems, without needing the burden of making them coherent or needing to find correspondences between them.

bodenlso86 2018-01-16

Thank you so much for this article. I am also a STEM person, stranded at stage 4.5. I recently read the anti-idealist, anti-romantic critique “The unique and his property” and “Stirner’s critics” by Max Stirner written around 1848 in Germany. I think that this book might even help you to move further to 5. Stirner describes the unique as transient creation and creator, a nothingness. But he also - in a Heglian matter and funny critique against Hegel - devides the individual development in three stages. The child trys to dominate the physical world and yet does not understand social constructions. In one’s youth one is dominated by fixed, sacred ideas (social constructions), from religious ideas like God to secular ideas like justice. Only in the stage of adulthood one first rejects the domination and sacredness of these ideas and then creates those unions with other people and ideas that benefit oneself. However, if these unions and ideas are not willed anylonger, they are left behind without remorse.

Samuel 2018-03-13

I believe it would be possible to persuade the Unitarian Universalist Church that there is an issue with people getting stuck in stage 3. The Unitarian ministers I have talked to were either familiar with Kegan’s work in the first place or vaguely remembered studying it earlier. It is also worth noting that all but one of the Unitarians that I have talked to about this believe there is an issue. The one Unitarian that is not convinced yet is going to read up on the theory before making a decision, but it seems very likely that she will be convinced.
Perhaps if we win over enough institutions the problem will be solvable.

jacob 2018-03-17

Great post and interesting theory. Would it be possible to create a somewhat accurate test that predicts the Kegan-stage of the test taker?

Steve Alexander 2018-03-17

@jacob Kegan and his research group already did. It’s called the Subject Object Interview.

You can get trained in scoring the Subject Object Interview in a course run by members of his research group, every year in January in Boston:

petiver 2018-07-15

I think there’s another way of understanding communal (stage 3) with systematic (stage 4) that puts it in evolutionary terms, and also allows one to connect Kegan’s views with Haidt’s (as someone mentioned would be worthwhile doing), and those of others with alternative models like Lakoff.

Human social organizations have evolved by becoming increasingly larger and more complex. The smallest and simplest is the family, followed by tribes, local communities, states, and so on. This is pretty well accepted. People differ in what type of organization they identify with. Kegan’s communals identify with the smaller, simpler groups, where everyone generally knows everyone else, and interactions with others are almost always direct, face-to-face. Systematics identify with larger groups, where many if not most interactions are indirect. E.g., obeying rules and laws is a form of interacting indirectly with others. Performing any kind of job in a large institutions involves interacting indirectly with others. So does reading a book, watching TV, or browsing the internet. In modern societies we are constantly interacting with others, almost always indirectly.

Communal and systematic also correspond quite closely with the political divide, despite what one commenter earlier said. Conservatives generally identify with the smallest and simplest, family and local community. Even conservative elites, who may be quite functional at stage 4, speak in these terms when they advocate certain views. Liberals identify with the larger and more complex: nations, trans-national organizations, and ultimately the planet. This is a much more coherent and consistent way of describing the political divide than is provided by Haidt or Lakoff. For example, Haidt describes conservatives as more “groupish”, but liberals are just as attracted to groups as conservatives are, it’s just that the groups are larger, with many of the relationships indirect. Lakoff likens conservatives to a strict family, where the father sets all the rules, whereas his understanding of liberals is a freer and more tolerant family structure. But liberals can be just as strict, e.g., as manifested in PC and government regulations, and conservatives can advocate freer relationships, such as the market economy. What really distinguishes them is the evolutionary stage of social organization they identify most closely with.

matthewnicholl6165 2019-05-08

I’m a music educator interested in how adult psychological development theory might apply to artistic development. Can anyone reply with advice, references, or the like? thanks

Monism in modern culture

Marko 2021-03-27

Institutions are also, increasingly, accommodating and even validating stage 3 behavior in young adults. (This is a point of current controversy in universities particularly.) Although done with the best of intentions, institutions’ failure to challenge the communal mode may be detrimental to both individuals and society in the longer run. I am concerned that our culture may increasingly be actively impeding personal growth into systematicity—and providing less of the necessary support for it. More people are getting stuck in an earlier developmental stage. This may become disastrous.

(I suspect the recent upsurge in monist spirituality may be one manifestation of this problem.)

Hi David,

I would like to point out that the attractiveness of monism, when I first found it, came from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, which in turn came from a lack of ability to convince myself to study when I wanted to in University. You should note that this is a gutturally unpleasant feeling which brought it on, not some kind of nebulous rejection of systematicity as you describe. Because you see, I could even tell that it was wrong when I was in the process of reading that book, but it was just the promise a relief to my anxiety and the elegant solution it seemed to provide that made it attractive. Though, now that I think about it, I suppose you are correct that society is validating this behaviour, as it was my psychotherapist who later told me the book was good that really got me into it, after I had already closed it halfway-through saying “This is stupid!”

Which Stage Does Indigenous Wisdom Belong To?

Josh Palmer 2021-05-19

Thank you for this eye-opening read; in many ways it intellectualizes/verbalizes what I’ve felt but could not express so eloquently. It is truly liberating when we reach stage 5 states, even if it is just briefly through meditation and careful reflection.

One aspect that confuses me though is the framing of “traditional” vs. “modern” societies as one of stage 3 vs. 4. From my perspective, it is our modern extractive and capitalist mindsets that has lead to global inequalities and ecosystem collapse. these stand in sharp contrast to the cultures of gratitude and reciprocity that underpin Indigenous stewardship of the land. these cultures are community and relationship-based (as per the tenets of Stage 3), but yield emergent systems effects due to the impacts of proper stewardship. thus one could make the argument that these cultures belong more to Stage 4.

and going a meta step further into nebulous terrain, when we practice gratitude, we essentially are performing the Stage 5 task of “bridge-building” to help resolve conflicts. this is why I began this comment with genuine gratitude for you and your work :)

First impressions

Brent 2021-08-15

I wonder if the stages would be better replaced by a continuum from 0 to 1. 1-5 tantalizes with the undiscovered existence of a 6, etc. More importantly—and as implied by the 3.5 and 4.5 intermediate states—a continuous function seems more true, and the integral one seems like an over-simplification.

There are two other continua which seem related, based on the ability to recognize the value of sentient agents at a distance: first in spacetime, and second in cultural difference. Maybe a third: the degree of separation (in social connections).

Developing towards the fluid state seems to also be modified by the ability to maintain one’s maximal state under duress. Lower level energies will overtake higher level energies if the degree of stress is high enough, mitigated by experience/training/skill. Starving, or living with a loved one stricken with a mortal disease, makes it hard to think about systems, if you aren’t practised.

The different stages seem to be associated with different brain structures, at least roughly, although I wouldn’t know how 4 and 5 differ. I don’t know if the Buddhist concept of the observer or whatever that sees one experiencing and having feelings, without being controlled by them, is itself associated with a particular brain structure.

Some ideologies and belief systems are suggested to originate or be associated with particular stages. But then the concept of “post-modernism” is not.

Discreteness and continua are ways of looking

David Chapman 2021-08-15

I wonder if the stages would be better replaced by a continuum from 0 to 1

It’s useful to look at it in both ways. Qualitative changes and quantitative ones are non-separate… looking at something both ways is a great example of meta-rationality. See “A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse,” particularly the quote from Emanuel Rylke there, for why the qualitative view is useful, and “The Cofounders” for a detailed look at the continuum from stage 4 to stage 5.

Lower level energies will overtake higher level energies if the degree of stress is high enough, mitigated by experience/training/skill.

Good insight! Yes, this is also the empirical finding of adult developmental research.

the concept of “post-modernism”

Stage 4.5.

meta-systems? post-modernism

Brent 2021-08-15

Is it a symptom of stage 4 to want to merge competing systems into a super-system or meta-system? I wonder if the desire to integrate everything, and make it all internally coherent and consistent, is driven by a wish to assume things are simpler than they really are.

There must be some reasonable justification for this intuitive sense: the universe is probably a single coherent physical system; all viable human models of reality must be incomplete approximations; all viable models should complement one another, although they might have to be modified to use consistent labels and such. But maybe not.

“Post-modernism” is a pain in the ass. I studied a bit of post-structuralism at college. I always felt the whole enterprise was dishonest. Not just incomplete, or based on flawed premises, but a performance with false intent: a sleight of hand.

The fact that a text could be deconstructed, and shown to contradict itself, seemed to me an evasion: a text is a string of symbols, not an experience. Likewise any work of art is just an artifact requiring interpretation. It doesn’t prove anything or provide inisight into reality if you analyze it in isolation.

The temptation to nihilism did strike a chord with me. For many years I imagined I was a nihilist of some sort. But then I realized that I was not rejecting meaning, but many flawed systems of interpretation. Now I believe meaning is derived from impulses—or, in sentient being, from desire. If you respond to something, whether positively or negatively or otherwise, then it is meaningful, and it doesn’t require explanation. It’s automatic.

Social systems are meaningful in that they are attempts to address conflicts in our desires, both for individuals and societies. They are valuable to the degree that they succeed. I think that sounds consistent with stage 5 ethics, but I’m not certain.

Anyway, thanks for the great summary.

Beyond stage 4

David Chapman 2021-08-15

Is it a symptom of stage 4 to want to merge competing systems into a super-system or meta-system?

This shows up pretty reliably around “4.2,” where you are starting to see the limitations of the systematic way of being, and intuit that there must be something beyond that, but the only thing you know how to do is systems, so you try to build an overarching one. 4.5 comes when you realize that is doomed to failure (but don’t see a clear way forward beyond that).

the universe is probably a single coherent physical system;

Probably, at the quantum level… which is usually irrelevant to anything we care about…

all viable human models of reality must be incomplete approximations

Metaphorically yes, but not literally approximations; see “Overdriving approximation.”

all viable models should complement one another,

I think that’s right, but they will also contradict each other. Stage 5 meta-rationality is about skillful simultaneous use of contradictory models. Introduction here

“Post-modernism” is a pain in the ass.

It certainly is!

a performance with false intent: a sleight of hand.

I agree, although it has gotten increasingly that way (and is now almost entirely so). The founders had important insights, think, mingled with culpable flaws.

I think that sounds consistent with stage 5 ethics

I thinks so too!

Kegan's 'communal mode' solution is wrong

udh 2022-09-14

The honeymoon example Kegan gave and the ‘communal’ solution is wrong because

a) Randomly springing (i.e. without asking) a holiday on your spouse and kids means you didn’t take into consideration spouse & kids needs.

b) Go to places like Ikaria. This dilemma never shows up to begin with because everyone lives nearby and possibly in the same house.

Finally, I cannot see why you would not just say: - we (me & spouse) planned this holiday for just us. If all of us (me, spouse, parents, kids) want to get together; let’s plan something together - a holiday, picnic etc.

you get your couple holiday and also make it clear if you want to do an ‘all-together’ then its going to be another time, and planned by all of you (well maybe not kids).

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