Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence

Robert Kegan’s model of adult development has profoundly influenced my understanding of ethics, relationships, society, and thought. This page summarizes his theory.

Earlier, I’ve mentioned Lawrence Kohlberg’s related model of moral development. He pointed out a series of increasingly sophisticated ways one can approach ethical reasoning. The capacity to reason in each of these ways develops over an individual’s lifetime through a fixed sequence of developmental stages.

Kohlberg’s model had strong empirical support, and it significantly advanced ethical understanding; but his approach was excessively rationalistic. Our moral being involves feeling and acting, just as much as reasoning. Moral activity is also always situated in richly textured social relationships and complex practicalities, and cannot be separated from them. Kohlberg’s paradigm of ethics was sitting in an armchair, reasoning out the correct action in simple, imaginary cases that you have no personal connection with.1

Kegan recognized that ethics is not an autonomous domain, but derives from the way we construct our selves; the way we understand romantic, family, and work relationships; and our general cognitive capacity. In empirical studies, he and others found that all these progress in sync through a series of five stages, similar to the ones Kohlberg had demonstrated for ethical reasoning ability.2 Each stage has a more sophisticated and more accurate understanding of self and other, which makes more sophisticated and accurate ethics possible.

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