Integral Morality

Posted: July 5, 2011 in Integral Studies, Pedagogy & Education, Philosophical Debris

As you’ve probably gathered from previous posts, I’m really interested in Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology theories.  I find the secular parts of it fascinating and probably one of the most important theories of our time.

I have, however, never been entirely sold on the Integral Spirituality part of the theory.  I accept the broad strokes of it.  I believe that there is an evolutionary force in the universe moving towards some sort of cosmic enlightenment, but my skeptical self is having a lot of trouble with the details.  Wilber’s book on Integral Spirituality is a very dense, convoluted book which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to read three times.

Andrew Cohen’s work, nicely summarized in his “Awakening the Authentic Self” audio series, is unsatisfying.  Cohen is the editor of EnlightenNext magazine and Wilber’s chief collaborator when it comes to spiritual matters.  And yet the audio series would never encourage me to attend any of his retreats or courses.  It’s not that I don’t understand these.  I understand them totally.  The problem is that the ideas in them are presented in a repetitious and painfully slow manner.  (Cohen’s repetition is so pronounced that if you tune out for 10 minutes, which is easy, you can be fairly confident that when your attention returns, you haven’t missed much.)  There is a lack of substance which leaves me unsatisfied at the end of each hour long talk.  I think back on what I’ve listened to and realize that he’s only made one or two points, and not really expressed them in a way satisfying to a skeptic.

However, there were two interesting points made in the most recent talk I listened to on the subject of moral development.

Cohen equates the soul to the idea of moral compass.  I don’t know if buy that, but it may just be a matter of semantics.  He states that regardless of the level of moral development (such as Kohlberg’s) there is still a horizontal dimension which can be thought of as moral compass,  i.e. how “good” or “bad” a person is.  A person can be at a lower stage of moral development, requiring reward and punishment to be motivated, and still be either a good or a bad person.  Similarly you can have a person at a higher stage of moral development, having formalized a set of abstract values, who is either good or bad.  Hitler had abstract moral values, and therefor would rank high on Kohlberg’s moral development scale, and yet these values were evil, indicating a negative moral compass.  It’s an interesting distinction that I’d not considered before.  Now it seems rather obvious and requires some additional thought.

However the most important point that Cohen makes is that this moral compass has one prominent defining feature.  Morality, he claims, is closely linked with the ability to take responsibility and ownership of things in your life.  The person with the positive moral compass will not only take responsibility for anything that they actually do, but also for whatever happens to them.  They will not blame others for things happening to them.  They refuse to be victims.  On the other hand, one often notices that people with weak or negative moral compasses often depict themselves as “victims” and blame other people for their problems.  Most people that we regard as “bad” or “evil” show this characteristic quite strongly.  There are very few evil psychopaths that act simply because they enjoy being evil.

This is an important way of looking at morality for two reasons.  First, it is secular and doesn’t require the support of any religious beliefs.  Second, it provides is with a strategy for building morality within ourselves and encouraging it in others.  Take responsibility.  And the more unconditional that responsibility is, the stronger will be your moral compass.


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