Multiple Selves, Cognitive Level, Moral Development and the Maturity of Values

Posted: November 24, 2012 in Integral Studies, Pedagogy & Education, Philosophical Debris

There has been a dramatic downturn in my writing in this Blog, to say the least.  Part of the reason for that is that I have been working on longer passages, including a book.  I’ll try posting some excerpts from these writings, even though they may be a bit longer than some people would want in a blog post.  Here’s one that isn’t in the book, but probably should be.


The way we view reality is called a paradigm.  It is the combination of the level of conceptual evolution we’re at, whether we’re pre-rational, rational or trans-rational, our level of moral development, the filters, prejudices and rationalizations that have permeated our thought, and the shadows that tug our emotions in specific directions.  These are the things that control how we look at the world and, as a result, what we believe.

Elementary and High Schools are a real pressure cooker for developing relationships and friendships.  They spawn friendship cliques, and even sometimes gangs.  You have sub-cultures within the high schools that include collections of smokers, pot-heads, ravers, jocks, preppies, Goths, ….and I could go on.  Some of these may be dated, but you have the idea.  There are also less formal groups, and in Elementary Schools informality is the norm as you don’t have groups of Goths hanging together usually.  And yet in the schoolyard it is easy to see certain people gravitate towards each other .  The new kid who enteres the school may experiment a little to see where they fit in, but eventually they find their niche, or failing that alter their own standards to fit into the one that comes closest.

The dynamics of all of this is very interesting.  It depends on all of the things I mentioned above (and more), but can be described in terms of two factors in particular.  Let’s focus on moral development and Integral stage.

As people develop morally, they go through a series of stages.  Lawrence Kohlberg presented six stages in his theory of moral development, which are generally accepted by most psychologists.  These six stages move from reward and punishment, to self interest to social conformity to following rules to establishing a social contract to having universal principles.  One may argue about details here, but the general idea is pretty sound.  As adolescents grow up, they progress through these stages, but the progression is not simple.

Adolescents and teens tend to have a fluid, malleable and shifting psychological make-up.  Multiple personalities are very active and constantly shifting, experimenting and adapting to new situations.  The psyche is not as stable and fixed as it is with adult.  Different situations will not only see the predominance of different “selves” but also different stages of morality.  In one situation a teen may exhibit a higher level of morality and in another situation it may drop to one of self interest.  Conflicts about these different levels are raging in the adolescent’s mind as they attempt to negotiate more stable selves.

This is true for Integral Stages as well.  Ken Wilber summarizes Integral Stages using the terms Pre-rational, rational and trans-rational.  There are more stages than that, but this is a useful simplification.  These stages have more to do with cognitive than moral development.  Pre-rational thinkers have a cognitive mindset that does not value or sometimes even accept rational thought.  It is either ignored or dismissed.  (We see this quite often in various fundamentalist views within our society.)  At times adolescents and teens will be quite rational, as when writing an essay or taking a test or obtaining a driver’s license.  At other times they will dismiss reason, as when smoking with friends, or engaging in drugs or alcohol.  They bounce back and forth between rational and pre-rational as the multiplicity of selves in their heads play out and negotiate power struggles.

A lot of the influence in the outcome of those power struggles comes from a give and take with their social environment.  First of all, people in general, but teens in particular, are drawn to others who have a similar moral and cognitive level.  This is what initially produces the cliques.  However it can work the other way as well.  Being surrounded by a crowd with a particular moral and cognitive level will encourage the dominance of the specific selves that best fit in with that crowd.  As the younger mind is so malleable, this happens easily in some cases.  (Obviously the structure and stability of selves is more developed in some young people than in others, and this will determine the extent of malleability.)

Enter the teenager who is attempting to figure out their own values and yet fit into their social scene.  They may think that the only kind of “fun” and “coolness” that they’re looking for can be found in the party scene, which values alcohol and drugs.  They may have strong rational and moral components in their selves and feel that they can indulge in the scene and yet maintain their other interests and activities.  But in making the decision to enter that party scene it is necessary for them to suspend several higher cognitive and moral standards.  They have to go against what they’ve learned about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.  They have to break the law.  They have to violate the moral standards of authority figures that they hold in respect.  They have to sneak around in what they’re doing because they know that society in general does not approve of their decisions and actions.  As a result, specific “selves” are brought into play, and these selves are not the ones trying to evolve the higher cognitive and moral values.

Even if the teen is successful in engaging with moderation, the same shift in personality will take place.  By rationalizing, the teen has managed to salvage a little more of the rational self and stage, but they are still suspending a lot of their higher functions.  More importantly, they are surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, which inevitably leads to a reinforcement of those psychological priorities.

The end result is the person who feels that they have things under control and are showing a more mature moderation in what they are doing, but who still seems to be withdrawing from productive activities and interests in other parts of their lives.  The tunnel vision is still there, but in this case is propped up with the rationalization, “I know what I’m doing and I’m just changing my interests.”  This is a dishonest statement, -actually more dishonest than the druggie who simply accepts that their priority is the culture of intoxication.   This will still lead to a narrowing of life experiences, as the person absorbs the values and priorities of their peers through a reinforcement of the selves with the lower developmental structures.  This changing of priorities is likely not a changing as much as it is just a general withdrawal.  If an individual gives up sports to learn how to play the guitar, there is probably not a problem.  If they are simply withdrawing from activities and there is no discernible substitution then that is the sign of narrowing life experiences. Even a deep relationship with another person, as valuable as that may be, is likely to develop into a co-dependent relationship if it is isolated from other life experiences.

In the end it is not the drugs or alcohol that is causing the problem, but rather the decisions that led to the engagement and the dominant values that surround the person.  These dominant values can be verbal, as in statements like “Ew, you’re actually a member of the Rugby Team?  Why bother?” or they can be non-verbal, just expressed in patterns of interaction.  Decisions and environment.  Decisions, because they are the end results of the internal conflict and power struggle of the ‘selves’.  Environment, because it activates and reinforces certain selves within the malleable teenager.

With the shrinking of interests and activities also comes the shrinking of life purpose and meaning.  Without positive engagement, life becomes less meaningful, focussed and interesting.  Boredom is much more likely to rear its head, complicating things further.  It becomes a vicious circle.  Poor choices are made to combat the boredom because the individual does not realize that the boredom is self imposed.  The paradigm has become self destructive, like a serpent eating its tail.  Shifting to another paradigm is very difficult.

I believe that the entrenchment of paradigms in this manner is the reason why so much of personal evolution happens in the period between ages 14 and 25.  This is the malleable period where Selves are established along with cognitive and moral levels.  Once the paradigms are set, like concrete, it is much more difficult to reshape them.  Development turns into healing.


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