Human Development 1: Higher levels are not always better (sorry everyone)

An excerpt from: Stein, Z. (in press). On the use of the term Integral. Published proceedings of the 2nd biannual Integral Theory Conference. Esbjörn-Hargens (Ed.). Forthcoming SUNY press. [pdf]

Growth-to-goodness from Baldwin to Wilber

The real considered as the possible, the undiscovered, the hoped-for is assumed or postulated. We accept a beyond both of truths and of goods, and bend our imaginations to depict its reality and anticipate its value. Suppositions arise as to the true, new ends come to supplement the good; in both these worlds, ideals hover over the body of actualities. We are ever prospecting, and it is only as this prospecting is successful that the store of actualities is enlarged in mass, defined in detail, and enriched in meaning…. The scientific imagination itself not only discovers the true, but also postulates the ideal of Truth. Much more is this the case with the moral imagination…. Consciousness seems thus to forget its realism, its actualism, and to become a moralist and idealist…. Reality is seen to be progressive, unfinished, dynamic, having an ideal meaning, but never achieving it in fact…. The facts are, of course, there, both the mental facts and the physical facts. But beyond them rises the end, sublime in its scorn of the fact; the “ought “dominates the “is.”

—Baldwin, 1906 vol. 3 247-249


Wilber is one of those theorists who has taken the time to trace the development of their own theorizing through distinct stages. Interestingly, Baldwin (1926) is another, and their intellectual biographies display many similarities (and, of course, many differences as well). In Baldwin’s autobiography, we find an account of a thinker who begins in the experimental-psych lab and ends up as a meta-theorist articulating a comprehensive evolutionary theory of reality. Moreover, Baldwin (1906) articulated a complex model of the developing human psyche, and effectively accounted for his meta-theoretical project in terms of this psychological model. He proposed that the highest stages of human development—stages he dubbed trans-logical—served primarily to reconcile and integrate the disparate outputs of various developmental modes. The telos of development assures that later stages are characterized by increasingly adequate, increasingly integrative, and increasingly reconciliatory and redemptive cognitive and emotional processes. Baldwin’s model unabashedly endorses the notion that higher is better and that evolution is a process of growth-to-goodness (Cahan, 2003).

The pre-history of Baldwin’s growth-to-goodness assumptions go back to Spinoza, Schelling, and Kant, and especially the latter’s 3rd Critique, that dark and cryptic cipher that spawned Romanticism. Of course, Baldwin was not alone, as most psychologists and philosophers who endorsed evolution toward the end of the 19th Century also endorsed a growth-to-goodness view (Faber, 1998). But Baldwin would influence most of the major developmental psychologists over the next century. While the effect of his initial commitment to a growth-to-goodness view would fade, it would never entirely wear off. Kohlberg often slid into a kind of imminent teleology and Neo-Aristotelianism (Habermas, 1993). Maslow (1971) and Loevinger (1976) would offer models where the characteristics of the highest levels were overtly both valuable and inevitable. And all three posit that the highest levels are best described as integrative, liberating, wholesome, and healthy—fundamentally worth striving for.

More recently, Wilber and a host of others have used these models and their assumptions about the higher levels in the context of a broad discourse about human potential, transformation, and meaning-making. I say assumptions because all existing models that address “the farther reaches of human nature” are based on scant empirical evidence and lots of speculation (as nearly all of the above mentioned theorists admit in print, see Wilber, 1999). Current discussions in Wilber’s wake deploy the term Integral to signify the quality of the transformations that occur in late stage development. The momentous leap to 2nd tier values, the synthesizing power of vision-logic, and post-conventional morality are all considered indices of a deeper integral consciousness. This new emerging form of consciousness is tetra-located in individuals, cultural movements, and their respective biological, economic, and institutional configurations. This brings psychological models into contact with those from anthropology and cultural history that also view Integral structures as the latest complex emerging evolutionary meta-trend (Gebser, 1984; Thompson, 2004; 2009). It is as if the telos of evolution assures us an Integral future. And so the story goes that higher is better because Integral is higher.

The growth to goodness assumptions should not be confused with Wilber’s account, which is poly-vocal and rich with footnotes and caveats. The growth to goodness assumptions are simply in the Zeitgeist, they involve (but are not limited to) the following ideas: 1) the higher stages are intrinsically more valuable than lower ones; 2) the higher stages can be characterized as Integral across the board; 3) the whole person transforms while attaining these levels; and 4) the emergence of this valuable integral consciousness has some degree of inevitably, being the next big thing on the evolutionary itinerary. Few of the theorists mentioned above admit being committed to these assumptions in any kind of unqualified or simple way. And yet it is hard to find in their works rich descriptions of the higher-levels that don’t unduly emphasize their positive attributes. They paint inspiring pictures of the higher-levels, and in this respect their works serve an important ennobling function, a kind of provocative normative function, egging us on by quasi-scientifically describing a realm of deeply admirable human potentials.

However, below I will show that the higher levels don’t always look so good. Many products of late stage development are not worthy of being dubbed Integral when we consider the term’s normative uses. This means that the use of Integral as a catch-all category for late stage capabilities, dispositions, and related artifacts, is both inaccurate and at variance with its normative use. As mentioned at the outset, we are dealing with a thick concept here, and its dual-use affordances make it both powerful and problematic. So what to do with this slippery term? I don’t think current use of the term easily lends itself to reforms wherein in the things we dub Integral are no longer also the things we prefer. Integral appears best fit to serve a normative function.

The farther reaches of human nature: What do they really look like?

This is all an intrapersonal problem for me. How to put together the artist in me and the scientist? The mystical with the sober? Somebody wrote me recently admiring me for managing to live simultaneously in the conventional world and in the far out, unconventional world. So can I be in the D[eficiency]-realm, with good reality testing, and in the B[eing]-realm, contemplating eternal B-values? In and out of the world. Matter-of-fact and also awed by the sacredness and mystery….Very paradoxical…. my troubles and conflict over my role….Then it dawned on me that what this meant was a redefinition of happiness and of the good life. All of my conflicts and emotions and bad dreams…they are happiness. Happiness will have to be defined as being pained and troubled in a good cause! The good life is to have good-real-worthwhile worries and anxieties….It’s all an extension of my hierarchy of grumbles. The good life is to have meta-grumbles instead of low grumbles.

—Abraham Maslow, 1982 p. 108


Wilber (2006) has claimed that according to some measures, the vast majority of humans on the planet are below the critical capability-levels that enable worldcentric identity formation and reflective democratic civic participation. To put it bluntly, in relation to some scales the majority of the world is ethnocentric. Wilber then raises the specter of Nazism, which was an unholy mixture of technology and ethnocentrism. He argues for the kinds of reforms that would enable the transformation of human capabilities across a wide array of important lines and insure that worldcentric perspectives are available to all. These calls for the liberation of human capability and experience, transcending but including calls for economic welfare and equality, set Wilber in league with Sen, Nussbaum, Habermas, and West.

But notice that on one reading, Wilber’s account presents a developmental spectrum in which Nazis are at the bottom and Global Peace Facilitators are at the top. The broad argument leans heavily, but not explicitly (or necessarily), on the growth-to-goodness assumptions. It may be that on most scales many Nazis would score very low, but they would not score any lower than most of the “good guys” fighting against them in the 1940s. Moreover, and to the point, what about Hitler and the dozens of PhDs on his staff? Accounts of decision-making processes surrounding the final solution are convincing evidence that post-formal operational capabilities can be deployed for dreadful purposes (Goldhagen, 1996). Comparable evidence is ready at hand. Bernie Madoff and our most recent breed of knowledge economy robber-barons are clearly capable of meta-systemic perspectival coordinations. Organized crime, multi-national terrorist organizations, and modern totalitarian states all entail cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal tasks that make very complex demands on individuals. Success in these realms is a remarkable—if a-typical—developmental accomplishment in many respects.

But personalities from history are not the best source of evidence about what the higher stages look like. Current research on adult development—covering up to the first of the post-formal stages—presents more relevant data culled from carefully controlled observation and analysis (Fischer & Bidell, 2006; Basseches & Mascolo, 2010). Of particular relevance are studies done on the variability of adults across contexts and domains and the a-typical developmental pathways that result from a-typical socialization contexts (e.g., abuse; neglect). Unless late-stage transformations are so radical that they reconfigure the basic structures of the body-mind—which there is no evidence for—we can reasonably assume that the dynamics of development evident in this data will remain in play all the way up.

Figure 1 (see below) is a picture worth more than 1,000 words (see Mascolo & Fischer, 2010 for more details, especially concerning methods). It is a complex diachronic psychograph tracking a woman acting as a client in a psychotherapeutic dyad over the course of 188 conversational exchanges. The “beaded strings” near the top of the figure are indexes of variations in emotional valiance, while the jagged lines near the bottom track variations in developmental level (upper-line) and in the number conceptual elements (lower-line). The developmental levels are also called complexity levels or skill levels (Fischer, 1980), with levels 9, 10, 11, and 12 being Single Abstractions, Abstract Mapping, Abstract Systems, and Single Principles. In the parlance of Wilber’s (1999) meta-theoretical model, spoken in the lingua-Piagetian, that is Late Concrete Operations, Early Formal Operational, Late Formal Operations, and Early Post-Formal, a.k.a., Amber, Orange, Green, and Teal.

The names of the levels—indeed the levels themselves—are not as important as the micro-developmental dynamics being tracked. This psychograph reveals complex patterns of co-variation between developmental level, conceptual content, and emotion. Granted, this data only represents a sample of one, but one that does not seem to speak against it. In dynamics systems research (van Geert, 1994), as well as in use of case study methods (George & Bennett, 2005), the examination of a single exemplary instance can be rigorously used as fodder for model building. This is a kind of science that is more abductive than inductive, relying less on statistical inference and more on the detailed representation of particular instances, representations frequently taking the shape of figures, graphs, and other iconic representational devices (Lewin, 1936; Peirce, 1933).


(Figure 1: from Moscolo & Fischer, 2010; with permission. A diachronic psychograph tracking a woman engaged as a client in a psychotherapeutic dyad over the course of 188 conversational exchanges. [Please click on the figure to see detail])

I want to point out a single moment in the figure, from the many possible moments of interest (See: Moscolo & Fischer, 2010 for more). The climax of the exchange, the Harbor Light Insight, comes at the end where the participant functions at level 12 for several exchanges and brings together almost twice as many conceptual elements all at once, while experiencing unique levels of positive affect. Note that there are fluctuations in developmental level throughout, which occur in a range between 9 and 11. However, as it all comes together toward the end of the exchange, a kind of phase shift occurs in the system, and post-formal operational capabilities are recruited during a moment of insight. These higher-stage capabilities are gone as quick as they set in. Yet the insight provided proved to be an enduring therapeutic gain and kind of pivot-point for a change in the life-trajectory of the patient (Bassecehs & Masccolo, 2010).

These findings suggest that late-stage capabilities are fragile, domain specific, and context-sensitive accomplishments, which can be stabilized over time, but are likely to remain transient optimal-level performances that are heavily dependent on social and environmental scaffolding. (Note that this is what we should expect if we think capabilities tetra-arise.) Moreover, everyone shows up differently beyond formal operations, even if it is true that certain universal deep structural properties set the range of what is possible at these levels. In fact, in many domains, there is a greater diversity of developmental pathways toward and through the higher stages than there are for the lower ones. Individuals suffering from clinical depression show unique configurations of emotion and cognition during late-stage growth, which dramatically affect their communication styles and self-understandings (Mascolo & Fischer, 2010). Forms of highly reflective existential ennui require late-stage capabilities, as do the ironic and cynical forms of detachment that enable self-interested strategists to be successfully manipulative (both points made by Wilber (1995)). People are not always admirable just because they are highly developed along certain important parameters. And just because someone has shown up in one context as very developed does not mean they will show up in all contexts that same way. Evidence suggests that the farther reaches of human development are as messy and complex as the rest.

It is also not true that the artifacts produced at the higher levels are uniquely prone to be valuable. For example, trans-disciplinary meta-theories are frequently cited as artifact-types clearly requiring the development of post-formal capabilities. But many of these kinds of sophisticated meta-theories are deeply flawed or radically partial or both. From Wolfram (2002) and Kaufmann (1993) to Churchland (1996) and Wilson (1975), highly complex theoretical edifices can be extremely reductionistic. And as recent advances across a whole range of fields have demonstrated (Kagan, 2009), even the most developed and complex theories can be seriously mistaken, or just plain wrong.

There is nothing that is inevitably Integral about the higher stages of human development. The term is not doing good work when it is deployed to serve a descriptive function tied to developmental models. Rather, as I will explain, when the term Integral is disentangled from the growth-to-goodness assumptions its function as a normative term comes into view. It is not a term that is best used to describe the capabilities and artifacts associated with late-stage development. It is a term best used to evaluate capabilities and artifacts at any level and to make prescriptions about preferable developmental trajectories based on a specific set of ethical and epistemic commitments. This makes integral a term about what we value not about what we believe is the case regarding the highest levels of human development.