Saturday, January 31, 2015

Levels of Moral Development (by Patrick Madden)

Guest Post: Patrick Madden

A few friends of mine have become life coaches. For people who aren't religious, there can be gaps from no longer having a community of people who regularly get together to talk about life, and leaders (beyond your friendship circle) who care about your self development. We think of seeing a psychologist when things are going wrong, but what about when things are fine? My understanding of a life coach is someone whose thought and supportive conversations can help people flourish. I think it is a wonderful idea.

I met Patrick at University. He is a thoughtful, interesting guy and a wonderful listener with more than eight years of daily mindfulness practice. He works with The Potential Project and you can find out more about what he does through his website and blog. This will be the first in a four part series of guest blog posts. I have been chewing on this subject too. I am always very passionate about the groups I am involved in. A proud Westville boy. A proud KwaZulu-Natalian. A proud South African. A proud employee. At each stage I realised how destructive it was if there wasn't a bigger group to extend that pride to. If you aren't able to form a 'Bigger Tribe', at some stage Patriotism just becomes a form of Xenophobia or Racism.

Levels of Moral Development
by Patrick Madden

I met my soul again last night in a dream. It feels like it's been a long time. I was sitting with my mother and she asked me about they way I think about life. I took a while to respond and when I did I talked about the sadness of this human society, where some are so rich they can buy a superyacht and sail around the ocean while others have to sort through garbage heaps for food.

As I spoke, I wept. The grief was immense and fast and powerful, like a torrent pouring through me at the wretchedness of it. In some strange but real way, the sadness was blissful because it was intense and pure and unsullied by self-consciousness. I knew I was contacting something real.

So today I’m slightly less sanguine, slightly less buffered by knowing and an easily achieved self-conscious irony from the rawness of my heart. Slightly less buffered doesn’t mean unbuffered, by any means. The heart of my waking self is less ardent and unfiltered than the one I felt in that dream. I’m more conscious of the sheer discomfort of reading ‘moral messages’ and how easily they can be read as preachy. So I want to write about the importance of thinking clearly about moral development.

(I get up and make a cup of tea. My tone changes.)

Morality is a developmental line of intelligence, just like cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, somatic intelligence and others. These lines develop at different speeds in different people, so in rare cases we can find, at the extremes, a selfish genius (high cognitive intelligence, low moral intelligence) or a gold-hearted idiot (the opposite). For people who work with people’s development (like coaches) it’s helpful to have a way of thinking about the degree of development their client possesses on each of those lines. Thus, we think about – and, in some circles, speak about! – levels of development.

To discern the level of someone’s moral intelligence, we observe what their actions (much more than their words) reveal about whom and what matters to that person. Who/what belongs to their class of morally relevant entities, and who/what does not?

For a very young child, that class is a class of one: me matters. That’s egocentric morality, illustrated nicely in the blithe self-interest of a typical two-year-old.

In older children, if they develop normally, that class expands to include our immediate family and then further, to include our clan or tribe. This is ethnocentric morality: people who are like us in an important way deserve moral consideration, people who are unlike us in that way do not, e.g. Tutsis over Hutus, Christians over Muslims, Jews over Arabs.

Ethnocentrism remains until we value all humans (but still not so much non-humans) regardless of tribe: that’s humanist morality. We might later include non-human animals in the class of the morally worthy, perhaps by eating a vegan diet.

That’s not the end of the story, necessarily, but it’s enough to illustrate the principle. Next in this series: three important points that inform effective thinking with these levels, and how the levels appear to each other.


In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at 
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