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Joseph DillardDr. Joseph Dillard is a psychotherapist with over forty year’s clinical experience treating individual, couple, and family issues. Dr. Dillard also has extensive experience with pain management and meditation training. The creator of Integral Deep Listening (IDL), Dr. Dillard is the author of over ten books on IDL, dreaming, nightmares, and meditation. He lives in Berlin, Germany. See:


Part 1 | Part 2

The Kohlberg-Wilber Fallacy

Part 1: Why you aren't as ethical as you think you are

Joseph Dillard

This is the first part of a two-part essay on morality, Integral AQAL, and core assumptions of the “spiritual” movement in general. Confirmation, availability, selectivity, and negativity are four types of cognitive biases that often cause us to have an inflated impression of our own ethical rectitude. In addition, a number of other logical errors contribute to an over-estimation of our level of moral development. In Part II we will focus on another critical barrier to moral decision-making, the Kohlberg-Wilber Fallacy.

Problems with discussing morality

A number of logical errors contribute to an over-estimation of our level of moral development.

It is difficult to talk about morality without sounding as if one is lecturing, scolding, or assuming airs of moral rectitude. In addition, it is difficult to write about morality without inflicting some self-righteous sense of shame or guilt upon the reader or to come across without a preachy air of superiority. The simple venting of moral outrage, while emotionally gratifying, and a handy strategy for the expiation of guilt, builds in-group solidarity at the expense of everyone else.[1] While we can have a lot of fun pointing out how 2nd Tier “teal” is morally superior to “ethnocentric “red,” or commiserating about the depravity of some shared target of ridicule, such as Donald Trump, telling someone that what they are doing is immoral is a good way to shut down a conversation at best and make an enemy at worst.

We tend to identify with both our values and our behavior, so when we are accused of being a liar, or of cheating, thievery, or abuse, we tend to take it personally, as an accusation that we are of poor character. Consequently, discussions of morality and the necessary implications of immorality that accompany them, can easily generate a defensive sense of victimization. Morality tends to be a weapon by which to punish others or ourselves, on the one hand, or to reassure ourselves of our own self-worth, on the other. If the self is a useful social fiction, but a fiction nonetheless, then using morality to defend it is like Harry Potter using his stag patronus to defend himself from dementors; none of it is real. Once we accept that the characters and actions in our personal life drama are real, and that our sense of self is real, that self can become diminished or lost. This is a common delusion we experience when we dream and are faced with some threat. Once we assume we are a self that can die in a dream, which is false, since our dream self may die but resurrects, the defense of our self-worth becomes a matter of personal security in the face of some delusional threat. In waking life, the reality and importance we can place on our sense of self can also mean its defense based on honor (whatever that is), and in defense of our self-worth. Morality is just the patronus for the job. While appeals to morality sound good in principle, they typically make matters worse by generating guilt or ridding ourselves of exactly those influences that exist to wake us up out of our zombie-like sleepwalking, lost in sociocultural induced scripting. Consequently, objectively measurable empathy and altruism are gaining more attention as measurable demonstrations of caring while morality is losing ground. But for most of us, morality continues to be useful, to the extent that we care whether others lie to us, steal from us, or in some other way abuse us or threaten to do so. It is in this practical, functional context that the following discussion of morality takes place.

First, we will review some of our more common soporifics, the many reasons why we think we are more ethical than we are, before turning in Part 2 to an examination of AQAL's specific contribution to a major source of elitism and exceptionalism among those who imagine themselves on the cutting edge of integral, progressive, cultural creative, transpersonal, and “evolutionary” thinking, the Kohlberg-Wilber Fallacy.

We typically base our estimate of our morality not on the assessment of the global commons, but on a series of cognitive biases or logical fallacies, that indicate our reasoning is pre-rational, in that it protects and promotes emotional preferences, such as fear, security, and recognition, rather than reason. Here are some of our favorites:

Confirmation bias

We typically assume others view us as moral, based on selecting out evidence that validates our self-image and ignoring or discounting that which doesn't. This cognitive bias ignores evidence that disconfirms our self-estimate that we are ethical and moral actors. We ignore, repress, or discount truth when it causes cognitive dissonance by threatening our image of ourselves. We generally tell ourselves reassuring cognitive distortions. Others are wrong; they just “don't understand;” they are jealous or envious; they “hate us for our freedoms.” At the same time, we remind ourselves of all the wonderful things about ourselves. We surround ourselves with those who are willing to confirm our delusions. We selectively focus on the social niceties and phony or false positives others cast our way because these validate our self-image to provide us with confirmation that we are ethical, when other possibilities exist.

We typically draw confirmation from some limited sub-group of society, such as our buddies in our army regiment, our fellow bird-watchers, other Trump haters, and other sub-groups that are detached from and in conflict with confirmation from humanity as a whole. Almost everyone got public sentiment wrong about Trump, leading to the shock and surprise at his election. Others may not respect us, or care about us one way or the other, but “play nice” due to social pressures at school, work, or family gatherings. We know we can become social outcasts if we question comfortable collective lies, such as American democracy, soldiers as “heroes,” or Jews as more deserving of victim status than say, Moslems.

We typically surround ourselves with people who validate our estimation of ourselves as moral. We do this by the friends we choose, the Facebook groups we join, the people we relate to in those groups, and who we choose to associate with at work. Generally, there is considerable social pressure to view as moral those we have to deal with, even if we do not trust or respect them, because of the complications and personal fallout that can come from telling people what we really think of them. Consequently, there is a silent conspiracy for us to treat each other, particularly those within our in-groups, as moral actors, even when we know this is a lie. Collective conspiracies to create confirmation bias are common to create in-group solidarity, and the questioning of underlying moral delusions is itself labeled an immoral act among those who depend upon in-group solidarity for their identity. You are a communist, unpatriotic, anti-semitic, or “not at 2nd tier” if you do. Consequently, much of our positive moral assessment of ourselves may be based on the cultivated wearing of blinders, like a horse pulling a wagon. Thoughts about ourselves can be like looking in a rose-colored mirror that eliminates shades of darkness.

The truth is that there is plenty about most of us not to like, and part of getting along and getting things done can easily boil down to a studied avoidance of our rough edges. There is nothing wrong with that. The problems arise when we use such political correctness as confirmation bias to validate an unrealistically positive self-image of ourselves as more ethical than we are.

Selectivity bias

You will tend to remember those events that support your self-image, that is, you will both re-write your autobiography and selectively present it in ways that validate your belief that you are a moral person.[2] “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”[3] For example, we want to remember Thomas Jefferson as a champion of human rights and democracy, not as a slave owner who had out-of wedlock children with a slave and who regarded Indians as “savages.” We want to remember Lincoln as the President who freed the slaves and a champion of liberty, not as someone who was in favor of slavery and who prosecuted a wholly avoidable Civil War for economic reasons under the pretext of ending slavery. We want to remember Churchill as a champion of WWII instead of a racist who had no problem with allowing a totally avoidable famine in India that killed millions, or ordering the bombing and fire bombing of German civilian populations and cities, a war crime. We want to think of Hitler as a demonic lunatic instead of as a widely-admired nationalist supported by American banks and companies like Westinghouse DuPont, General Motors and admired by Americans like Rockefeller, Mellon, Lindbergh, Ford, and Senator Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of Presidents. We certainly don't think of such people as a “rude boys,” because that feels like a casual dismissal of abusive and criminal behavior involving real victims. We want to think of ourselves as having earned our privileged and secure human status rather than as having gained it through appropriation, exploitation, imperialism, and economic blackmail of other countries in order to mine their resources and make them subservient puppets. We may be “rude boys and girls” when we break the rules, but that is not the terminology we use for those who do us real harm.

Availability Bias

Because we are surrounded by those who support our self-image and have in the forefront of our awareness those events, intentions, and explanations that validate our identity as moral individuals, we give them precedence, even if the evil we do far outweighs the “evidence” we give ourselves that we are ethical. For example, it is relatively easy and painless for an individual, like Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller to burnish their reputation with massive philanthropic donations in order to counter a long history of exploitation and corruption. Are these just “rude boys,” to use Ken Wilber's term for Andrew Cohen and other misbehaving enlightened masters, or are they something more than that? Are we supposed to remember and appreciate the good people do while forget and minimize their abuses and crimes? Bankers who rig account holders out of a fraction of a cent more, thereby yielding millions in profits, are acting immorally in a way that can easily be overlooked or ignored by the validation they get from their peers and stockholders for increasing profit. Do they see themselves as corrupt scammers and looters? No; they are simply following normal business practices, which dictate that in order to compete you have to do business in the “grey area” between what is legal and what is specifically outlawed. Conveniently, the question of how moral or ethical such behavior is never crosses their mind, or, if it does, it is quickly dismissed, because they live in a system that rewards or ignores immoral behavior.

Negativity Bias

Because there are many more things that can go wrong than can go right, we are wired to look for what can go wrong. Relative to ourselves, things that are different are more unknown and uncontrolled, and therefore more likely to be a threat. Therefore, we tend to have a built-in bias against bad news and negativity. We are relatively "good” and moral in relationship to the unknown other. This places us in a position where we feel relatively in the right and relatively secure, but vigilant for what is relatively in the wrong, and relatively a threat. Threats are “bad,” evil, ill-willed, corrupt, and dangerous. In fact, we need the negative to reassure ourselves that we are moral. Hence our susceptibility to giving fellow integralists, progressives, and “evolutionaries” the benefit of the moral doubt while coming down harder on those with whom we do not identify with, such as the tribalists, ethnocentrists, capitalists, social justice warriors, or other culturally fashionable, non-PC whipping boys. We think this is good moral judgment when in fact it most likely to be fear-based discrimination. That is a good first assumption to rule out. We need to be asking ourselves, “Who and what am I afraid of being associated with? Why? What do I have to learn from them? What am I afraid I will learn if I listen to them?”


Overestimation is an easy source of positive moral worth for integralists because after all, our world view includes and transcends everyone else's. We can therefore easily overestimate our own knowledge, understanding, rectitude, competence, and luck. Mystical experiences reinforce our tendency to overestimate our moral worth by convincing us that we have special knowledge, wisdom, and goodness. We have seen and know the path to oneness, peace, and universal love, so we must be moral. But others, who judge us by what we do and what we don't do, by our addictions and history, instead of by our intentions or the expansiveness of our world view, may beg to differ. How do we discard their opinion without tossing out morality altogether?

Reliance on intuition

We can easily trust our intuition, that tells us that we are good, particularly in comparison to those deplorables, neoconservatives, and others who haven't grasped AQAL. There is now considerable evidence that shows intuition is far less reliable than objective quantitative measures, such as actuarial tables.[4] Integralists rely on their intuition when they say, “Because I had this mystical experience of oneness, I know Reality and Truth.” All they can justifiably claim is that they have experienced things that they find to be real and true. This is completely different from presenting falsifiable, objectively verifiable evidence of reality and truthfulness. If you examine why people say, “My intuition tells me…” you may find that what they are actually saying is something like, “I have my reasons and I don't want you to challenge them. If you do, I will take it as a sign of your ignorance, if not as a personal insult.” Seen from this perspective, claims of intuitive knowledge can be arrogance bordering on pre-conventional self-centered morality. Ask yourself, “Why is this person appealing to their intuition? Is it because they don't want some aspect of their morality or sense of self challenged?”

Reasoning by stereotype

We project the typical traits of a group onto any individual who belongs to it. “We are integralists, so you share with me a multi-perspectival world view.” This is an assumption, based on reasoning by stereotype. “He is a Muslim, so he must be a supporter of terrorism.” “He is a Trump voter so he must be an ethnocentric redneck tribalist.” "She is a Jew, so she must be a victim of anti-Semitism.” “Integralists and other progressives are holistic thinkers so they must be wise and compassionate.” But we have seen how progressives are more likely to vote for a criminal who is a Democrat and who they like as a person, than someone who is a Republican, regardless of their ethical standing, even though this is itself an unethical, stereotypical decision. What conclusions, if any, can we draw regarding their level of moral development?

Needing to be right

AQAL is not just a world view or model for making sense of and integrating fields of knowledge; it is an ideology based on premises. When upholding these premises becomes more important than ascertaining their truth, needing to be right represses both rationality and ethics. Examples of ideological elements in AQAL include the belief that the universe is purposeful; that there is a non-physical reality called “spirit;” that the words “soul” and “God” point to non-metaphysical realities; that moral action, like moral judgement, transcends and includes previous stages and does not reverse; and that because “higher” levels of development include “lower” levels of development, integralists are more moral.

Such assumptions may be agreeable, in that they feel comfortable or support our identity, but are they true? How do we know? Are they falsifiable? If they are not, then they are not truth statements, but only dogmatic, ideological assertions of belief. If they are falsifiable, where is the method by which they can be disproven? Needing to be right often hides under a cloak of seemingly rational argument. However, when these “reasons” are challenged, what one often finds is something along the lines of, “My dogmas and ideologies are more important than the truth because they support and justify my self-image, as well as the actions I take that discriminate against others, break laws, or ignore consensus agreements.” Of course, these people lack the objectivity to see that this is their actual position, and actively defend themselves against any information that will provide them with that objectivity. Essentially, this is because evidence that emotionally and ethically, they may be closer to mid-personal in their over-all development threatens their image as someone who is 2nd Tier.

Inference of causation from correlation

Because integralists see a relationship between two things, such as say, mystical experience and spirituality, they assume a causative relationship. “Because I (or my guru) has had a mystical experience he/she must be spiritual (or moral).” But we know this is a logical fallacy because we have evidence of any number of individuals who have had amazing, repeated mystical experiences who are neither spiritual nor moral. Criminals and children can and do have mystical experiences from time to time. Correlation does not infer causation. “Because Assad is a ruthless dictator who gasses his own people he must be behind the use of chemical weapons on his people; it couldn't possibly be a false flag set up by the US, Israel, and their allies.” “Because Putin is a ruthless dictator, he must be behind the poisoning of the Skirpals in England; it couldn't possibly be a false flag set up by the CIA and MI5, the UK secret service.” “Because my sense of morality is correlated in my own mind with my high level of cognitive and personal development, that means that any action I do that others deem immoral, such as supporting Democratic politicians who break national and international laws, must in fact be determined, explained, or caused by my higher levels of development, in that they are a manifestation of them, not a manifestation, heaven forbid, of an actual pre-rational level of emotional and moral development.”

Integralists need a correlation between their presumed level of development and their morality to justify causally the superiority not only of their multi-perspectival world view, but of their more moral, enlightened perspective to that of ethnocentrists and mid-prepersonal “Nazis.”[5]

In-group Bias

“The opinions of those who agree with me are more valid than the opinions of those who don't.” We give precedence to the opinions of our in-groups because, after all, we identify with them and their preferences largely reflect our image of ourselves, while the preferences of out-groups, or those we are either ignorant of or who hold preferences contrary to our own, are threats to our sense of self. Therefore, we discount the opinions of our level of moral development by those outside our circle of empathy. But these are exactly the people who see us more objectively, and therefore are more likely to be honest and useful guides to our greater development. By ignoring or discounting their feedback, we stay ethical mushrooms, growing in the dark of ignorance, covered with the crap of in-group mutual validation. In-group immorality typically takes the form of, “I will validate your phony self-image if you will validate mine.” “I will ignore or cover for your ethical lapses if you will cover for mine.” The way to defuse this source of corruption of character is to seek out those who disagree with you and who are willing to challenge your assumptions and reasoning on principle, rather than simply attacking you for ideological or personal reasons. Good teachers traditionally fulfill this role. We need to learn to be better teachers to one another.

A dataphobic mindset

Can morality be measured? Of course. All you have to do is operationalize definitions of lying, stealing, abuse, and murder and then count instances. You can further operationalize morality by placing both infractions and trustworthiness on a scale of 0-10. Law is the operationalizing of morality. Law says, “These things are violations against consensual group norms.” Some people therefore conclude that if they 1) are not caught, or 2) they escape punishment, or 3) do not know the law, or 4) intend no harm, that their actions are in fact moral. I am reminded of the famous case of the lady who argued that she should be held blameless for ramming her car into another and injuring people because to stop she would have had to cram her foot down on the brake, but her cat was between her foot and the brake. So, since her intent was to do no harm, she acted within the law.

You can often tell the difference between an appeal to group validation and an interest in truth by whether there is an appeal to quantification or not. Can the person back up their position with references that have some sort of quantifiable foundation? If so, we can argue about the validity of the numbers, but at least we have moved away from a purely ideological position. Claims of morality then have some way to be operationalized and tested.[6]

A data phobic mindset is generally demonstrated by arguments from anecdotes, generally involving heresay and extreme exceptions to general, and much more likely evidence. For example, arguing for cosmic teleology validates our spiritual intuition that the world cares about us while physics and common experience tells us that the world does not care if we live or die. This realization is not meant to conjure up fears of alienation, abandonment, or a cold, unmoving reality, but rather to highlight the reality that we are surrounded by an extraordinarily nurturing natural world that overflows with abundance, and that it is our responsibility, not that of the universe, cosmos, or kosmos to take care of us or be good custodians of our global commons. That's our responsibility. Morality is not an issue of or for the natural world. That is a human projection. Belief in cosmic teleology is a version of this fundamental projection. Instead, morality is a human construct that we use to structure our relationships to make them mutually respectful and lawful. We need to grow up and stop looking to some supernatural source outside nature to do the heavy lifting for us. Magical thinking is immoral when it is an avoidance of responsibilities that are our own.

Dataphobia is everywhere. We are more likely to die from bee or wasp stings, igniting clothes, being kicked by a donkey, or by a tipped over Coke machine than by a terrorist, yet we spend trillions to be frisked at airports and have our privacy invaded, while no money is spent protecting us from malicious Coke machines. Palestinians are the stateless victims of state terror, yet they are the terrorists. We can only reach such a bizarre conclusion by ignoring data, facts, information, and probabilities. Integral AQAL persuades few scientists, much less the general public, yet it is supposed to carry us into 2nd Tier utopia. How is that? Where is the data to support that eventuality? Where is our moral righteousness that is supposed to win over the masses by our higher credibility and trustworthiness? Who are we aligned with in the eyes of the world? Who are our in-groups in the eyes of the global commons?

Arguing for torture based on the hypothetical of the suspect who knows the code to a nuclear bomb that is going to explode in eighteen hours attempts to build the case for immoral action based on events that defy the laws of probability. Laws, which are fundamentally moral standards, are based on consensual probabilities, not on wild, exceptions to those probabilities. Therefore, if we want to make moral decisions, we need to take into account what choices are most likely to be supportive, trust building, and respectful, as viewed by the global commons, and which are not. There is no claim that they must, or always will, produce those results. In fact, the global commons is typically wrong. It was wrong about patriarchy, slavery, geocentrism, sanitation, demons, sin, and racial genetic differences. However, in regard to morality, the global commons has a more objective perspective than your preferred in-groups, and world data on trends in violence and well-being demonstrate this reality.[7]

Reluctance to be held accountable

This is a basic source of our ambivalence toward law. We agree with the principle of law in general, for the common good, but rarely agree with laws in particular, when they rule against us. In such instances, we are sure they are unjust. We want laws to control others and reduce competition; we want freedom for ourselves. On a national level, this is seen in corporate welfare that provides unfair business advantages to established economic sectors and to reduce the accountability for performance that a level playing field would require. Similarly, when there is social consensus that we have been unethical, we do our very best to justify or rationalize it. We want to maintain not only our social standing but justify whatever advantages that accrue to it. As imperfect as laws are, there can be no doubt that they have produced more morality and advances in human rights than all the religions, mystics, and saints in the world put together. This has been thoroughly documented.[8]

The reason we don't operationalize our morality and count instances of moral and unethical behavior and the relative impact of each instance on others, is that we don't want to know. Humans can have many phobias, but perhaps the most pervasive is “accountaphobia,” which says, “Don't judge me by what I do; judge me by what I said.” Or better yet, “Judge me by what I meant to say,” which means, “Judge me by my own interpretation of my actions, not by yours.” We can see this in Ken Wilber's unwillingness to engage his critics at, for instance. Most everything is either a straw man argument, a critique of an earlier version of his model, or, if those explanations fail, they are discounted as deriving from someone who is functioning from a lower, less inclusive world view and simply doesn't “get it.” If one of these defenses is not effective to justify non-engagement, another one is.


As Benjamin Franklin observed, “So convent a thing it is to be a rational creature, since it enables us to find or make a reason for anything one has a mind to.” It is a realistic, safe, and wise decision to begin by assuming that whatever you think or decide is most likely to be a rationalization for some underlying emotional preference. I eat chocolate because “I'm hungry,” when the truth is there are tons of things in and out of the refrigerator I could eat to take care of my hunger that would be much healthier for me. While eating chocolate is hardly an ethical or moral decision, you and I typically rationalize and excuse our less than ethical acts. “I cheat on my taxes because everybody does.” “I voted for Hillary because she was less evil than Trump.” “I told my customer I was late because I was tied up in traffic because I didn't want to tell the truth - that I lost track of time.” The only way to counteract the immorality of rationalization is to surface your emotions, look at them honestly, and own them. As a consequence, people may see you as thoughtless and selfish, but at least they will see you as being honest about it, and perhaps respect you for your honesty.


You attempt to change the subject to the unethical acts of others. “Those unarmed Palestinians make me kill them because they approach the border.” This was actually a complaint of Israeli Primier Golda Meir: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” Fascinating in its depravity and avoidance of responsibility for one's own crimes against humanity, some Israelis remain victims even when they are killing children.

For integral, the problem is the lack of consciousness of the unwashed multitudes who do not grasp AQAL, not the fact that those who understand AQAL equate their level of moral judgment with their actual level of moral development, a problem that they don't even recognize, although it is obvious enough to the rest of the world. Why don't we see it? Because we don't want to, because it is too much of a threat to our sense of who we think we are.

Cognitive elevationism

If you are familiar with AQAL or SDi, you may confuse your ability to cognitively grasp multi-perspectivalism with a sense of self that is multi-perspectival. I did for years. You may think, as I did, “Because I understand and embrace the full spectrum of human development, and have had mystical experiences, my level of personal development must be at least vision-logic, if not higher ('teal').” The problem with this logic is that it conflates cognitive grasp with two things that are not necessarily correlated: development of the self-system and moral development. There is no necessary or actual correlation among these three, although AQAL implies that there is. This assumption results in cognitive elevationism, which is a form of hubris.

Identity elevationism

Since you may assume that your sense of self has risen to a multi-perspectival level of development, you may further assume your level moral development has as well. I did. The thinking is something like, “Because my level of personal development is so high, since I understand AQAL and have had mystical experiences, those of my actions which look immoral are moral, when properly understood. People who see them as immoral just don't understand that they are simply the shadow of my higher level of moral development.” It is difficult to understand how anyone intelligent enough to understand AQAL could not recognize how elitist, exceptionalist, and plainly self-serving this rationalization is. However, the fact that I bought it myself for so many years makes it harder for me to throw stones.


Since we integralists tend to be convinced that we have accessed a world view that transcends and includes and are therefore more highly evolved, our moral failings must be a “slip,” or “shadow,” instead of what they are to others - a statement of immorality and untrustworthiness. The thinking is something along the lines of, “We integralists (or brand of progressive/spiritual practitioner of your choice) are superior because we are rescuing the world by bringing it to a 'tipping point' where 10% sheep will miraculously transform a world of goats.” What is the evidence on which this mythology is based? How does it appear to the goats? What if the goats don't want to be transformed? Does that not qualify integralists as rescuers in the Drama Triangle who are dragging goats, kicking and screaming into our version of utopia, whether they want it or not?

In-group validation

When we suffer from this delusion, we do not identify with the immoral acts of those done in our name, but only with their moral, worthy, and heroic acts. The thinking is something along the lines of, “Others may hold me responsible as an American for the state-sponsored terrorism carried out by my government, but I am a good person, not responsible for the bad actions of my government. I support democracy and human rights.” This has also been called “identity-projective cognition,” and describes those who advocate for whatever positions enhance the glory of their tribe and their status within it. In-group validation includes the telling of “blue lies,” told for the benefit of in-group solidarity. An example is, “A vote for Hillary was better because Trump is so obviously evil and unstable and besides, since he was elected, we have been proven right!” This second part is a post-hoc fallacy, meaning reasoning after the fact, as if subsequent events had any effect on the validity of the decision itself. They don't.

With in-group validation, positions are expressed as a statement of group status rather than as an objective quest for truth. What's rational for everyone in an in-group to believe, based on esteem and status within the group, can be irrational for the human collective to act upon. This has been called by Pinker, “The Tragedy of the Belief Commons.”[9] To get some leverage on this moral delusion we can ask, “How is my opinion being greeted by my in-group? Does it stand to validate their biases or does it call them into question in one way or another?

Ideologically blinded “reasoning”

Cognitive dissonance reduction requires that when we are confronted with a threat to our self-image as moral, reputable, and trustworthy by a position or piece of evidence that contradicts that identity, that we first double down and gather arguments to fend off the threat. We become even more committed to our position. When we have emotional investments in assumptions, such as national exceptionalism, anti-capitalism, metaphysical language, such as “spirit,” or the moral superiority of our world view, our “reasoning” is likely to validate our biases. This may take the form of “motivated reasoning," that is, the direction of an argument toward a favored conclusion rather than to follow it where it leads. Or, it may take the form of “biased evaluation,” which is to find fault with evidence that disconfirms a cherished belief and giving a pass to evidence that supports it. For instance, it is typical for integralists to dismiss physical explanations for reality as “upper right reductionism,” when in fact the burden of proof is on those who want to define consciousness in more than physical terms, when “physical” is defined as embracing all four quadrants, nature, cosmos and “kosmos.” They have the responsibility to produce as falsifiable any definition of consciousness that excludes or transcends that definition. To my knowledge, Wilber has not.

A third type of ideologically blinded “reasoning” is called “my-side bias,” in which we simply reflexively support the ideology of our team, work group, religion, politician, or nation.[10] We believe we are being objective and rational when we are distorting evidence to support our political, religious, spiritual, and personal biases. The “reasoning” is something along the lines of the following: “I do not excuse immorality in myself and among integralists (or other groups with which I identify); I just happen to see the broader intention and elevated state of consciousness from which we are acting, and you don't.” Such “reasoning” may be behind Wilber's hesitancy to condemn the excesses of Adi Da, Andrew Cohen, and Marc Gafni. Do people in positions of spiritual leadership carry a higher burden of responsibility for their actions? Of course. In an ethical universe, greater power, claims of greater wisdom and compassion, are accompanied by higher accountability.

Black and white reasoning

A fundamental emotionally-based cognitive distortion, black and white thinking, is one hallmark of mid-prepersonal personality disorder. It alone is not enough to earn one that label, but it is a major element in that particular constitutional profile. The “reasoning” goes something like, “I and my in-groups, such as fellow integralists, progressives, and transpersonalists, are ethical, due to our superior compassion and broader (vision-logic) world view, while nasty, illiterate tribalists and ethnocentrists, like Trump, conservatives, Moslems, Russians, and my favorite enemy du jour are not, due to their ignorance. We must show them compassion.” This is black and white thinking, and it is common enough in the blogosphere at Integral Global, Earpy's, and Integral Europe.

Pre-Trans Fallacy

If you are an integralist or other “evolutionary,” you may believe you have evolved beyond consensual determinations of your morality, based on your mystical experiences or understanding of AQAL. It is both safe and wise to err, in your assessment of your level of development, toward the estimations of the global commons and those who both know you best and like you least. These are the people who know your addictions and your emotional hooks that keep you grounded at mid-prepersonal in ways that matter to them, if not to you. In terms of the pre-trans fallacy, you are less likely to become a victim of your own self-deception and delusions if you err to the “pre” side in your self-assessment. If you can do so authentically, this will counteract hubris and cultivate humility, a characteristic typically under-valued in the West, yet widely appreciated and respected.

Emotional identification

Most people, including most integralists, discount their identification with their emotions and the ability of their preferences and moods to direct both decision-making and “reasoning.” As a consequence, they greatly misgauge their degree of enmeshment in a mid-prepersonal level of moral development. This is because we tend to identify with our level of cognition, so if we have advanced degrees, have accumulated wealth or achieved status, meaning that we receive positive feedback from others, we have many reasons to view ourselves as advanced in our development.

One of my favorite examples involves two Harvard economics professors, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who developed a strong and highly influential intellectual defense of austerity economics. Clearly, austerity economics is a tool for the wealthy to extract a maximum amount of money out of the pockets of other classes.[11] One only has to look at the relationship of the governance of the EU and Germany to Greece in order to recognize what a transparently selfish, greedy, and immoral rationalization for self-serving interests this elaborate exercise in econometric rape was and continues to be.[12] Reinhart and Rogoff are probably good mates, parents, and upstanding citizens; not the type of people you would want to hide your china from if you had them over for dinner. Rather, they are excellent examples of people who are highly developed in a number of socially valued lines, exceptional enough to become professors at Harvard, and who, nevertheless, are still functioning at a mid-prepersonal level because they are driven by emotional motivations while demonstrating a selective absence of both morality and empathy.[13] How does one account for the fact that neither one of them caught multiple errors in their research that led not only to disastrous conclusions for entire societies, but for their personal reputations, and the profession of economics as a whole? We can see a number of factors at play here, and emotionally-blinded reasoning is certainly one of them.

In their defense, we all see what we are looking for and ignore what is inconsistent with our world view. The fact that both Rogoff and Reinhart found what they were looking for, a conclusion unsupported by the evidence, despite their supposed competence as economists, demonstrates how the cognitive line and other auxiliary lines (in this case mathematics) can be used in the service of mid-prepersonal ends while, at the same time, we don't realize we are doing so. Most of us are like that. What Rogoff and Reinhart did is not unusual; what is unusual is that the fraud and the underlying confirmation bias, an emotionally-based cognitive distortion, was exposed. As Marshall McLuhan said, “Today the tyrant rules not by club or fist, but, disguised as a market researcher, he shepherds his flocks in the ways of utility and comfort.”

Maintenance of a double standard

We judge our lies and abuse by our intent while we judge others by their actions. Judging ourselves by our intent or judgment is what the Kohlberg-Wilber scale of moral development, discussed in the second part of this essay, is all about. We expect others to judge us by our status, achievements, and persona while we judge others by their trustworthiness and the breadth of their world view.

Is there any hope?

In light of all of these obstacles to a realistic appraisal of our authentic ethical standing, is there any hope? A fatalistic conclusion is in error. The reality is that culture changes with generations; society advances “a funeral at a time,” to paraphrase Max Planck. As counter-evidence piles up, dissonance mounts until it becomes too much to bear, and our unrealistic self-appraisal of our morality topples over. This is called the “affective tipping point,” and it depends on the balance between how badly our reputation will be damaged within our in-groups by relinquishing our position, and whether the counter-evidence is so blatant as to be self-evident, common knowledge. We see this process occurring at present regarding public opinion toward Israel, as its policies of shooting civilians and stealing land are increasingly viewed as state-sponsored terrorism and apartheid. Within the integral community, as it is seen that the Kohlberg-Wilber explanation of moral development does nothing to explain the disparity between interior assessments of moral development and consensual social assessments in the lower right social quadrant, the delusion of consciousness as the determinant of ethical behavior, in the narrow sense of intent in the interior quadrants, will naturally deconstruct itself. Now that we have devoured the hors d'oeuvres regarding morality, we can move on to the main course of this essay, in Part 2.


[1] "Moral Outrage Is Self-Serving, Say Psychologists, Perpetually raging about the world's injustices? You're probably overcompensating"; "A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one's moral identity". However, dismissing anger at injustice is highly suspect. We know that the prognosis for an angry depression is much better than for a helpless, hopeless one. Anger is a step toward creating an action plan and taking action. Sharing anger, as well as information, can help mobilize others to take action as well. Where are the distinctions among guilt-driven moral outrage, simple manipulative moral outrage (Russophobia, for example), and responsibility-driven moral outrage? Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela, and King are examples of the latter, but the article makes no differentiation, implying that responsible attacks on injustice can be discounted as expressions of personal guilt. Without such a distinction, the research feeds primitive and self-serving justifications. A cynic would wonder if these people were paid to do this study by social forces interested in stifling dissent.

[2] Rose-tinting of memory: Baumeister, Bratslavsky, 2001. Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5 323-70.

[3] Franklin Pierce Adams.

[4] See the 1954 research by psychologist Paul Meer that shows that simple actuarial formulas outperform expert opinion at predicting psychiatric classifications, suicide attempts, school and job performance, lies, crime, medical diagnoses, and pretty much any other outcome in which accuracy can be judged at all. Philip Tetlock's forecasting tournaments have also demonstrated the superiority of statistical to intuitive judgment. Dawes, R. M., Faust, D., & Meehl, P. E., 1989. Clinical versus actuarial judgment. Science, 243, 1668-74. Tetlok, P. E., 2002. Social-functionalist frameworks for judgment and choice: The intuitive politician, theologian, and prosecutor. Psychological Review, 109, 151-72.

[5] This is Wilber's terminology, not mine: “Depending on which scales you use, somewhere between 50-70% of the world's population is at the ethnocentric or lower levels of development. This means amber or lower in any of the lines. To put it in the bluntest terms possible, this means around 70% of the world's population is Nazis.” Integral Spirituality, p. 210-11.

[6] Of course this can get pretty funny. There are actually researchers who claim, straight-faced, that because the vast majority of near-death experiencers are convinced that God exists that this is a quantitative validation or proof of the existence of God. There are too many logical fallacies here to enumerate, but it should suffice to point out that assembling all the anecdotal evidence in the world for some point does not make it true. Everyone who believes their eyes knows the sun rises and sets. But, of course, it doesn't.

[7] For example, see Pinker, S., (2018), Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking.

[8] For example, Pinker, S., (2011). The better angels of our nature: How violence has declined. New York: Penguin.

[9] Pinker, S. (2018), Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. New York: Viking. p. 379. Kahan, D.M., 2012. Cognitive bias and the constitution of the liberal republic of science. Yale Law School. Public Law Working Paper 270.

[10] Kunda, Z., 1990. The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin. 108 480-98. My-Side Bias: Barron, J. 1993. Why teach thinking? Applied Psychology, 42. 191-237. Biased Evaluation: Lord, C. G.,Ross, L.,& Lepper, M.R.,1979. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization.: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 37, 2098- 2109.

[11] Why Austerity Kills: From Greece to U.S., Crippling Economic Policies Causing Global Health Crisis, Democracy Now, May 21, 2013.

[12] Wolff, M. Austerity in the Eurozone and the UK. Financial Times

[13] Cassidy, J. The Reinhart-Rogoff Controversy: A summing up. The New Yorker: April 26, 2013.

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