Kegan, 4 to 5

Every once in a while I try to explain transitions between Kegan’s stages. It takes a lot of different explanations to get the idea; this one is done from the morality point of view.


There are several axes of “bad”. If you want an exhaustive list, go through normative ethical theories and moral foundations. I will use an abridged one I made up.

Let’s say you did something. [X]. Will DSM-5 diagnose you with Asshole Personality Disorder?

  • A point if X caused suffering.
  • A point if X was illegal.
  • A point if you did X without someone’s consent and they had a right to be asked for consent.
  • A point if you violated an explicit promise or contract.
  • A point if you violated an implicit expectation, or somebody relied on you and you failed them, or other [betrayal].
  • A point if everyone is appalled at you.
  • A point if you feel no remorse / would do it again if given a chance.
  • A point if you knew what the consequences would be and did it anyway.
  • A point if the victim of your actions is already in a bad place in life.
  • A point if you didn’t compensate the harm X did (or rather, a point off if you did compensate the harm; cf. ethics offsets).

Write these down, and try to draw a bright line across a ten-dimensional space of behaviors. A gentle breeze of “ugh, why is everything so complicated” will wash over you. Whatever weights you assign to those axes will look arbitrary. You will feel bad.


But you will also keep trying to make sense of this chaos, for several reasons – partly because you don’t trust your judgment (anymore); partly because it’s useful to have a set of rules that you can demand other people to adhere to; and partly because everybody wants different things from you, and you need to figure out which of those people you would be justified in telling to fuck off.

Eventually this leads to radicalization. Solving the problem with all axes present is impossible, so some of them must be stupid. Libertarianism and utilitarianism both fall into this category.

Luckily, it’s easy to “refute” any of the axes by demonstrating several examples where it fails spectacularly. Thanks to philosophy, there’s an abundance of thought experiments designed just for that purpose. Once you are left with just one axis, you arrive at some sort of repugnant conclusion. If suffering is the only thing that matters, welcome to the world of wireheading – or perhaps killing off all people is more of your thing. Giving the ultimate authority to laws (or contracts) breaks down when you remember that people can and will pass absolutely dumb laws (or get intoxicated/tricked and enter absolutely dumb contracts). Etc. If I haven’t given your preferred objections, you are smart enough to come up with your own.


The next step is nihilism: “since it’s all arbitrary, everything is a-OK”. There’s a certain genre of writing that you know I can’t resist, so:

Everyone deserves to figure out the meaning of life at least once or twice. We’re talking late teens and early twenties, when work is too easy and finding better work too hard. Turning the post-acid feeling of cosmic oneness into a fridge-note to-do list is harder than expected, but whatever man, MWF pass/no pass. Start from the basics. Matter is math, mind is matter. Determinism except for the quantum stuff. Time is a flat circle, space is a mobius strip, morality is aesthetics and aesthetics is quantifiable. Big Bang and billiard balls of 1s and 0s colliding and uncolliding on loop. “Though existence has no inherent meaning,” you tell your ex over chamomile, “in the end, all we have is each other.” Reply: something about how all behavior is an expression of the ancestral Art that is shared by our collective unconscious. “Um, yeah,” annoyed, “I thought that was obvious.”

Ah, surprise surprise, turns out your inch and footnoted masterpiece was predicted by the Greek philosopher Fuchylus in 380 B.C.E. Like, you could have right-clicked that guy’s papyrus for synonyms. Not to mention the next twenty-three hundred years of middlebrow philosophy you somehow missed. Why did you think your reductionism was original? Even your doodles are boring. Wolfram plays coy. The rock band turns to sediment. Making a fool of yourself drunk won’t get a rise from fate and sobriety gives a hangover too. Atoms don’t touch they just brush electrons; the sky magnifies the sun onto the anthills of man. Spilled soda on the counter and cashed bowls on the kitchen table; it’s the witching hour, and some guy in an Neff beanie is asking if you have any Xanax. And the meaning of life strikes again, that sacred cosmic oneness, how strange it is to be anything at all – but just for a second. And with the wisdom of a philosopher, you reply, “Dude, I need to sleep.”

That’s when the open-mic audience would start finger-snapping and I would do a handle pull from whatever was available, probably Seagram’s. Look, we’ve all been there. And to the best of our abilities, I hope we’ve all moved on.


Nihilism is neither pleasant nor useful, so eventually people snap out of it – unless they are stubborn enough, in which case they don’t. If they do, they realize that – hey, maybe it’s all arbitrary, but treating bad things as bad somehow prevents them from happening. And maybe you can even treat people who do bad things as bad people, and piggy-back on the mechanism of social ostracism! A treasure trove of life hacks, indeed.

Except that by this point you already know that a) consistency is kinda nice and b) you can’t always trust your intuition if you don’t want to be completely ashamed of yourself five years from now. So you try to be more consistent and careful than before, while also paying attention to what other people think because they have also spent many years figuring out the whole consistency thing and you can steal what they came up with. And this is Kegan’s stage 5.

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