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21st century enlightenment

February 9, 2012 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

As I said in Monday’s post, the most important and difficult question about human development (in the sense of people in general attaining a ‘higher’ level of  capability) may concern whether there are practical, reasonably large scale, examples of such development taking place as an intended consequence of specific interventions.

But before turning to the practical challenge (thanks, by the way, for some useful pointers among the comments on the post), I wanted briefly to explore some of the assumptions underlying the advocacy of human development. As always, I offer little more than a personal and slightly arbitrary path through a small corner of a vast forest of ideas.

The most frequent arguments I have heard for the need for human development can be placed under three distinct headings.

The apocalyptic case is most often made by environmentalists: in essence, the world is doomed unless we change our ways, and such a change requires us to commit to new values and develop new capabilities.

The functional case – made for example by Robert Kegan – suggests changes in the modern world (particularly the human impact of globalisation and the rise of the knowledge economy) require us to develop new capabilities in order for us – as individuals and broader society – to thrive and be resilient. The functional argument has been doubly reinforced in recent times: by the (disputed) finding that rising affluence has not been associated with greater individual or social well-being, and by the growing gap between, on the one hand, social needs and expectations, and on the other, what the state and market can realistically provide (at the RSA we refer to this latter phenomenon as the social aspiration gap).

The idealist case (which might be termed neo-Aristotelian in that it is similar in form if not in specific content to Aristotle’s argument for eudaimonia) suggests that without development, people are being deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their potential and that this is a wrong in itself.

It is perfectly possible to subscribe to all three rationales. However, there are a couple of wrinkles. What if a huge carbon capturing machine was invented tomorrow which enabled us to churn out emissions with impunity, would environmentalists then have to abandon their interest in human development? The flip side is the tendency (which I have commented on in the past) for some green activists to appear to be smuggling in a progressive or anti-consumerist agenda under the cover of climate change concern. Similarly, the functionalist case runs the risk of encouraging an attitude of pessimism: we may feel compelled to reject the possibility of progress without advanced consciousness.

The idealist case avoids these risks but can appear either pious or elitist: why would we expect the human race to make a big leap forward in its functioning? And anyway, who are a bunch of touchy-feely liberals to tell the rest of the world who they ought to be and how they ought to think?

Another approach to human development involves applying new thinking about human behaviour to enduring debates about political philosophy. Aided powerfully by findings from social psychology and behavioural economics, the case for genuine autonomy involving capacities for reflexivity, mindfulness and self-control seems ever stronger. While the idea that we must learn to be free has authoritarian, or at least paternalistic, overtones it is surely, in essence, true.

The argument to social justice is both more complex, and arguably, more tentative. In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I reflected on the absence from most conversations about the content of social justice (the definition of equality, rights and entitlements) of this question: what is it that encourages to want to extend fairness towards strangers? Surely the answer lies, at least in part, in empathy, one of the most commonly cited attributes of higher order thinking.

If empathy is the affective foundation for a commitment to greater (wider and deeper) fairness, more universal higher order capabilities may also be the goal of social justice strategies. There is, for example, much evidence that social or ‘soft’ skills (ranging from inter-personal communication to team working to creative thinking) are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous requirement in the labour market. Many – including the RSA – have expressed concern that our modern education system shoves people through an examination system while failing to attend to precisely the capabilities most needed for modern work and citizenship.

The RSA’s strap-line –  21st century enlightenment – points to a human development project combining the philosophical ideals that became prominent around the time the Society was founded, contemporary thinking about human nature and behaviour plus an account of future challenges and what they require of us.




  • Ian Christie

    Very thoughtful and provocative – thanks.
    The point about what Greens would do if we invented a vast carbon-ingestion machine and abundant clean energy sources is a very important one. The answer is that after hearty cheers, we’d have to deepen the arguments and initiatives about human development and in particular about empathy. For in a situation in which we’d removed the main threat to civilisation, namely climate disruption, we’d have to cultivate our sense of self-limitation and empathy, but now in relation not only to other people worldwide, but also to future generations and other species. Solving the climate problem would mean not mean we had solved the problem of living in dynamic harmony with the rest of the biosphere, or of what we should conserve always for future generations. Rather, it would pose these challenges in even sharper terms than they present themselves now. And that would mean just as great a need as we now have for educational initiatives in the cultivation of empathy, mindfulness and self-control (the creatively bounded self). See for example the international Roots of Empathy programme and the ideas of Roman Krznaric (eg the museum of empathy –

  • junius

    While ‘developmental psychologists’ like Robert Kagan apparently believe that ‘ higher’ human capabilities/ qualities- ie. the individual ‘self-authoring’ of enhanced ‘empathy’ &c- can best be achieved through a programme of instruction from above by an elite of allegedly benevolent technocrats, history shows that such qualities, in particular the urge to fairness and enhanced equality, tend to flourish in spontaneous resistance to regimes or power structures imposing their own versions of the ‘common good’ or right way to live. The American revolution itself is an apt example of this. The ‘self-authoring’ of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams etc. did not require a ‘developmental psychology’ intervention from above.

    I am not sure that Kagan’s system is quite as innocuous as claimed since its prime purpose seems less egalitarian than the selection and training up of future elites of leaders and superleaders- (the ‘self-authoring’ and ‘transcendental’ echelons) while the vast mass of humanity- some three quarters- are of the most rudimentary thinkers dependent on authority figures.

  • Will Tucker

    Great read this – and Mondays too; thought provoking.

    I think your typology of three standard approaches to making the case is pretty much spot on.

    I also agree that empathy is the key to us engaging in achieving deeper and broader change. The Common Cause collective -with Tom Crompton of WWF- and Finding Frames research -led by Oxfam and Andrew Darnton- each make a case for strengthening values such as universalism, benevolence and self-direction through communications and experiences that encourage empathy for people in situations of poverty. They have an important role to play in this debate.

    One question is how do we move on from this idealist thinking about new approaches to making the case for development into actual delivery of campaigns which resist the traditional approaches to making a case through empathy? It’s certainly not easy – within the sector we need to shift our cultures and the underlying assumptions about what works (even when we have tempting data to suggest the we get more digital click-throughs, more single cash donations and more ‘supporters’ by using the old ways). Changing that culture will not be quick and will not be wholesale. As a sector we will have to test and prove new approaches and slowly shift people’s assumptions and traditions.

    Breaking the cycle is key. There are two possible cycles (sympathy and empathy based) and we need to switch cycle:

    Two aspects of sympathy may be important. As you mention in Developing Development sympathy ‘I feel your pain’ is egotistical – it is about how I feel. Sympathy is also about separation and difference rather than commonality – I feel YOUR pain- we don’t share it, I feel it but it is essentially yours. Also because you are in pain and i’m only sensing your pain on a secondary basis you are weak and I am stronger.

    These two aspects of sympathy lead us to two orientations which are present in all three of your typology of three traditional arguments: We start from a position of imagining what I (or we) can do to intervene in the situation (because we’re in an egotistical frame of mind) and we imagine that a solution is based on what we can do rather than on what ‘they’ can do (because we are in a difference frame of mind in which we are powerful and ‘they’ are weak.)

    So sympathy leads us to intervene in order to effect change on other people’s situations- usually by calling on the state as the philosophically all-powerful actor in this perspective. If it ‘works’ and the poverty is relieved (or at the lowest level we forget that the poverty exists) then our understanding that we are strong interveners and they are weak and needy is strengthened. I don’t know where in the cycle the cycle began – whether sympathy led us to intervention based solutions in advocacy or the perceived ‘success’ of intervention based solutions developed a powerful/weak dichotomy which led to sympathy based communications and thinking.

    Sympathy, I think, leads us to ask the wrong question: “what can I/ we/ the government/ donors/ international institutions/ corporations do to solve this problem?”

    As you quote in your Developing Development blog, ‘Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself’ It is not about the fact that we are separate entities. It is about us and it is about sharing ideas and interpretations, it is about me understanding from your perspective what solutions are available and preferable. This casts our roles in a very different light. Through my empathy I am collaborating in a journey towards progress that is led by you. We are equals but in this case you are leading because we are collaborating on your project.

    Empathy is inconsistent with each of the three traditional arguments. Empathy will draw us towards people’s hopes and solutions rather than apocalypse, towards ‘bottom up’ change rather than ‘changes in the modern world’ and pragmatic reality focused change rather than ideals.

    This approach leads us to more social-liberal-democratic solutions – yes be prepared to intervene if that is what is desired, but also be ready to get out of the way or get other hurdles out of the way if that’s the order of the day and trust in people rather than assumptions about people.

    The question in this approach is ‘how can we work with people in situations of poverty to support what they are doing to help themselves out of their situation?’

    The good news is that increasingly in the sector we are asking the later question and basing our campaigning and advocacy on empathy rather than sympathy. Indeed i’m working on the framing and tone for a new campaign on just this basis right now!

  • junius

    With reference to my misgivings about Robert Kegan’s ‘change leadership’ model, I note that this model tends to apply within corporate organizations and takes the structure of authority- and corporate power for such organizations- without question by Kegan. Where the organization is a public one, such as a school or college and thus with a benign structure of authority, this is perhaps not problematic.

    Kegan’s purpose seems to accept the leadership hierarchies given by the corporate structure of the school/ college and to make leaders more effective as decision makers, both in a professional techical sense and as executive policy makers. Thus, his ‘self-authoring’ and ‘self-transforming’ models of leadership. The majority of the organization who are not ‘leaders’ but followers would not be disadvantaged by such change because of the benign corporate goals underpinning the organization.

    What would Kegan make, however, of applying his model to a private corporate organization whose goals are not necessarily benign in a public sense. For example, a private hedge fund or investment bank like Goldman Sachs. Or, indeed, to a corporate body with goals which are positively harmful to the public hosting it- such as the Syrian government of Bashar-al-Assad.

    The point I am making is that the positive benefits of Kegan’s developmental psychology models are context specific to the kind of corporate bodies which he has studied and would not necessarily be transferable to different types of organization. Where control of an organization is in malign hands, such models of leadership could be made harmful.

    Because the appropriateness of Kegan’s models are context bound to the corporations- and structures of authority- which he has studied, they may have nothing of use to say about change, how it is brought about and how it can be effectively steered in entirely different, non-corporate, social settings. For example, settings of revolution or of social resistance to tyrannical regimes where there is no pre-ordained corporate structure of authority.

    Because Kegan’s models take structures of corporate authority as given, I still contend that their effect is to endorse and reproduce elitist patterns of control. In their mitigation, it will no doubt be argued that, if so, it is a socially benevolent form of elitism which passes its benefits down the chain of ‘human capability’ in managing change.

  • Tessy Britton

    Great post Matthew – on one of my favourite topics again!

    From a learning perspective Kegan’s commentary on increasing capability is very practical and earnest. Somewhere along the line we have developed a tendency to separate learning more general social capabilities with any other skill. We accept that knowledge, practice and learning is needed for skill development – from tying shoelaces onewards, but autonomous self-direction and human-to-human skills we often wish to view as innate, or learned as a result of experience alone. In all cases of course the most sensible argument is that innate and learned, knowledge and experience, work together perfectly.

    From a perspective of looking at problem solving in more indirect ways, through stimulating second or third hand effects for example, I still like the example of Costa Rica – where there is a correlation between the steep rise in [general] education spend and positive environmental behaviours, among many other things.

  • Jonathanrowson

    Junius, I just have to say, with respect, I don’t recognise Kegan’s work in your interpretation.
    Maybe you know his material well and is if so, then happy to talk- because I may be the one who has misunderstood his work. In my case I took his 3 month course at Harvard, have read all his books, and written two reports based on his work..I think he is brilliant and deeply humanitarian, and not at all the corporate stooge who loves hierarchy that you make him out to be…
    Nonetheless, you are right that the question of hierarchy is a sensitive one, and in our Big Society report, which draws heavily on Kegan’s work, I try to address it directly.
    The key is that some hierarchies are fixed for purposes of social control, and some are fluid for purposes of development. Kegan’s is the latter.


  • http://www, Graham Rawlinson

    I agree with Tessy and Jonathan, I have been a fan of Robert Kegan for many years and he is just saying how it is, that higher level thinking is needed to work on even some seemingly simple issues, as from his book In over our heads, engagement with teenage children needs at least thinking about how they think you think they think, and to do something different you need to think about how you think about how they think you think they think. It sounds horrendous but they are doing it at at least level 3 and to innovate and not just control you need 2 levels more!
    On the RSA, my view is that the great thing about the RSA is that it started as a function oriented group of people and enlightenment means something when functioning of people together works better.

  • junius

    Mr Rowson, I don’t believe that I used the term ‘corporate stooge’. However, I do think that there is a difference between the abstract science formulated by Robert Kegan concerning learning development stages and the applied work Kegan has done, or lent his authority to, through the Change Leadership Group of Harvard University which has corporate sponsors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    The purpose of the latter appears to be to address the ‘educational crisis’ in the USA whereby the work force is trained to meet the changing technology and skill demands of economic corporations. Here, the use of development stages appearsto be adapted to the hierarchical authority structure of the corporation. Certainly, self-authoring skills and ways of working are increasingly needed of employees to meet the new corporate technical demands of companies but this does not mean questioning or changing hierarchical corporate authority structures as far as I see. This does not convert employees into managers. Self-transforming skills appear to be reserved for CEO’s and other top managers.

    ‘Change leadership’ for transforming schools seems to reserve self-authoring skills for teachers. The education of the workforce under this programme still emphasises the necessity for students as future employees to learn (in new formats no doubt) ‘respect for authority’.

    Perhaps there is scope for a paradoxical mismatch between the interpretation of Kegan’s learning developent stages model for the education of ‘citizens’ and the training of employees?

  • junius

    Marvin T Brown’s book ‘Corporate Integrity: Rethinking Organizational Ethics’ (Cambridge 2005) addresses the paradox in the freedoms for intellectual development between an employee in an economic corporation and a citizen in a democracy by flagging up the potential for corporations to adopt ‘caring’ strategies by allowing the employee the security to develop into a whole person. Besides trade union recognition and participation, this would permit, for example, employee initiation of ideas to advance inter-relational team- working to fulfil corporate objectives and production goals.

    While this may expand the meaning of ‘self-authoring’ skills for the employee within a corporate setting, it still does not appear to allow the freedom or space to think beyond the employee pay grade. The issue remains of how the gap in the apparently different meanings and outcomes for ‘self-authoring’ between employees and the ‘active citizen’ in a democracy/ Big Society, can be bridged. An individual socialized throughout his/her working life into the mentality of staying within the paygrade is hardly going to be effective in the larger task of self-authoring ways for taking responsibility of a community campaign or making power accountable.

    The ‘subject-object’ relationship is not just an issue of completing the intellectual stages of mastering complexity.It is also about whether the individual’s location within the power relations of the economic corporation and the wider state allow for that progress to be made.

  • Jonathanrowson

    Junius. ‘Corporate stooge’ was a needlessly pejorative take on your argument- sorry. You have clearly considered the political/ethical considerations of how Kegan’s work is applied carefully, and I agree that introducing this perspective opens up difficult questions for organisations. There is also a danger of the discussion sounding like an (even more) idealised modern version of Plato’s Republic, with Philosopher Kings guiding the Republic through superior insight into what everybody is and isn’t capable of… I just wanted to put a word in for the man himself, whom I don’t know well, but well enough to believe he cares about the ethical implications of his work

    I suppose my general feeling is that while this perspective is certainly problematic in various ways, and is (or at least could be) good at problematising existing set-ups in others, it is just important that we think and talk about it more than we currently are- because most of the time it feels like we are living in ‘flatland’.

    The relationship between the epistemological/psychological/social/economic/political is never going to easy to unpick…but I guess all organisations will do better if they keep this full spectrum in mind.

    If you get a chance to read it, I would be interested to know what you think of our Beyond the Big Society report.

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks folks for this exchange which is incredibly interesting (partly because of the robust disagreements) . I am hoping to go back to this topic today (although I may not finish the post until tomorrow).

    Thanks again

  • junius

    Thank you for inviting me to comment on the RSA Big Society project, Mr Rowson. However a more constructive input may come from follow up work with different community groups/ civil associations to elicit their views on the relevance and importance of your ideas on enhancing thought processes for the work they do- now that the Big Society is approaching two years of age- and (possibly) selecting some case studies to investigate which types of community group/ association best impart the learning tools you advocate.

    I am not entirely sure who you (and your colleagues) are targeting the research project at. Is it the government (solely) with the recommendation that these learning tools (to achieve higher stages of thought development) should be pursued through a government policy intervention or is it individuals within their community groups/ associations in order to build on or refine attributes which already exist.

    From my experience of community campaign work, I would say that there is already a groundwork (more or less well developed according to which particular community group you look at) for the learning attributes and stages that you describe.

    For example, self-authoring and the need for some complexity in thought processes is necessary for networking support for a chosen cause; for lobbying strategies toward local authorities (or MPs); for searching out sources for fundraising. Understanding multiple perspectives is often necessary for gaining awareness of how governmental and other agencies can practically assist a given cause.

    My point is that you don’t have to start from scratch with advancing these learning tools when community groups already manifest some of their attributes.

    As the internet is becoming more important, it could be useful, in follow up work to the Report, to identify how the internet could be used to achieve key parts of the learning stages identified by the Report. For example, how to assist the process of self-authoring through use of the internet; how to facilitate enhanced communication (with other groups/ useful government sources) through the internet and so on.

    I believe that your report is correct in differentiating between community actions ‘for’ and ‘against’ something. An action to achieve something materially is invariably more complex in its make up and what it demands than an action which simply opposes a government or local authority policy (without suggesting an alternative). What forms of support may be made available to community groups which stage an action ‘for’ a facility and encounter various complexities en route could be a useful area to investigate.

    Is the object of the RSA Big Society project to produce some kind of learning tool kit for individuals within their community organizations to help with the thought processes necessary to organize actions and achieve results?

    As a last thought, I think it unachievable that all individuals have the capacity to attain ‘higher’ thought categories in the sense of abstract, complex thinking. Is this end desirable in any event as there are many human qualities which should be nurtured for a civil demcracy/ Big Society to succeed- for example, the talent and disposition of character to care for a vulnerable person as a vocation may not require higher order skills of complex thought but is a highy important and increasingly scarce human quality. Perhaps rather than try to compel adults through a one size fits all intervention we should recognize and value (as equal) a diversity of qualities.