Integral theory perspective on the death penalty and moral decision making

I was wondering whether there is a consensus within integral theory on the death penalty and moral decision making. I was listening to the Kosmic Consciousness podcast with Ken Wilber and Tami Simon, and Ken says he is in support of the death penalty. He also says that in a moral quandary like needing to throw people out of a liferaft, he would throw out people at earlier stages of development to save people at later stages - his example was to throw out Hell’s Angels so Mother Theresa could survive.

Anyone can have their own opinions on moral decision making and any area. However, is this also the general view of the integral movement (although everyone has their own opinions, there does seem to be a general leaning in integral theory that people agree with Ken Wilber)?

I dont agree with the death penalty, and in this hypothetical moral situation, I think the most moral thing to do would be to choose who leaves the liferaft randomly. That way no one commits an atrocity against another human, and no one experiences the anguish of other people deciding that they are to die.

As I said, of course anyone can have their own opinion, but I’m wondering if this opinion is a part of the integral map.

If all Ken Wilber’s opinions simply become part of the integral map and people generally follow this map, that also seems very amber to me to simply agree with one person about this kind of thing without people exploring it for themselves. Of course, people are allowed to be amber. But I think it would be helpful for people to explore whether they are simply agreeing with a person, the research they choose to present/have found and the conclusions they draw from this research, and not realising that this does in fact come from this stage.

I am a fan of Ken Wilber and many of his ideas and the work he’s done, but I by no means agree with everything he says, and doubt there’s anyone I would agree with 100%. It’s quite worrying that someone could take this idea and present it as ‘Teal’/highly developed, simply because Ken Wilber thinks it.


I made a post on the metamoderna forum about my attempt to understand the moral reasoning of each stage. I’ve edited the names of the stages from the Metamodern name to the Integral name, I’ll indicate where the original post ends.

From my understanding of Deontology it is a system of moral thinking that is defined by whether an action abides by a set of rules. If it does, it is good, if it doesn’t, it is not. This would mean it is a Amber moral system because it is essentially utilitarianism in the service of the, “Absolute Truth as Told in the Holy Book.” Rather than being focused on the actual results of an action it is focused on what the Absolute Truth states. If the Absolute Truth states that homosexuality is wrong then clearly it will have a detrimental effect on society that we simply cannot measure or understand, so we must view homosexuality as sinful and prevent it from happening.

Utilitarianism as an Orange morality is a deconstruction of Amber Deontology in that it removes the Absolute Truth as the arbiter of good and evil, and instead says that the measurable results in the objective physical world are what dictate whether an action is good or bad. This isn’t a moral judgement on the intrinsic value of a thing, but is instead merely a belief that because this action decreases the measure, it isn’t as good as this thing that increases the measure. Five world-renowned doctors can provide more value to society based on these metrics therefore we should save them over 50 babies.

A Green critique of utilitarianism would state that this is far too reductionist and doesn’t take into account the whole system. You’re not simply killing 50 babies, you’re robbing 100 parents of their children and the subsequent effects that will have on their lives, and the lives of all the people that they will ever interact with. The same is true of the doctors and all the lives they’ll touch. You’re also reducing the value of human life down to the cold, brutal realities of a mechanistic universe and not the inner suffering caused by your decision. added: We cannot make a decision here because all humans have intrinsic value that cannot be reduced to objective “Its” measures.

Would Integral then seek to unite utilitarianism with an understanding of the whole system?

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I think this is where we come to the decision on who to throw out of the boat. This is a utilitarian decision, but it is informed by an understanding of the whole system. Those with the highest development will tend to have the most consciousness, the highest cognitive complexity, etc., etc. In a survival situation difficult decisions must be made. If we find ourselves in a situation where, for whatever reason, someone must die, then a utilitarian decision must be made and the whole system must be taken into account. This necessitates choosing those people who are best able to act in the system.

With that being said, I’m not so sure I agree that any one Tier One person could be chosen over any other Tier One person. Could we really say that a Green individual would be better to keep alive than an Amber? An Amber individual may be far more helpful in a survival situation than a Green individual who hasn’t integrated the lower stages on account of being Tier One.

It may be true that once we start considering the Tier Two individuals this, “highest stage,” heuristic could be used. I honestly just can’t say, but I place myself at early Green so maybe that’s why. I also think it’s dangerous to say, “oh you just don’t understand it yet, you’re at too low a stage,” because that could allow for some very abusive behaviour for obvious reasons.

Anyway, I hope that added to the conversation.

Thanks for your response. I would agree that utilitarianism is more orange (although the Romans also believed it was people of most use to society who should live), but I wouldn’t say deontology is simply amber. Morality at amber is about right and wrong based on rules you are given (yes, for example by the Bible). However, morality develops past that. As Kholberg says, in postconventional morality one takes the situation into account, so for example it is okay to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family, rather than it simply being no okay to steal. This moves past the simple deontological approach of right and wrong. But it is not utilitarianism.

I agree with veganism and so I believe it’s wrong to kill any life unless someone is starving or needs the nutrition. Although consciousness develops, that doesn’t mean someone has more right to life simply because they are of more ‘use’ to society. I would say that is indeed utilitarian and orange.

I’d say green would be against killing people at previous stages of development - green also includes the values of veganism.

I would then say teal would incorporate the values of green and keep them where they relate to heinous offences like murder. However, teal includes hierarchy, but I don’t think that ever applies to the right for people at a certain level of consciousness to live instead of others. I would say the right to live for humans always remains equal unless one is harming another person in self-defence, or to save other people they are attacking. But to choose to harm some people rather than others, simply because they are not as developed, seems quite inhuman and cold. Natural hierarchy is about some people being better at certain jobs etc, not that they have more right to live. You could even make an argument in the other direction - that it is more moral for people at later stages to be the ones to die because we can cope better with pain - I do not agree that that makes people more deserving to die though.

When I say people seem to be operating in some sense from an amber level, that isn’t me saying they are amber, but that that aspect of them is amber. Most people have residue from previous stages.

Just to acknowledge this statement, I am also talking about caricatures of these stages. I do understand that in the real world it’s much more complex.

The issue is that in a survival situation you may have to choose whether one dies or all die. If you had to choose one person to die you have to have a reason for choosing it. You can’t be random in your decision or else you could condemn the rest to death. This doesn’t mean anyone has less of a right to live than any other.

It’s a horrible situation to be in and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but think of the pandemic we’re currently living in. Governments have to make decisions of priority that could lead to many thousands of people dying. No matter what decision they make, some people will die. There is no escaping that fact. So, if some people will die, then they have to take those actions that will benefit the whole system.

Amber might say let live those who are part of the chosen people.

Orange might say let live those who are of most value based on these objective metrics.

Green might say let live those who are most vulnerable, the oppressed, the marginalized.

Teal might say let live those who by their actions in the whole system would allow the least death and/or suffering to occur. This is different from Orange because Orange doesn’t take into account the whole system, they only take into account the single metrics. An intersectionality of metrics usually only comes in at Green.

I don’t know if this is the answer, so perhaps someone more educated on these matters would have a better explanation. This is at least what my current understanding allows me to say.

I think Ken may have changed his views on this a bit. During one of our Ken Show episodes, he seemed to agree with me that allowing the State to end a citizen’s life — especially when the process is demonstrably fallible and innocent people have been executed — is generally not a good thing. We discuss it here:

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I like how you’ve defined how things would be thought of at each stage. I agree except how they would be enacted at the highest stage. However, maybe there’s a difference between morality at teal and morality at higher stages.

I guess Kohlberg speaks of the highest human values as including equality, justice, dignity and respect, and then Loevinger also adds deep empathy for others and ourselves. Although valuing certain lives over others means that they could do greater good for many people and the world through their living, it’s also important to take into consideration the kind of message you are sending out by doing do so, and how that can be positive or negative for other people and the world. In treating everyone with dignity and respect and with empathy i don’t think one would choose some to live over others. And if you choose people to live over others you are showing other people in society that certain people don’t matter as much, and that people’s lives should be ranked on how much of a positive influence they have on other’s lives, which would also then start a hierarchical ranking system at the earlier stages. (Edit - i am speaking about a ranking system in terms of life and death, because e.g. at amber the nuances would’nt be understood - so there would be a risk of returning to the medieval period and earlier, where it would be okay to kill people who aren’t in your group. This is if you were considering the whole system in your decision - it would be important to think about this kind of thing happening. I’m not sure if this should be taken into consideration, however - because there are enough people at orange than this would likely not happen).

With Covid, some world leaders have done incredibly well by making efforts to protect all their citizens, like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. Some world leaders did terribly - like Trump. Some did very badly in the beginning, like Boris Johnson in the UK but then put efforts in to protect those who needed protecting - people who were most at risk of contracting and dying from the virus. If instead of protecting those who most needed it we were to instead to protect those who were deemed most worthwhile to ensure the greatest good for everyone living today and for the future of society etc, that wouldn’t be treating each life you’re directly in contact with the dignity and respect- though it might keep people who will help more people and get rid of people who might harm people, it’s still directly treating some people with contempt. And for the greater good, whenever you are not treating individuals with dignity, respect and empathy, you are sending out a message to everyone that not everyone deserves to be treated in this way.

I know that in the exercises you do have to choose, but you can choose randomly, and that would allow everyone more dignity and to feel empathised with I think, and to see that others are treated in that way too.

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I don’t know though. Maybe I am thinking in a green way and I should save Mother Theresa.
(Edit - this ‘should’ is intended to be ironic as I would much rather save Mother Theresa, but am thinking what the roght thing to do is)

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A poem I wrote about justice:

“I am a monster”, she said,
filling his coffee with poison.
But it cannot be helped
in a world such as this.
Justice is the highest of morals.

It’s like, where’s the bar on where you enact justice or teach people. You could say anyone who’s harmed anyone or the world deserves to be taught a lesson, and that’s almost everyone - most of us have eaten a chicken.

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I feel that this post helped me understand a bit better what’s going on here, at least for where I’m at.

As I said earlier, I place myself at very early Green. I had a mushroom trip about 9 months ago now that really awoke me to how mechanical I had become, I was very deeply in Orange up to that point. Now though, I’ve been working more and more toward embodying Green, which means that I haven’t actually gone through and integrated Green. This is why I can only fake the Teal, “the whole system, the whole system,” and so I fail to highlight the impact that empathy from leaders can have on the whole system. I am highlighting the Orange elements of the whole system, but not the Green elements of the whole system.

Before I get into this, I just want to issue the caveat that I don’t mean to insult you or analyze you. I only mean to consider the ideas that you’ve presented here based on my own understanding of them.

As you said, you may be viewing these issues through a Green lens and I feel that might be right. Not only are you highlighting the Green elements of the whole system (empathy, dignity, respect, justice; are these all Green? I don’t know, but I think you get my point), but you’re also stressing the value of randomness. I think this might be a heterarchical view of the problem, which at least based on my understanding, is very Green/Pluralist. This would be the case because you’re assuming that all humans are equally valuable because they are entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of the effect that this might have on the health of the holarchy.

You’re basing this need for random selection on the effect it will have on the lower stages view of the intrinsic value of people. For example, let’s say that the elderly are less valuable than the young because of the greater impact the young have on the economy and as such, we choose to prioritize the young for vaccinations. This makes a lot of sense in the whole system if we are prioritizing Orange values. However, what is the effect on the whole system if we prioritize the “strong” over the most vulnerable? I believe that’s your point, that this would create a cultural milieu in which anyone who isn’t of brutal utilitarian value is not important. The higher stages could make this distinction in a healthier way, but the lower stages would be far too heavy handed in this.

Teal then, would take into account both those Green values of intrinsic worth and the Orange values of material worth. This is not merely a meeting in the middle, but instead a leap in vertical complexity in which the two value systems are coordinated and consolidated in a way that allows them to play the necessary role in decision-making that influences the health of the whole system in the best possible way.

The issue here, is that I don’t know if this is an understanding of the issues downward assimilated to the cognitive complexity and consciousness that I currently possess. Maybe it is a good enough intellectual understanding, but actually embodying this may be where I am lacking. Like I said, I didn’t take into account the Greenish (?) elements you mentioned in your reply that began with, “I like how you’ve defined…”

Definitely a lot to think about and just goes to show that I have a lot of work to fully integrate Green :slight_smile:

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To add to the conversation as far as I can recall. Carol Gilligan is the one who added the whole idea of feminine stages of moral development. I recently read that a teal perspective would be to unite both sides of the polarity. So, integrating female and male hierachical / holoarchical development including the values of care, compassion or simply social responsibility which are feminine aspects.

As well as aspects that are masculine such as justice. I am not all to well-read into these topics I can relate to a lot from my personal life.

In one audiobook Ken mentions the conundrum of having a bunch of people in a life boat. The question then arises how do we share our daily rations among each other. The question then remains who are the peole in the boat ? Which stages of development are they at ? Are they hells angels, nazis, black panther members, punks or in general “ruffians”. Then you can see the situation from each stage of development or fulcrum.

For e.g

Orange: - Utilitarian point of view - ranking, hierachy, execellency, performance etc.
Green: - Egaliterian point of view - pluralism, veganism, the concept of “egalitè” itself…
Teal: - Wholism seeing the whole of development inculding views which are prehended. Each stage transcends and includes the next stage.

For e.g according to S.D theory stage Yellow is still entrenched inside survial. It is mostly about functionality, taking people as they are as well for e.g prefering information that is lean and concise (coherent imo) instead of long-winded texts. Which I am certainly faulty of. As well as stage turqouise is the first stage that sort of transcends survival because it is a self-transcendence stage.

Looking at this example or paradigm through the lense of the stages. I often thought to myself because I did not know on which rung I stood. How would I handle this situation since this is a question of morality. If Albert Schweitzer, Turing, Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as Crocidle Dun De sit in a life boat, with a baker, a nun and a couple of hells angels. As well as me sitting there. From a yellow point of view. I’d agree with what Ken Wilber said in the audiobook. The hell’s angels got to got because when we land on an island. They are instantly going to form a gang and are willing to try to stop us, steal food and form an autocracy or oligarchy or some power structure. At least that is what I see is going to happen. I’ve never looked at it from a turqouise or teal / higher vision logic point of view.

They are not including development, because they can’t see that the others are on higher stages and are not seeing the situation from a 2-tier perspective.

To be honest I can’t tell without knowing more about morality what the right choice is. Especially, without a proper discussion or more input. I would definitely agree hells angels and stage red power driven folks would need to go in this scenario.

The point is development or eros has to occure in some sense and is not included by first tier perspectives. I definitely enjoyed reading this definitely helped further undstanding morality.

Unsure if this helps.


Maybe. But also I don’t think of the economy and work as they are at the moment as the main priorities - I think everyone could work 1/4 of what they do now and everything would function fine, so saving the good workers doesn’t come into it as much (I think that’s more of a non-capitalist opinion rather than anti-orange). If we were only saving the frail and elderly I recognise that wouldnt work. I’m totally fine with you analysing me though and I’m not sure where I am on the spiral.

My poem was a joke by the way - I should have made that clearer. I was just saying that only emphasising justice, which is said to be the masculine - would end up in that kind of scenario. I don’t think many people only think of justice.

I think i still have some orange too.

And I’ve found this discussion helpful. Thank you, both.

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I think we need to go to the root of this: What consequences do we face when we give the state the right to kill, and does it outweigh the benefits?

We have given the government authority to kill through the military. First enemies in self defense, then enemies willy-nilly whenever it is able to tell a bold enough lie (Iraqi WMD).
We have given the police the authority to kill through the police. First in self defense and to protect the public, then whoever they are bold enough to lie and falsify reports about.
So with capital punishment we give the right of the Courts to kill citizens. First criminals who are a danger to society, then whomever prosecutors are able to tell a bold enough lie about or not give competent legal counsel to. It’s happened many times that people on death row are later vindicated and set free.

With almost zero risk of escape from maximum security prisons and the only real risk of “escape” is through the appeals courts - does the risk of giving the government the authority to kill it’s own citizens outweigh the benefits of killing prisoners who have zero chance of escaping? Otherwise, we are giving 50 different states the authority to kill their own citizens mostly for the sake of the convenience of not paying for life in prison.
I think that is the real darkness of capital punishment - killing for the sake of a budget line item or for bureaucratic convenience.
The arguments of revenge or fear of the state are only slightly better.