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More PsychNotes: Policies and Issues in Mental Healthcare

September 16, 2015       

Are We Evolving? Thoughts on Violence (part 2)
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

As I read Pinker's book (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) it occurred to me that the evidence he provides shows how human nature is changing for the better. Particularly, it shows the development of a collective conscience. What I mean by this is that as humans we develop individually and collectively. We each have an individual conscience that is based upon our experiences and beliefs. However, society can also have a conscience which is what we impart to the people of that society either through explicit education or in implicit ways such as how we treat one another. For instance, at one time, public hangings were entertainment—families would pack a picnic lunch and go to town to watch the hanging. Now, we find that reprehensible by today's standards (although we may not be above watching people degrade one another on reality TV).

Bear with me as I present two psychological theories to help back up my thoughts about how humankind is developing a collective conscience. If you have taken an introductory psychology course you are probably familiar with these theories: Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Kolhberg's theory of moral reasoning. Both of these theories described individual psychological mechanisms. But, I will show how we can apply these theories to how all of humanity may be changing in a positive way.

1) Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow proposed that an individual cannot pursue higher level needs unless the lower level needs have been met. The lower level needs include physiological needs and safety needs such as food, water, and shelter. Higher level needs include belongingness, love, and self-esteem. In other words, an individual cannot focus on personal enhancement if they are starving or freezing--they need to focus on basic survival. However, once the survival needs are met, they can focus on relationships, achievement, developing their talents, and humanitarian activities.

What I want to focus on is the highest level need in Maslow's hierarchy: self-actualization. Although self-actualization can take many forms depending upon the individual, generally it is the fulfillment of who you are as a human being—the ability to be your highest and best self. As such, there are certain common characteristics of self-actualized people: realistic and objective, tolerant of discomfort and uncertainty, fully accepting of themselves and others, spontaneous, focused on solving problems rather than protecting the ego, good sense of humor, creative, non-conformists due to free-thinking, concerned for humanity, deep appreciation of life, deep interpersonal relationships with a few people, frequent peak experiences, private, egalitarian attitudes, strong ethics, mindful, genuine, responsible, hard-working, and willing to examine themselves and their motives for personal change.

2) Moral Reasoning
Kohlberg proposed several levels to moral reasoning, why people choose to engage in moral behavior. The lowest level (pre-conventional) is that people choose moral behavior due to fear of the consequences or punishment if they do not. The middle level (conventional--where most people are) is choosing moral behavior because how it impacts others--either personal relationships or society as a whole. The highest level, principled reasoning (post-conventional), is choosing moral behavior based on higher principles that may not always be consistent with the law or others' behavior. For instance, in Kohlberg's “Heinz moral dilemma,” he describes how a man whose wife is dying of cancer and who tries all legal means to obtain a medication to save her life. He offers the pharmacist half the money for the medication with a promise for the rest later, but the pharmacist refuses. Heinz considers stealing the drug. Should he? Or, should he not? Why?

My master's thesis involved using Kohlberg's dilemmas and scoring system to determine level of moral reasoning. The scoring was not based on a correct answer but was based upon how the individual came to their answer—the “why?” If someone said, “he shouldn't steal the drug because he would go to jail” or “he should steal the drug because he would be alone if his wife dies” they would be scored at a level 1 due to the focus on self-interest. If they said, “he should steal it because his wife's life is more important” or “he shouldn't steal it because we have to follow laws to maintain an orderly society” they would be scored at level 2 because it shows concern for others. If they said, “he should steal the drug because the value of any life is more important than a law” or “he shouldn't steal the drug because all life is important and he may be causing harm to others who also need the drug” they would be scored at level 3 which focuses on higher principles such as life and justice.

We can potentially argue about the validity of these theories, but I want to use them as a way of examining our development as human beings. Can it be that our collective moral reasoning is developing to a higher level over time? If we were to apply Kohlberg's moral reasoning to historical peoples, would we see a change over time? Are more people becoming self-actualized and reasoning at a higher moral level today than in our early history? I believe so. According to Dr. Pinker, throughout most of human history, men acted more from childish emotions. Initially, they acted based upon fear of violence or upon retribution or for personal gain. Eventually, they developed a code of law to maintain order and reduce the emotional reactivity. Does this sound familiar? It seems very similar to individual moral reasoning. The collective moral reasoning seems to develop through the same stages as individual moral reasoning.

I believe that what Pinker is showing through his examination of violence is that as more and more individuals seek self-actualization, it brings the collective conscience up to a higher level which then leads to more people becoming self-actualized which in turn raises the collective conscience. Thus, creating a positive cycle.

Will we continue to develop a conscience and become more principled as a whole? As a society we have become less focused on survival and there is a great deal of movement towards self-actualization. More and more people are learning mindfulness methods. More and more people are focused on loving-kindness, compassion, and empathy. More and more people are pursuing internal happiness rather than pursuing artificial happiness from material gain.

Yes, I know, we can find examples of the opposite throughout our culture. However, I am looking at the whole. There will always be individuals that pursue their self-interests. However, the decline in violence appears to be accompanied by an increase in the pursuit of higher purposes. Instead of the focus being on individual self-interest, more people are pursuing the improvement of all of human life.

Some people may react negatively to the idea of a collective conscience. And they have every right to do so because any concept can have a negative side to it as well. For instance, if we allow the state to dictate our collective conscience then we become mindless automatons. But that is not consistent with the concept of self-actualization. Becoming our highest and best selves cannot be forced upon us but is something we freely pursue. Political correctness, for instance, is something forced upon us, and so, cannot be considered self-actualization. My belief is that as each individual pursues self-actualization, it lifts society as a whole which allows more to pursue self-actualization. However, at its core, self-actualization is an individual, personal choice.

(As I read this book and other thoughts come to mind, I will continue to share these thoughts in future PsychNotes).

Pinker, Steven. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books, New York.

Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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