Spiral Dynamics is amoral

a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.



amoral vs moral
Unsplash || CC0

Spiral Dynamics [SD] is amoral? 

Yes, by nature’s design.

Well, Clare Graves’ research and theory presumes that evolution plays the role of ‘designer.’ So, it seems quite fitting that Graves’ theory/model begins with ‘survival.’ Then, too, Graves does not attempt to speak to another layer of possibility behind his presumption, e.g., the idea that evolution is simply part of the process used by a designer to create. Arguably, this disparity may simply be a reflection of orthogonal orders of inquiry from Graves and from philosophers.


snoopy theology

Correct vs Right

Correct” vs “right” is a crucially important distinction. To say “I am incorrect” is very different than saying “I am wrong.” Even though, in practice, we do it far and wide everyday, these two do not readily conflate as they are of different orders. That is a rather long story to unpack. So, instead of that, we’ll loosely grant it as a given here, and set-forth a SD related practical question, or two.

—A quick reminder, the first letter in the SD “vMEME” designations (e.g., Beige [AN], Purple [BO] ….and so on) represents the emergent Life Conditions [LCs] that are presenting themselves, and the second letter designates the emergent adaptation response in humans, e.g., the letter-pair designates a particular algorithm-generator.


cake recipe - Image by Moira Nazzari from Pixabay
Image by Moira Nazzari from Pixabay || CC0

The insights that Clare Graves reached through his research describe a developmentally emergent system of systems, e.g., system of algorithm-generators (e.g., vMEMEs, values-coders, values-attractors) that simply do not factor “right and wrong” anywhere into their functioning. These various system algorithm-generators (e.g., AN BO CP DQ ER FS…) are each a bit like a recipe-generator.

For example, a recipe-generator that creates cake recipes has no capacity to determine whether or not the cake recipes it produces are “right” or “wrong.”  The recipe (or meme) will help determine if the cake is correct in appearance, whether the cake is correct relative to the recipe, and check it on all correspondence factors, but, along with the algorithm-generator that created it, the recipe has no way to discern if the cake is right (good) or wrong (evil). The cake may have fallen flat, taste awful with burnt flavor or, any number of things that evidence a poor execution of the recipe, it still has no mechanism or means to say “that evil cake is wrong!” The language creates a category error. In other words, Graves’ research and insights saw value processes in evolution that are not concerned with morality, not about whether something is ‘right‘ or ‘wrong‘ in moral terms—i.e., morality is exclusively a concern of humanness. Spiral Dynamics is amoral, and that is a very significant and crucially important feature that makes SD an elegant research-based human values modeling system. It also presents a problem (and opportunity) for SD pedagogy and for practical application. We’ll come back to this in a moment. 

Esoteric vs exoteric

Last week we talked about a significant problem we’re having right now, e.g., in the 21st century truth is often complex, nuanced, requires engagement of the pre-frontal cortex, and is frequently in some way esoteric. This, while Trump’s *political technology* trades in simple limbic emotion and works exoterically.

Picking-up the thread from the mini-series of posts that I just finished last week that  questioned the marriage of SD with Wilberian integral [Wi], shortly after I published my post last Sunday I came across an article by Andrew Sullivan (link below) from July 31, 2020. 

In the piece, “The Roots of Wokeness,” Sullivan claims the problem he sees with esotericism relates to the elitism of “critical theory.” As I suggested last week, all rationally abstracted constructs are esoteric. So, yeah, critical theory is a rationally abstracted construct so that would make it a target for the critique of esotericism.

I’m not sure how Sullivan regards esotericism itself, however, I’d argue it flies in the face of our humanness in order to (consciously or not-consciously), essentially, try and deny it.

The key difference, in general, that I see in our ER arguments, is that Sullivan [following James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, et al.] likes to deal in hyperbolic mischaracterization, as when he writes:

> Beginning as a critique of all grand theories of meaning—from Christianity to Marxism—postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture.

In that one swift stroke Sullivan conflates postmodernism with extreme-postmodernism, and reduces the issue to a cartoon. Later, Sullivan writes…

> And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you.

Again, hyperbolic mischaracterization.

Sullivan (again, following Lindsay and Pluckrose) is reminiscent of Jordan Peterson and his project to take down his cartoon-version of postmodernism. While I don’t agree with Nick Gillespie on very much, I do agree with his assessment (Reply to Jordan Peterson) that Orange is ideologically pluralist, and that postmodernism is late-ER (although he doesn’t use SD language)

I feel that these twothe Sullivan article, The Roots of Wokeness, when paired with my, Well, who asked you?constitute an Orange [ER] intramural tournament. All this ties in with how Donald Trump came to power, however, that will need to be the subject of other blog posts.

SD’s organic break with Wi

From the Wikipedia entry on Graves:

Clare W. Graves (December 21, 1914 – January 3, 1986) was a professor of psychology and originator of the Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory of adult human development (ECLET), aspects of which were later popularized as Spiral Dynamics. [my emphasis]

Minimally, I feel there is an incongruence in scale between Graves’ and Wilber’s projects. In a broad stroke, Graves’ work is focused on the nuance in human values systems, and accounting for the granular detail he saw in his research—”… Theory of adult human development (ECLET)”.

Wilber’s work more ambitiously attempts to focus on and account for all consciousness. Setting aside the outrageous ambition of kw‘s project, one issue for SD is that kw takes on morality as an intrinsic part of his theory/model.

A piece of SD that previously separated it clearly from Wi is that SD has no intrinsic mechanism to work with morality and judgement like right/wrong, good/evil. While SD elegantly describes both the algorithm-generators and their products, e.g., algorithms, memes, cultures, responses, beyond evolution’s survival metric, SD really has no way to judge on the moral axis. Then, too, there are multiple ways to “judge” that are often conflated.

Correct” vs “right

So, SD is amoral, the model has no capacity to make moral judgments of right and wrong. On my reading, this is the feature that truly lends the model its chief authority and appeal. However, this does present a bit of a problem in sustaining nuance for those who utilize the tool. So, let’s examine the nature of the situation. 

Borrowing an image from an earlier a mystical möbius post (Do no harm), the SD model algorithm-generators (e.g., SD vMEMEs) are analogous to a computer operating system [OS]. The model visualizes how these algorithm-generators serve to animate responses to different life conditions. Each vMEME serves as the OS for a constellation of responses (that is, vMEME algorithm-generators create memes, or content. culture, apps) associated with that vMEME.

So, vMEMEs are the algorithm-generators and memes are the algorithms or expressions of those recipe-generators. It is crucial to maintain that nuance, because, as similar as they sound, vMEMEs and memes (along with correct and right) do not conflate. These two non-conflating relationships intersect in SD application. Let’s see how.

OK, the SD model does not judge the energy of each algorithm-generator (vMEME). One values system is not more “right” than than previous values systems, just more suited to surviving the LCs that define the context. The model is amoral as to the right or wrong of the algorithms as they are simply recipes, amoral responses to life conditions. The animating energies of the algorithm-generators are neutral, like an OS makes no right or wrong determination regarding the apps it runs. Two apps may be designed to run on the same OS, e.g., an altruistic app, or an app to sexually exploit children, both run on an OS that does not judge them.


one and many question-mark Image by Arek Socha

It does beg a question or two

So, if SD is amoral, then how does any license to make judgments about anything whatsoever beyond survival accrue to the model? I mean, if Nazism and Christianity are both seen as memes (algorithms) and products of the Blue [DQ] vMEME (algorithm-generator that seeks order), then beyond (long term) judgments drawn in relation to ‘survival,’ on who/what can SD draw a warrant to make a moral claim of any kind?

Said differently, if a practitioner of Graves/SD is using the model to make judgments like, declaring what’s good for this, evil for that, good/evil for the whole, etc., on what basis are they doing this? As we have seen, the model has no intrinsic ability to do so. In this example, how did moral metrics of any kind enter into the model’s capacity to identify, describe, and discern? 


cake - Photo by SwapnIl Dwivedi on Unsplash
Photo by SwapnIl Dwivedi on Unsplash || CC0

Remember our meme/cake-baking analogy? In that system, the baker, and those who are served a piece of a particular cake, would be the Trojan-horse for any ability to judge, because, as we saw, neither the recipe-generator nor the recipe has any intrinsic capacity to judge on the morality order. The operator vectors the morality seen in any application of the Graves/SD theory/model. This demands full transparency. 

Graves system is focused on, and meant to operate on, the correct/incorrect axis. If forthrightly acknowledged, this opens an authentic space to make explicit and contextualize the “authority” one (a practitioner) does use to add the right/wrong axis to the discernment and evaluation of the memes under examination.

Admittedly, the on-boarding of Wilberian integral by SD theoretically imported a capacity to draw warrants and address the right/wrong axis. The state of Wilberian integral may well cause concern some may feel regarding the advisability of maintaining a relationship with Wi.

I confess, in these past few posts questioning the SDi mash-up, I’m not really trying to come up with some new way to say something. My chief concern has been in the interest of just keeping the use of what we have with Graves/SD clean. Just an interest in helping to try and keep the Graves/SD thought-and-work space…clean for authentic analysis grounded in transparent, authoritative discernment.

Next week:SD and discerning moral order 

[post approx. 1,850 words (7 min. read)]

Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?

Note: I know, trying to introduce a big-picture idea like Clare Graves’ work (anthropology of human values-systems) in this format is ambitious. So, I’m using a serial-approach. Blog introduction (June 30, 2018). First in series (July 1, 2018).



amoral vs moral

5 thoughts on “Spiral Dynamics is amoral

  1. Intuitively it feels right that SD by being amoral helps us avoid being judgmental especially of other people. When we can perceive others within the SD spiral and not go into good/bad, right/wrong, higher/lower, etc then it allows us to perceive more clearly. That is one of the key benefits to me personally of using a SD approach to viewing reality. I then avoid emotions clouding my perception and can maintain my center.


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