What Feels Right: An Embodied Perspective on the Ethical Line of Development

Emily BarattaArticle, Cognitive, Ethical, Ethics, Ethics, Journal of Integral Theory & Practice, Moral


This article examines ethical frameworks across levels of human development and via the quadrants of the AQAL model. The ethical line is examined as it progresses through stages of development, paying special attention to the role of the felt sense in the determination of right action. The role of unconscious forces, particularly the felt sense of disgust, is examined as the basis of moral intuition. Integral Ethics includes the ethical framework of the previous stages and an examination of personal motivation for right action. By inquiring into the unconscious drives that move us, we may begin to recognize the cultural prejudices and excessive survival drives that can influence our determination of right action.


How does goodness arise in individuals? Although most of us would agree that what is right for one person is not necessarily right for everyone, we still sense a common good that underlies all things. An ethical line of development gives us the theoretical framework from which to take another’s perspective on right action while recognizing that goodness grows through universal stages. It also allows us to reflect on our own conceptions of right action. This line may be expressed as the life question, “What should I do?” (Wilber, 2006, p. 60). A responsible application of the ethical line would not be a prescription for right action at each psychological level of development, but rather a series of markers to help us understand why people choose particular actions. Ethical philosophy echoes conventional wisdom, holding that “people are not obliged to do what, through no fault of their own, they are unable to do” (Rottschafer, 2000, p. 260). The ethical line may offer a practical range of expectations for ethical decision-making in various populations.

Ken Wilber (2003, p. 9) proposes that the determination of right action is the result of each level’s interpretation of the embodied moral intuition. In contemporary philosophy, “moral intuitions” are moral responses or judgments that “occur quickly or automatically and carry with them a strong feeling of authority” without necessarily having gone through a conscious process of reasoning (Woodward & Allman, 2007, p. 1). Moral intuition is considered “social cognition” in that it allows us to navigate the complex relationship structures of human society by assessing and predicting the behavior of others (Woodward & Allman, 2007, p. 20). Although many philosophers, notably Immanuel Kant, have recommended we purge our moral processes of emotional influence to arrive at more rational conclusions, it is becoming increasingly clear that most people primarily use reason to justify their highly emotional moral intuition (Haidt & Bjorklund, 2008, p. 3; Pizarro, 2000, p. 356). As one encounters a situation, the self-system processes wide-ranging data, including scent, intuitive feel, cultural associations, and so on. From that vast bank of information, the self-system produces a decision or an action, often unconsciously. If I am confronted with a choice between eating chicken or beetles, I will likely choose the chicken automatically, without a conscious reasoning process. Although chicken versus beetles is a simplistic example, each day is comprised of innumerable choices, the vast majority of which are imperceptible to the conscious mind. How do we arrive at these snap judgments and how are they interpreted at different levels of psychological development?


About Emily Baratta

Emily Baratta is a graduate student in John F. Kennedy University’s Integral Psychology program. Her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, foster home counselor, and facilitator have led to her interest in embodied ethics. As an aspiring integralist and a recently returned Catholic, Emily works not only to hold paradox conceptually, but to reconcile divergent perspectives in the world.