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 A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 6 - The individual and the group)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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d)      The individual and the group

i)                    Two forms of individuality


Before concluding this chapter, a number of issues need to be clarified which relate to the relationship between individual and group. To begin with, the division between individual and group is another dualism of the kind which needs a similar treatment to those in the series tackled in section b. A further issue has been raised by the social element in judgements of verification or falsification mentioned in the previous section, and in the background to this issue lies the need for a clarification of the epistemological role of individuals and groups and their relationship. The criticism of dualist doctrines as lacking universality and being effectively rationalisations for social conventions in part 1 also raises the related issue of why and to what extent group conventions can be justifiably criticised or contrasted with the universality of non-dualism, and whether this implies a contrasting individualism on the part of non-dualism which would seem to run counter to the criticism of individualism in 4.a.iv.


The point of departure for these issues is an incrementalisation of the dualism of individual and group. This dualism has appeared at various points in Part 1. Where the group has appropriated the universal (as in eternalism), the deviant individual is rejected, whilst where the individual has appropriated the universal (as in nihilism), the negative freedom of the individual is promoted against the pressure of the group. In the modern context the dualism re-appears in the discontinuity between psychology and sociology, whether this is used to support eternalist or nihilist approaches. This dualism, like the others I have treated, depends on a metaphysical discontinuity which is forced upon the continuity of evidence. This discontinuity can often take the form of the assertion of a freewill or rationality in the individual which distinguishes him from the group, but it can also take the form of a supervenience claim about sociological properties over psychological ones. But we simply do not know whether the individual is more than the product of its conditions, or whether the social group is more than the sum of its individual parts, even if the terms “individual” and “group” were clearly enough definable to bear such metaphysical claims. As in other cases, the alternative to this metaphysical discontinuity is a judgement between two alternatives lying at points along a spectrum.


However, two spectra need to be considered here. One is the spectrum of situatedness that I have already mentioned between mind and body. Here, mental properties appear to be present to a greater or lesser extent, and to this extent to also differentiate one individual from the physical continuum around her and the other individuals to be found in that continuum. This spectrum provides a condition for the related spectrum of integration, but the two need to be distinguished in explaining the incremental basis of value in non-dualism. The spectrum of mind and body can offer a way of provisionally understanding the non-psychological conditions which lead us to make distinctions between individual and group without confusing them with the psychological features which are the basis of the spectrum of integration: though the distinction, imposed on an interdependent relationship, is only justified by its provisional moral value.


The mind-body spectrum and the integration spectrum then, provide two different accounts of “individuality”. On the former, I am relatively distinct from others, despite the numerous ways in which I am dependent on them, because my mind is situated in a particular body, whilst others, seen as a mass, exist beyond that situation. Others also apparently have this individuality when considered separately. This type of individuality is relatively stronger the more intensely mental features are present, and as they become weaker or more spatially diffused it decreases. I shall refer to this as “situated individuality”. A crowd of highly intelligent clones all with the same mental processes, all of which were exactly synchronised so they said the same things at the same time, would nevertheless each have a strong situated individuality, just because they each exhibited strong mental features which, though synchronised, worked independently at different points. If, however, this crowd turned out not to be a crowd of clones with independent minds at all, but a crowd of robots centrally controlled by radio-transmitter, the spatial diffuseness of the mind observed would indicate a relative lack of situated individuality in any one robot (even if we could find a much greater situated individuality elsewhere, by the radio transmitter where the controller was sitting).


The spectrum of integration, however, provides a different type of individuality which I will refer to as “integrated individuality[36], though this is entirely dependent on situated individuality. Integrated and unintegrated psyches are equally situated, but their psychological relationship to the surrounding group differs according to their degree of integration. Since the less integrated person’s identifications are more restricted and defensive, but he is nonetheless a social creature with social origins, his identifications are more likely to be with the group as a whole, and in defensive opposition to other groups which threaten that identification. Beliefs which he shares with the group are likewise identified with, as they help to provide the conditions of mutual acceptance within the group: when threatened, these beliefs will be defended. This is likely to be the case even if he believes in an individualistic ideology, since this ideology will nevertheless operate as a basis of shared belief among a group of individualists, and provide a defence against the rejected group (which will be associated with the characteristics of groups in general). Whilst he will also identify with himself and with other individuals, this identification is still likely to be defended with beliefs about himself or others derived from the group, as the traditions of the group are his main source of beliefs.


A relatively more integrated person, however, gains individuality in the sense that the defensiveness which created her dependency on the group for defensive beliefs is more limited. In breaking down egoistic identifications she breaks down her exclusivity of  identification with the group and begins to enter into a more harmonious relationship with other groups and their ideologies. Where the ideologies of different groups clash, she is often forced by practical demands to make judgements between them, which forces her into more objective examination of the conditions of the supposed reality to which all ideologies appeal. She thus becomes less dependent on the group for her beliefs and more on the objectivity of her own judgement.


Another way of understanding the scale of integration is thus as a spectrum between individuality and conventionality, where the incrementality is one of the basis of judgement. Dogmatism or dogmatic scepticism both gain their basis of judgement from conventionality (i.e. the shared views which provide an expression of shared identification in the group), though they may rationalise that conventionality in various ways, for example attempting to defend it from the criticism of other groups by adopting some of their terminology, or adapting their beliefs to make them compatible with those of the defended group. Metaphysics is thus a function of conventionality and, though it may be ameliorated by some degree of encounter with other groups and their beliefs, it remains a limiting factor on objectivity whilst the core metaphysical beliefs of a group continue to be defended. For example, liberal theologians attempt to defend the core metaphysical doctrines of Christianity by adopting some of the vocabulary and attitudes of nihilism: and though this may indicate an advance in objectivity from a purely reactionary metaphysical position, the advance is still limited from further progress by attachment to a core metaphysics.


In this respect, individualism, which depends on metaphysical discontinuities, must be distinguished from integrated individuality[37]. Individualism tends to absolutise the boundaries of the situated individual and use these boundaries, expressed either in the form of individual rationality or freewill, as the locus of value[38]. This restricted locus of value then becomes the shared basis of belief, expressing shared desires in the group of individualists, or, even if it happens that the individualist does not participate in any like-minded grouping in any sense, the individualist’s values still exist in counter-dependency to those of the group he rejects, rather than consisting of a stronger investigation of conditions to offer a real counter-weight to his dependency. Individualism is thus a form of negatively expressed conventionalism, whilst integrated individuality is an incremental quality gained by gradually extending the group-dependency of the ego into the universality which comes from engagement with the rest of the psyche.


At the lower end of the scale of integrated individuality is the almost completely conventional person, such as can be found in some traditional or tribal societies. It is difficult to conceive of an individualist at such an extreme, which does indicate the positive role played by individualism in helping to establish the conditions for individuality. Such a person has no sense of his capacity to make independent judgements of conditions, but is almost totally dependent on the theories of the group. His independence of judgement is not completely non-existent, perhaps, but has very strictly circumscribed limits, perhaps only involving very minor judgements of the application of accepted theories, and there is no possibility of questioning conventional wisdom.


At the upper end of the scale is the person who is totally individual, because having integrated her psyche she considers both beliefs and their varying social contexts as equally provisional. Such beliefs may be useful in their contexts, and she will consider them and promote them there if she considers them so in the light of her knowledge of conditions, but without any need for assertion of their value or disvalue beyond this. Such an individual will thus move harmoniously in society, challenging accepted conventional beliefs only to the extent that she judges it ultimately helpful to do so.


Such a scale of individuality, based on integration, needs to replace the currently more widely accepted scale of rational autonomy descended from Kant. For no metaphysical assumption of freewill, or absolutising of the individual mind, is required to give an account of the incremental independence of individual judgement. On the contrary the very conditions required for the cultivation of such judgement, in the engagement with conditions, metaphysical agnosticism and engagement with the other as represented in the psyche, preclude such metaphysical assumptions. And if the person who offers an account of individuality cannot gain it himself, what is the point of the account? The entire conception of autonomy depends on a notion of self that we must abandon in order to be able to both understand and encounter individuality.


ii)                  The integration of groups


But this account of individuality leaves us with further questions about the status of groups. Are all groups equally subject to conventionalism? Are some preferable to others, and if so, what is the basis of judgement if all moral judgement depends on individual integration? And don’t groups play a heuristic role in addition to individual advances in objectivity? These questions can be answered only with reference to the integration of groups, rather than merely that of individuals.


I have considered groups so far only in contrast to individuals: as the bearers of conventionality. However, there seems to be no intrinsic reason why groups should be conventional. Groups become repositories of conventionality only because of the dependence of individuals upon them as a basis for identification, but if “group” is understood merely as a number of human beings who associate with each other, there is apparently no reason in theory why it should not encompass a group of enlightened beings who associate with complete harmony but entirely independent judgement. A group of integrated beings, then, automatically becomes an integrated group in which each member identifies with the others as much as himself, as with those who exist beyond the group. The group then consists only in its situatedness, not in its assertion over other groups.


The incremental scale leading up to this ideal scenario naturally consists in the incremental integration of all the situated individuals comprising a group. Whilst individuals remain at various points of integration, however, the group itself can offer more or less helpful conditions for the integration of individuals. A concern for the conditions of the group does not indicate that the metaphysical claim of the supervenience of groups over individuals must be assumed: rather that the group is also part of the spectra of mind/body and of integration and can be considered in the same light. Groups are part of the spectrum of mind/body because they also appear to exhibit mental features (whether or not these are ultimately reducible to those of the individual) and degrees of integration. The mental features are more spatially diffused than those of individuals, and the degree of integration subject to an even greater complexity of conditions operating at group level than at individual level, but nevertheless we can talk of them with a provisional usefulness. Since talking of the individual (in either sense) is itself a convention involving the use of duality based on verbal discontinuity, the same can be said about talk of groups, with the same conventions being extended.


But in what could the integration of a group consist? As in the case of the psyche, of a harmony between different representations so that tensions within it do not result in alienation and the projection of internal conflicts beyond itself. Like the psyche, the group can be described as a loose confederation of desires. People become associated with the group because it is instrumental in some way to the fulfilment of desires that have come to dominate their individual psyches sufficiently to ensure a degree of commitment to the group. As a loose confederation, a group, like a psyche, contains a certain range of goals, but these shift continually as the environment, the composition of the group, and the balance of power within it also change. Groups also contain egos in the sense of dominant immediate desires which are rationally formulated, justified, and pursued by the leadership and/or the formal policy or institutional organisation of the group, if it has such. Groups undergo crises, perhaps involving changes of leadership or policy, when the desires of its membership are strongly alienated from the formal egoistic position. Integration of a group then consists in the integration of the group-ego with the remainder of the group-psyche, rather than imposition of power.


It is not difficult to find examples of the alienation of the group-psyche from the group-ego and its consequences in the form of crises in groups, from the fall of totalitarian regimes to a disagreement among a group of casual friends. Typically, this alienation will not only exist at group level but also manifest as conflict within the psyche of individuals within the group. The individual’s identification with the group, promoted by his ego, will be opposed and perhaps overthrown by increasing disagreement with the official line of the group, until at some point a decision has to be made to voice disagreement and thus perhaps risk rejection by the group. Integration in a group, then, is likely to promote integration in the individual, because the conflicts found in the group will then be less likely to be mirrored in the conflict between an individual’s loyalty to the group and his contrary desires.


One important difference between the integrations of individual and group, however, lies in the much greater spatial diffuseness and separability of the group. Particular contrary desires within the group can be easily isolated and attacked by the group-ego, because they are often particularly embodied in individual dissidents. Whilst at individual level, dissident desires cannot be removed, only suppressed, dissident individuals can be removed from a group by expulsion, censorship or, in extreme cases, killing. Whilst this does not ensure that the desires represented by the dissident have completely disappeared, it does make it possible for the position of the group-ego to be maintained unchanged rather more easily than in the case of individuals. It is this which makes group conventionality such a powerful source of egoism for the individual. The individual is forced to maintain egoistic suppression in order to maintain membership of the group: and often the basic conditions for everything with which he identifies, such as his own life, possessions, status and livelihood, as well as those of others with which he identifies, depend on his membership of the group. It is thus hardly surprising that in traditional societies groups keep such an iron grip on their members and thus that ideological change is almost impossible.


The integration of the group, then, appears to be a very important condition for the integration of its individual members, and must be achieved in parallel with it. Such integration involves, not merely engagement with all the desires of individuals in the group, but a broadening basis for action in the form of consensus. In an ideal situation of consensus, action by or on behalf of the group is decided not by the imposition of the views of leadership, or even by the imposition of the views of the majority through democratic voting, but by the active assent of all members to the action being pursued. If active assent does not mean complete agreement, it must mean assent to the action nevertheless on the basis of an overriding confidence in the leadership. Such active assent demands a degree of integration on the part of all members, since they must have enough awareness of the degree of their own ignorance to reach at least a decision based on that rather than an absolutising of their immediate beliefs. Their immediate beliefs must thus already have a degree of provisionality[39].


Two important conditions for advances in the integration of the group, then, appear to be a degree of initial integration on the part of all members and confidence in the leadership. Confidence here is used in the sense of 5.d.iii, based not on dogmatic assertion or scepticism but on a balanced examination of experience of a particular leader or leaders in relation to the theory that they are trustworthy. Consistency of experience of the trustworthiness of a leader depends on that leader’s degree of integration, which determines their grasp of the conditions on which they base their own judgements as well as the consistency of the desires and beliefs which motivate them (though other qualities, such as mental capacity and expertise in a particular area, might also come into play). Confidence in leadership thus depends both on a degree of integration on the part of the follower and on a more complete integration on the part of the leader.


The integration of groups thus consists in a complex of factors. It consists in customs and procedures being established in the group which encourage consensus (which in turn depend on a belief in consensus), but such customs will be both useless and unsustainable without a degree of integration in all the members and a fairly high level of integration on the part of leaders. Such conditions are difficult to create, especially beyond a fairly narrow range of circumstances where there are favourable conditions, and may still seem to offer only a utopian discontinuity.  What if consensual agreement cannot be achieved? If these basic conditions are not available, can no progress towards the integration of groups be made? To answer this requires more discussion of the role of groups in discovering the Middle Way.


iii)                Group epistemology


In much philosophy of science, progress in discovery is seen as a phenomenon of groups much more than of individuals: it is cultures that allow an accretion of knowledge on which each individual can build. For example, Popper talks of a “World 3” between mind and body, a zone where the products of mind can build up in the form of conventions which can be passed on through generations[40]. It is in this zone that he believes scientific objectivity to be possible. So far my account of objectivity has focussed largely on the role of the individual, with objectivity being a property of her psychological states rather than of culture, which merely forms a conditioning background to the objectivity which is developed through the process of discovery. Now, however, in the light of the arguments in this section so far, it is important to clarify the ways in which social conventions may or may not participate in objectivity.


In answering this question it will also be possible to account for the kind of advances that can be made in objectivity at group level below the level at which consensual agreement[41] can be achieved. The epistemological advantages of basing agreement on consensus should be clear: in order to reach consensual agreement it is necessary to engage in a full collective investigation of the conditions operating in relation to the sphere in which collective action is to be taken, without which no views are likely to change from dogmatism towards greater adequacy. However, below the level at which consensual agreement can be achieved, individual thinking remains dogmatic and relatively impervious to new evidence because it is based on conventions. The only degree of objectivity by which these dogmas could be relatively justified is that of the conventions themselves.


Relative to the individual, conventions fulfil a dogmatic role: it is only in contrast to conventionality that integrated individuality can develop, and conventions by their very nature do not involve openness to new evidence. Yet this does not stop the convention itself from more or less fulfilling the function that it serves, which is that of fulfilling the desires of those who obey it. Compared with other conventions, it may be clear that it does. For example, the conventions of modern allopathic medicine, even when followed in the most mechanical way by the most unimaginative doctor, appear superior in their capacity to relieve physical suffering when compared to medieval practices (such as diagnosis based on the theory of humours and treatments which could often be counter-productive, such as blood-letting). This is not because modern medicine does not have many faults, and is not to deny that it is often followed dogmatically when a more flexible response to physical ailments might yield much better results, but it also appears relatively clear that the conventions enshrined in it are on the whole based on a superior degree of engagement with conditions.


These relatively useful conventions have been established initially by the work of individuals who investigated conditions with some objectivity, who then offered verifications which were convincing to the scientific community, leading to the modification of medical conventions. Objectivity thus appears to have accreted in medical convention: but I must disagree with Popper’s view that this accretion occurs in the conventions themselves, for this requires a representationalism whereby some kind of isomorphism can increasingly come to exist between the conventions and “reality”[42]. Instead, the relatively objective aspect of  the conventionality of a group must exist in the relationships comprising that group itself and their degree of integration, which, if not the psychological properties of individuals, at least mirror those psychological properties in structure. For it is on the degree of group-integration that the continued accuracy of interpretation of a particular shared group-representation depends. The meaning of the theories shared by a group may become petrified, but the degree of objectivity attained by the individuals who verified it remains, so long as the group supports sufficient integration of meaning to enable the effective application of those theories.


To return to the example of Western medicine, the objectivity of Western medicine depends, not upon the actual written or remembered body of theories which underlies it, but on the continued interpretation and application of those theories by doctors and other medical professionals. An important aspect of medical training thus consists in making these theories meaningful and in breaking down barriers between theory and practice. The community of meaning which underlies this training cannot be maintained without a fair degree of consensus between those who provide it, requiring confidence in its leadership (as represented, not only in persons, but in the theories they explicitly uphold) and some degree of integration on the part of the trainees (who have confidence in the theories because they accord with experience rather than on authority alone). This degree of consensus, as I outlined it in the previous subsection, is apparently a property of the group itself, though it is on the same incremental scale of integration as that of individuals.


In the case of Western medicine, the consensus is strong enough in a particular zone of belief, but this zone is tightly circumscribed. When it comes to issues of medical ethics, or even issues such as diet or attitude to other types of medical practice, the limitations of the consensus, and perhaps of the integration of the individuals involved in it, become increasingly obvious. Medical theories, too, are meaningful within a certain coherent zone, but may be applied blindly in unacknowledged ignorance of conditions lying beyond that zone. Examples of this which appear to have arisen in some circumstances might include the excessive use of extremely expensive equipment or operations and comparative neglect of simple preventative measures, failure to adapt medical approaches to the economic conditions in developing countries, and the provision of dietary advice based more on social convention than on considerations of long-term health, let alone of ecology or animal welfare.   


It is thus not conventions themselves which maintain some degree of petrified objectivity after the departure of pioneering individuals, but traditions of meaning which enable those conventions to be understood and applied, usually only in a particular restricted sphere. It is only where such traditions of meaning have been kept alive, too, that they become open to new development in that sphere. A decline in a tradition of meaning can be indicated by a lapse into formalism and scholasticism, where theories themselves alone rather than their relationship to a breadth of experience are the object of interest. Formalism, again, consists in a group relationship: one which is likely to arise wherever consensus is replaced by the mere exertion of power by the leadership and alienation on the part of the followers, since this immediately places a greater dualistic stress both on individual psyches and the group-psyche. Individuals are forced into a choice between obedience and dissidence, with the complexity of evidence which supports neither polarity being ignored.


Clearly, then, the conditions for new theories to be tested by an individual, and  for the verification of a new theory to be conventionally accepted by a group, are those in which consensus exists within that group, at least within the restricted zone of coherence in which the theory applies. In the absence of confidence in the new theory and the leaders who promote it, any acceptance on the part of the group is likely to be formalistic and alienated, and, even if the theory is in some ways a good one, it will be insufficiently understood to be applied adequately or be otherwise fruitful.


The difference here between scientific, artistic, or other verifications which become accepted by a group within a restricted zone, and moral verifications is not that the former lack moral implication (according to my argument, any investigation into conditions has that implication), but that the issues perceived as moral have broader implications for the whole of experience. It is thus much easier for a limited group to make small advances in objectivity, and to maintain that objectivity, in relation to a limited section of conditions, than it is for a larger group to accept advances which require many changes in everyday behaviour in order to be consistently applied. Whilst verifications of conventional morality operate in exactly the same way as scientific ones, requiring a group’s conventional acceptance of  a new theory (which in this case shows certain forms of behaviour to be more or less justifiable than previously) their application is not to one specific type of specialised task to be performed seldom by a few (as would be the case, for example, with an advance in medicine), but in a broad range of actions likely to be applicable to many. It is this, and not the metaphysical fact-value distinction, which makes “values” so much more difficult to “verify” than “facts”.


Nevertheless, advances in the objectivity of conventional morality do occur. Perhaps the clearest ones are those which involve the dissolution of a discriminatory dichotomy, previously justified through various metaphysical claims, when this dichotomy was very clearly not justified by experience. The retreat of racism from the time of the abolition of slavery in Britain and the US offers one example. Changing attitudes to homosexuality in the West, in which a previously anathematised “sin” has become increasingly accepted in many areas of  society, offers another. These advances do not appear to be merely an effect of nihilism, although some of the excessive assertion of a metaphysical egalitarianism in the cult of political correctness may suggest this, but also indicate ways in which the tension between eternalism and nihilism has allowed new moral advances to occur. The main justification for seeing them as such lies in the consensus that they allow to develop between groups that were previously divided from each other or internally not integrated.


Thus there are advances that can be made by groups prior to the achievement of full consensual agreement in decision-making, but these advances consist in the partial consensual agreement which is required in one area to allow the acceptance of a new view. The implications of the new conventional view then begin to gradually offer a challenge to other existing attitudes and to create greater consensus on them too, for an appreciation of a greater complexity of conditions in one area may set up an expectation for parallel developments in another. This process, by which a more open heuristic in one area gradually spreads to others, may help to provide historical explanation for, say, the development of the Renaissance and its spread over several centuries from art and scholarship to science and religion, then to philosophy and politics. But there is no inevitable “march of progress” in this, since it is subject to many conditions, many of which are mysterious. Besides advances in conventional views created by the fruitful tension between eternalism and nihilism in the modern West, there exist other important tendencies which are much more the product of one or the other (as I have commented in Part 1) and serve only to extend the fruitless conflict.


iv)                The individual in the group


There now remains the question of the relationship between the individual and the group. If the conventionality of the group is capable of some degree of integration as well as the individual, should the individual move from one group to another to find one that is more integrated, or remain loyal to his original group or groups in the hope of cultivating integration there? Should he subject himself to the authority of the group to a greater extent when it is more integrated, or rely only on his own judgement? And is the integrated group justified in exerting power over the individual?


The answer to these questions needs to begin from a recognition of the degree of interdependence in the respective integrations of individual and group. Individual integration is unlikely to develop far without some degree of group-integration in the background, because the group is responsible for the education (in the widest sense) of the individual. Likewise, group-integration is unlikely to develop far without a fair degree of integration among a number of the individuals involved, especially the leadership. Nevertheless it appears that each can also develop to some degree independent of the other, for an individual can exercise her own judgement independently of the group and reach a greater degree of integration than those around her (often becoming unpopular, or at least being ignored, as a result), whilst a high degree of integration in a group and many of its individual members may encourage the remainder to also achieve greater integration.


Questions of the degree of trust which individuals should place in groups or groups place in individuals should thus take into account both the interdependence between the integrations of individual and group and the independence. The factor of interdependence suggests that individuals and groups will to some extent advance in integration at the same rate, and to this extent the individual is not capable of making a justifiable judgement independent of the group reflecting superior integration, nor the group likewise independent of the individual. The factor of independence, on the other hand, suggests that whichever is less integrated in a given case (individual or group) is subsidiary to the superior judgement of the other. From this point of view an individual who is more integrated than the surrounding group should exert his superior judgement quite independently of it, and thus could justifiably leave it and participate only in more integrated groups, whilst an individual who is less integrated than the surrounding group should attempt to bear in mind the extent of his own ignorance and thus submit himself to the group. Likewise the group which is more integrated than the individual may be justified in exerting power over that individual where this will aid that individual’s integration, whilst the group which is less integrated than the individual is not justified in attempting to curtail the independent judgement of that individual.


This complexity creates a problem of evidence and of our capacity to assess it, to resolve which we can only return to the judgement of the individual. The individual has to judge, not only how far her judgement is interdependent or independent of the group, but how far it is superior or inferior in integration. Likewise the group has to judge through consensus whether its judgement is superior or inferior to that of a dissident individual. But in either case these judgements will only be justifiable to the extent that the individual or group is integrated and thus takes into account, not only the evidence available, but its degree of ignorance concerning that evidence and its status.


A group-decision to punish a dissident member based only on the exertion of power by the leader of the group, for example, or the decision of a mob with only a temporary unity of purpose over one issue rather than a general consensus, would be unjustified, because they are relatively unintegrated and thus do not sufficiently take into account the group’s degree of ignorance. On the other hand the decision of a group with a good degree of consensus, and strong evidence that an individual lacks integration relative to the group, are more justified in enforcing the conventional rules of the group, even though there is still some room for doubt.


Similarly, the decision of an individual to submit himself to a group or to defy it or leave it depends on his degree of integration relative to the group. For example, the decision of a young person to leave education at an earlier stage than necessary is often unjustified, because she is largely ignorant of many conditions which the educational system takes into account: unless that educational system is exceptionally despotic or ineffective, or she has an unusually clear idea about the alternatives and their value. But the decision of an adult to leave the religion of his birth, if based on sufficient understanding, say, of the ways in which this religious group is limited by dualism and thus likely to remain unintegrated in important respects, and of a less dualist alternative, is much more likely to be justified. There may remain some doubt that that individual should have stayed in their original religious context and attempted to aid its reform from within, but this may well have been a fruitless effort.


Many issues have been raised here which will be pursued further in chapter 8 in relation to the role of moral traditions and to the justification of political authority, but for the present I will close with a general account of the spectrum of relations between individual and group which summarises the conclusions of this subsection.


At one end of this spectrum is the extreme of conflict between individual and group. This would be typified by either a repressive exertion of power by the group over the alienated individual or by a state of anarchy in which the individual has no regard at all for group-conventions. Here neither individual nor group are integrated, and the question of their mutual independence or interdependence does not arise. At the other extreme lies the ideal scenario in which both group and individual are integrated. Here the individual’s integration means that she takes into account the need for consensus in the group as one of the conditions for judgement, so that disagreement will only be the signal for further discussions to reach a fuller understanding of the conditions at work and establish a consensus. Once such a consensus has been achieved, individuals will spontaneously lend their energies to the activities of the group without any need for alienation[43].


In between these extremes is a spectrum of integration which is not only that of the individual or the group alone but of both. In some circumstances individual or group may be markedly more integrated than the other, but because of the universality of identification developed by each the more it is integrated, each is also concerned with the integration of the other and will attempt to create the conditions for the other to catch up. Whatever asymmetries there may be in the trajectory of integrative development, then, the two combine at the theoretical end-point where integrated individuals combine to form an integrated group. In this way the integration of neither individual nor group needs to be prioritised a priori, nor does the mutual independence or interdependence of individual and group need to be dogmatically asserted: rather a common concern for the integration of both, adequately taking into account all conditions, leads to the gradual resolution of these moral tensions on the same scale as the epistemological development which enables the basis of the resolution to be understood.



[36] The distinction between situated and integrated individuality is a development of the one Sangharakshita makes between “statistical individuals” and “individuals proper”: see Subhuti (1994) p.118

[37] This distinction, again, is directly owed to Sangharakshita: ibid. p.119-120

[38] See 4.a.iv

[39] Consensual agreement as a decision-making procedure has been practised and refined by such groups as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Western Buddhist Order. Both groups have taken steps to prevent consensuality being manipulated, but the types of measure differ. In the Quakers no particular criteria are enforced for participation in business meetings (not even membership of the society is required), but a high degree of formality is maintained, including a restriction on the number of contributions that can be made by each person present on a given subject, which is normally only one (see account on the official Quaker website at It seems that here an avoidance of other types of manipulation of the process can only be achieved by the maintenance of a high level of traditional formality, which may itself reduce the degree of consensus achieved.  In the Western Buddhist Order consensual agreement as a decision-making process is practised only within the Order in relation to the practical responsibilities of those directly concerned. The Order is a body to which admittance is carefully controlled, primarily on the basis that a degree of integration needs to be appreciable in its members. A basis of initial confidence in the leadership is seen as a requirement for the use of consensus, but in contrast to the Quakers less formal circumscription of the decision-making process itself is required once these initial conditions have been created.

[40] Popper (1994) chs. 1-3

[41] “Consensual agreement”, which refers to a social event motivated by consensus, must be distinguished here from “consensus”, which is an incremental property of the psychology of a group.

[42] Popper’s view suggests this only subtly. In his evolutionary epistemology the basis of epistemological objectivity lies in its “survival value”. This pre-supposes a scientistic view of our desires in which they are necessarily limited to the “subjective” goals associated with the continued existence and propagation of an organism or its genes. Whilst superficially pragmatist, then, Popper’s view assumes the reality in the universe of a force delimiting our desires according to their survival value, and a refinement of theories according to whether they coincide with that force or not. This amounts to a metaphysical pre-limitation rather than an open investigation of our desires and an acceptance of the relationship between those contingent desires and projected realities.

[43] It is this “coincidence of wills” between group and individual that Sangharakshita describes as the “Third Order of Consciousness”. See Subhuti (1994) p.121-8.


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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