The climate agreement debacle has crystallized in my mind the number one criteria I use to judge a political leader: is this person thinking about the needs of all their people in a fair and just way? This means not just their own needs or the needs of their family or bank account or the needs of the their political friends or the needs of the people who live by them or look like them or live like them. It means everybody. No matter what. Every one of their constituents, and really, everyone else too. More than some of them, more than most of them. Everybody.
Global consciousness can be looked at in a couple ways. First and obviously it means thinking globally, thinking outside our immediate selves or families or communities, thinking outside one’s own individual or familial needs to the needs of individuals we do not necessarily know or interact with on a regular basis. If self-love is in the first person and philial or erotic love is in the second person, then global consciousness challenges us to a third-person love, a love for strangers, a love we don’t immediately benefit from, a love for the universe and a faith in its mechanisms.
This type of thinking obviously didn’t thrive in the early tribal communities. Isolated bands of humans needed to defend themselves from other isolated bands of humans. This idea persisted even with the formation of nation states and nations, with various developments in the art of diplomacy coming along the way. For what once were roads thousands of miles long became wires with electricity and telephone signals and those became televisions and radios and the internet, and now you can talk to someone sitting a diameter of the globe away from you at instant speed. Crazy. (Also crazy: Quantum Physics.) It wasn't always that way. It took a few millennia to get going.
But thinking in a third-person bigger picture isn’t easy. It’s not a light switch you flip on; it’s a skill you develop. And just as in grade school, each grade builds upon the previous one.
There are many maps and systems available for understanding global consciousness, and the elaborate mechanism that we have for understanding those systems is called Developmental Psychology, which studies the full range of human growth and development and every sub-range between. Some famous dealers of the craft you may have heard of are Piaget, Erikson, Maslow, Gilligan, Kohlberg, and Loevinger, but the one that elucidates global consciousness to me is Ken Wilber, who wrote a few too many books synthesizing the ideas of those in that list with a bunch of spiritual stuff and philosophy and maps for practical living. For a primer, I’ll link here his book, A Theory of Everything, which I consider a great book with a sometimes maddening title.
The way I understand it, Ken Wilber’s stages of ego development are basically rephrasings of Carol Gilligan’s stages of care. It should also be sidenoted that systems like this are ways to organize and understand ideas, not some eternal dicta etched in bedrock. (“The map is not the territory,” now and forever.) But I’m a total nerd for stuff like this. So here we go, with Ken Wilber’s idea of development.
Egocentric: Care for oneself. I care about me, stuff that has to do with me, and stuff I like. I’m responsible for my personal biology and actions, and I, as an independent individual, am also the basis of my morality, which means it’s really easy for me to have no morality if this is the only kind of care I'm capable of. We see egocentrism in two-year-olds, professional wrestlers, petty Greek dieties, and wannabe dictators of formerly democratic countries. First-person care. (Wilber also does this list thing too in his book. Let's say I'm borrowing it.)
Everyone starts out at egocentric. As babies, we are not yet developed enough to care about ourselves as individuals, and that’s why we need parents to care for us and keep us in check. Though I’ve been challenged on this point by a sociology professor who says studies have shown that babies can empathize. Again, this isn't the end-all-be-all of how humans should be measured and these aren't rigid categories, just concepts for understanding.
Quoted in Wilber (page 18), psychologist Howard Gardner states, “The young child is totally egocentric…unable to differentiate himself from the rest of the world,” which, perhaps, is the basis for child empathy. If nothing else, it is a clue into the egocentric psychology. We say that selfish people thinks the world revolves around them (like, they’re the Sun? Why would they want to be the Sun? There’s no life there…whatever…), but what would be more accurate is that selfish people think they are the world, that there nothing important outside of them. They see the world this way, and that can be an unpleasant thing to deal with.
You can see mammals evolving out of egocentrism from reptilian thinking to communal thinking, and civilization developed in this way by moving from isolated tribes to nation-states to a smaller globalized world. The problem is, if you only care about yourself, you’re not going to get very far in the world. (Probably.) Which leads us to the second stage.
Ethnocentric: care for someone else. Ahhh yes. The problem of other people. “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of existence,” writes psychologist Erich Fromm in his landmark work, The Art of Loving, a book in which he navigates roadmaps through the caverns of the psyche to posit ways we can love actively, selflessly, and whole-ly. This could be called second-person care.
Ethnocentric care starts as reciprocated care for the parents, and then we learn to care for our family members, people around us, people at school and work. We identify with members of all sorts of groups we belong to, or people who share our worldviews or motivations, and we build relationships based on those shared identities. We create communities and languages, and we laugh with each other. It’s pretty great. Examples include families, sports teams, religions, nations, and all the people on Sesame Street.
Unfortunately, sometimes these identities and relationships cause conflict with people from other groups, and long story short, history is rife with examples of how human rights have been disregarded in the name of one group or another. I’ll allow you to perform that exercise on your own. Relationships are messy. Friendships form but not all of them last. They take effort and appreciation. Which leads us to our third-person care.
Worldcentric: Care for all others (or as many as you can wrap your heart around). Individuals with a worldcentric morality show concern for, and act on behalf of, a concern for the welfare of those outside an identity or group connected to them. Worldcentric thinking begets things like universal human rights, animal rights, care for the planet, love thy neighbor, and good-old-fashioned generosity. Amazing things that have come from the widespread dissemination and growth of worldcentric morality include public education, socialized health care, and environmental protections (I know, I know…).
Taking the third-person into account isn’t always easy, and many people just neglect to do it altogether. (Then they think up great rationalizations for neglecting it.) Depending on the decision or problem or life event, you have to take different outside groups of people into account. A win/win negotiation would be ethnocentric, but I have seen discussed a win/win/win scenario where not only do both parties win in the negotiation, but the greater (local or global) communities also win. Here’s an example.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey asserts that win/win or win/win/win solutions require both the most consideration and the most courage. Again, sounds like worldcentric thinking. Sometimes you have to give up some pleasure you enjoy for the sake of the greater good. We negotiate these things all the time. Maybe I can’t afford an electric car, so I drive less. I buy cage-free eggs when I can afford them, but some weeks I can’t. Worldcentric thinking is at the heart of charity and good will, and I have to remind myself it’s okay to not do it all the time. Or, rephrased, it’s NOT okay to beat yourself up all the time for not giving 100% of your money to charity.
Wilber actually has a fourth stage. What could be bigger than worldcentric care, you ask? The answer is that all three stages—egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric—are crucially important. One isn’t objectively better than the other. We have to care for ourselves (ultimately, who else is going to?), we have to care for others (or risk being visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts…), and we have to care for all people and animals on the planet and the planet itself (as stewards of the planet, it is our heavily-weighted responsibility). But there’s a time and place for each of these types of care, and even a skill at knowing when and how and to what degrees to employ them. Therefore, Wilber’s fourth stage is an integration of the three.
Kosmocentric care: care for all types, stratas, and evolutions of being. Kosmocentric care is basically a pragmatic integration of the three other stages with a new-agey name. The first three types of care can be considered tools in a toolbox and this the plan for whatever your trying to build. All three of the other stages are important: we need to care for ourselves, we have to care for others, and we have to care for the world. But we also should be conscious and conscientious about who we care for and how.
But applying a discernment of these levels of care is not without pitfalls. Sometimes people use worldcentric or ethnocentric causes to actually further egocentric means, like approving construction of an oil pipeline by saying it will create jobs when really it will just make the wealthy wealthier. Some people sacrifice worldcentric needs (like care for the climate) for ethnocentric needs (like the national economy), while some people sacrifice ethnocentric (like caring for their family) for worldcentric (like volunteering at a homeless shelter). Indeed, much great storytelling is about pitting individual, interpersonal, and communal needs against each other. Again, it takes wisdom and discernment to know when to act for what level of care, or, as Covey says, consideration and courage. I'd also like to say plenty of hard work and some grit as well. It requires a lot of character and integrity to set aside one's own first-person needs for the good of someone else or the community as a whole, but sometimes it is unequivocally the right thing to do. The ability to do just that is, in the end, the sign of a true and honorable person.
So, that said, what I’ve presented in this post is merely a framework for starting to understand global consciousness and not an end-all-be-all. These concepts are rife for unpacking, and, unfortunately, for manipulation. Politicians are masters at using worldcentric needs as talking points when they are really trying to further ethnocentric or egocentric aims. Sometimes people just have the wrong bottom line and they value money or power or influence (all egocentric) for the sake of the greater good, like well-managed social programs that benefit millions of people, or even ideals like truth, honor, and liberty.
So I want to work toward acting on first-, second-, and third-person are in all my decisions: personal, local, and global. The universe is far bigger than me. I am not it’s only inhabitant. Time ripples out endlessly. Our words and actions matter. They are the artistry we impose on the fabric of reality, and that reality is therefore a reflection of who we are. It just takes plenty of work to be the people we want to be, or the people we know we can become.