Two Models of Perspective Taking

20 September 2013


Duck Rabbit

What happens when an individual achieves a new level of perspective taking? Is one perspective displaced by another? Is a new perspective added to existing perspectives?

Firstly, what do I mean by “perspective taking” in this context? In a couple of posts I’ve discussed perspective taking as a theme of developmental psychology — The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking and The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking — but I haven’t tried to rigorously define it. The short version is that perspective taking is putting yourself in the position of the other and seeing the world from the other’s point of view (or perspective, hence perspective taking). This is, as I have previously remarked, one of the most basic thought experiments in moral philosophy.

Kant implicitly appeals to perspective taking in his categorical imperative, in which he asserts that one ought to act as though the principle that guides one’s actions should be made a universal law. In other words, you ask yourself, “What would the consequences be if everyone acted as I am acting?” This, in turn, supposes that one can place oneself into the position of the other and imagine how the principle of your action would be interpreted and put into practice by others.

It could also be argued that Kant’s categorical imperative is implicit in the regime of popular sovereignty, which has its origins in Kant’s time but which only in the twentieth century became the universally acclaimed normative standard for political entities. Everyone knows that their individual vote does not count, because if you subtracted your vote from the total in any election, it would not affect the outcome. Nevertheless, if everyone came to this conclusion and acted upon it, no one would vote and democracy would collapse.

To return to perspective taking, there are much more sophisticated formulations than the off-the-cuff version I have given above. There is an interesting paper that discusses the conception of perspective taking — THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIO-MORAL MEANING MAKING: DOMAINS, CATEGORIES, AND PERSPECTIVE-TAKING — the authors of which, Monika Keller and Wolfgang Edelstein, converge on this definition:

“…perspective-taking is taken to represent the formal structure of coordination of the perspectives of self and other as they relate to the different categories of people’s naive theories of action. The differentiation and coordination of the categories of action and the self-reflexive structure of this process are basic to those processes of development and socialization in which children come to reconstruct the meaning of social interaction in terms of both what is the case and what ought to be the case in terms of morally responsible action. In order to achieve the task of establishing consent and mutually acceptable lines of action in situations of conflicting claims and expectations, a person has to take into account the intersubjective aspects of the situation that represent the generalizable features, as well as the subjective aspects that represent the viewpoints of the persons involved in the situation. In its fully developed form, this complex process of regulation and interaction calls for the existence and operation of complex socio-moral knowledge structures and a concept of self as a morally responsible agent. The ability to differentiate and coordinate the perspectives of self and other thus is a necessary condition both in the development of socio-moral meaning making and in the actual process of solving situations of conflicting claims.”

“THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIO-MORAL MEANING MAKING: DOMAINS, CATEGORIES, AND PERSPECTIVE-TAKING,” by Monika Keller and Wolfgang Edelstein, in W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.) (1991). Handbook of moral behavior and development: Vol. 2. Research (pp. 89-114). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

I recommend the entire paper, which discusses, among other matters, the attempts by others to formulate an adequate explication of perspective taking. But I have an ulterior motive for this discussion of perspective taking. The real reason I have engaged in this inquiry about perspective taking is because of my recent posts about the overview effect — The Epistemic Overview Effect and The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking — in which I treat the overview effect as a visceral trigger for perspective taking on a global (and even trans-planetary) scale.

Thinking about the overview effect as perspective taking, I considered the possibility that taking a new global or even trans-planetary perspective might involve either dispensing with a former perspective in order to replace it with a novel perspective (which I will call the displacement model), or adding a new perspective to already existing perspectives (which I will call the augmentation model). (And here I want to cite Siggi Becker and Mark Lambertz, who commented on my earlier overview effect post on Facebook, and spurred me into thinking about what it means for one to achieve a new perspective on the world.)

For cognitive scientists and sociologists, perspective taking is cumulative, especially in the case of moral development. There is an entire literature devoted to Robert L. Selman’s five stages of perspective taking (which is very much influenced by Piaget) and Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development (three stages — pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional — each broken into two divisions).

There are, however, definite limits to this Piagetian cognitive basis for the development of the moral life of the individual. Without some degree of empathy for the other, all of this cognitive approach to moral development falls apart, because one might systematically pursue the development of one’s perspective taking ability only to more successfully exploit and manipulate others through a more effective cunning than that provided by a purely egocentric approach to interaction with others. Thus we arrive at the Schopenhauerian conception such that compassion is the basis of morality.

Max Scheler systematically critiqued this classic Schopenhauerian position in his book The Nature of Sympathy. Scheler concluded that compassion alone is insufficient for morality, thus undermining Schopenhauer’s position, but that compassion alone may not be a sufficient condition for morality, it may yet be a necessary condition. Perhaps it is compassion and perspective taking together that make morality possible. These philosophical issues have also been taken up in the spirit of social science by Carol Gilligan’s work on the ethics of care. I only touch on these issues here in passing, since any serious consideration of these works and their authors would require substantial exposition.

Perspective taking is central to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and what Kohlberg calls “disequilibrium” (which serves as a spur to moral development) might also be called “disorientation,” or, more specifically, “moral disorientation.” And it is disorienting when one achieves a new perspective, and especially when one does as suddenly, as in the case of the visceral trigger provided by the overview effect. Plato describes such a disorienting experience beautifully in his famous allegory of the cave — the philosopher is twice disoriented, initially as he ascends from the cave of shadows up into the real world, and again when we descends again into the cave of shadows in order to attempt to enlighten those still chained below. A power experience leaves one feeling disoriented, and much of this disorientation is due to the collapse of a familiar system of thought that gave one a sense of one’s place in the world, and its replacement by a new system of thought that is not yet familiar.

If we focus too much on cumulative and continuous aspects of perspective taking, on the assumption that each level of development must build upon the immediately previous level, we may lose sight of the disruptive nature of perspective taking — and moral development is not a primrose path. As individuals confront moral dilemmas they are forced to consider difficult question and sometimes to give hard answers to difficult questions. This is central to the moral growth of the person, and it is often quite uncomfortable and attended by anxiety and inner conflict. One often feels that one fights one’s way through a problem, only to surmount it. This is very much like Wittgenstein’s description of throwing away the ladder once one has climbed up.

If the overview effect constitutes a new level of perspective taking, and if perspective taking is central to moral development, then the perspective taking of the overview effect constitutes a stage in human moral development — and it constitutes that stage of moral development that coincides with civilization’s expansion beyond terrestrial boundaries.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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