Moral Development – Lawrence Kohlberg

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Psychological development in adults has been an academic field since the 1960s. Until then, psychology was mainly about experimental psychology and behaviorism where research focused on studying animals’ and people’s behavior and how to manipulate it, and psychoanalysis where therapy aimed to allow people to find subconscious reasons for their moods, emotions and behaviors etc.

In 1958, Lawrence Kohlberg, who was then studying psychology at the University of Chicago, developed a model of three levels of moral development based on Piaget’s developmental psychology: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality and post-conventional morality. Each of the three levels has two stages. The first moral stage is oriented towards obedience and avoiding punishment (Will I get caught?), the second is instrumental and oriented towards self-interest (Does this serve me?); both of them pre-conventional morality. The third stage is oriented towards interpersonal relations and conformity (living up to social norms), the fourth towards authority and maintaining social order; both are conventional morality. The fifth stage is oriented towards the social contract in general and the sixth towards universal ethical principles; both of them are post-conventional morality and based on a principled conscience. As in Piaget’s developmental psychology, the stages are successive, each stage retains the previous and they become increasingly complex. At later stages, one tends to find the previous stages too simplistic and insufficient, if not flat out immoral.

Beginning in the 1970s and especially since the 1980s, developmental psychology has become an academic field of its own and it has become a useful tool in, among other things, developing school curricula, resocialization of prison inmates, and employee and leadership training. It is expensive when companies have CEOs, middle managers and other employees who are not up to their responsibilities. There are several schools of developmental psychology today, and many of them are speaking of three, four or more levels of personal development.

Child Psychology – Jean Piaget

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Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.

Jean Piaget, 1934

The founder of scientific child psychology in the 1920s and 1930s was the Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980). As the father of three children, he studied the development of his own children carefully and looked for patterns in their development, and as a psychologist, he conducted several controlled scientific studies of the development of children’s psychology and their inner worlds in all age groups.

Early on, Piaget believed that biological development played a significant role in psychological, emotional and cognitive development; the child’s mind only becomes ready for certain types of learning and cognitive activity as the brain grows. Neural science later proved him right. – Luckily, though, our mind does not stop its development as the brain stops growing. The process of rewiring the brain, growing new connections and pruning existing ones, continues even when we and our brain have ceased physically growing. As the rewiring continues, the complexity of the brain increases and it may do so throughout life.

Piaget’s studies brought him to the conclusion that along with this physical development, the child’s mind evolves through an on-going process of assimilation and accommodation of so-called schemata, i.e. mental models of the world. When a child encounters a new event that is consistent with an existing schema or mental model of the world, the schema is confirmed and there is assimilation. But when a child encounters a new event that is not consistent with an existing schema, something unexpected, the child must either modify this faulty model of the world or form an entirely new one.

A schema could be, for instance, that mom and dad always tell the truth, and as long as Santa Claus turns up every Christmas with presents, this is confirmed and there is assimilation. But when the child suddenly discovers that Santa is really Uncle Chuck, there is an inconsistency with the existing schema of trustworthy parents, and the schema must be revised through accommodation. However, a new schema evolves: “Mom, dad and I share a secret about Santa that my little sister does not know!” – Until the sister also finds out and this leads to accommodation too.

These specific schemata each depend on other schemata that are more general. In the above case, the first general schema is that mom’s, dad’s and my knowledge are one and the same; the replacing schema, that mom’s and dad’s knowledge is different than mine and always will be, and lastly, that I can share a secret with somebody and that somebody knows less than me. These three latter schemata serve as organizing models or meta-schemata for the more specific ones.

From the above examples, it should be possible to see how the mind develops in stages as new schemata replace old ones, that these stages are related to age, and that the development is one-directional or progressive because one stage must develop before the next. Some stages and schemata may last longer than others, but they correspond with a certain age period and evolve in a certain order, always evolving towards higher levels of complexity of mind.

Based on his research, Piaget developed a theory of cognitive development, according to which children develop in four stages: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational periods. – We are not going to dwell on child psychology as such but it helps explain adult developmental psychology.

The sensorimotor period is from birth to 2 years of age; the child learns from physical experience, and gradually learns that it is separate from the world, i.e. what is self and what is other. Towards the end of the second year, it acquires object consistency, which means that it realizes that objects may still exist when not visible, which in turn means that peek-a-boo is no longer a fun and surprising game.

Piaget divided the sensorimotor period into six sub-stages during which the infant goes from simple reflexes to voluntary actions (0-6 weeks); develops its first habits and voluntarily reproduces actions that originally happened by chance (6 weeks to 4 months); coordinates vision and action (4-8 months); shows intentions (8-12 months); becomes curious (12-18 months): and internalizes schemata and begins using primitive symbols (12-18 months).

Through these sub-stages, it is relatively easy for the adult observer to see how loops of repetition evolve to become increasingly complex loops of repetition, variation and choice until, eventually, we see the child as an individual who acts and makes choices.

The pre-operational stage is from 2 years of age when the child begins to speak until around age 7. Piaget noted that during this stage of cognitive development, the child cannot mentally manipulate information and does not understand concrete logic, but it can form magical beliefs and understands the world as animistic, believing that inanimate objects have feelings and intentions. The child begins to play and to think symbolically; it roleplays and pretends that it is somebody else or that furniture is dinosaurs, but the thinking is egocentric and the child cannot see things from different points of view. From around 4 years of age, the child wants to know things and begins to ask questions.

The concrete operational stage is from 7 to 11 years of age. As the name suggests, the child still thinks in concrete terms and is, on the on hand, letting go of magical thinking, on the other hand, not ready for abstract or hypothetical thinking yet. Children this age begin to solve problems using logic, and they begin to understand that others have perspectives and agendas of their own.

The formal operational stage is from around age 11 into adolescence and early adulthood, age 15-20. This big child or teenager uses symbols related to abstract concepts, learns to think about abstract concepts and can handle assumptions that have no necessary relation to reality, i.e. “Who would be the better friend, Superman or Batman?” The abstraction may relate to reality too, of course, as in: “Which is more just: sharing so that everybody gets the same, or sharing so that everybody receives according to personal effort?” In younger children, problem-solving is done through trial-and-error, but at this stage they develop the ability to systematically solve problems in logical and methodical ways.

 

The evolving, self-organizing, complex, open mind

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Throughout this book, we define the mind as the cognitive processes that are generated by our brain, nervous system, neurotransmitters, and body chemistry. That is, our conscious and un-conscious cognition; what we are aware of plus the many things going on in our mind that do not reach our awareness but which influence our awareness, mood, emotions, and behavior nevertheless. Among the latter are subconscious fears or preferences, and skills that we know by heart and do not have to pay separate attention to, such as bicycling or driving a car while thinking of something else. Many of those things going on “under the surface” in our mind can be brought to our attention immediately if needed, like when a child on the sidewalk suddenly runs towards the street, and we become fully aware of our driving. Other things may need years of therapy to be revealed to us, such as fears of rejection or ridicule if we behave in certain ways. We will never know the majority of our unconscious cognitive activities, which is a good thing.

Our individual mind works in a way similar to evolution in nature and culture. Our knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, fantasies, and dreams, our understanding and interpretations of the world, our language(s), our skills, our emotions and moods, etc. make up an integrated, co-evolutionary system. This system evolves as we encounter the world and engages with it, and it works through loops of repetition, variation and choice as we go about using the skills and knowledge that we already have. It gradually becomes more complex through our exposure to new experiences, through how we react to these, and through how we interact with other people and ourselves. Our mind takes up and organizes what is new to us according to what we already are, already know and already have encountered, and it does this so that the new becomes as meaningful to us as possible and integrates with the old.

As we mature, we increasingly become aware of ourselves in this process, of our own behavior, our habits, assumptions, thoughts and emotions, and of how we handle new and/or contradictory, for a lack of better word, stuff. As we mature, our mind increasingly supplies itself with a new kind of feedback loops that we are actually aware of, allowing us to understand ourselves better and to interact with the world in richer, deeper and overall more complex and meaningful ways. Our mind becomes self-aware in increasingly complex ways.

By drawing the comparison to evolution in nature and culture, the expression “an open mind” becomes very literal: our inner world evolves with our willingness to approach, acquire, challenge, appropriate, and appreciate new stuff, be it new ideas, new knowledge, new art, new people, or new insights about ourselves.

As we mature and know more, as the depth, breadth and complexity of our understanding increase, and as we gain insight into ourselves, we increase our potential of combining things in ways that we have not done before and which nobody else may have done before. In other words, the chances of creativity and innovation may increase with the complexity of our mind. But it may also have the opposite effect: as our mind becomes increasingly engrained in its own patterns, i.e. as the loops of our habits, skills and unchallenged beliefs become older, it may also become increasingly hard with age to tolerate or create something new. Whether it is a set of skills, a belief or an opinion we keep repeating and maybe even refining, the repetition turns it into a physical structure in our brain, and changing such a structure can be painful.

We grow as individuals with our willingness to open our mind in spite of this pain. Our personal development is a double-bound process of repeating and refining patterns and of being open to new ones. If we did not run loops, and repeat and refine skills, convictions, hopes, and beliefs, etc. we would be confused individuals without a personal core and unable to define our boundaries. On the other hand, if at some point we refused to learn or change anything, we would be emotionally and mentally stuck and unable to mature with our peers or change with circumstances and societal development.

Being open means that we risk encountering things that do not fit in with what we already know, feel, hope, or believe. It is often through these painful encounters, however, that we truly grow. When we are forced to change an understanding or a perspective it is painful, and the deeper the conviction, the more aspects of our lives that are affected by the change, the more painful the transition, but we also come out from it on the other side as more mature persons. This is what developmental psychology is about.

Creative genius can develop things thier contemporaries cannot fully grasp; here Ludwig van Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge from 1825:

 

 

Evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems

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Nature and our cultures are evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems. That they are self-organizing does not mean that anything can happen; there are patterns that define how things can be reproduced, how they can change and what will survive. In nature, variation from one generation to the next is rather limited; the evolution of the eye did not begin with eyeballs but with light-sensitive cells on the animals’ surface. Only with reproduction, variation and selection for increased light sensitivity did these light-sensitive cells evolve into a specialized organ. In culture, the same tends to apply; gradual variation and modification allow new phenomena to evolve. Leonardo da Vinci may have created art and machinery that were unique and to some extent groundbreaking in his time, but he painted with the same oil-based paints as his colleagues and did not invent surrealism or the spray can. Likewise, his machines were mechanical; he did not invent the car or batteries.

In nature, genetic mutations that deviate too much from the genome of the species and which thus create too much variation tend to produce individuals that do not survive well. In culture, ideas that are too strange to make sense tend not to be reproduced either. Yet, from time to time somebody does comes up with a totally fresh idea that spreads like wildfire, like the cultivation and use of penicillin, Rubik’s Cube, and social media; or something is not picked up right away except by a small in-crowd but has an impact much later, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, quantum theory, and Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. The latter was composed in 1825, premiered in 1826, very few seem to have understood it, almost everybody hated it, it was not performed in public again until 1853, and only in the 1920s was it rediscovered and generally understood as a timeless masterpiece.

We only copy cultural and technological creations if they fit into our existing cultural and technological fabric and thus appear meaningful and useful to us. If cultural inventions challenge our existing understanding too much, we cannot make sense of them, and if technological inventions do not fit into our daily lives, we do not apply them. This is, no doubt, why so many well-meaning Western development projects have failed in developing countries: What the donors offered did not make sense to people; it did not fit into existing expectations and practices, and therefore did not get reproduced and did not indeed create development.

Structurally speaking, the big difference between evolution in nature and evolution in culture and technology is that genes do not generally jump from species to species; there is not a lot of cross-fertilization going on in nature and offspring generally vary very little from their parents. In culture, on the other hand, a new idea in one field may jump to another part of the same culture or to another culture and suddenly be everywhere. Postmodernism found various expressions in the arts in Europe from the early 1900s (i.e. Dadaism and Surrealism), then influenced design, architecture and academia throughout the West in the 1980s, and found its way into pop culture and politics in the 1990s, and it has inspired and changed every field in its path. Likewise, when it comes to technology. The assembly line, for instance, jumped from the car industry to almost every other industry in the early 20th century and has influenced thinking in almost every field of society, from economics to art and education.

That the systems are complex means that they consist of autonomous agents or individual elements, and that these are interacting, either by competing or collaborating, or in some cases by doing both. Increasing complexity is characterized by increasing specialization and diversification, and that new elements are added in a gradual, co-evolutionary process where new and old elements are adjusting to one another in the process.

In our hyper-complex reality, complexity itself may not be perceived as something good, rather it is often confused with something stressful. From a purely structural point of view, increased complexity means more options, more optimal use of resources, less predictability, and more freedom. Individual atoms do not have many choices except connecting into certain, very specific and rather predictable molecules. Likewise, the “choices” of the molecules are limited, as are the choices of single cells. But the single cells have more options in the world than molecules. Multi-cellular organisms also have more options, less predictability and more freedom than single cells. Mammals have more options and way more freedoms than reptiles, and humans have freedoms and options that other primates cannot even be made to grasp no matter how much we might help them. Among our options and freedoms as humans is that we have been able to inhabit all environments on the globe while staying the same species. We can learn to adapt, quite often in unpredictable ways.

The problem with these increasing degrees of freedom and the fact that we have more options is that we must make more choices. This is where complexity may today become a burden to many; the evolutionary pressure is still upon us forcing us to develop more complex minds in order to understand and handle the world we are creating, and this developing of more complex minds is a challenge. But overall, increased complexity is a process of increased options, freedom and wealth.

In order for complexity to grow or stay at the same level, i.e. not decline, the system must be open. In nature, this typically means that a biotope receives sunshine and water and produces oxygen for the atmosphere, and that certain species migrate. It is possible to create sustainable closed ecosystems that do not deteriorate, i.e. see a decline in complexity, but even they receive sunlight from the outside and are therefore somewhat open. In culture, complexity grows or stays at the same level in a similar way: we develop and maintain our cultures by importing and exporting ideas, often modifying what is new to us and making our own version of it. In theory, it ought to be possible to seal off a people or a culture from the rest of the world without the culture deteriorating; there just are no known examples of it. The only culture that comes close is the indigenous Tasmanians who were sealed off from the Australian continent as sea levels rose several thousand years ago. Like the aborigines in Australia they must have known how to light a fire when they got to Tasmania but when the British got there in 1770, the Tasmanians were reported not to know how to light fire, they carried it around. They were overall one of the poorest and technologically least advanced peoples ever to be discovered by the Europeans.

Another way of describing the cycles of reproduction, variation and selection in evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems is loops. Multitudes of parallel loops allow systems that are open and dynamic to be stable and self-coherent over time. These may be loops of metabolism, loops of reproduction, loops of behaviors, or loops of daily or annual rituals etc. When loops are constantly running, minor changes to some of them do not wreck the overall system or push it out of balance. While some loops change or disappear, or new ones are added, the overall organization is preserved and can evolve gradually. Sometimes, however, a critical part of the loops is interrupted or changed at once and the entire system may reorganize itself and begin functioning in a radically new way.

In the above, we have distinguished natural systems from culture and technology. Evolution in nature will continue along its own lines no matter what we do; life will keep evolving or go extinct and we cannot change the process itself. It’s different with culture and technology, including the way that the economy works and develops. Cultural systems of any kind are man-made.  People or man-made institutions, such as our legal system, define how cultural evolution may take place. We create the rules. We may not always be aware that we are creating the rules, and they may be extremely difficult to change, but in theory, we have the power to choose what the rules should be and to change them.

The picture featured at the top shows the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where seeds from plants from all over the world are kept as a genebank. The evolution has self-organized all those genes and we, humans, carrying other genes that have co-evolved along with those seeds, are now storing our common heritage, courtesy of the Norwegian government.

The mind as a self-organizing, open system

Our brain is a physical structure, built by a genetic blueprint that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years from the earliest vertebrates via reptiles and mammals to primates and eventually ourselves. When the fetus is around four months old, the brain begins generating the earliest form of proto-mind that can sense sound, taste and smell. From the last trimester and for the rest of our life, our brain keeps generating our mind.

Nature and cultures are self-organizing, complex, open systems evolving through iterations, variations and selection. According to the latest scientific research, so are the minds that our brains generate.

Charles Darwin described the evolution of life as a constant process of reproduction, variation and selection. There had been people before Darwin who realized that species were evolving, but Darwin’s stroke of genius was that he explained how: In order for life to continue, individuals have to procreate, hence reproduction. But reproduction doesn’t just produce identical copies of the parents, there are variations in the next generation: some are shorter than average, some faster, the fur may be darker, or the feathers brighter – in plants, the seeds may produce more drought resilient offspring than the “parents”. As offspring struggle to survive, some variations turn out to be more advantageous in the local environment than others, and the individuals with the beneficial traits can reproduce more and have more offspring. This way, reproduction and variation have led to a “selection”; the environment selected the fittest in that context and let them be more successful at reproduction.

The context is essential here. What it means to be fit depends on the surroundings; what benefits survival in one environment may be deadly in another. Also, fitness may just as well be about cooperation as competition. When birds eat berries and poop out the seeds far away, the bird and the plant are cooperating to survive. Not that they know it, it just happens to be so; had the one not been there, the other would not have proliferated as well. Context and interaction are essential.

Through this shockingly simple process of reproduction, variation and selection by context, biological life has evolved on our planet for 3.5 billion years. From free-floating DNA-molecules in the primordial soup, to single-cells, to multi-cell organisms, to vertebrates, reptiles, mammals, primates, and eventually humans. The global ecosystem is a self-regulating, complex multitude of inter-competing and mutually benefitting ecosystems and biotopes, wrapping the surface of the Earth in life. Below us, minerals and burning rock, above us, solar radiation and gasses, and in the thin layer where we can survive: water, oxygen and organic material.

There are still people who deny the evolution as the origin of life and, in particular, the origin of the human species. This is not only sad because it deprives them of understanding who we truly are as humans, it is also highly damaging. First, because we are nature too; we are part of that eco-system and we depend upon it and have an impact on it. Without understanding the inner workings of nature, we are killing vast parts of it and cannot preserve it. Second, as technologies and technological demands increase, as the climate changes and more people migrate, it becomes increasingly dangerous that basic science is not recognized and understood, and by some even flat out denied. One of the fears about accepting the theory of evolution is that it would mean abandoning moral values and religion, but as we shall see later in this book, evolution is not an obstacle to moral values or a religious life, quite the contrary.

An evolutionary process similar to the one in nature, takes place in cultures and cultural development: actions, thoughts, technological improvements, scientific knowledge, music, aesthetic styles, ideas, cooking recipes, rituals, prayers, crafts, fashion etc. are reproduced, variated and chosen among by us for their beauty, usefulness, taste, efficiency, and improvement of our lives. We constantly copy, modify and select from the cultural heritage, be it heritage that is familiar to us, or something that we encounter for the first time. We do so because it serves a number of purposes and is meaningful to us. It improves our lives when we choose right, when we encounter or retrieve the right kind of knowledge and turn it into the right kind of action. Life becomes meaningful when we enjoy beauty, sing, share meals, pray, contemplate existential truths, dream, hope, play a game, do sports, create art, knit a sweater, read books, conduct scientific research, hang out with friends, or join a political movement.

The culture that we received and is passing on to future generations evolves because we engage with it and reproduce it, create new variations and select from it. As we encounter other cultures than the one we grew up in, either through media or because we travel or migrate or because others do, these cultures may inspire us and we add some of it to our own culture.

 

The Brain

The brain can be described in four parts: the reptile brain, the limbic system, cortex, and prefrontal cortex. All four parts are interconnected networks of neurons or brain-cells that communicate by sending little packages of molecules between one-another, the so-called neuro-transmitters.

The reptile brain is the core of our brain and our spine. It is the part of our brain that keeps us alive and allows us to breathe, digest food, sleep, move our limbs etc. Some basic or “lower” emotions such as fear, hunger and sex drive also come from this part of the brain, as do our reflexes. Like all other mammals, we share this brain-structure with fish, birds and reptiles, hence the name.

The limbic system consists of a number of brain areas around the reptile brain and create our “higher” emotions such as empathy, love, shame, hope, joy, sadness, pride, etc. We share the limbic system with all mammals, but ours is the most complex by far and so are our emotions.

Around the limbic system, we find the cortex, the folded outer part, which takes care of learning, memory and most of what we perceive as thinking and decision-making. Different parts of the cortex solve different tasks, and we find here the mirror-neurons that allow us to read the body language and facial expressions of others. We also share the cortex with all mammals and, again, ours is the most complex by far.

It is the cortex that allows us to know what, say, a hammer is and constructs the concept of a hammer for us. If you think of a hammer right now, different parts of your cortex are working together to create in your mind the image of a hammer. Depending on whether you are right-handed or left-handed, the corresponding hand-related part of your brain is active too, as is your emotions concerning hammers, i.e. neurons in your limbic system and the reptile brain. If you are the DIY kind of person, you probably feel a little sense of joy thinking about the hammer, if you are the clumsy type with ten thumbs, you may feel a slight discomfort. This is your cortex, limbic system and reptile brain working together, telling you either “Yesss, tools! :-D” or “Uak! I’m gonna hurt myself and ruin something! :-o”

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the cortex right above our eyes. It generates our sense of time, logical thinking, planning, language, and the rest of our “higher” cognitive skills. It is the prefrontal cortex that allows us to play an instrument, compose music, read and write, imagine, create poetry, be religious, have moral values, and to postpone pleasant things and take up unpleasant endeavors instead. The prefrontal cortex allows us self-awareness and self-control. All mammals have some prefrontal cortex but it may be only rudimentary, such as in rodents. With larger mammals such as cats, tigers, dogs, horses, and elephants, there is a bit more of it, and in primates, it is noticeable. But the human prefrontal cortex is way bigger and more complex than the prefrontal cortex of any other species. The prefrontal cortex allows us to decide that even if we dread handling that hammer, those nails do not drive themselves into the wall so we can put a mirror there, and therefore: “I better get up and fix it. Hrmpf!”

In order for us to become emotionally, mentally and intellectually healthy and rounded persons, and in order to develop a maturity of mind suiting our age and the surrounding society, all parts of our brain must function, interconnect and evolve, as must our relationships, education and Bildung. What we experience and how we deal with it, literally shapes the physical structure and connections of our brain over time.

Developmental Psychology

Psychological development is one-directional: from less to more complexity. What we find challenging, fun, interesting, accomplishable, significant, or meaningful becomes more complex with age. What caches our attention and amuses us when we are 5, 10, 30, or 60 are very different things, but the overall pattern is that the level of complexity goes up along with our years. Only in case of disease, stress, trauma, dementia, or the like may it go the other way.

As we mature, our psychology and perspectives on ourselves and on others change and become more complex too. We not only understand the outer world better and see more details and patterns in our surroundings; we also understand our inner worlds, ourselves and other people better. We become increasingly able to take other people’s perspective and to understand our own behavior seen from their point of view.

As this complexity increases, so do our inner or existential freedom and available choices. Not just because we see more options but also because emotionally, we are increasingly released from outer as well as inner constraints. As children our spectrum of choice is limited both by what parents and other adults allow us to do, by our general lack of knowledge and capabilities, and by the way that instincts and emotions rule over us. Only as we mature do we gradually learn how to choose which emotions to heed. The other side of this “inner complexity freedom-to-choose-coin” is that our responsibilities and sense of responsibility increase along with it.

Our minds and these changes in our minds are products of our brains, and as we mature, our brains gradually rewire themselves; our brains literally change as we evolve and mature as persons.

Before we get into our psychological development, we shall take an extremely brief look at the brain, the mind, the evolution of the brain, and complexity as such. We only include this introduction to have a shared frame of reference, not in order to explore the brain, evolution or complexity as such.

The Nordics

Who are the Nordics and is it fair to claim that we are in any way special?

The Nordic countries are Iceland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. Together some 25 million people, each country having a population of approximately: Iceland 0.3 million, Norway 5.2 million, Finland 5.5 million, Denmark 5.7 million, and Sweden 9.8 million. Greenland and the Faroe Islands are autonomous regions of Denmark, and together the Nordic countries are bordering Canada to the west, Russia to the east and Germany to the south. To the north, Greenland and Norway circle the waters and the ice caps around the North Pole together with Canada, the United States and Russia.

Norway, Denmark and Sweden are also known as Scandinavia and the three languages are so similar that linguists are tempted to call them dialects. Especially Norwegian and Danish are close enough that reading each other’s’ languages is no problem, if we speak slowly enough we can engage in conversation. To the Swedes, both languages are a bit of a challenge, and so is Swedish to Norwegians and Danes. No more so, though, than with a little effort, some accommodation and maybe a couple of days’ focused work, we can read each other’s’ newspapers and follow the day-to-day debates in each other’s’ media.

Historically, the three countries have been united in the Kalmar Union 1397-1523, in a monetary union 1875-1914, and in a passport union (including Iceland and Finland) since 1952. The latter has been temporarily dissolved by Sweden as of January 4th 2016 due to the European migration crisis. Since the Viking Age, Sweden and Denmark have very often been at war with each other and until its modern independence in 1905, Norway has been independent as well as under the Danish crown and under the Swedish crown. All three countries are to this day constitutional monarchies.

The ties are not quite that close with Iceland and Finland, unless something really important comes up. When Iceland was about to collapse completely in the financial crisis 2008, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden stepped in and loaned Iceland 2.5 billion USD , and the Faroe Islands (population 0.05 million) loaned them 53 million USD. All five countries also collaborate extensively on defense, even though Iceland, Norway and Denmark are NATO members, and Finland and Sweden are not. We also collaborate through The Nordic Council and The Nordic Council of Ministers, which are made up by parliamentarians from Iceland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden plus representatives from the local governments in Greenland, Faroe Islands and Åland (autonomous region of Finland), and the three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The language barriers between Iceland, Finland and Scandinavia are considerable and neither of us can just pick up the two other languages. However, since Iceland was Danish until 1948, Danish is mandatory as the second foreign language in Icelandic schools, and Swedish is an official language in Finland and mandatory in Finnish schools. Whenever Fins and Icelanders participate in Nordic collaboration, though, we tend to speak English together, and when Scandinavians meet among themselves, unless participants are experienced with the other Scandinavian languages, even we tend to speak English too (everybody finds this embarrassing, but it is a fact).

For the sake of clarity and the length of this book – and, let’s be honest, due to the language barrier – beyond this first chapter we will focus on Denmark, Norway and Sweden only (and hope that the Icelanders and Fins will forgive us). We also have to admit that given our Danish and Swedish backgrounds, the historical development in Norway is new to both of us and neither of us has a deep sense of knowing where to look for the right sources. On the other hand, it has been an eye-opener for both of us to discover how the conversation among Nordic intellectuals has waxed and waned for more than 200 years and how this conversation has been of great importance to the development of the Nordic countries. There actually is such a thing as The Nordics in much more than a geographical sense.

The picture featured above is from an October morning, 2014, when the Nordic Council assembled in the Parliament in Stockholm. The Council does not have legislative power but it was fascinating attending a meeting never the less.