Self and Values:
An Interactivist Foundation for Moral Development

Robert L. Campbell
Department of Psychology
Clemson University
Clemson, SC 29634-1355 USA

John Chambers Christopher
Health and Human Development
Montana State University
Bozeman, MT 59717 USA

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Association for Moral Education Conference in Ottawa, November 15, 1996; it has been available in draft forms on the World Wide Web since that time. Last revised September 1, 1999.

[01] The inadequacy of post-Kantian conceptions of moral development, like Lawrence Kohlberg's, has become apparent in recent years (Campbell & Christopher, 1996a, b; Lapsley, 1992, 1996; Walker, Pitts, Hennig, & Matsuba, 1995). Such theories have failed to account for the development of mature moral viewpoints that do not define the moral domain as Kantians wish to do; they have ruled moral action, emotions, and personality out of the purview of developmental psychology. Yet when we begin to look beyond reasoning about rights and justice, we are dazzled by pluralistic vistas of moral viewpoints that not only conflict with each other but at times seem radically disparate. Developmentalists must acknowledge that each of them can develop in human beings. Parents and educators must recognize them as possibilities even as they encourage children and adolescents to steer toward some of them and away from others.

[02] To cope with the new demands that are being placed on moral development theory we must turn to basic questions: What are values and what is their role in development? What is the self and what kinds of changes does it undergo? Is morality ultimately foreign to the self? We will present an account of values and the self based on the interactivist conception of knowledge and the knowing-levels treatment of consciousness and developmental stages. Though considerable empirical inquiry will be needed to provide vital details for this account, it provides immediate clarity on such matters as the nature and sources of conflict between moral values within individuals.

After Kohlberg

[03] The study of moral development is emerging from a 30-year period during which post-Kantian conceptions held sway. Taking their cue from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1785/1998; 1793/1996; 1797/1991), Lawrence Kohlberg and his followers insisted on defining the moral domain so narrowly that only issues of rights and interpersonal justice qualified for inclusion. Again following Kant's lead, they restricted the scope of moral development to formulating moral rules and reasoning with them. Moral emotions, actions, and personality were ruled out as topics of inquiry; virtues were derided; moral personality was dismissed as incoherent (Kohlberg, 1971/1981; Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983; Helwig, Turiel, & Nucci, 1996).

[04] Such Kant-derived conceptions were extraordinarily strict about what constitutes a mature moral viewpoint. Morality had to be completely differentiated from personal goals and desires and from social conventions; morality meant following systems of rules that could pass tests of universalizability and impersonality. Modern utilitarianism met these qualifications, as did the systems of political ethics put forward by thinkers like Rawls (1971) or Habermas (1990). No other moral conceptions were invited to apply.

[05] Yet some people develop mature moral viewpoints based on codes of honor, concerns about improving their karma, or the desire to actualize their potentials as human beings (e.g., Harré, 1984; Huebner & Garrod, 1991; Vasudev & Hummel, 1987). These other viewpoints all define the moral domain more expansively; they may include within it issues like being honest with yourself, or keeping your life simple and unencumbered, or getting into the right relationship with the cosmic order, that cannot be accommodated within any Kantian conception.

[06] As Jürgen Habermas says (1990, p. 104), the Kantian framework made "razor-sharp cuts" between values that are moral and values that are nonmoral. The moral was one world: it pertained to our relationships with others, at least insofar as they could be subjected to impersonal and universal rules. The prudential or nonmoral was another, mutually exclusive world: it pertained to the manner in which in we set our own goals and live our own lives.

[07] Indeed, Kantianism went so far as to split the self into moral and nonmoral components. Kant called these the phenomenal self (the self as we experience it, or as we know it through science) and the noumenal self (the self as it is in itself, beyond our means of knowing it). The phenomenal self was run by its "inclinations," what it felt like doing at the time; the supposedly rational noumenal self kept telling us what our duties were. Kohlberg's theory was a story about how we might become purely noumenal selves (Lapsley, 1992). That is why moral development had to be progress toward complete interchangeability with other people and completely impersonal moral principles at Kohlberg's Stage 6 (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983). It is also why no ordinary mortal was ever credited with functioning at Stage 6.

[08] None of these diremptions--none of these vast artificial divides--can be maintained in the study of moral development. None, we would submit, is of much use in moral education. If no one can actually become a noumenal self, what is the value of promoting development in that direction?

The Challenge of Pluralism

[09] The challenge in front of us is how to make sense of the true variety of moral viewpoints. Recently, Nancy Eisenberg (1996) declared that the prospect of encompassing the entire range of moral issues and viewpoints was "bewildering." Yes, it is hard to describe mature thought, feeling, and action within disparate moral viewpoints. Yes, it is hard to explain how the same general processes and constraints could lead to vastly different outcomes--different ways of thinking about moral issues, different moral personalities. Moral development, for different individuals, may be development toward being a dutiful Christian, a ritual-observing Confucian, a perfect gentleman, an all-around caring person, one who balances all of the competing goods by exercising practical wisdom--or even a staunch gang loyalist who never rats to the cops.

[10] We regard such pluralism as a healthy challenge for theories of moral development. Other researchers fear that it means abandoning theories of moral development. Peter Kahn (1995), for instance, is concerned about views like ours that encompass moral issues ranging far beyond rights and interpersonal justice, and affirm the existence of serious disagreements among individuals and between cultures, even about these "truly moral" issues. We deny that morality is only about rights and justice. And we deny that everyone agrees, deep down, about rights and justice. We acknowledge that some people think that it is all right for Chinese prison guards to rape and torture Tibetan prisoners. So aren't we saying that it is all right for Chinese prison guards to rape and torture Tibetan prisoners? Aren't we denying that the poor Tibetans have rights?

[11] But there is a fundamental confusion here, a confusion between the descriptive and the prescriptive. When we study moral development, our goal is descriptive--to account for the values that human beings do acquire, with regard to their own lives and their relations with others. When we engage in counseling or moral education, our goal is prescriptive--to encourage people to pursue certain values and not others. It is part of the descriptive task to explain how a fervent Nazi came to believe that duty to Führer, Volk, and Fatherland required him to exterminate non-Aryans. Whereas we can safely say that it is part of the prescriptive task for readers of this and other articles about moral development to discourage development toward those particular convictions. Acknowledging a plurality of moral conceptions does not mean endorsing all as equally right or good. But it does mean undertaking to explain how human beings could arrive at such diverse endpoints through the normal processes of development.

Back to Basics

[12] To succeed at this daunting descriptive task, there is no choice but to return to the basics. Moral developmentalists and moral educators must confront the messy questions that so many once hoped to circumvent:

[13] These are not questions that can be resolved by collecting more of the familiar kinds of data. Nor are they questions that we are likely to sort out on a spare afternoon. They are philosophical questions.

Interactivism and Goal-Directed Action

[14] Developmental psychologists certainly have no business professing an aversion to philosophy. The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget (1950a, b) is philosophy with a different label. And what we will sketch in the remainder of this paper is in the Piagetian spirit of concern with knowledge and its emergence out of action. It is inconsistent, however, with Piaget's (1918, 1932, 1995) specific formulations about morality and moral development; these, it turns out, were strongly influenced by a religious interpretation of Kant that equated the noumenal self with God (Campbell, in press). Our conception of the moral draws no sharp distinction between concerns about how we treat others and concerns about making a good life for ourselves; it is essentially in the Aristotelian tradition.

[15] The framework we will be using was developed over the past 30 years by Mark Bickhard (1973/1980a; 1980b; 1993). It is called interactivism because it is based on the deceptively simple idea that knowledge is interactive. To expand just a little on that, knowledge is an aspect of any goal-directed system that can interact competently with an environment. Goal-directed systems include living organisms, of course, but they can also include artificial systems, such as robots. The computer on top of your desk, however, is not an interactively competent system, even when it is running an Artificial Intelligence program; it has no goals and engages in no interactions.

[16] From an interactivist standpoint, goals and goal-pursuit and choice are aspects of the overall functioning of the organism. A goal-directed organism goes through a temporally coordinated flow of interaction with its environment. The state the organism is currently in indicates something about the kind of environment it is in, because in that state the organism will try to do some action or carry out some strategy to reach a particular goal. A goal is, in the simplest case, some internal state that the organism gets closer to or farther from when it acts; its strategies, if successfully applied, will move it toward that state.

[17] Now to achieve its goal the organism may need to find a mate, or solve a closed-form equation, or eat an apple, and mates, equations, and apples are all external to the system. It is normally easier for observers to identify goals in terms of these external objects. But every goal must be defined within the system; each is a way the system could be. At higher levels of evolution (or higher levels of development), goals within a system may come to involve representations of something outside it. A human being's goal of eating an apple would normally include an interactive representation of what he or she wants to eat--say, a multimodal image of a nice green Granny Smith apple that affords crispness when bitten into and tartness when tasted. Even so, the more basic goal of eating something might take the form of an internal setpoint for blood sugar level.

[18] For us, values are a special type of goal. They are meta-goals--goals about what kinds of goals to have. But to understand all this meta-business, we need to consider another component of interactivism: the hierarchy of levels of knowing.

The Knowing Levels
Figure 1. The knowing levels.

Being-in-the-World: Knowing Level 1

[19] As infants and young children we interact with the world, and learn in the course of our interactions. Our knowledge is knowledge of the external environment. We have internal experiences that are part of the process of knowing the environment, but we do not, at these points in our development, know anything about our experiences or our internal processes. In general, this broad stage of development is called Knowing Level 1(Campbell & Bickhard, 1986). Through semi-guided trial and error--through construction by variation and selection--we learn functional patterns for interacting with our environment, including our family constellation. We end up learning ways of interacting in the physical and social worlds that generally work.

[20] Knowing level 1 bears many similarities to what Heidegger (1962) termed being-in-the-world (though we sincerely hope our presentation will be easier to understand; it is easier to understand the pain that Heidegger inflicts on his readers if we realize that he was striving to describe Knowing Level 1 experience as it might feel to an adult who so often functions at higher knowing levels). An observer might use all kinds of complicated rules and principles to describe this way of being-in-the-world. But the first-level knower is not conscious of these rules. Indeed, the first-level knower may not represent such rules in any way at all. As the moral philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, "much of our intelligent action in the world, sensitive as it usually is to our situation and goals, is carried on unformulated. It flows from an understanding which is largely inarticulate" (1993, p. 50).

[21] Babies and young children learn about the world by interacting at Knowing Level 1. These patterns of interaction presuppose certain things about self, others, and the world. (What is presupposed is what has to be true for goals to be met and expectations to be fulfilled; what is merely presupposed does not have to be known, or represented in any way by the knower.) In Heidegger's (1962) language, concern, care, and signification are present at the Knowing level 1 mode of being-in-the-world. Consequently, Knowing Level 1 reveals a structure of "care." The patterns of interaction that an infant and child develop are the embodiment of what is implicitly cared about. However, this caring is not simply the expression of the child alone-it is an interactive pattern that reflects the goals of the child combined with the goals of the culture mediated through the primary caretakers and the family. In this way each human being is an "expression of culture" (Bruner, 1990). Children are pursuing certain goals in their interactions, but other evaluations and commitments are presupposed by what they are doing. A toddler may have a goal, roughly, of getting Mommy to laugh; successfully doing so is also a way of interacting positively with others, getting approval from authority figures, dissipating tension in the family system, and affirming that I am a good person after all. But other than generating laughter, none of these things can be the child's goal. At Knowing Level 1, the child does not have cognitive access to such presuppositions--they are implicit. The child is immersed in them and has no higher-level perspective from which to view them. The toddler feels better when she makes Mommy laugh; that is all she is aware of.

Goals about Goals : Knowing Level 2

[22] As children develop their knowledge of their environment, there is much about the first knowing level that could become an object of knowledge in its own right. But the first knowing level can't know itself. With cognitive maturation, somewhat older children develop a second knowing level, and with it the capacity to be conscious of their own thinking, as well as the thinking of other people. Something is known about this transition now, because of the efforts of John Flavell (Flavell, Flavell, & Green, 1983), Josef Perner (1991), Alison Gopnik and Janet Astington (1988), and others who have investigated children's ability to understand that they and others can have false beliefs. There is reasonably strong evidence that children acquire this capacity, which we take to be a sign of the onset of Knowing Level 2, around age 4 (Perner et al., 1992).

[23] While tremendous efforts have been directed toward understanding how the child progresses from plain old cognition at Level 1 to knowledge about his or her own cognition, or other people's cognition, at Level 2, far less attention has been paid to goals. At Level 2, the child develops the ability to know about goals at Level 1, and to have goals about what goals to have. Goals about goals are what we call values. A metagoal of not doing anything that would make Daddy unhappy directs the formation or selection of goals at Level 1, like not playing with objects on Daddy's desk or not complaining out loud when Daddy tells you to do something you don't want to do.

[24] At Knowing Level 1, a child "will be a person, will have a self, but will not know that self" (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986, p. 118). At Knowing Level 2, the child can begin to explicitly understand the self. "This knowing may involve explicit sentences held as beliefs--the classic self-conception--but more fundamentally consists of metastrategies for managing the child's being in diverse kinds of life situations" (p. 118). So responses to an interview, one that asks who I am and how I am different from other people and what is most important to me, are instances of Level 2 thinking (when still higher levels are not implicated). But so are largely unarticulated strategies for managing encounters with other children, by seeking play with them, or "successfully" avoiding it. These are strategies for setting specific goals for specific interactions with others, or specific encounters with the physical world.

[25] Piaget (1974; 1977) called the process by which we become conscious of some aspect of our actions "reflecting abstraction." As usual in Piaget's thinking about developmental processes, reflecting abstraction was not fully disentangled from equilibration, which need not involve becoming conscious; Piaget did, however, acknowledge "reflected" abstraction, and reflection on reflection, as well as reflection to a higher power than that, and all of these involve consciousness. From the interactivist standpoint, reflective abstraction really is fully distinct from Piagetian equilibration; it "is the relationship between adjacent levels of knowing--in which properties resident in a given level, implicit in the organization or functioning of that level, are explicitly known at the next higher level" (p. 85).

[26] It is important to stress that knowing levels are not stage-wide, global cognitive structures; they are not structures d'ensemble, as these are sometimes interpreted by Piagetians (but not by Piaget himself--see Chapman, 1988). We can easily function at Knowing Level 2 with regard to one issue and fail to do so with regard to another. Our capacity to engage in reflective abstraction is only a capacity. It may or may not be realized. We are able to know different aspects of ourselves, but we may not actually use this ability. It is always possible to examine more aspects of our lives, as Socrates would have said; it is always possible to live more consciously, as Nathaniel Branden (1997) would say today.

Values about Values: Knowing Level 3

[27] Reflective abstraction does not stop at Knowing Level 2. Aspects of Level 2 can become known at Knowing Level 3. Aspects of Knowing Level 3 can, in turn, become known at Level 4. Interactivism, in fact, sees the knowing levels as potentially infinite (Bickhard, 1973/1980a; Campbell & Bickhard, 1986). At the same time, there will always be limits to how much of ourselves we can consciously know. As Heidegger (1962) put it, we are "proximally and for the most part" being-in-the-world; i.e., Level 1 is always ontologically primary. One consequence is that we can best know ourselves "not by inward-turning and introspection" in the manner of Descartes, "but by catching sight of ourselves as we are engaged and preoccupied in everyday contexts" (Guignon, 1984, p. 232).

[28] We may have to move up to Level 4 to understand it, but, so far as we can tell, Knowing Level 3 is the highest one normally needed to explain moral development. At Knowing Level 2, the child's "metastrategies may presuppose various good and bad things to be true of the child, but will not in general explicitly believe them. The child already has an identity... but cannot know or consider or revise that identity yet" (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986, pp. 118-119). "At the second level, the child knows [his or her] self, and thereby has an implicit representation of his or her self. At the third level, the child can know that self-representation, thereby making it explicit. Now the child can compare his or her self to a system of alternatives, judge it against values, and [re]construct it in accordance with those judgments" (p. 119). Examining and reconstructing the self at Level 3 is identity formation. At Level 3, the person is making value judgments about what kinds of values to have--explicit judgments about what kind of person he or she ought to be. Level 3 is the locus for most "strong evaluations," as Taylor (1985) calls them: evaluations of the kind of person who would do such a thing, judgments that an action is admirable or contemptible, and so on.

[29] Our account sharply distinguishes an implicit self at Level 1 from explicit selves at Level 2 and higher--a series of differentiations that, to put it mildly, is not universally accepted. What we have said about the implicit self at Knowing Level 1 runs counter to some schools of thought in developmental psychology. For Augusto Blasi, reflection plays no role in the development of the self; knowing is already always reflective (Blasi & Hoeffel, 1974). For Bill Damon, inquiry into the self and its development begins with "self-statements" (Damon, 1984; Damon & Hart, 1988). Damon does not follow Blasi to the point of ruling out non-reflective knowledge. But disallowing inquiry without "self-statements" forces a reflective conception of the self, and a starting point at Knowing Level 2. Additional commitments of Damon's, for instance, his denial that self and personality could be coextensive, also direct attention away from the beginnings of the self at Knowing Level 1.

Goals and Values in Conflict

[30] Moving to higher knowing levels brings with it the capacity to consciously form goals, values, and commitments. These higher-level goals and values may be straightforwardly instantiated in lower-level goals. But consciously formed, explicit goals and values may also be in conflict with our goals at lower knowing levels. Our patterns of behavior and feeling at Knowing Level 1 may have presuppositions that are incompatible with the values we explicitly hold at Levels 2 and 3. "The explicated unfolding of one value already implicit in the person will not be assured of being consonant with other values, both implicit and explicit, in the person, and may lead to attempts to change both lower values and lower functional organization" (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986, p. 124).

[31] Value conflicts can arise fairly easily, then. Often they serve to drive further development; such conflicts require a resolution, but they need not injure the person. On the other hand, some value conflicts, for instance the kind that Blasi calls "self-inconsistency" (Blasi & Oresick, 1986)--"How could I have ever done that?"--cause great distress and may do the person terrible harm. In either case, interactivism offers a way of addressing the so-called conscious-unconscious split in our psyche without balkanizing the self into warring components (Bickhard & Christopher, 1994).

[32] In interactivism, there is no noumenal self sternly insisting that you do your impersonal duty, while your phenomenal self craves whatever might titillate it for the next ten minutes. There is no ego desperately mediating between the seething, contradictory demands of multiple unconscious mindlets and the internalized rules, threats, and prohibitions of authority figures. Yet there is ample room for complex relationships between values and goals at different knowing levels; such values and goals may be consciously held, mentally represented but not consciously known, or wholly implicit and merely presupposed.

[33] There is ample room, too, for value conflicts great and small; values at a higher level can contradict or undermine goals at a lower level, and vice versa. And the resolution of those conflicts can be a long and convoluted process. If I choose from my Knowing Level 3 perspective to change my way of approaching other people, or my style of dealing with threatening situations, or the kind of person I am, clashes between the values I have adopted at the higher level and goals at the lower levels are inevitable, and can't be resolved without changing my habits at lower levels, or my ways of being-in-the-world. Whatever decisions I make at a higher knowing level aren't fully effective until they work their way down through the lower levels. (This is one reason why psychotherapy can be a lengthy endeavor.) And many further acts of reflective abstraction on my part are necessary, if I am to understand what my goals at the lower levels are, or what is presupposed by my ways of being-in-the-world.

[34] Higher knowing levels are not always right, however. Desirable changes will not always be a top-down working out of the values that we consciously desire and esteem. Sometimes there are important goals at Level 1 and values at Level 2 that are not being fully recognized and appreciated at Level 3. For example, self-diagnosed co-dependents often come to therapy with a variety of Level 3 criticisms about themselves: they are selfless, they care too much for others, and are too dependent on what others think of them, etc. Frequently in such cases, these Level 3 reflections on the self such as "I shouldn't care what others think of me" or "I shouldn't always think of others first" are overgeneralizations that fail to recognize or distinguish those conditions in which we genuinely do value another person's opinion or do want to give priority to another's welfare (obviously the same considerations may apply to blanket Level 3 judgments of selfishness and caring too little for others). It can be helpful with these clients to help them differentiate between patterns of behavior at Level 1 that are indeed problematic (for instance, those that allow them to be taken advantage of) and the overly critical demands at Level 3 which may have been shaped through acceptance of an ideology of self versus other (Greenberg, 1994). Effective therapy with these clients may therefore consist of making explicit the goals manifest at Knowing Level 1 and helping to set these into dialogue with the values and metavalues at other levels of knowing.

[35] Sometimes, then, it is the meta-insights available at higher levels that ought to prevail; in other cases, we need to recognize that our meta-conclusions are actually in error, and it is the richness of being at Level 1 that should be allowed to prevail. The relationship between knowing levels, in those who can function at two or more of them, is potentially dialogical, even dialectical.

Morality and the Self Revisited

[36] To conclude, we believe that it is high time to reconsider the role of morality in the development of the self. When morality was taken to be perfectly consistent and "rational," any conflicts that arose had to be attributed to interloping "nonmoral" values.

[37] This tactic of attributing all conflicts to a war between moral and "nonmoral" considerations needs a little more attention. While Kohlberg always acknowledged the possibility of moral conflicts within a certain range, and could not have formulated his well-known moral dilemmas without acknowledging it, other theorists have gone so far as to deny the very possibility of strictly moral conflicts. According to Turiel and his disciples (Helwig, Turiel, & Nucci, 1996), value conflicts are always conflicts between something moral and something "nonmoral"--be it social convention, personal convenience, beliefs about "God's word," or something else. For Eisenberg (1986; 1996), the only grounds, under most circumstances, for not performing an altruistic act must be "nonmoral" ones. The belief that the moral is already perfectly rational and "therefore" conflict-free traces back, of course, to Kant's doctrine of the noumenal self. But its origins are distinctly more ancient. What we still find in some contemporary schools of moral development is Plato's insistence that there cannot be conflict or contradiction within the rational soul; rather, when conflict arises, it must be a conflict between different parts of the soul--for instance, between reason and appetite (Plato, 380 BC/1992, 435e-445e, 602c-603b).

[38] When morality was taken to be a matter of reasoning, and not of character, emotions, or action, there seemed to be only a weak connection between morality and self. When self-interest and morality were frankly defined as opposites, there was little hope for any connection. But if the moral domain is acknowledged to include concerns about the good life, and the self is no longer divided into warring repositories of moral and "nonmoral" values, the whole vexed relationship between morality and the self is overdue for a reevaluation.

[39] Even as the development of the self is beginning to assume a central role in theories of moral development, a lack of fit between morality and self is still assumed. If morality is primarily or exclusively concerned with the interests of others, then morality starts out foreign to the self and its interests, and morality can be integrated into the self only quite late in development, through a long and probably painful process.

[40] Thus, although Damon has moved a long way from Kant and Kohlberg--for instance, he explicitly rejects the idea that the moral life is a constant struggle against temptation--the view that morality is essentially foreign to the self carries right on through into his recent writings (Damon, 1984; Damon & Hart, 1988). It is clearly expressed in a passage from the book Some Do Care: "Most people connect self and moral goals to some degree--as when, for example, they act altruistically toward their children or other loved ones. But most people also experience some degree of conflict between what they most want to do and what they feel would be best to do from the moral point of view. Although they may want to do the right thing, they also want things that clash with their moral goals. Unity between self and morality is far from typical, although it can be approached" (Colby & Damon, 1992, p. 304).

[41] Several things that Colby and Damon say could be questioned, starting with the assertion that what I do for my loved ones is altruistic in any strict sense (that is, motivated by their welfare to the great detriment of my own). It is clear that in the course of development we gain a greater appreciation of the consequences of our actions, the consequences for ourselves and for others. We gain the ability to reflect on our goals, and subsequently on our values. We gain the ability to relate moral precepts and slogans we have learned to the reality of our ways of being-in-the-world. During the course of development, values at a higher knowing level can clash with goals at a lower knowing level; goals unfolding from a lower level can work against values at a higher level. These tensions often reveal the "diversity of goods" that animate us (Taylor, 1985; Den Uyl, 1991).

[42] Whether we identify such clashes as conflicts between "moral" values and "nonmoral" values, or conflicts between moral values, or conflicts between values plain and simple, has some effect on how we evaluate ourselves in the midst of them. If we buy into the moral/ nonmoral distinction, we may even end up concluding that "moral" values are essentially hostile to our self-interests, and attempt to define ourselves as something other than moral beings. The ontology of goals, values, and metavalues, and of the merely presupposed, the non-consciously known, and the consciously known enables us to understand moral conflict and moral change without driving a wedge between the moral and the nonmoral.


We are grateful to Ann Higgins for catching a blunder in the first version of this paper.


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