Saturday, January 09, 2010

Moving towards a postconventional morality

In the sci-fi Christian movie, Time Changer, a professor in 1890 – who wants to publish a book advocating non-religious morality – is sent 100 years into the future to witness first hand how society degenerates when it separates morality from Christian teaching. The professor walks around modern day Los Angeles, shocked at all the blasphemy and rebelliousness. At one point a little girl steals his hotdog, and when he reprimands her, saying that stealing is a sin, she replies, "Says who?" and runs off, leaving him flabbergasted.

Time Changer, along with many conservative theists, advocates an autocratic paradigm of morality, that morality only has meaning if there is something or someone telling us what is right and wrong. The assumption is also often made that this is the only way in which morality can be understood. However, child psychologists who have worked on moral development – most notably Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg – have shown that there are different moral paradigms, and that we move through these as we age.

Kohlberg, for example (see here and here), outlines three broad levels of moral development, which he further divides into six stages. The broad levels are:

  • Preconventional morality (Level 1): An egotistic form of morality, generally exhibited by young children, who judge right and wrong according to physical consequences. An action is wrong if you get punished for it; an action is right if it advances your own interests. "It's all about me!"
  • Conventional morality (Level 2): Generally exhibited by adolescents and young adults, who judge actions according to the norms and beliefs of their social group, culture or society. "It must be wrong because dad/the Bible/the law says so."
  • Postconventional morality (Level 3): Right and wrong are determined through negotiation. Rules are viewed as changeable mechanisms that maintain social order but at the same time protect the rights of individuals. "How can we best advance social justice and human dignity?"

The important thing about Kohlberg's theory is that not everyone reaches Level 3. Many adults remain at Level 2 their entire lives. I would think that those entrenched in Level 2 are those who ask the question "Who says so?" when told to do something they don't want to do. If you remove their source of authority, then – for many of these individuals – you remove their ability to distinguish right and wrong. I wonder if Level 2 individuals are those who are inclined to throw themselves into destructive lifestyles when they leave their parents for the first time, or decide that God no longer exists.
Apologists have argued, and this forms the premise of Time Changer, that without God anything is permitted.

The apologists are absolutely right, but only within the confines of Level 2 thinking.
If we move to Level 3, then the premise of Time Changer no longer holds, because the emphasis is no longer on authority. Rather, concepts of right and wrong arise from a space of negotiation that unfolds between individuals and society.

I sometimes imagine, if the plot of Time Changer occurred in a world where a postconventional moral outlook was dominant, what question the little girl would ask when reprimanded? I don't think she would ask "Who says it is wrong?" but rather "Why is it wrong?" Asking 'why' allows for reason to enter the moral dialogue, allowing for societal negotiation, discussion and agreement on what the ethical and moral rules should be.