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.


Phil said...

Excellent post! I haven't thought about those moral paradigms since I learned them in school quite a few years back. Thanks for showing us how it has bearing in the present discussion.

If you are asserting that the existence of God is not required to establish a non-objective morality, then I would agree with your immediate point, but not with your ultimate one (based on cosmological considerations, I believe that the subjects themselves would not exist to develop a subjective morality apart from God's existence).

In your previous post you mentioned that you are reading Keller's "The Reason for God." I believe he touches on this issue in one chapter, arguing that while many subscribe to a non-objective morality in theoretical belief, in practical belief they live inconsistently with that precept. I can't remember exactly how he develops this, but you may find that chapter of interest if you haven't gotten there yet.


CyberKitten said...

kevin said: concepts of right and wrong arise from a space of negotiation that unfolds between individuals and society.


CRL said...

I think you're a bit too optimistic in saying that everyone reaches Level 2. In fact, Christian morality, as it is often taught, strikes me as being Level 1 itself; right actions performed not for their "rightness" or their beneficial effects on society, but to avoid divine punishment.

Laughing Boy said...

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.

Let's break this down.

Right and wrong are determined through negotiation.
"Right and wrong" is another way to say "morality." Yet another term we could use is "the good". So we can restate the first sentence like this, "The good is determined through negotiation."

Rules are changeable mechanisms....
Rules are the outcomes of those negotiations, which is simply, again, what we've collectively determined to be "the good". So now we can partially restate #3 like this, ""What is good is determined through negotiation. The good is a set of changeable mechanisms..."

...that maintain social order but at the same time protect the rights of individuals.
The goal of the negotiated rules is to maintain social order (a "good") while retaining the rights of individuals (another "good"). So we can restate this last bit as, "...which serve to achieve the good."

Now we can put it all together.

"The good is determined through negotiation. The good is a set of changeable mechanisms which serve to achieve the good."

Thank you, Lawrence Kohlberg!

smithadri said...

Thought-provoking post, thank you Kevin.
It would seem to me that morality 3 is a pipe dream unless you have a very different human being by nature, one that looks after the good of others before his own, one who is willing to put his rights aside for the good of others. or as laughing boy touches on, a human race that generally believes that human dignity and social justice are a 'good thing.'
A very nice idea but how do you really get there? Negotiation? (would this be transactional - what's in it for me (and back to morality 1?) And for how long? And at what cost?

Laura said...

I've seen that movie! It's hilariously bad!

As far as Kohlberg, I've thought of that. It seems to me that fundamentalists are stuck in stage one.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Smithadri

Very good question! Can’t speak for Kohlberg, but I have some thoughts of my own. My answer might not be satisfying enough (I’m still thinking this through) but here goes. Feel free to reply.

First of all, humans do look out for their own needs, but as the old saying goes: no human is an island. We are social animals too, and have relational needs, seeking companionship and love. It makes sense that we would, as individuals, generally adjust our behavior in order to best meet these (sometimes conflicting) needs, depending on the situation, the specific need in question, among other factors, of course.

Not only does the individual have needs. Other people have needs. Society has needs. Generally, each of these three entities (i.e., individual, others, society) depends on the other two for survival, but sometimes the needs of one conflict with the needs of the other two. So I imagine what happens is an unconscious (sometimes conscious) process of ‘negotiation’, where each ‘sacrifices’ some needs for the other two, so that some sort of equilibrium is reached between all three (i.e., the best ‘compromise’ between all conflicting needs).

So, in the case of the individual: in order to fulfill the needs of companionship; and in order to enjoy the fruits of a functioning society, a rational person can only come to the conclusion that not much can be gained or enjoyed through a destructive life of selfishness, hedonism and total abandon.

smithadri said...

Thanks Kevin,
this does sound plausible, as long as one can break the cycle of self-destructiveness that we tend to find ourselves in even though we rationally 'know' that it is not a 'good thing.' (and depending on one's worldview andthe possible brevity of life, hedonism may have much to offer!)
The danger of an approach to fulfilling one's own needs from the fruits of a functioning society and companionship is that I find myself back at the centre of a world that is there to serve me (even in the most gentlest sense). My own needs are inevitably placed before those of others and society.
The other issue that I experience constantly is telling the difference between needs and wants, along with the diminishing returns that accumulating more 'stuff' seems to bring with it.

P3T3RK3Y5 said...

great post.

as a Christian, i'm afraid i agree with CRL.

but also - i think Christians don't really know *how* they formed much of the morality they have.

in a true post-Jesus Christianity, where we are free of the law (or we risk negating grace); where we follow the two great commandments, Love God and Love Others; that to me certainly looks a lot like a Postconventional morality, to my way of thinking.

yeah - but i know, too many Christians don't buy it / believe it - their own religion!

i really wish we (Christianity) wasn't so ignorant sometimes and didn't try to square off with you guys so much when we clearly have enough things in common to work together - particularly when the conversation is based on rational thought - as this one is. sigh.

Johannes said...

What a great summary of the Heilsgeschichte and the history of the law and faith. And I believe also a good metaphor for spiritual growth from infancy to (so rarely!) maturity.

Didn't Jesus supply the terms of a negotiated morality on the cross? The Pharisees exemplified level 2 morality, and yet Jesus taught the spirit of the law - love for God and for each other. Grace as a means to righteousness, but no longer limited to a nation(level 1), bound to its moral law (level 2), in stead negotiated between God and people and people among themselves: freedom.

Yet even that is still not enough: a humanity that thinks "it's all about me!" and "it's only wrong if we everyone thinks so" is still in its infancy. If humanity sees itself as autonomous, it's still just a big, fragmented child.

Unless we work out our salvation with accountability towards God and with an awareness of history, by whose measure will we measure our progress as a race? The greatest consensus, the lowest common denominator? How not to boil to death slowly and comfortably in the pot, even with a clear conscience.

In other words, what if the GOAL of a negotiated morality itself isn't a matter of negotiation? Is honour among thieves really equal to honour among lawful citizens?

There must still be a place somewhere in our minds where the meaning of "whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy" can't be redefined.

Christoff said...


Awesome post! Made me think a lot.

I suspect that us humans exhibit all three levels of morality in all of us, not just one specific level.

I also suspect that the level of morality we apply in a specific incident is decided by the circumstances of that incident. This forms part of the basis of our moral relativism.

I do think that, as people "move up the ladder", they'll apply level 1 less and less, and start to apply level 3 morality more and more.

What are your thoughts?


Steve Hayes said...

"How can we best advance social justice and human dignity?"

For me, that begs the question. If the little firl asks "Why is it wrong to steal a hot dog?" we should also ask WHY sould we advance social justice and human dignity?

And if you really analyse that, you can get no further than "Because someone says so" -- maybe not God, but some moralist. So in the end it makes little difference whether you ask "Why is it wrong?" or "Who says so?" In the end it boils down to someone saying so.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Steve

Good point! You are right to certain degree if we extend your idea to the ‘method’ of determining ethics and morals (i.e., authoritarianism vs negotiation). I think much of how we think about what is moral has been handed down to us. But there is an important difference between these two methods: the authoritarian model focuses on the person making the rules, not really on the rules themselves; the negotiation method, however, focuses more on what has been said, not on who is saying it.

So when we ask the question: why should we advance social justice and human dignity, we are not referring to who said it, but rather taking the initiative to evaluate social justice and human dignity on its own merits, by weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, finding out from others what their views and opinions are, and then (this is something I have not yet mentioned) testing the model in the real world and evaluating its consequences.