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Today’s Show – Moral Judgment

Today’s show discusses moral judgment, particularly with respect to the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. Though by no means the final word on the subject, both made significant contributions to our understanding of moral development.

Piaget’s model for moral development included only two stages. He observed that children younger than 10 or 11 consider moral dilemmas in a more rigid way than older children. Older children have a much more nuanced view of rules and moral judgments.

Kohlberg used Piaget’s model in developing his more detailed six stage model of moral development. His model consists of:

  • Stage 1 – Obedience & Punishment – rules exist, are fixed, and are handed down by some authority figure (parents or “God”). Something is wrong if you get punished for it; if you don’t get punished, it’s not wrong.
  • Stage 2 – Individualism & Exchange – rules are no longer seen as fixed. There is still a preoccupation with punishment, but it’s now seen as a risk to be avoided and not the determinant of whether something is right or wrong. There is also an emphasis on fairness, and a belief that it’s okay to break a rule if someone is being “unfair.”
  • Stage 3 – Good Interpersonal Relationships – children at this stage are usually entering their teens. The focus at this stage is on motives – a consideration of someone’s motives, good or bad, informs moral judgments about their behaviors.
  • Stage 4 – Maintaining Social Order – this is the law & order stage. The concern in this stage broadens to encompass considerations of society as a whole instead of just interpersonal relationships. The focus is on how laws help create a smoothly functioning society. Most adults stop at this stage of development.
  • Stage 5 – Social Contract & Individual Rights – this is the beginning of thinking about society in a theoretical way. There is a recognition that different groups within a society may have different values, but that certain basic rights must be protected. Furthermore, there must be a democratic process for changing laws for the betterment of society.
  • Stage 6 – Universal Principles – this is a theoretical stage in which there is an attempt to define the principles by which a just society operates. In this society, decisions are based on equal respect for all. For example, a majority would not get to vote on restricting the rights of a minority.

This is a very high-level summary of the Piaget and Kohlberg models, but it does provide some background for the work they did on moral development in children and adults. Their work, plus some interesting facts about neurobiology, make it clear that human moral judgments are not arbitrary as some theists claim and are not dependent on religion. Religion, in fact, adds about as much to moral development as it does to evolution.

So what does contribute to moral development? Our evolutionary legacy as social animals is one thing. Our capacity to reason is another. On an individual basis, moral development has its genesis in good parenting, brain development, and practice. Kohlberg was very clear about this last requirement – moral development is not a matter of simply growing up. And handing someone a set of rules and convincing them to follow them will not improve their ability to make moral judgments. This is a higher cognitive skill that is built up step-by-step over a lifetime.

Fortunately, humans have been doing this for our entire evolutionary history. We don’t need fictional characters from Bronze Age myths dictating to us what is right or wrong. We are fully capable of making sound moral decisions all on our own.

Comments

  1. says

    One thing I have noticed in my experience with my own two children is that they always on the lookout to make sure that the other is not getting a better deal. If I give my son 4 snacks after dinner, my daughter takes note and says “Hey, I want the same number of snacks as my brother.” If one of them takes the first bath on Monday night, the other one insists on taking the first bath on Tuesday night. It can become a real juggling act at times. I think I am now qualified to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian dispute!

  2. says

    “I have decided that all of you are worthy of death.We are fully capable of making sound moral decisions all on our own. Right?”That was his final statement, but in the larger context of the entire post they are talking about moral development and how “higher cognitive skill that is built up step-by-step over a lifetime”.You are obviously deficient in this skill. You have likely decided we deserve death due to a passage in the Bible for something as trivial as working on the sabbath (Numers 15:32-35). This is an illustration of how Biblical teachings can be harmful to moral development.A higher or more cognitive analysis of the situation would likely result in you deciding we do not, in fact, deserve death. Morality is a matter of values and facts. In general, people share the same basic values such as sustenance, social interaction, health, and living well. The hard part is deciding how to maximize these values for ourselves (and by extension everyone else) which are statements of fact (does wanton rape and murder improve my quality of life?). This is why capital punishment for trivial offenses is no longer considered moral. Is this the kind of society you would want to live in? Does this society maximize your well being? Likely not.Failure to fully consider morality at higher level (as “Universal Principles”) can lead to simply accepting a set of precepts carried down from a mountain as the final word on morality. In actuality these precepts could actually be very detrimental and lead to you declaring strangers as deserving as death for not sharing in your specific tribal religion.

  3. says

    we deserve death due to a passage in the Bible for something as trivial as working on the sabbathNot at all. I have simply decided that you are worthy of death. That simple.You are obviously deficient in this skillWhy? B/c you disagree with me? Isn’t that the way fundies think?A higher or more cognitive analysis of the situation would likely result in you deciding we do not, in fact, deserve death.Oh, that’s interesting. I always thought cognitive analyses could give DEscriptors. Whence cometh the PREscriptive power?In general, people share the same basic values such as sustenance, social interaction, health, and living well. Well and good, but I don’t care about what people in general share. The man said that we are fully capable of making sound moral decisions all on our own. I am simply following that reasoning. The hard part is deciding how to maximize these values for ourselves My values would be maximised if you all were dead.But maybe you think the author of this post didn’t mean what he said. But how is that maximisation of our values?

  4. says

    Rhology, just because you think the world would be better if there were a master prescriber of morality (or that prescriptions are better than descriptions)doesn’t mean that there has to be such a prescriber. Give it up.

  5. says

    I have decided that all of you are worthy of death.Thanks, Rhology! I needed the boost! :-) You are obviously deficient in this skill. You have likely decided we deserve death due to a passage in the Bible for something as trivial as working on the sabbath (Numers 15:32-35). This is an illustration of how Biblical teachings can be harmful to moral development.Shane, Christians don’t believe in the death penalty for working on the Sabbath. Besides, if you killed somebody for working on the Sabbath while the Sabbath was still in effect, then the person who committed the killing would probably also be violating the Sabbath too! The whole population would end up exterminating itself.

  6. Barnetto says

    Rho, pretend you’re at stage 6 of moral development. Is there a moral principle that is the basis of you saying everyone should die?Cuz right now it feels like the only sentence you read of the blog post was the very last one.

  7. says

    I have decided that all of you are worthy of death. We are fully capable of making sound moral decisions all on our own. Right?I dunno. As much as I think your “decision” makes you a dangerous lunatic, it’s actually a lot less extreme than the position that says I’m worthy of eternal torture.

  8. says

    Barnetto,Well, let’s take, for example, this sentence in Stage 6: In this society, decisions are based on equal respect for all.And that’s precisely what I’m doing here. You are all equally worthy of death. Are you satisfied now? Moreover, are you convinced? If not, why not? If not, please explain how we are, in fact, *NOT* fully capable of making sound moral decisions all on our own. Then please explain how Rational Jen (the author of the post) was not capable of making the sound moral decision not to post this post. I mean, you’ve got trouble all over. That’s one of the reasons you are worthy of death.

  9. says

    Cipher got it right, Rhology. Your statement:“I have decided that all of you are worthy of death.”illustrates that just because we’re capable of making sound decisions doesn’t mean we always do. And sometimes humans don’t reach their potential because they missed out on some critical aspect of development. So which one did you miss – good parenting, brain development, or practice?OTOH – if you insist on falling back on religion, you can find plenty of biblical support for a statement like that.

  10. says

    just because we’re capable of making sound decisions doesn’t mean we always do.I’d be interested in knowing how you know that this is not a sound decision.

  11. says

    So which one did you miss – good parenting, brain development, or practice?There’s been some research resulting in a body of evidence that seems to indicate a neurological basis for fundamentalism. A number of articles about it came out last year. Unfortunately, the best one I found is no longer online, but, if anyone is interested, the blog admins can email me and I’ll send it to them to post (if it doesn’t violate copyright laws).

  12. says

    “And that’s precisely what I’m doing here. You are all equally worthy of death. “Ah, no, see, if you want to play that game, you must condemn yourself to death as well, you sinner you. In fact, if you were really a moral exemplar, you would live out your prescriptions and do away with yourself. Or can you figure out a way to argue that doesn’t involve your reliance on laughable straw men?

  13. says

    “I’d be interested in knowing how you know that this is not a sound decision.”Because I benefitted from good parenting, brain development, and practice. Growing up in a secular democracy (vs. a theocracy) also helped.

  14. says

    Way to beg the question. Maybe those things led you astray; others have started with similar foundations and ended up thinking you all deserve death. Me, for example. I repeat my question.

  15. Martin says

    Watching Rhology come here over and over trying to argue ideas like morality is like watching a developmentally slow child trying to get his cereal from his bowl to his mouth without spilling any. You just kind of go “Awww bless his heart!“Folks need to realize that Rhology doesn’t come here to offer arguments, he’s simply a contrarian. His “arguments” consist of little more than folding his arms, sticking out his lip and stamping his feet. Answer his questions, he’ll say you’re “begging the question” (demonstrating he doesn’t know what that phrase means either). He’s made up his mind that human beings don’t have the brain power to define right and wrong based on pragmatic considerations like the consequences of actions and such innate qualities as empathy and altruism (you should read his attempted refutations of empathy as an ingredient in moral development, which are entertaining exercises in fundie rhetoric even if they aren’t borne out by the facts), and that the only way to know what is “right” and “wrong” is for his God to tell you. “How do you know what’s right and wrong” is a really, really hard one for him. But he doesn’t realize that he can just as easily be asked how he knows that the things his God tells him are right and wrong really are right and wrong. Rhology loves to criticize us for “naked assertions,” but he defends his notions of divine authoritarian morality with such declamations as “In reality Christianity is true, and God has put this desire in people’s hearts.” No argument needed, obviously.What upsets Rhology, and why he keeps coming back here, is that we as moral atheists frustrate him because we don’t fit his narrative. He’s desperately invested not only in belief in his God but that his God defines all that is and can be good and that without his God you have to be bad. But now I just see the sad fact that Rhology can’t grasp concepts most children grasp as his problem, not ours, and it’s a problem he chose to embrace when he embraced an authoritarian religion that convinced him he was evil. I used to enjoy getting into it with him here, but now I just chuckle at the slugfests from the sidelines. There is no cure for willful ignorance, people.

  16. says

    larryniven,Maybe I do think I’m worthy of death. I didn’t necessarily exclude myself.Martin,Thanks for linking to those things. Kick dirt on me all you want, at least the reader can decide.

  17. Barnetto says

    Rho,”Well, let’s take, for example, this sentence in Stage 6: In this society, decisions are based on equal respect for all.”You’re still cherry picking sentences. You’d formulate more thought provoking conversation if you took the time to read the whole post and think about what it is saying.”And that’s precisely what I’m doing here. You are all equally worthy of death.”Note that the sentence you cherry picked is a principle, but it doesn’t seem to be the principle behind your statement that everyone should die.”I mean, you’ve got trouble all over. That’s one of the reasons you are worthy of death.”If you develop that statement then you might begin to hit at your very own principle (its a bit vague as it stands right now). But it was a good effort. So keep trying!!! I’m sure you’ll hit level 6 someday. ^_^(what are you right now? Stage 2?)

  18. says

    Well, I just caught the show entire from Google Video here NY. Most interesting – and thanks again for taking my call.Oh, this is my first AE blog comment post. Hmm. Not a very compelling opening I must admit. Maybe I really AM deserving of death.-George in NY

  19. says

    “Maybe I do think I’m worthy of death. I didn’t necessarily exclude myself.”Aw, don’t be shy – come right out and say it. If we’re worthy of death, you are too. In fact, you might be more worthy of death, having realized that fact and played the coward by not acting on it. At least we’re being true to our worldviews, which apparently is more than you can say.

  20. says

    What the heck does it mean to be “worthy of death”? I mean, it seems to have no practical meaning.I assume the meaning is one (or both) of the following:1. If there are no “absolute” moral guidelines, one can define morality however one chooses. If he thinks we deserve to die, there are no safeguards in place to prevent him from attempting to implement that.It’s an old, tired argument that fundamentalists employ (and which, I am sure, Rhology will say has never been successfully countered either by atheists or by liberal theists). It’s the way they think. There’s a story about two circuit preachers of the 19th century, one a universalist, the other what we could call a fundamentalist. The former says, “If I were a universalist, I could kill you, take your money and not have to worry about the consequences.” The other fellow replies, “If you were a universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”My point is that fundamentalists typically suffer from a kind of moral bankruptcy (evidenced by their complacent belief that the rest of humanity will be tormented for all of eternity) – and they think that everyone else does as well. Of course, they see our refusal to recognize an external, higher authority as a manifestation of what they consider to be our moral bankruptcy.2. We are all in a state of rebellion against God, and, consequently, under a sentence of “death” – which they interpret as a sentence of eternal damnation. Again, this doesn’t trouble them very much. As long as they’re saved – that’s all that matters.For these reasons (as well as others), I won’t even engage conservative Christians any more. We’re speaking two entirely different languages.

  21. says

    My thinking, though, is that saying “you all deserve death” is like saying “you all deserve bones.” Death isn’t a punishment or reward that requires people to prove their worthiness, it’s an inevitable fact of life. Whether I “deserve” it or not, I will die at some point, as will every other living thing on the planet. Worthiness is not a factor, only the quality of being alive matters. Now, I see a major difference between “you deserve death” and “you deserve to be killed.” The latter has some meaning; it implies that the target should encounter death before they otherwise would, which is indeed a punishment (at least, by my reckoning). If that’s what Rhology meant, then that has some practical meaning. I’d like to know what his criteria are for determining who deserves to be killed, and how he arrived at that conclusion, and chances are I would disagree. What Rhology seems not to realize, however, is that morals are determined not by individuals, but by social consensus. A single, solitary person, so far as I can figure it, cannot be moral. One person, stranded on a desert island without social contact, is necessarily amoral. Morals result, naturally and necessarily, from social interactions between individuals. In order for any society–even a mere grouping of two people–to exist, they must agree on some basic moral principles. They must place some value on one another’s lives (because society literally falls apart if I can’t trust you not to kill me when I turn my back), and other considerations follow from there. All morals result from the interactions of social animals, and so the morals of a given society are determined by what that society can agree on. So, Rhology is free to make the moral determination that we all deserve death, whatever that means, and he’s free to find or form a society which agrees with him. But so long as he’s in a society which does not share that value, he must recognize that others may impose the moral consensus on him, regardless of his personal moral values. Sorry for the long, rambling post.

  22. says

    For those few interested, I answered Rhology in his comments (and preserved my answer here). Aside from that, I should have given Jen props for a great post and episode. Also, one last thing:Then please explain how Rational Jen (the author of the post) was not capable of making the sound moral decision not to post this post.Why would that be a moral decision? Not every decision need be a moral one.

  23. says

    “Should I post this?” is not a moral question, and obviously not all “should I” questions are moral questions.Well Paul, apparently it is a moral question if your nom de blog is Rhology. :-)

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