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.