I spent a couple of days reading up on this theory. I wondered if I could perhaps tie his stages to differences between progressives and conservatives, and perhaps build a case that the puritanical conservatives who trouble me are stuck on Stage Four. However, this is precisely the conclusion Kohlberg and his fans wish for us to draw. “Oh, those people who believe in religion and tradition and the rule of law mean well, but we are on a higher plane. Kohlberg proved it.”
But after reading a while, I decided that his theory just wasn’t true. Jonathan Haidt’s criticism is demonstrably valid, for one thing. For another, I have observed children showing moral senses more advanced than Kohlberg’s theory admits is possible. Oh, they still need training in it, but the basic sense of duty and principle is something some people are just born with.
As an aside, let me dismiss the notion that “everybody” believes themselves to be moral and justified. I keep hearing this, but it simply isn’t true. It is true that some monsters believed they were doing a righteous thing; I don’t think that Sir Thomas Moore had any doubt that he was serving God by burning heretics, and similar could be said for some of those responsible for implementing or promoting communism. But there are two types of people who do not believe themselves to be virtuous. One is the genuinely evil, people such as Stalin or Saddam Hussein or serial killers. We tend to conclude that such people are either insane or else believe that killing millions of people is moral, because genuinely turning to evil is impossible for anyone who hasn’t done it to comprehend. A normal person with a functioning moral sense might conceivably be driven to commit a murder or assault or theft if he is in enough distress, but he will still know it is wrong, even if he tries to justify his own actions to preserve his own sanity. In fact, people who commit crimes of passion often crack and confess within a couple of days, because their own moral sense will not allow them to get away with it. Soldiers and policemen often feel regret over killing people even though they fully understand that they had to do it to protect the innocent. Genuinely embracing evil in your heart is a world away from giving in to human frailty and doing an evil thing or two.
The other type of person who does not consider themselves moral is the one who has simply not internalized any moral sense whatever. They believe, though they may not articulate this belief, that morals are a scam used by the ruling powers to keep the rest of us down, and that those who actually believe in morals are suckers. If you seriously invoke morality in their hearing, they think it’s funny. These people are generally only ever guilty of minor evils, because larger ones are too much trouble and carry too much risk – they are at Kohlberg’s Stage Two, you might say. But if genuine monsters are in power, these types make excellent henchmen.
I also became suspicious of Kohlberg’s theory because it is tied to intelligence; the idea is that with improved reasoning powers and more education, people become more moral. When I was in elementary I was always more moral than my teachers – in fact, virtually everyone outside of a maximum security prison is more moral than my teachers – so I cannot help but regard this theory with skepticism. It sounds like another justification for keeping people in
brainwashing camp school longer. I have known too many highly intelligent and educated people who were vicious jerks to put too much faith in intelligence causing morality. Of course, more intelligent people cannot help being more future-oriented, they naturally think more about long-term consequences, so this does at least make them less likely to commit many felonies, but that’s as far as it goes.
Some of the essays I read also tried to put the hippies and protesters of the 60’s in Stage Five or Six, the “post-conventional” morality of those who see the deeper principles beneath laws and customs. In fact, in Kohlberg’s terms they were all at Stage Three, wearing ludicrous clothes and defying the rules of civilized behavior in order to get along with their contemporaries. The price for refusal to throw off those rules is the denial of companionship. It is a price I have spent my entire life paying.
In addition, Kohlberg insists that Stages Five and Six, the highest stages, are dedicated to “democratic” ideals and ways of changing society, and that they all believe in the “equality” of all humans. I’m pretty sure he was not talking about the Judeo-Christian sense in which all humans have a soul and are created in God’s image. That is the only sense in which humans are “equal”. All humans are not of equal worth to society (this does not negate our ethical obligations to those who are of less use) or equally capable of doing such things as governing or anything else.
By the way, the joke is on the liberals who wanted to use this theory to prove their own worldviews. The first page I linked points out that most women remain at Stage Three throughout adulthood, while most men are at Stage Four. One feminist, instead of either accepting female moral inferiority or rejecting the theory as a whole, tried to argue that putting being liked above principles was just as moral as standing up for principles. The typical feminist approach: if women can’t compete, demand that the rules be changed. People who believe in white superiority can also use the data based on this theory to prove their point. Oops.
Now, this theory is fairly obscure, though apparently the test based on it is sometimes put to practical use. So except for my own intellectual curiosity, I was about to conclude that the theory wasn’t worth blogging about.
But then I read Wikipedia’s definition of Stage Six.
In Stage six (universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Rights are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for deontic moral action. Decisions are not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way, as in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another’s shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true. The resulting consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.
There it is: our old friend the Hegelian Dialectic.
Makes me long to live in a society ruled by a bunch of Stage Four stick-in-the-muds.