Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-87) was a professor of developmental
Saint Maximilian Kolbe --
an example of the highest
level of moral decision
Over the six decades or so since he first published his ideas on moral development, Kohlberg has come under a considerable amount of criticism. Some of the criticism of his work is valid; some not. I have found his basic outline of the stages of moral development to be extremely helpful, however, in understanding people and how they function in their particular ambience.To state this theory somewhat briefly, Kohlberg outlined three major levels of moral development—the “pre-conventional,” the “conventional,” and the “post-conventional.” Each of these three is then broken down to two sub-levels.
Moral development, according to Kohlberg—who, incidentally, built his work on the educational psychological ideas of Jean Piaget—begins in the pre-conventional state with a fear of punishment. A small child gets his first introduction to the idea of “wrong,” because he is punished for an act. Perhaps the punishment is inherent in the act itself: he touches the stove and he gets burned. Perhaps the punishment is inflicted by an authority figure: the says a “bad word” and he gets a slap on his hand or is scolded. He learns that he should not touch the stove and he should not use that word again.
The second level of the pre-conventional stage is that the child finds that acting in a certain way brings benefit to him. This is a positive reinforcement. As I am writing this, I am watching some friends with their puppy. They just handed him a doggie treat because he behaved well. (They also have a water-spray for when he behaves badly.) In the same way, the child behaves quietly in Church and gets taken to breakfast. The child says something sweet to the mother and gets a hug. The child soon learns there is a “payoff” to good behavior.
This reward/punishment level of moral behavior is appropriate to children; there are adults in the Church who, at least in regards to our heavenly Father, still operate on this level. If you do certain things God will punish you. Your mother will become sick and die. You will go to hell. Or, on the other hand, certain behaviors will be rewarded. I bring flowers to Our Lady’s Altar and Our Lady will present my prayer to her Son. I say this prayer and I receive an indulgence. There can be a component of this punishment/reward in our moral scheme as we mature, but it won’t override—if we mature—the higher levels of moral development.
This pre-conventional level also corresponds to the lower levels of piety in the development of one’s spiritual life. There are those for whom prayer and, in particular, penance, are “atonements” for their sins or the sins of others and meant to avoid punishment. Their image of God is often of a Deity who has his arm raised in wrath against humankind and who is only being held back by the ever-powerful Virgin Mary. Or, given that childish hope of reward perspective, they may have that sickeningly sweet Deity described by CS Lewis
We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, “liked to see the young people enjoying themselves,” and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all.”
This shallow theology is, I am afraid, too often the god of the post-Christian generation whose lack of spiritual and intellectual maturity have left them without any genuine moral compass. Neither the person whose deity rules by fear nor one whose deity’s chief characteristic is blandness has much credibility except among those equally stunted in their moral and spiritual development.
As we move into the conventional level of moral development we learn how to make our moral choices according to what is socially appropriate. It is not socially appropriate to walk into church naked. (I wish someone would point this out to many parishioners regarding how they come to Mass in the summer months, but maybe I am just too old fashioned.) It is not appropriate to get drunk in public. It is not appropriate to hit your sister. It is appropriate to go to church weekly. It is appropriate to do one’s homework. It is appropriate to call your mother and let her know you will be out late and not to worry. There are problems with this level as what is “appropriate” and what is “not appropriate” are often determined by cultural norms and not by moral principles. In Papua New Guinea it is totally appropriate for women in traditional costume not to cover their breasts. There are people who get upset when women thus costumed participate in the Mass during a Papal Visit. There are people who cannot distinguish the difference and whose ideas of “appropriate” and thus “moral” behavior are bound by their own cultural limitations. Bare breasts during Mass—except for feeding infants—would not be appropriate for a papal Mass in Saint Louis while at Port Moresby there is no rational objection. It is not appropriate to go to Sunday Mass when it would require leaving a seriously ill person home unattended, but there are people who cannot make that moral distinction and thus become morally conflicted in situations that are really not that complex. For a variety of reasons, this is not a satisfactory level at which to stay in one’s moral development. It is too dependent on “what others think” rather than an internal moral compass to guide us.
The next stage of moral consciousness that Kohlberg presents, still in the “conventional level,” is the idea that moral choices reflect what is necessary for good social order. The good is contained in the laws, and I must obey the law if this world in which we live is to work. So if I don’t obey the stop-sign, what is to prevent others from not obeying the stop-sign and we will have traffic accidents all over the place. Marriage is limited to having one partner at any one given time or there will be chaos. (There are variations on this theme, such as marriage is between one man and one woman, but the social consensus on that question is rapidly breaking down. There used to be social consensus that marriage is between one man and one women until one partner or the other dies, but that consensus disappeared in our culture about fifty years ago.) I cannot steal your lawnmower because if it is ok that I do, then it would be ok for you to steal my snow-blower. Laws are there to make sure that society runs smoothly.
Now, this idea of obedience to the law as the fundamental principle of moral behavior is not necessarily limited to the civil law. A religious Jew keeps all 613 commandments of the Law of Moses. He (or she) does not mix dairy and red meat; does not eat shell-fish; does not plant two different crops in the same field or wear clothing made of two different fabrics. Why? Because it is the Law! The priest washes the feet only of men on Holy Thursday, wears his clerical attire when in public, and says the Liturgy of the Hours every day. Why? Because, it is the Law. The Buddhist monk does not drink alcohol, eat after noon, or knowingly kill a spider. Why? Because it is the Law. The Law is not bad, but neither does it necessarily have a connection to moral principles—even if it once did. And there are those whose morality is based entirely on the Law. I need to go to Mass on Sunday. I can’t eat a cookie within an hour before receiving Holy Communion (and that really is not a tough law to keep). I can’t use birth control. I can’t masturbate. I can’t commit adultery. Why—because they against the Law (of God). And it all becomes morally the same: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession. I committed adultery with a member of my own sex and I broke the communion fast.” No, we cannot be satisfied with a morality that is based on adherence to the law. This does not require moral reflection, simply a blind obedience. Yet it is difficult for a person who doesn’t have a strong spiritual foundation—not just a theological or pietistic understanding—to advance beyond this stage. That is why there are so many today frightened of a serious and critical re-examination of the great moral questions of today. A serious re-examination of issues such as the remarriage of divorced people, same-sex relationships, in-vitro fertilization, gender identity, contraception, etc. threatens to take us beyond our current conceptions of the Law (of God) and for some the moral ice is simply too thin to venture out and use their reason to explore. There are many also who, to justify their political views or social constructs, reject developments in moral theology—and in the magisterium—that challenge the legitimacy of the Death Penalty, inequality of wealth, nuclear war, universal health care, and human rights. The Law is something static in their understanding, or it is to the degree it supports their views of society and how it should work. They cannot see the connection between Law and moral principles but they adhere to law for its own sake.
As we move into the post-conventional state we first encounter the idea, similar enough to the previous level but somewhat more forward, that law is a social contract. We all have varying values, understandings of our rights, opinions, theologies. While tolerant of the variety of opinions, where can we find some moral consensus on which to base our ideas of right and wrong? (This is such a wildly thoughtless liberal position, I love it: it can be caricatured so easily.) So we get the golden rule, or at least the minimization of it: “do not do to another what you would not have them do to you.” I won’t cheat with somebody else’s wife because I would not appreciate someone cheating with mine. I will cut my lawn because I want my neighbors to do their share in keeping up property values. There is a recognition here that we are dealing with something beyond “law,” but it still fails to find moral principles. For the Christian, we must look for moral principles not simply social contract to guide us in our actions.
The final stage for Kohlberg is the realization that there are universal ethical principles to guide our choices and we can arrive at those principles through moral reasoning. This is somewhat akin to the idea that there is a natural law that transcends Divine Revelation and which can be arrived at through rational analysis. I make my moral choices based not on a fear of punishment or a hope of reward or social convenience or an appreciation of the law, but because I can perceive what is right or what is wrong. Kohlberg thought that few people reached this stage of moral development—most were, at best, trapped back in the law-for-law’s-sake stage—and he thought that even fewer acted consistently on such principles. Despite my natural attraction to Saint Augustine and his skeptical understanding of human nature, my natural cynicism even, I am somewhat more positive than Kohlberg, though I do not think that an appreciation for moral principles is the most common basis in the modern world for moral choice. I too think most people, including most Christians, don’t get beyond the law stage. But I do think that a genuinely evangelical Catholicism is the guide to moral development that will lead us to the sort of moral integrity represented by Kohlberg’s sixth level of moral development.
Jesus lays down the basis for a moral life in the gospels. There is a fundamental need to forgive others. There is a need not to be preoccupied with material wealth. There is a need to respond to the suffering of others. There is a need to undertake a life of service to others. There is a need not to judge others. There is a need to feed those who are hungry. There is a need to shelter those who are strangers in our midst. There is a need to be peacemakers. There is a need to perform our good works without a desire for attention. There is a need to preserve the commitments made in marriage. There is a need to recognize the goodness of others while we examine ourselves for sins and failings. There is a need in our prayer to humbly confess our sinfulness. There is a need to ask for a heart focused on God’s Will alone, a “pure heart.” There is a need to seek to be set right with God, to have integrity. This isn’t rocket science. It is all there in the gospels. We will certainly fail from time to time, even frequently, but with God’s grace we will stand up, ask forgiveness, and find success in God’s Will far more often than we fail. And as long as we are humble about our failures—honest about them with God, with ourselves, and with others—they won’t make a difference. What a different world it would be if we Christians stopped operating at the level of fear or law and started basing our lives in the teachings of Jesus?