Thursday, July 25, 2013


Because Lawrence Kohlberg's theories of moral development came up over at Staffan's discussion of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, I thought I would repost my comments from 2009. This essay was a middle one in a series about the reasonable ideas of primitive liberalism, and how I believed they had gone wrong.

Correction: This series on the key values of progressives was supposed to be an attempt to look at the origins of said values - the good thing each was originally based on before going awry. I didn't do that here, going negative right from the start. I'm not sure what I'm going to do about that now that I've noticed it. I don't like going back and editing a published post except for typos.

In the mind of an arts and humanities progressive, conservatism is a developmental stage on the way to becoming a liberal. While this is not intellectually very rigorous, it is nonetheless understandable. From the POV of an articulate young person moving out of the nest and into adulthood via AP classes and college, there is even something natural about the social progression. This is part of why I describe liberalism as a social rather than intellectual phenomenon. Socially alert children pick up on the cues in their environment. Their first forays into adult environments are often at colleges, where the surrounding adults are overwhelmingly liberal. It is thus easy to conclude that the old world with dumb people is conservative, the bright new one liberal. This is doubly true for those who went to Christian schools, then secular (or lite Christian) colleges.

This pattern was often described by people who grew up rurally or in small towns in my generation and just before it. They revelled in coming to a place where people liked discussing ideas instead of corn prices and altar guilds, where people read things, were sophisticated, and knew things about the world. Garrison Keillor does a great sendup of this with his Flambeau family (paragraph 9 if you're in a hurry). Keillor can poke fun at it because he understands it. So do I.

There was a long succession of authors in the 20thC who wrote about leaving their stultifying boyhoods in Ohio.

I actually want to write about Lawrence Kohlberg, but before I go away from the general observation above I want to highlight a large weakness in the partly-conscious reasoning of those who I described above. The adults at a college are not a representative sample, not of grownups in general, nor even of thoughtful, sophisticated adults. They are just the first ones we encounter. If you stay in certain fields, they will be most of the adults you ever encounter. And they are emphatically not representative of mature adults, averaging a little on the downside of the bell curve in that category.

Lawrence Kohlberg
's theory of moral development was taught in my college intro psych course. He was a student of Piaget's and his moral development ladder had a great deal of Dr. Jean's thinking, especially in the first few stages. The first stages were to avoid punishment, then receive rewards; the middle stages were to be thought of as a good person, then to obey the rule because it was the rule - this fourth stage was called, significantly at the time, the Law and Order stage; the fifth stage was more integrative, weighing various costs, principles, and abstract justice.

I still recall the illustration for the sixth stage: Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK Jr. floated up in clouds - Jesus being on top, presumably to avoid offending people in 1973 - the caption informed us that these were people who had transcended usual moral thinking, and developed new moral constructs. They were Stage Six in moral development, attained by But A Few.


Even in my nominally Christian state, it was clear that this was just fuzzy liberalism, trying to piggyback the pacifist Mahatma and the assassinated civil-rights leader on Jesus's reputation. Jesus didn't bring much to morality that was new. He highlighted some OT principles, and extended a few - then he lived them, which was fairly rare, and was crucified for them , rarer still. Gandhi was a fraud, and King was himself a Christian, unlikely to suggest that he had added anything new to Christ's teaching.

It was a really sappy Jesus, too, such as was common in 2nd grade Sunday School books. Pretty good picture of MLK, though.

Kohlberg kept going, eventually founding a "just community" in a Cambridge highschool, dedicated to teaching children how to be liberals, and he still has followers in psychology today. He also has critics, including feminist Carol Gilligan, who noted that his test groups were all young,relatively wealthy American males, who might not be representative of humanity. Kohlberg's cross-cultural studies had some merit, but his data was strongest for the first few stages, which correlate fairly well to Piaget's cognitive development. This creates a "Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, king hereafter" prophecy. Macbeth is already Thane of Glamis. The witches who know that Macbeth has already been promoted to Cawdor by the king, prophesy this and add the prophecy that he will be king. When Macbeth learns he is now Thane of Cawdor, he thinks the prophecy is coming true - it must be right that he will be king!

Kohlberg's early stages parallel Piaget's, so that by the time we get to #4, we are thinking "the pattern is true! Look how well it works," which predisposes us to think that #5&6 are well-supported also. They aren't. There are just all kinds of problems. Articulate sociopaths turned out to score in Stage Five or even Six more frequently than nice people who worked, stayed married, and had no criminal records. Retesting people in later years revealed that some of the Stage Fives had inexplicably slipped back into Stage Four. Rather than conclude that they might know something he didn't, Kohlberg called these 4+. Gilligan's observation that women had been left out of the picture (she originated the theory that women have a different moral reasoning, based not on rules but relationships, which is woefully unsupported, but at least plausible) turns out to be a specific instance of a larger cultural bias.

You can see why the idea of growing out of a rules-based morality would appeal to college students, who are really good at rationalization and have many things they would like to do that are against the traditional rules. I observe, for example, that when kids discover heavy petting they suddenly wonder whether all these church rules might be wrong, rather than the reverse order. Ditto abusable substances and all manner of popular social practices.

Progressives often equate conservative principles with something they believed in childhood. They were supposedly taught that America was always right, but they learned to see through that; that the free market is a selfish, me-first attitude; and that people who are different than us are automatically bad, which they learned in college wasn't true. In my most recent discussion with my uncle, with a back-and-forth about Liz Cheney's criticism of Obama's international speeches, he scoffed that my belief that America was very much in the right during the Cold War would be something he would fail on an eighth-grade essay. I thought his choice of insult significant.

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