Kohlberg and Convention

One of my favorite psychologists is Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg presented a concept of morality where people tended to operate from within three levels (which he further sub-divided into three stages): A preconventional level that’s basically egoistic and focused on avoiding punishment or maximizing gain, a conventional level where people follow the rules but don’t think beyond them, and a postconventional level where people are able to think beyond the rules and even work on changing them. A lot of work on moral reasoning has challenged much of Kohlberg’s edifice. For example: It’s not like everyone operates at a conventional or post-conventional level a lot of the time. We all know that many people who are capable of thinking with deep morality and challenging authority in some instances can have serious character flaws that show preconventional or conventional thinking in other instances. We all know we can’t escape our zeitgeist: We can’t fully think beyond the limitations of our society. We literally and figuratively don’t have the language for it.
Still, Kohlberg’s theory affirms that in a real sense we’re not a fully developed person until we can think for ourselves. We can’t claim our full inheritance as thinking people until we’re able to look inwards and outwards with a critical eye.

I was just reading Joseph Heath’s fascinating (if sometimes dry) book, Following the Rules. Heath argues that there’s in fact a lot of rationality to following the rules. He points out that,
“[P]ostconventional morality in fact depends on conventional morality for its authority”.

This is an idea I’ve struggled with for some time. In fact, every moral thinker and person of conscience has to look at the fact that the rules of every society include many ideas that are clearly unfair and unjust but wonder how to replace those rules without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As I’ve learned and grown, I’ve become more and more convinced that Socrates was both misunderstood and totally right. When we do something that is truly wrong, whether it be hurtful or selfish or just self-destructive, our soul shrinks. I believe there is a world of infinity beyond our senses but that we can experience, and that world dims and fades away from our grasp when we act with avaricious grasping or short-sighted cruelty.
I’ve heard of people who brutalized and assaulted a lover only to then bemoan their lover leaving them. I’ve met people who gave a pretense of deep morality while owing others thousands of dollars and making no effort to stand by the content of their word. We see these contradictions in people’s behavior which cease to be contradictions when we realize one thing: We do damage to ourselves by hurting each other.

Morality isn’t about rules. It’s about love.

And that helps us understand a host of other paradoxes. How can some children be given corporal punishment and turn out violent as a result, while others can be given that same punishment and be wonderful people? Simple: It’s not about the rules or the punishment, it’s about the love. When a child does bad things to get attention, they don’t really want punishment. They want love, and they’re grasping for the nearest thing they can get.

It’s important that each of us discover what we believe in for ourselves. But I notice a trend amongst many intellectual people who have yet to find that love inside themselves toward rejecting all of conventional morality. They offer Kohlberg’s idea as proof that we can just reject everything society says.

One of the things that Socrates said that resonated with me the most was as he faced death. He was asked why he didn’t try to escape. Socrates replied that if he ignored the punishment of the society that he had lived in his whole life, he would effectively be breaking a social contract that had given him benefits when it was inconvenient for him. This was despite the fact that Socrates was clearly a postconventional and deeply original thinker.

It’s why Thoreau, Gandhi and Dr. King all knew that civil disobedience and protest had to be done with a willingness to accept consequences. And even Noam Chomsky, arch-anarchist, has stated that the reason for civil disobedience is to resist the breaking of higher laws by the state.

I think there’s a deeper point to be made.

We make goodness today, with our actions. It’s not out there waiting to be found, granted by a celestial father figure. Goodness doesn’t exist except where we see it and make it.
It took millennia of hard intellectual and social work and development to get us further.

So when we look at the barbarities of the past, we have to recognize that they were building too. While there have always been some people in all times able to look beyond where they were and challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of injustice in their society, we have to forgive those in the past and the present who can’t get there. And for those who are still alive, we have to help them learn a better way of thinking.
In some ways, it’s as cruel to criticize those, in the past and the present, who behave barbarically, as it is to criticize people for living in huts. Huts were all people had, and for much of our history, barbarism was the only way people knew how to live.

I hope that those reading quell the desire we all have to sometimes imagine others as sheep. I hope that we’re able to recognize that there are good reasons why rules exist and why people have lived the way they have. If we believe in something better, and we absolutely should, then it’s up to us to find it and make it real. Once we have something that is truly better, people will embrace it if we let them.


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