Moral Development and Our Political Process

An article by Ann Dapice in The Oklahoma Observer (June 2016, Vol. 48, No. 6) called “Whose Morality?” considers how we process new information that contradicts  previously held beliefs.

The article says that moral development is important for dealing with change. Supposedly, moral development occurs when we experience conflict that can’t be resolved at our present level. New ways are needed to resolve the conflict. And this moral development (or lack of it) applies just as much to our political leaders.

Ann Dapice was referring to the work of development psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. According to Kohlberg there are six stages of moral development which can also be divided into three levels.

Level onePre-conventional (egocentric)

Stage 1 – avoiding punishment and deferring to power. “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” thinking. People mostly act based on what they can get out of it for themselves. These people can be bullies and cause a lot of misery to others. They like breaking the rules and are not intimidated to stop doing so. They are also groupies – whether blue or white collar. They support the group if it works for them.

Stage 2 – satisfying the self and sometimes others

Level 2Conventional (ego/ethnocentric)

Stage 3 – acting in a way to gain others approval which includes dress, peer pressure, following the group. Being seen as nice is important, rather than being seen as good. Select values are also important here that must not be broken. People don’t want to be seen doing something embarrassing to the group.

Stage 4 – focusing on authority and fixed rules, such as the 10 Commandments. Without laws chaos would ensue. But the finer nuances don’t exist. So it’s not ok to kill someone but its ok to deny someone health care and kill them that way. And its ok to kill outside the group like people in another country. The law is viewed in a formalistic way, but the “spirit” behind the law is completely missed. Loopholes and exceptions are also easily indulged.

Level 3Post-conventional

Stage 5 – looking at laws to work out what is right. New evidence and understandings are indulged. Changes in perception about what is moral can also result through trying to work through new dilemmas.  People here are able to look beyond their own group’s interests when dealing with justice issues. They will attempt to make laws more just without breaking the law.

Stage 6 – conscience and choosing ones own ethical principle which is like the “do unto others …. ” outlook. People here will break unjust laws using non-violent means.

Here’s how I would categorize some of our leaders (some may disagree):

Stage 1: Donald Trump

Stage 2: Hilary Clinton/Bill Clinton

Stage 4: President Obama

Stage 5: Bernie Sanders

Stage 6: Ghandi

I think Ann Dapice’s summary statement is apt: “We need leaders and citizens who have the moral development to examine what is right, to accept the responsibility to act on what is right, and the knowledge and skills to follow through.”

I don’t think we are at that stage yet.


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