Ragged Clown

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The Basis of a Sound Society

Still waiting for Jeff’s philosopher to give me some context for my musings on morality, but while we wait…

I just subscribed to The Mouse Trap, a blog about evolutionary psychology. Today’s entry was about moral dilemmas and moral development with a link to a discussion of Kohlberg’s Moral Stages. Kohlberg proposed that there are 5 (or maybe 6 stages) in a child’s moral development and crafted a test to determine the particular stage that a child is at by posing moral dilemmas such as this one…

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that? (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 19)

…and seeing how the child reasons about the dilemma. The subject is then graded into one of the stages summarized below:

At stage 1 children think of what is right as that which authority says is right. Doing the right thing is obeying authority and avoiding punishment. At stage 2, children are no longer so impressed by any single authority; they see that there are different sides to any issue. Since everything is relative, one is free to pursue one’s own interests, although it is often useful to make deals and exchange favors with others.

At stages 3 and 4, young people think as members of the conventional society with its values, norms, and expectations. At stage 3, they emphasize being a good person, which basically means having helpful motives toward people close to one At stage 4, the concern shifts toward obeying laws to maintain society as a whole.

At stages 5 and 6 people are less concerned with maintaining society for it own sake, and more concerned with the principles and values that make for a good society. At stage 5 they emphasize basic rights and the democratic processes that give everyone a say, and at stage 6 they define the principles by which agreement will be most just.

Read the article (it’s an easy read) to get the full scoop especially if you want to argue with me in the comments πŸ˜‰

It occurred to me that the stages seem to oscillate between simplistic versions of liberal and conservative thinking (approximately, conservative, liberal, liberal, conservative) until stage 5/6 when a more abstract reasoning kicks in. Kohlberg claims that there is a natural progression along the stages and, although children do not skip stages, they can be helped through the stages by education and might get stuck at a stage if their education is incomplete.

Revisiting Rob’s Barefoot Dilemma in the context of Kohlberg’s stages, we might decide that rules are appropriate for very young (stage 1) children but that our goal should be to educate the child by providing different reasoning at each stage of moral development.

The goal for a healthy society would be to get everyone to stage 5 by the end of their education. This would allow us to prune back the overgrown Statute Book to remove all those laws rendered unnecessary in a moral society. The only laws left would be the ones that either

  1. prevent harmful behaviour by the morally immature
  2. prevent society from being hijacked by the plutocrats
  3. provide the education and resources that enable everyone to participate in the moral society

Perhaps there could be different sets of laws for people at different stages of moral development (as there are now) but people would have to demonstrate the appropriate level of moral maturity before they could step up a level? The whole system would be administered by philosophers of course.

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3 responses to The Basis of a Sound Society

Matt August 21, 2006

Law group #2 reminds me of personal ads that say they’re looking for somebody that is (among other things) honest. I speculate that these are written due being recently burned, and I don’t feel they belong in a general purpose set of principles. It’s not a problem in all cases, IMHO.

That is to say – you don’t need to hardcode for Plutocrats unless you are also hardcoding the circumstances that creates them and causes them to run amok.

Another way to look at is #2 is a special case of #1.

I’ll not pick the “and resources that allow” battle for now.

I plan on being glued to C-SPAN to watch your hearings where laws outlawing immature morality are debated by your philosopher-legislators πŸ™‚

Forgive my lack of reply to the real intent of your posting, but my brain is out of space on the child-rearing taxonomy partition for now (which I obviously do find generally of interest – so thanks for posting).

Kevin August 21, 2006

It’s much easier to spot plutocrats than dishonest people. You can recognize the plutocrats by their large bags of pluto.

#2 needs a little tweaking – what I really want to prevent is the hijacking of the system by people who are both morally immature and excessively powerful. I have nothing against plutocrats per se – I like that Bill Gates fellow for example – it’s just too much money is both a common symptom and a useful predictor of too much power.

Immature morality will not be disallowed – but the immature will not be full members of society and we’ll be keeping an eye on them. We’ll also give them special outlets for their immoral energies. I think I might have read of a similar idea somewhere recently but I can’t quite remember where.

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