Good moral character

It’s the end of the semester. My grades are done. The holidays are over. And now I can breathe. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Except not really. I may be breathing, but my brain is still going strong. This is the time when I reflect on what worked and didn’t work in my classes – and how I might do it differently the following semester. I do this with all of my classes, but probably the most with my Introduction to Psychology class. That’s the class that covers so much information – too much for one semester, really. Every semester I end up letting go of something because there just isn’t enough time.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is one of those that usually gets kicked to the curb in some way. Most Introductory Psychology textbooks include Lawrence Kohlberg’s work in their developmental psychology chapter – along with Jean Piaget, Harry and Margaret Harlow, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Lev Vygotsky, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Erik Erikson, and the twenty-million other theorists that need to be covered in two class sessions. As you might imagine, his groundbreaking and influential work notwithstanding, one of two things usually happens in my class when it comes to Kohlberg. Either my students are treated to one Power Point slide and a breakneck-speed-rundown of the six stages of Kohlbergian moral development, or they’re told to pay close attention to that section of the textbook (like they really read the textbook anyway!) and be prepared for a question or two on the test. If anything, Kohlberg shows me just how low my teaching can sink – if I let it.

Oh, who cares about Kohlberg and moral reasoning, anyway?

That’s an easy way to let myself off the hook – to tell myself that nobody really cares about this stuff anyway. However, so many students wrestle with a range of moral questions – and often those questions involve sexual orientation and sexual behavior. One example: A student who was in my Introductory Psychology class came to my office one day with a dilemma. Religion is a very significant part of his life, and he plans on becoming a pastor when he finishes school. He believes, in accordance with the teachings of his religion, that homosexuality is a sin. But his brother is gay, and he loves his brother. “How do I reconcile this?” he asked me. I suggested that he take my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class, and he did. He respectfully took in all the information presented in the class, and he wrestled with his dilemma the whole time, eventually coming to grips with it in his own way.

These kinds of scenarios happen pretty regularly for me. So how can I possibly tell myself that students don’t think that moral reasoning is interesting or relevant?

Even though Kohlberg published his original article on moral development back in 1958, his work is in fact quite relevant today. In his original study, Kohlberg posed a series of moral dilemmas to a group of 72 males, ages 10, 13, and 16, asking them a series of questions to determine how they reasoned about moral issues. Based on their responses, Kohlberg identified three distinct levels of moral reasoning – the pre-conventional, which is an egocentric and self-centered way of thinking; the conventional, which involves following the rules and conforming to social norms; and the post-conventional, which is a more principled way of making ethical decisions. Within each level are two substages, resulting in six stages of moral development. From a bottom-up perspective, these stages look like this:

When we’re young, according to Kohlberg, our goal in making moral decisions is either to (1) avoid getting in trouble, or (2) maximize our rewards – and this is what we see in the “purple” and “blue” pre-conventional stages. As we get older, progressing into the “green” and “yellow” conventional stages, we become more concerned with following the rules, whether they involve actual laws or merely social expectations. When we reach the “orange” and “red” post-conventional stages (assuming we even get there), we engage in a more principled, higher-order way of resolving moral dilemmas, considering universal ethical principles as the highest guiding force.

Among my students, religion is often what guides their moral decisions – and what causes them to struggle with issues of sexual orientation. The student who visited me in my office that day is only one example. Many students have openly struggled with the morality of things like BDSM, polyamory, and bisexuality, to name a few – mostly because of what the law dictates (or has dictated in the past) or what they’ve learned from religious teachings. (As an aside, The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy is a good resource for helping people navigate these kinds of relationships with integrity.) If they’re in a Stage 3 (“good girls don’t practice BDSM”) or Stage 4 (“it’s illegal to have more than one partner”) level of moral reasoning – a common level for adolescents and young adults – there isn’t much room for a critical reasoning process to take hold. If you throw religion into the mix, research conducted at Texas Tech University suggests that the more strongly people hold to fundamentalist religious beliefs, the weaker their moral development – and their intellectual development – tended to be.  When someone says, “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and that’s that,” there’s no room for a conversation. That’s that.

But if a person breaks through into the post-conventional level of moral development, then issues can be wrestled with. Conversations can happen, both with others and internally. In a 1993 study, Stephanie Brooke of North Carolina State University surveyed members of 10 churches using Kohlberg-style vignettes and applying his stage theory – and found that the higher their level of moral development, the more accepting they were of homosexuality. Instead of saying, “it’s wrong, and that’s that,” they could engage in dialectical reasoning, increasing the likelihood of a more principled decision.

If I really evaluate what’s important to me in my teaching, it’s not so much the nuts-and-bolts of the content. Whether we cover everything, including Jean Piaget, Harry and Margaret Harlow, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Lev Vygotsky, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Erik Erikson, AND Lawrence Kohlberg, is somewhat irrelevant. But if my students can leave my class equipped to engage in a more principled level of ethical decision-making – now, that’s another story.

I’m still going to try to find a way to fit Kohlberg in there. And not just in one measly Power Point slide.

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Filed under BDSM, bisexuality, polyamory, psychological research, relationships, religion

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