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Conservatism vs. Moral Development…

Disclosure: This commentary comes from both my political and scientific training. Politically, I consider myself a revolutionary, democratic socialist. I am also a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Make of it as you will…

First of all, I believe that as a social species we’re born conservative. We start out as squalling, demanding infants totally focused on our own needs, wants and desires. As we grow, we adapt to our given culture. (Albeit, there is convincing research that indicates that 1% of humans are born as psychopaths.)

Acculturation occurs thru natural stages of moral development. These stages have been found to be fixed, more-or-less paralleling the pattern of the brain’s cognitive development.

Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg’s research on the subject finds that stages are not skipped, they occur in an invariant sequence. Modern clinical psychology employs this theory as a principle in diagnostic analysis.

Some pathological character and personality formations are found to be “fixed” at certain earlier stages. Therapeutic guidance seeks to revisit that earlier stage in order to facilitate the individual’s being able to progress thru that natural process.

In a nutshell, Kohlberg’s research describes six stages of Moral Development. These are the pre-moral stages of behavioral motivation as (1) punishment & obedience, and (2) instrumental exchange; the conventional stages of (3) interpersonal conformity, and (4) law & order; the principled morality of (5) prior rights & social contract; and (6) Universal Ethical Principles.

It’s been found that individuals do not comprehend moral reasoning at a stage more than one stage beyond their own. Also, very few people progress beyond stage four, if even that far.

In terms of moral behavior, Stage One for the child (or an adult operating at that level of functioning) is an avoidance of punishment and deference to power. The adult would define it as, “Might makes right!

Stage Two adds a utilitarian attitude toward others to satisfy one’s own pleasures and desires. “Let’s make a deal!” and “What’s in it for me?

Stage Three is the level whereby the individual seeks conformity to standard behavior, expected values, “What must I do to be socially acceptable?

Stage Four is marked with a somewhat higher level of social conformity to the constituted authority of the family, peer group, church and state. There is a high deference to law and order, maintaining the social order, wrongdoers must be punished, etc.

This is the highest level most adults will ever reach. This is also where the “just world theory” is at its strongest influence; the idea that all things happen for a justified reason. That bad things happen to bad people. Often, fundamentalist religious beliefs and “faith” bridge any gaps of knowledge and reason.

In general, people are cognitively attracted to more successful models of behavior just above their own (if present). This helps account for further growth.

Stage Five is the development of principled morality where justice, dignity for life and a social consciousness of the common good is prevalent. This stage holds to a definite consciousness of a just society of basic rights and values that one should strive for and uphold.

Such rights and democratic procedures then form the social basis for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Property is secondary to life. This is a level of cognition far beyond the consciousness of conservative moral development (stages 2 and 3).

Earlier stages do not comprehend higher concern for others as a fundamental “right.” Such concern is perceived as a “tactical” consideration in a quest for their own satisfaction.

Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia…

For example, the decisions of Roberts, Alioto, Scalia (now deceased) and Thomas on the US Supreme Court. Not perceiving “rights” per se as a higher moral value, they determine that such definitions by others are merely tactical devices and rhetorical tricks. Arguments otherwise are lost to rational reason.

Stage Six consists of universal principles over and above even the social contract. This comes full turn back to respecting the basic dignity of all peoples both in a social and an individual capacity. There is a principle of justice here as equal respect for all.

For Lawrence Kohlberg, Stage Six is largely a theoretical stage…almost utopian. Perhaps a Gandhi or a King may fit the model. Such a stage often requires sacrifice and civil disobedience.

In fact, laws that are unjust and violate both social and individual justice requires an obligation at this stage to be disobeyed.

Bear in mind, of course, that none of us operate at only one level. Our brains, in fact, are hard-wired to respond at both an intellectual and emotional means.

In fact, we wouldn’t even be human or possibly survive without our “emotional intelligence” (however, many do operate without much intellectual reasoning).

For many millions of years, our forbears operated quite well on the emotional-response brain. Today, that region continues to process fight or flight responses (including long-term anxiety, to our detriment), and adds the emotional component to all of our sensations and perceptions (or otherwise they would have no personal and social meaning to us).

Social awareness and intellectual reasoning vis-a-vis the pre-frontal cortex is something relatively new to the human species.

The conservative mind can only perceive all advancement of the human species thru the prism of individual profit, privilege and power.

The mind of social consciousness and principle perceives the reality that our achievements can only carry the human species so far.

Universal social consciousness and individual rights and values gives meaning to our existence far beyond what we’ve experienced to date–assuming that we have the opportunity yet before us…

Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD), April 2012…

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  1. […] question of Nurture itself is best addressed by the Piaget/Kohlberg researches on socio-moral […]

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