Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.
–William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Is it the case that what we call justice is right because the Gods love it, or do the Gods love it because it is right?
–Socrates, in Plato’s Euthyphro
In this paper I want to explore a somewhat reductive sketch [see Table 1, below] of Lawrence Kohlberg’s popular six-stage theory of moral development, this time with reference to literature (chiefly Shakespeare and some Classical Greek texts). I'll proceed stage-by-stage, attempting briefly to say something true and perhaps non-obvious about each one; in so doing, I'm aware that Kohlberg’s actual text is receiving less than the full attention it deserves. These are notes.
Like the other stages, Kohlberg’s “trouble-avoidant obedience and punishment orientation” has been observed in young children and in some adults, so it’s not a fiction. Yet, in its lack of affective color or interiority, the notion of this first stage seems like an artifact of the behaviorist period, when B.F. Skinner regarded human action as the product of unknowable (“black box”) processes in which he claimed to be uninterested. In other words, something about this form of life seems not merely “pre-conventional” but even pre-human because, in its ugly simplicity, it suggests a lone automaton, like a reptile in the desert—not a primate enmeshed in a web of social relationships. For a self without empathy or other forms of identification, the “ superior power” to whom he or she defers might as well be the Sun, a God, or a monster.
John Bowlby’s account of infancy and toddlerhood suggests a far more rich and early exchange of real and imaginary goods including well-wishing, smiles, gestures, and various other affective displays whose function is to stitch together a viable, robust attachment through this process of varied, repeated, mutually attuned exchange. Though Bowlby was ambivalent about Melanie Klein’s work, accepting some of it while bracketing out those claims which struck him as inconsistent with his empirical observations of children, he seems to have agreed with Klein in attributing to young children motivations more complicated (by ambivalence, for example) than behaviorist Learning Theory would admit. Klein saw infants seething with rage and envy, emotions which don’t fit well into a scheme like that of Kohlberg’s first stage, in which a person simply pursues his own advantage and avoids pain by doing only what the more powerful person (the parent) will reward. Bowlby’s diplomatic impatience with Learning Theory turned upon that paradigm’s obtuseness in the face of behaviors more nuanced than its dualistic frame of reference could admit.
In looking for an adult example of this trouble-avoidant “obedience and punishment orientation” in the ancient world, I thought of the surrender of hostages when their captors are threatened with superior force. The motive for their release is not the welfare of the victims, but the fear of reprisal.
The second stage is “naively egoistic orientation,” or “naive egalitarianism, orientation to exchange and reciprocity.” Since it has been argued (e.g., by Gill, 1998) that reciprocity was the heart of ancient Greek ethics until the Socratic Enlightenment, it should be easy to find examples. Among the most famous exchanges in Homer’s Iliad is the swapping of gold armor for bronze armor during a local pause in the Trojan War, when the Greek Diomedes and the Trojan Glaukos discover that their grandfathers were guest and host on some occasion, decades before. Since guest-host friendship (xenia) is hereditary in that culture, these younger men individually agree not to pursue one another in the present battle, and instead, in keeping with the rules of guest-host relationship, they exchange gifts. But this leaves each of the two soldiers temporarily useless to his military superiors, since the rules of xenia seem to trump those of warfare. In a modern army, presumably, other "moral" factors would overwhelm this sacred debt to the grandfathers and their old oaths: deference to military authority in Kohlberg's stage four, and to contract and law in stage five: in other words, Weberian rationalization, the hierarchy of army discipline codified in rule books and Courts Martial.
Though many explanations have been put forward for Glaukos’ strange choice of gift (the poet himself says “Zeus stole away the wits of Glaukos…”), we might be permitted to speculate that the uneven exchange of golden armor worth a hundred oxen for bronze armor worth only nine represents the moment when, even for Glaukos and Diomedes (as for both the German and British armies at the end of their informal “Christmas Truce” of 1914), the grueling monotony of warfare simply resumes. On this tendentious reading, gold for bronze would represent the wasteful trading-away of this fragile, bond-building, Utopian peacetime ethic (xenia) for a destructive wartime ethic of martial heroism amid a world of mere enemies, victims, corpses and slaves.
Stage three in our sketch bears several different descriptors, this one being central: “Conformity to stereotypical images of majority or natural role behavior.” This might be the best fit for explaining why, in a famous scene in Iliad VI, the Trojan hero Hektor insists that his son Astyanax must grow up to be a warrior like himself, even amid a world of disastrous siege warfare, raiding, and piracy. This makes some rational sense, to be sure, since a violent world requires of each society a class of defenders capable of violence. But the Iliad of Homer, like Virgil’s Aeneid or Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, is striking for its characters’ poverty of imagination on just this point. Traumatized and deeply conditioned by warfare, they simply cannot imagine a radical break from this way of doing things. Among the major impediments to the invention of more stable peacetime institutions is precisely this warrior identity, which prescriptively and descriptively frames almost all esteemed male role behaviors in terms of force, deriding the alternatives as failures of this one prestige-bearing role behavior: fighting. The theme is a common and persistent one; several other Shakespearean dramas seem driven by exasperation at the way we squander the best possibilities in life by our slavish allegiance to role behaviors that tend to create the conditions for their own necessity: the tragedies of Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and Hamlet all show male soldiers whose love in other roles (father, husband, king) is ultimately vitiated by the depredations of their own patriotic violence. In Coriolanus, the hero’s mother (Volumnia) has so completely internalized Roman martial mores that she raises her son to be little more than a murder machine. When he tries to break away from Rome, he is trying to break away from this mother and from the soldiering identity she has fed him since infancy. The pathos lies in his inability to make this escape, even amid his impressive new capacity to fantasize about it: “There is a world elsewhere.”
Stage four seems to be the best fit for—indeed, the very home ground of—one tragic hero in particular, the Creon of Sophocles’ tragic drama Antigone, one of the three Theban plays. Early in his short reign, King Creon forbids the burial of Antigone’s brother Polyneices because he had fought on the wrong side of the recent civil war over the throne of Thebes. While Antigone argues that religious “eternal law” and familial piety require her to bury her brother in spite of the King’s command, Creon himself argues that civic law (i.e., his own royal decree) is simply more important that any countervailing obligation because without consistent obedience to such law, the entire society may unravel: “But whomever the city appoints must be obeyed, / In each detail, whether just or utterly opposed to justice… There is no evil worse than anarchy. / This it is, that causes states to perish, / Makes houses desolate, / Disperses spear-men, routing their alliance; / But obedience to command / Saves the bodies of the fortunate many. / Therefore such rules must be defended / As are handed down…” (Sophocles, trans. J. Hecht, 2004). The modern rationale for a separation of civilian authority from military authority lies here, since it affords a possible corrective to the military’s characteristic ethical blindness as to the desirability of the ends that it pursues with such impressive discipline. If military thinking can sometimes transcend the tactical and achieve the broader vision we call strategic, it still cannot go so far as to win through to the wider vista of culture, where civil society chooses among alternative goals using non-military resources (e.g. the fine arts, such as theater and literature; the medical arts and sciences, such as psychoanalysis and other therapies oriented to the reduction of harm; and the political art, including the dialectics of factional struggle through semi-rational deliberation in the popular assembly and the courts).
With the fifth stage we enter the level of “post-conventional, self-accepted moral principles.” The appeal of this phrase is its implied transcendence of the power relations that defined the earlier phases; no longer is the subject toadying to authorities he might secretly despise. “Contractual, legalistic orientation” marks a developmental achievement because, despite the similarity to stage four, there has been a shift of emphasis away from roles (which can be limited to a particular situation or micro-society) and toward contracts and statutes (which at least aspire to a sort of universal status that dignifies them—or would seem to do so, as long as we are under the influence of 18th century Enlightenment figures, especially Kant). But in actual experience, a person might well give an account of his or her motivations for a given ethical choice that drew upon several different Kohlbergian stages in the same self-report, just as an analyst or analysand might give several overlapping interpretations of the same dream, or a spectator at a play might feel both pity for a dying villain and a vicarious sense of triumph over the same character’s destructive ambitions. This matter of overdetermination—the copresence of multiple reasons for a choice (or multiple causes for an event)—need not prevent ethicists like Kohlberg from teasing-out the tangled threads of motivation, so long as we are under no illusions that the stages are discreet, invariant, or unidirectional in their unfolding.
Examples of this fifth stage might include Socrates’ decision, detailed in Plato’s Crito, to remain in prison and face certain death rather than flout the law by slipping past the guards with the bribe his friends were ready to provide. Instead, the old philosopher cites his reverence for the law. But this is odd, because in the somewhat earlier dialogue (earlier both in its composition and in its setting within the larger story arc of Plato’s Socrates) the Euthyphro, we are shown this same Socrates chastising young master Euthyphro for uncritically enforcing a civic law without regard for the details of the case. In other words, by insisting upon his own execution in the Crito, Socrates is running roughshod over the mitigating circumstances that he cited with such conviction in the Apology. We might be permitted to wonder whether he is making himself a martyr in deliberate spite of the Athenian jury that condemned him, as if to bite the great sleepy horse of the polis one last time with his gadfly mouth that seems to say, “you are wrong about me; I obey the law, even a foolish law, and even at my own peril.” Such a person would not really, or not only, be acting out of respect for legal writ, though he claims to do so; he would also be exposing the limits of that orientation to justice, as Dr. King did in the Birmingham Jail.
Kohlberg’s sixth stage of moral development, the last one in which he seems to have had full theoretical confidence (though he speculated on a seventh), is here called a “morality of individual principles of conscience.” The descriptor “individual” pulls a lot of weight here, since upon it depends the difference between a potentially slavish allegiance to principles outside the self, or internalized from without, on the one hand, and on the other, an integrated sense of the good as the resultant of one’s accumulated ethical experience, the moral know-how of a life with other people under the shared constraints of scarcity and historical contingency. Adherence to principle will not suffice as the pinnacle of human development, since principles are rarely as universal as they appear, and emergent circumstances (such as technological change, qualitative shifts in either the supply or the demand for a given scarce resource, etc.) can open new and undefended flanks on the periphery of their application. The trouble with principle is that regardless of its origin—in the trenches of experience, or in the mind of a revered charismatic figure or in Heaven—it is not intrinsic to the self. What is intrinsic to the self? Decency of impulse. Consider Blake’s striking remark that introduced this paper: “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.”
If Melanie Klein is correct, and infants harbor bitterly destructive feelings as well as the consequent remorse, guilt, and yearning to make reparation, then we ought not mourn for childhood as an innocent era of lost goodness. Instead we can feel rich with adulthood’s vast opportunities to cultivate moral goodness in the self by performing symbolic actions of reparation. Given what we know about the natural world that produced us, with its predation, dominance hierarchies, and general ruthlessness in the face of scarcity, we can expect our species to resemble the others in its aggressive disposition. But like the bonobo chimpanzees, or like certain baboon troops that have lost their dominant members, we can also cultivate alternative arrangements that conduce to cooperation and conflict resolution. In that group endeavor, and in its individual counterpart (the effort to master aggressive impulses and even replace them with pre-cognitive, affective dispositions toward altruism, empathy, and repair), “principle” is perhaps best regarded as the crucial but temporary scaffolding without which the ethical self cannot be constructed. But the ethical self is not these mere principles, be they external or internalized, any more than the person is his or her outward armor or internal skeleton.
In this connection, consider the epochal figure of Martin Luther, grand architect of the Protestant Reformation, spiritual ancestor of American culture. He thought himself a second Paul, amplifying and renewing the Apostle’s message that the cold mortmain of The Law had been superseded by the free gift of Christ’s love. In that vein, Luther wrote a million pages of brilliant if repetitive prose commentaries on Paul’s Letters to the Romans, the Galatians, and so on. Luther’s point—his theological life’s work—was to supersede the legalism of the Catholic Church as he thought Jesus of Nazareth had superseded the legalism of the Judaism of his day, replacing it with warm, inner feeling. But this, Luther did not do. As he threw a thousand years of (often draconian) jurisprudence in the trash, he forgot just what it was that he wanted as its superior substitute. When Luther drove away the mere “outer man” of “works” and restored the primacy of “the inner man,” what he was exalting was not decency of impulse, not a better reason for doing the right thing. Luther had little or no interest in just what people did or did not do, and was only concerned with what people believed. I will never forget my shock and horror twenty years ago, on first reading this passage from Luther’s great, mad essay “On Christian Liberty”:
...[S]ince faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man. On the other hand, only ungodliness and unbelief of heart, and no outer work, make him guilty and a damnable servant of sin. (56)
As the man is, whether believer or unbeliever, so also is his work — good if it was done in faith, wicked if it was done in unbelief. (70)
On this scheme, you can perform any apparently heinous action you wish, from mayhem to genocide, and still bask in the rosy glow of a good conscience, with an eventual reward in Elysium’s eternal bliss, so long as you were persuaded, through the duration of your bloody spree, that the propositions of Protestant Christianity—including a few counter-intuitive whoppers involving a pregnant virgin, a reanimated corpse three days in the grave, and some water that turned into Cabernet—are factual propositions. Conversely, if you spend your threescore & ten years helping the poor and the weak, defying the wicked and the mighty, and generally brightening the world with your good cheer, patience, and charity, after death you will still burn in eternal torment without hope of redemption, for the sole reason that you remained unpersuaded of those same exotic propositions about the pregnant virgin, the resurrected itinerant exorcist, and so on. This sort of thing is what made Schopenhauer remark of a similar book, “I could not find a single valuable idea in it.”
Table 1. Because this essay focuses on Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, but without the ambition to treat it in depth, I’ve made use of the following one-page summary of his theory, excerpted unmodified (except typographically) from an academic website at Haverford College: http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/kohlberg.stages.html. Only this element of my essay is thus excerpted; the rest is original, unless otherwise cited.
Kohlberg’s Moral Stages
Kohlberg’s theory specifies six stages of moral development, arranged in three levels.
Moral values reside in external, quasi-physical events, or in bad acts. The child is responsive to rules and evaluative labels, but views them in terms of pleasant or unpleasant consequences of actions, or in terms of the physical power of those who impose the rules.
Stage 1: Obedience and punishment orientation
- Egocentric deference to superior power or prestige, or a trouble-avoiding set.
- Objective responsibility.
Stage 2: Naively egoistic orientation
- Right action is that which is instrumental in satisfying the self’s needs and occasionally others’.
- Relativism of values to each actor’s needs and perspectives.
- Naive egalitarianism, orientation to exchange and reciprocity.
Level II: Conventional/Role Conformity
Moral values reside in performing the right role, in maintaining the conventional order and expectancies of others as a value in its own right.
Stage 3: Good-boy/good-girl orientation
- Orientation to approval, to pleasing and helping others.
- Conformity to stereotypical images of majority or natural role behavior.
- Action is evaluated in terms of intentions.
Stage 4: Authority and social-order-maintaining orientation
- Orientation to “doing duty” and to showing respect for authority and maintaining the given social order or its own sake.
- Regard for earned expectations of others.
- Differentiates actions out of a sense of obligation to rules from actions for generally “nice” or natural motives.
Level III: Postconventional/Self-Accepted Moral Principles
Morality is defined in terms of conformity to shared standards, rights, or duties apart from supporting authority. The standards conformed to are internal, and action-decisions are based on an inner process of thought and judgment concerning right and wrong.
Stage 5: Contractual/legalistic orientation
- Norms of right and wrong are defined in terms of laws or institutionalized rules which seem to have a rational basis.
- When conflict arises between individual needs and law or contract, though sympathetic to the former, the individual believes the latter must prevail because of its greater functional rationality for society, the majority will and welfare.
Stage 6: The morality of individual principles of conscience
- Orientation not only toward existing social rules, but also toward the conscience as a directing agent, mutual trust and respect, and principles of moral choice involving logical universalities and consistency.
- Action is controlled by internalized ideals that exert a pressure to act accordingly regardless of the reactions of others in the immediate environment.
- If one acts otherwise, self-condemnation and guilt result.