Moral Psychology and Development: An Introduction (Part 1 of 4)

This essay is the first in a series of four essays concerning moral psychology and development. Moral psychology is an important area of knowledge for understanding various attitudes and beliefs regarding morality and, more importantly, for effecting moral progress. A society’s collective attitudes and beliefs toward social justice issues like animal rights are ultimately the collection of individual attitudes toward those issues. If we can better understand individuals at the psychological level, it will help us to better understand our society. In this series of essays, we will primarily look at moral psychology as it has developed during the 20th century up to the present. We will not consider evolutionary psychology or anthropology in this series of essays. Evolutionary psychology and anthropology are interesting for exploring the limits of our collective violence and altruism, as well as where we fit in an aggressive-altruistic continuum and how we arrived there, but compared to contemporary moral psychology, they don’t contribute much in the way of explaining how we behave and why in our modern industrial and informational societies.

Two Dominating Theoretical Groups of Moral Philosophy

There are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy which have been with us since the Enlightenment. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I am going to discuss just the two groups of theories, rather than the specific theories under each group. One of the dominating groups in moral philosophy concerns actions and “the right” (often referred to as non-consequential or deontological theories). The other group concerns consequences and “the good” (often referred to as consequential theories). Theories other than the two dominating theories include virtue ethics, social contract theory, and various moral doctrines and precepts of religions. Again, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, we will not consider these other theories in this series of essays.

A theory of the “right” is primarily (and in, e.g. Immanuel Kant’s case entirely) cognitive, logical, and philosophical; and heavily emphasizes the intention of the actor and justice in determining “right action” while diminishing the consequences of actions in determining “right action.” Examples of theories in this philosophical group are Kantian morality, contemporary deontology, and rights-based theories. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “right” is that they generally consist of prohibitive restrictions on behavior rather than a normative claim on all behavior. In other words, the moral agent is generally free to do whatever he or she wants, as long as he or she does not violate certain moral principles, such as justice, in his or her actions.

A theory of the “good” is primarily affective, empirical, and psychological; and heavily emphasizes the consequences and preference satisfaction of all sentient beings having an interest in the consequences in determining “right action” while diminishing the intention of the moral agent in determining “right action.” British sentimentalism and utilitarianism are examples of theories in this psychological group. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “good” is that they generally attempt to maximize “the good” for all parties potentially having an interest in the consequences in all choices of action (e.g. utilitarianism), rather than merely prohibiting certain action which violates justice or a similar moral principle. Depending on how seriously the consequentialist takes the obligation of maximizing the “good” for everyone involved, the theory can significantly restrict freedom of action in everyday life, because most, of not all, actions should probably be subject to moral evaluation and only certain actions will maximize consequences, assuming we can calculate a maximum good in any specific choice. Most consequentialists, however, don’t take the theory that far, and look at consequentialism as a theory of justification in specific choices or conflicts rather than a theory of deliberation on all actions.

Two Dominating Theories of Moral Psychology

Just as there are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy, there are two dominating theories of moral psychology which correspond to the theories of philosophy.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of action, justice, and “the right” is Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. It emphasizes logic and cognitive reasoning in moral development and is primarily philosophical in nature.

Kohlberg was a brilliant psychologist who performed significant research in moral psychology and taught at the University of Chicago and at Harvard University. He was influenced by the great child psychologist Jean Piaget. His research consisted of in-depth interviews of many people of various ages (children and adults), from various socio-economic groups and from different cultures. In his interviews, which consisted of narrative moral problems and follow up questions, Kohlberg was not so much interested in the content or conclusions of his subjects, but the cognitive reasoning behind the content or conclusions. A subject could arrive at the same conclusion, but the cognitive reasoning could be at drastically different stages of development.

Kohlberg came up with six stages of moral development with two stages in each of three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. The stages are based on cognitive reasoning in arriving at moral decisions, with the highest stage being based in universal principles of justice and/or fairness. We will look at Kohlberg’s stages in more detail in the second essay of this series.

Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of consequences, feelings, and “the good” is Martin Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development. It emphasizes empiricism and emotion and is primarily psychological in nature.

Martin Hoffman is a Professor of Psychology at New York University who has engaged in three decades of study and research on moral development. Whereas Kohlberg’s theory emphasizes cognitive reasoning in moral development, Hoffman’s theory emphasizes affective/emotive response in moral development, including guilt and compassion, but particularly empathy and empathic distress.

While Hoffman has stages in his theory, he downplays the stage aspect of it compared to Kohlberg. Hoffman has two levels of empathy development, immature and mature, and two stages within each level. The highest stage in Hoffman’s theory is one where empathic distress extends “beyond the situation” into areas removed from the here and now. In this higher stage, people will respond with empathic distress to individuals and groups far removed from their geographical location, or removed temporally, such as slaves long ago. One might also say that “beyond the situation” implies a response of empathic distress removed from one by kin, such as overcoming racism, speciesism, or some other cultural prejudice. We will look at Hoffman’s theory in more detail in the third essay of this series.

Philosophy and Reason versus Psychology and Passion

At the core of these different perspectives of moral philosophy and psychology, cognitive and affective, is a dichotomy as old as philosophy itself: the struggle between reason and passion.

Immanuel Kant saw the degree of morality inherent in a given act as proportionate to the degree that one does it in accordance with obedience to the moral law that reason dictates as opposed to one’s passions or desires. For Kant, a moral philosopher who sought to define morality, only the good will is inherently good, and the good will is at its greatest when it triumphs over a base passion to do other than what reason and the “moral law” (i.e. morality defined) dictate one ought to do.

David Hume, on the other hand, believed that “reason is, and ought only to be, a slave of the passions.” For Hume, a moral psychologist who sought to explain why we behave morally, our sentiments of approbation and disapprobation determine what, for us, is moral or immoral. Reason only helps us determine what is most likely to be pleasing to our sentiments and beneficial to social utility (assuming our passions are directed toward social utility, and Hume thought our “calm passions” were in that direction, in the same way we have a “calm passion” for natural beauty). Interestingly, Hume believed that only social utility supports our calm passion for justice, and that without utility, we have no use for justice. For Hume, this explained the unjust treatment of women and Native Americans, and moral progress meant widening the circle of the moral community.

It is important to emphasize that Kant was offering us a rational definition of morality and a prescriptive code, while Hume was offering us his empirical observation of why we do what we do. Many people misinterpret Kant and Hume by conflating moral philosophy and psychology. Arthur Schopenhauer ridiculed Kant severely for postulating reason instead of compassion as a “basis of morality” (i.e. the motivating factor behind moral behavior), but what Schopenhauer failed to realize was that Kant was attempting to rationally define morality, not attempting to offer empirical observations on motivations for it. Hume, on the other hand, has been misinterpreted by many of today’s moral relativists as offering a moral philosophy or definition dependent on our feelings, and thus what is “moral” for me might be “legitimately” different from what is “moral” for you. What today’s moral relativists fail to realize is that Hume was silent on moral philosophy and definition; Hume was discussing only his empirical observation of moral motivation and psychology.

In morality, both philosophy and psychology can be broken down into primarily cognitive and primarily affective schools of thought. Also, moral philosophy is a primarily cognitive enterprise, while moral psychology is a primarily affective enterprise. Words like “primarily” are important here, because while there are major differences in these areas of thought which are irreducible and irreconcilable, they sometimes interrelate and sometimes have each other’s primary considerations as secondary considerations. Hume may be correct, in a certain sense, that our passions ultimately dictate our behavior, but it is also true that reason, impartiality, and justice can be our passion. In fact, through reason, we can intentionally cultivate virtuous passions and let our baser passions atrophy, thereby cultivating our character into a noble one providing us with a more fulfilling existence.

We will explore Kohlberg’s and Hoffman’s theory in the next two essays in the series, respectively, and wrap it up with a fourth and concluding essay, which will address practical considerations for advocates.

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