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Moral Development

By Peter Shepherd


The highest stages of personal development arise from a parallel development of our cognitive faculties and our ethical nature. A large part of moral development consists of letting go of social conditioning. Through moral development, the ability is gained to step outside of social reality and objectively reassess the agreed-upon morality of the current culture.

The current morality exists, as do all moralities, to promote the survival of particular groups. We can escape from the social reality of our culture, not so much by rebelling against it but by adopting the bridge of a new moral philosophy, based upon a much more enlightened and scientific way of looking at the world. This is based on objective observation of the reality that exists. Whether a person has his eyes open or shut, whether he is there in person or not, the nature of the physical universe remains in existence and cannot be rationally denied. Gravity for example, is a reality you'd better believe in; it is senior to whether you are a Christian or a Jew; senior to any religion or belief system: if you fall out of a window, you will hurt your head!

Cognitive maturation

Jean Piaget, a child psychologist, traced four broad stages in the logical and cognitive development of children, in his studies from the 1930s to the '70s. The first stage, from birth to two years, is the stage of Sensori-Motor intelligence: the infant's coordination of reflexes and sensori-motor repetition, leading up to basic recall of absent objects and to an experimental search for new means to achieve pleasurable ends, bounded by what the child can physically perform and observe being performed.

The second stage, of the toddler up to 5 years, is the stage of Pre-logical intuitive thought. This is a period of 'magical thinking' in the sense that he easily confuses apparent or imagined events with real events. He would, if allowed, jump out of a window expecting to fly, because he has seen birds fly. It is something of a 'dream world'; a toy car is very much the realthing to a toddler. This is a state commonly regressed to by those on hallucinogenic drugs.

The third stage, between 6 - 10, is Concrete Operational thought, when the child can symbolise (i.e. can make a concrete mental image of) operations, without having to do them physically. He learns to classify and relate, and to measure distances and quantities, and thereby performs constructive thinking. Contact with the environment is maintained during such mental operations, because by reversing them, a return to the perceived form is always possible.A child will build and knock down Lego constructions. Concrete operations are the foundation upon which more abstract intellectual operations can be built.

The fourth stage, from age 10 to adulthood, is Formal Operations. Having a wealth of concrete information which he is unable to understand, the child attempts to rearrange this information in order to simplify it. He discovers he can do this by keeping some variables constant, while he experiments with the others. The child induces generalized laws which he can apply to data of the most diverse kinds. The child can think about thoughts, classify classifications, and 'operate on operations' and so conceive of general laws behind the array of particular instances. Hypotheses can be made and tested, and implications deduced, through scientific experiment.

Frequently, adults do not complete the development of Formal Operations; many do not even have a reliable ability to make Concrete Operations. But if the final stage of true formal thought is reached, either naturally or through assisted mental development, there will be spontaneous attempts to increase mental capacity still further, to complete the process of maturation. This is Pierre de Chardin's point of ignition; a point at which a person has become sufficiently self-aware to attempt to direct his own course of mental evolution. A fifth stage of development would then follow, called Mature Intuition (or Metavert, transcending introvert and extrovert orientations). When this stage is reached, all significant cognitive structures of the first four stages have sufficient maturity to be utilized pre-reflectively or intuitively.

Moral maturation

Transition from stage to stage is by conflict and dis-equilibrium, followed by equilibration, as the individual both assimilates the environment and adapts it to himself. Piaget also believed that moral conceptions went through such sequences, a notion that Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard has taken much further, to a widely researched theory of the development of moral judgment A Structuralist* philosopher, Kohlberg has likened the six stages of moral development (shown in the Table below) to an ascent from the shadows of Plato's allegorical cave into the sunlight of True Justice.

[*Structuralism looks first to the principles by which an entire phenomenon is organized, and only then interprets the elements within that structure according to their relationships with the whole.]

From about the age of 2 years to 25 (after which cognitive development usually ceases), a person will grow through at least the first few of the six stages shown in the Table, in a sequence which does not vary and is irreversible.

Table of Cognitive and Moral Development

One can observe an unfoldment of the successive stages of Superego maturity, which occurs in parallel with the unfolding of the different cognitive stages of the Ego.


Ego: a concept referring to the conscious or Preconscious (i.e. accessible) parts of the psychic apparatus. Part of the Ego organization, however, is in a state of becoming conscious and part remains unconscious. The Ego represents what seems subjectively to be reason and common sense. It is that part of the personality which is experienced as being oneself, that which one recognizes as 'I', one's face to the world, at a particular point in time.

Superego: that part of the personality which influences self-observation, self-criticism, and other reflective activities. That part of the mind in which parental introjects (see Introjection) are located. The Superego differs from the Conscience in that: a) it belongs to a different frame of reference, i.e. morality not ethics (what one should do, rather than whether it is right or wrong); b) it includes unconscious elements; and c) injunctions and inhibitions emanating from it derive from the subject's past and may be in conflict with his present ethical values. The Conscience may conventionally be considered to be contained within the Superego; however, when ethical awareness is developed beyond convention, the autonomous Conscience may then replace the installed morality of the Superego.

It is not maintained that the Superego is an accurate replica of the parental figures who have been introjected, since the most significant internalizations are found to occur early in childhood, when the infant endows his mental objects with his own characteristics. During the pre-logical stage of Ego development, the Superego acts as a very restrictive parent, however as successive stages of cognitive maturity are attained, control passes from the Superego to the Ego, unless normal development is thwarted. With greater freedom from Superego constraints and greater self-awareness, cognitive processes play an expanding part in the developing sense of morality, and this is culminated by an active searching towards a Universal Ethical System.

Introjection: the process by which the functions of an external person are taken over by its mental representation, by which the relationship with a person 'out there' is replaced by one with an imagined person 'inside'. The Superego is formed by introjection of parental figures and it may be analyzed into a number of component introjects (the good/bad internal father/mother). Introjection is both a defense and a normal developmental process, depending on the context. Introjected parental figures act as guardians of a child until he can understand what to do in the absence of such guidance. In a mature mind, such introjects are inspected and they provide guidelines only, whereas in the immature mind, they operate subconsciously as inhibiting restrictions and enforcing controls (though they may also be rationalized consciously and be part of the subject's belief system). In healthy development towards maturity, introjects are a necessary transitional phase; however if normal development is hindered (the case with many people), introjects continue to control perception, attitudes, goals, and behavior. The autonomous Ego is free from Superego programs.

The Stages of Superego Development

Kohlberg found that in many cultures young people between the ages of 2 - 25, develop from Stage 1 onwards in an invariable, irreversible, step-wise sequence; the majority reach Stages 3 or 4 but few reach Stage 6. Each successive Stage is a cognitive transformation of earlier ones, and each level incorporates earlier ones in a hierarchical system of increasing differentiation and integration. Change from one Stage to the next is precipitated by moral conflict involving expectations and reality, with thesis and antithesis giving way to higher synthesis.

This theory involves the interaction of the individual and the environment. It is concerned with the evolution of moral values to the point at which they are directed by the ethical nature of the individual. Moral value in the pre-conventional stages is defined in terms of self-centered needs. At Stage 1, the individual is primarily motivated by desire to avoid punishment by a superior power, whether parent, teacher or employer, etc. At Stage 2, concern has shifted to the satisfaction of physical needs, and the individual develops an awareness of the relative value of needs in terms of demands for exchange and reciprocity.

At the next two stages the subject is at the conventional level, where moral values involve conformity to traditional role expectations and the maintenance of existing social and legal order. The Stage 3 individual is motivated to avoid social disapproval for nonconformity, and would like to be judged by his intentions. The Stage 4 person understands how his role fits into the social institutions approved by others, and he seeks to perform his duty - to meet the expectations of society.

The two post-conventional stages represent the most advanced stages of moral development. Decisions are based on consideration of shared values rather than on self-centered interests or blind conformity to social standards. The Stage 5 individual perceives his duty in terms of a social contract, recognizing the arbitrary nature of rules made for the sake of agreement. He avoids infringing the rights of individuals, or violating the welfare of the majority. The Stage 6 person relies heavily on his own conscience and the mutual respect of others. He recognizes the universal principles that underlie social commitments and seeks to apply them as consistent principles of moral judgment.

Kohlberg quotes Martin Luther King:

"One may well ask: 'How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?' There are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey the just laws. One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just; any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

Some interesting patterns have emerged in over 20 years of research. The vast majority of citizens rarely develop beyond Stages 3 and 4; 20% reach Stage 5 consistently and only 5% reach Stage 6. Delinquents and criminals are preponderantly stunted in their moral development. In a notorious experiment in which subjects were ordered in the name of psychological research, to inflict dangerous levels of electric shock upon a 'volunteer' (the pain and shock were faked), most of those at Stage 6 in tests, but only 20% of the rest, refused the brutal obedience. Moral development, it seems, tends to correlate with Piaget's intellectual stages, especially the transition from concrete to formal operations.

It is important to note that the lower moral stages suffice for many people, places and problems. The 'good' that Kohlberg seeks to measure is the capacity to abstract a principle of justice from social contradictions, and the willingness to implement that idea. Often this involves repairing the social-moral hierarchy at the different levels that are torn by contradictions.

Martin Luther King, for instance, did not withdraw to the contemplation of Good within an academy of rich young men, as the social system collapsed. He climbed the moral hierarchy, the better to come down and repair its levels. King certainly spoke of conscience (Stage 6), but Kohlberg's research would show that this was insufficient, as people rarely understand moral statements more than one stage above their own habitual stage. For this reason King forged a social movement (Stage 5) which saw that civil rights laws were passed and implemented by the courts (Stage 4). He set up brilliant televised moral pageants in which black people were conventionally good and peaceful (Stage 3) and white racists were stereotypically brutal, even as he claimed the rights of his race to ordinary human satisfactions (Stage 2). But the theme overall was harmony and integration, not merely between the races but between levels of moral awareness.

Where the principle of justice infuses relationships, laws and images, social virtue is restored. King fragmented in order to better reconcile. It is, then, within the entire cycle of healing divisions that virtue and development lie, which requires ethical awareness at both abstract and concrete, cerebral and loving, individual and social levels.

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