Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kohlberg and the Moral Value of Conformity

The moral beauty of conformity: Nazi Germany

A friend recently praised to me the theories of the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. I was not familiar with him; apparently he studies “moral development” along the lines of Piaget’s theories of intellectual development. Kohlberg posited that morality develops in six progressive stages:

1. Fear of punishment
2. Self-interest
3. Conformity to social norms
4. Deference to authority
5. Social contract
6. Universal ethical principles or conscience

While Piaget’s work was only with children, Kohlberg claimed that these stages of moral development can continue throughout a person’s life span.

I see lots of problems with this theory. Most obviously, since Kohlberg was presumably a human himself, how can he be scientifically certain that he has himself reached the highest possible stage of moral development, and can therefore judge how relatively backwards others might be?

Of course, if he wants to base it all on either a philosophical argument or an established moral code, that is fine. But then it is no longer psychology. It is either philosophy or religion, and must present itself for consideration in these terms.

The moral beauty of conformity: North Korea.

But for now I just want to deal with the implication that step 3, conformity, is more morally advanced than step 1, fear of punishment. That is, philosophically speaking, an abomination.

Fear of punishment is morally neutral. It is neither moral nor immoral to fear punishment. It is, on the other hand, simply good sense.

Conformity, on the other hand, is positively immoral. Given the choice either to conform or not to conform, nonconformity is intrinsically the more moral choice.

Don’t just take my word for it. Pope Francis spoke of it only the other day. As paraphrased:

Today it is thought that we have to be like everyone else, we have to be more normal, like everyone else, with this adolescent progressivism. And then what follows is history: the death sentences, human sacrifices.

Not satisfied? Check the Bible. Obviously, Jesus himself was an extreme non-conformist. So were the apostles, and so were all the prophets. Seriously, going out into the desert in animal skins and living on locusts and wild honey is not the obvious conformist option. Jesus says:
13"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Why is conformity evil? Because society is evil. It is the realm of Mammon, of Caesar, of Babylon and of “the nations.” It is the devil’s domain:
5And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6And the devil said to Him, "I will give you all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.…”
If society is evil, albeit a necessary evil, by its nature, then conforming to it beyond what is strictly required (perhaps, say, for fear of punishment) is evil. Yet even were it morally neutral, conforming to it would be evil, because it is a willful abdication of conscience.

The moral beauty of conformity: Jonestown, Guyana.

Hence we are supposed to be “in the world but not of it.”

Kohlberg's body was fished out of Boston Harbour in January, 1987. Apparently, he had parked his car, waded into he icy waters, and drowned himself. This, of course, proves nothing.

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