On Morality – Michael Felix Zawadka

Morality is a tool we use to judge whether our intentions, decisions, and actions are good or bad. It is a crucial aspect of our life as it affects everything we do. Morality also affects our relationships, social interactions and sometimes becomes a source of frustration. There will always be some friction between different stages of moral development.

First, we have to examine an interesting theory about morality. Which I will adjust and make more comprehensible. That is Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. The theory itself received a lot of criticism. Yet the modern world of mass media and globalization lets us see it in action across the globe. I will mostly follow the philosophical aspects of it.

Let’s first dive into some explanation on the theory itself. In simplification of course.

Kohlberg’s theory states that moral reasoning has stages. Every stage represents a different approach to moral dilemmas. Different rationalizations for choices and actions taken.

Stages are not fixed, though it’s easier to go down than up. Once a person reaches a higher stage, the lower ones are still operational and available. Depending on circumstances different stages of reasoning are applied.

All stages described for later considerations with:

a. Basic drive. Suitable quote.

b. Characteristics.

c. Example.

d. Evolutionary aspects and/or possible origins.

Stage 1:

a. Punishment. “If action is not punished it is right.”

b. Self-centered, pleasure-oriented with no cooperation or consideration of consequences.

c. A child who eats all the sweets and doesn’t care.

d. Using every chance to improve one’s situation unless it ends with an undesirable outcome.

Stage 2:

a. Bargain. “What’s in it for me?”

b. Extension of the previous stage. Includes basic cooperation with no regard for consequences.

c. A child who will only clean the room if there’s a reward.

d. Basic cooperation is essential for survival. Ensuring one’s best interests in interpersonal situations.

Stage 3:

a. Approval of the group. “Be a good girl/boy.”

b. Approval of the immediate social circle defines good and bad. Nothing else matters.

c. Teenagers smoking/drinking/doing any other illegal activity to show they’re cool.

d. Humans were living in groups before even becoming Homo sapiens. This improved chances for survival and is still a part of our psyche.

Stage 4:

a. Approval of society. “I must obey the law to be a good citizen.”

b. Acting in self-interest but only if it is legal and socially acceptable.

c. Adults in 9–5 jobs, people close to the statistically average person.

d. As our societies evolved we needed to follow their standards and laws. Without it, civilization might not have been possible.

Stage 5:

a. Compromise. “Greatest good for the greatest amount of people.”

b. Acting for a greater good even if it means delayed gratification. There’s still a great deal of loss aversion — no loses and no benefits. With hope for future gain.

c. Parents giving all excess money to their children — neglecting their savings.

d. That is the first stage that seems tied to intelligence and perspective. Acceptance of one’s limited importance and strife for a greater good.

Stage 6:

a. Universal good. “Whatever it takes.”

b. Acting in a way that ensures the greatest good. With no regard for immediate consequences. Difficult to observe consistently. Often mistaken for Stages 1 and 2.

c. A great leader with a vision ready to sacrifice his life for the cause.

d. High intelligence and/or vast perspective. Doing the right thing no matter the personal cost.

This is a basic description of Kohlberg’s theory with little adjustments I made. That is taking all the essentials and excluding what might only cause ambiguity.

Now I want to provide arguments for the validity of the theory by addressing the criticism it received.

Kohlberg’s theory emphasizes justice over other values. Different people use different values to judge the morality of actions.

Yet justice seems to be important for all people. What’s even more interesting is that justice seems hardwired into our brains. Dan Ariely in his book The Upside of Irrationality explored the idea of justice and vengeance. In the experiment, two people received $10. If they chose to keep the money to themselves the experiment was over. If they chose to give $10 to the second participant, the experimenter would quadruple the money. This leaves one participant with $50 and the other with $0. If he chooses to share the profit with another participant the experiment is over and they leave with $25 each. If he chooses to keep all the money the second participant had a chance to punish him using his own money. For every $1 paid the other participant would lose $2. A big number of people who had the opportunity to exact that revenge did so.

The most interesting part was the PET scans of participants’ brains. It revealed increased activity in corpus striatum upon exacting revenge. This indicates a connection between vengeance and pleasure or reward. Now, corpus striatum is a part of basal ganglia — the primitive part of the brain present in all vertebrates.

This indicates that vengeance is a primitive and basic part of modus operandi for humans. Yet to seek revenge at least a basic level of self-awareness is essential. That we can observe in nature in other intelligent species like dolphins and primates.

Thus we can assume that justice is universal value wired into our brains by evolution. That is already a decent argument for using justice as a value on which to base a theory.

Another argument against Kohlberg’s theory by Carol Gilligan is androcentrism. Kohlberg himself stated that women get stuck at Stage 3 and hardly ever develop any further.

The validity of this argument is nowadays very easy to undermine. Nonetheless, I want to begin with a more aged argument.

Before the comforts of our civilization set in, the world was a violent and dangerous place. Strength and other physical attributes were the only way to gather resources necessary for survival. In humans, males are physically stronger than females. Furthermore, they show greater mental resilience in overwhelming situations. In simplification, they are stronger and less prone to emotional breakdowns. Both were essential for gathering resources.

The evolution from our point of view is about the survival of the species. That’s why it had to put altruism into males and selfishness into females.

From an evolutionary standpoint, females don’t develop morally beyond stages 3 and 4 to ensure the survival of the species. For most of mankind’s history, they had to maintain proper relationships within a group. They had no chance to protect their offspring and survive on their own. The other thing is that they sometimes had to do it at the expense of others. They had to be selfish. That’s not to say it is bad, it is simply how things were set up by evolution. Without it, the survival of early humans might not have been possible. And that is stage 3.

At the same time, males had to represent some level of altruism so that their group has access to their resources. They had to risk their lives to hunt and protect. Sacrifice is the domain of stages 5 and 6.

Reliable evidence of Homo sapiens existence on global scale dates to around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. This means that modern humans spent at least 1050 generations in this violent and wild world. This is enough to carve such behavior patterns deeply into our consciousness.

The next important thing to consider is that evolution takes time, especially in a stable environment. The strength of selection in the modern world is rather low — most of the newborns survive and many more people get to procreate. Thus it is unlikely that any noticeable change will happen in less than 10 generations (310–380 years). Safety and stability in the world started with the development of technology and medicine. Let’s assume these took place in the year 1900 to simplify things. This means that we are around 120 years into the new world order and given its stability, it will take no less than 190 years for us to notice any changes.

The latest studies show that there is a correlation between testosterone levels and moral judgment. Higher testosterone levels tend to increase sensitivity to social norms and altruistic behavior. At the same time causing a preference for inaction in moral dilemmas. Which adds even more credibility to Kohlberg’s theory.

Taking all that into consideration we see that differences in morality between sexes are obvious. It will take time for changes to occur and right now we operate in a way 1050 generations taught us. Thus Kohlberg’s theory is not focused on men from prejudice. It focuses on men because of how the world turned out. It happened in the same way as with cyanobacteria that are likely cause for our reliance on oxygen. Can’t blame the child for the life choices of parents before it was conceived.

Another way to undermine this argument is a simple observation of society. Attention-seeking behavior, using the power of the state to extract resources from unaware men. Shaming, manipulating and even committing perjury for personal gain. That’s all operation at stages 1–3 — selfishness with no regard even for law or social norms.

That’s not to say all women do that. Nor it is to blame them for it. Again, it is like blaming a child for the life choices of parents before it was conceived. Can’t praise or blame, it’s just the way it is.

The final nail in the coffin of this argument is that Carol Gilligan came up with her theory of morality with no evidence or observations that support it. Thus undermining her authority as a scientist in that field.

The next argument against Kohlberg’s theory is the lack of cultural neutrality. Yet this argument got aptly dismantled by Lawrence Kohlberg himself. Different cultures with different beliefs go through stages at different rates but in the same order. This indicates that theory is universal. Furthermore, this makes this theory more reliable as it reflects modes of reasoning and not beliefs. This argument thus stands for the theory and not against it. It makes morality feel somehow related to aging. Depending on many factors it occurs at different rates. Nonetheless, it’s inevitable.

Yet another argument against is that people show inconsistency in their moral judgments. That’s completely predictable and obvious. Our brain’s and body’s important function is the optimization of processes. That’s why we form habits to avoid mental overload. That’s why we don’t use all our strength for every small movement. Our brain will always use as little resources as possible. Thus we will not judge our choice whether to buy a can of soda or not based on the greater good or social norms. That would be absurd. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development are more like tools of increasing complexity. Once you learn to use a more complex one you don’t forget how less complex one works or how to use it. You get more optionality — more ways in which you can judge the morality of actions. Thus we can see that our brain will always choose the tools it deems most suitable for the task at hand. Hence inconsistencies in moral judgments.

The last argument against is that people tend to omit law, fairness, human rights, and ethical values while making moral judgments. That’s to say that people make them based on intuition and rationalize later. Thus making any rational theory of moral judgment void.

I cannot disagree more.

Our brain automation and optimization processes hide rational moral reasoning behind intuition. To avoid overload our brain will try to make everything habitual. Hence making rational decisions becomes intuitive with time and practice. That’s exactly what happens to engineers during their education. We learn math, theories, and laws. Not only to calculate but also to be able to estimate as accurately as possible in given circumstances. With time this skill of intuitive decision making improves and becomes better and better. Thus intuition is capable of making accurate and precise rational decisions if trained and supported by some conscious effort.

Moral development seems to depend on the needs we have. When we are children our only concern is survival. That is food, drink, sleep and satisfaction that comes with them. Then we develop a need for social interactions. At first, it’s about belonging somewhere and then about belonging to society. Yet once we do belong our needs evolve further. We want something more from life. That’s where midlife crises start. People can satisfy all their basic needs. We have enough money to eat, sleep and drink. At least the majority of us. We have shelter and apparent stability. We have love and we belong. We are worthy members of society. The only thing many people lack is self-actualization. That’s why they often start new hobbies or activities. They see that they’re like everyone else and want to embrace their uniqueness.

When we look at these two pyramids we begin to see the relation between two theories. Our basic physiological needs like food and drink are essential. Without both, we can survive only a couple of days. Thus it’s important to satisfy those needs as soon as they arise. Hence there’s little space for moral judgments in such situations and we follow the selfish path. That stage 1 in Kohlberg’s theory.

With basic needs satisfied we need safety. In the case of humans that come from basic cooperation. That cooperation requires little to no emotional connection — both sides want survival. Thus they cast aside their completely selfish ways and work together. That’s stage 2.

When that happens we want to stabilize it — we want the love and belonging. That is to ensure we don’t lose our precious safety. That’s stage 3.

The rest of the story is quite simple. Small groups begin to create communities and needs for rules arise. Then we need to follow these rules for your society to regard us as worthy members. To avoid exile. Stage 4.

Once we secure our position in society we want to improve it through our unique traits and talents. You need to cast aside your selfish ambitions and hope for later gratification. We still do it to serve ourselves. This is self-actualization. Stage 5.

The journey leads us to the inevitable realization that we are not eternal. Thus we want to achieve something greater than ourselves — we become selfless. That’s where altruism and spirituality begin. Kohlberg’s theory, stage 6. Abraham Maslow came up with an idea about transcendence later in his life. That part wasn’t originally included in his theory. That’s likely the point at which people want to achieve a sort of immortality through their actions.

Morality and motivation must come together. Motivation gives us perspective and ideas. Morality lets us avoid grim fate.

Take Adolf Hitler for example. He wanted eternal recognition for creating Third Reich. A perfect world for his fellow nationals. That’s a great motivation. The problem was in his moral judgment of the situation. He deemed some people worthy and others unworthy of living — a violation of human rights and fairness. He decided to execute his plans through warfare and violence — a violation of ethical values and law.

As we know the whole idea ended up a spectacular failure.

An example of good moral judgment and motivation is Stanislav Petrov. As an officer in the Soviet Army, he must have cared a lot about his country. His motivation was the welfare of his nationals.

In short, he stopped a nuclear war from happening by ignoring the false alarm and putting his career and life on the line. His moral judgment was excellent at least. If the alarm wasn’t false and he ignored it — the war would start anyway. Ignoring it as false had a potential for the greatest good.

Here we get to a big problem in moral judgments and why I mostly talk about the philosophical aspects of it. It is impossible to take everything into account. In the end, every decision is at least partially irrational. Trying to consider every possible outcome and very high order consequences is beyond us. It’s like trying to drink a whole ocean or biting your teeth. It is impossible. Even if we could grasp it all with our minds we would end up with paralysis by analysis.

That’s why morality and evolution come together. Both are unable to predict the future so they are all about minimizing the downside. For evolution, that process is completely random. For morality, it’s about making the best possible decision based on the best possible predictions.

The higher we get in moral development the better decisions we tend to make. Hence moral development is essential for our civilization to move forward.

From a purely selfish point of view, we have no reason to care about future generations. We love ourselves and we seek our advantage. Then why having children brings so much satisfaction?

This is a mechanism carved into our brains by evolution. If the survival of the species is our goal then children are the means to achieve it. If it wasn’t satisfying to make them and then raise them no one would do it. So this is a trick evolution played on us. To be happy and/or satisfied we need adversity, difficulty, and selfless action. All that brought by having children.

To extend that idea I’d say that we have selfish reasons to be unselfish. We all want happiness and satisfaction. At least most of us. Then why not take more care about the future of humanity?

One of the big problems in modern society is power in the hands of people of low moral development. Funny thing is that we call it democracy and that is not exactly correct.

The idea of democracy originates in stage 5 of moral development. Greater good with delayed gratification. Or greatest good for the greatest amount of people.

The basic idea of democracy is “rule by people”. So the first flaw is that people only choose other people for positions of power. Now that’s nothing bad at all if the chosen people are competent in the right way. How do we judge someone’s competence then?

Here we get to the paradox of authority. To recognize authority we must ourselves be one. To recognize competence we must first be competent ourselves. There’s no way in which a lawyer can assess the competence of an engineer. He knows too little about the field. That’s why we have peer reviews in science and expert’s opinions in court.

When it comes to democracy we judge a person’s or party’s policies. At least we should, otherwise, it’s demagogy. These policies are complex presumptions about economy and law among other things. “How can an ordinary person with little to no education in the field choose correctly?”

That’s right they cannot. Thus “democracy” is only as good as the education system. It doesn’t take much to see that education systems all around the world are actually in bad condition.

Hence we have demagogy masking itself as democracy.

In demagogy people in power get there not by merit or rational arguments but manipulation. They appeal to selfish desires and prejudices of society.

Supposed distribution of moral development across the population. Picture by Agnes Ulan

“ The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. “ As Winston Churchill aptly pointed — the majority of people (~84%) who vote and thus decide are not capable of sound judgment of policies. The top ~16% of the population might not have relevant knowledge. Thus to avoid demagogy there should be no universal law to vote.

Even at the dawn of democracy, it received criticism from Socrates. He pointed out that voting without proper education and knowledge is straightforward irresponsibility. And it is. Again, that’s why we invest so much time in training our doctors and engineers. We have to be sure that people who decide about our lives are fit to do it.

Knowing all that it’s quite easy to understand why we have such political problems in the world. In consequence, we also get other problems — most of the social.

State-enforced laws that use equality as an excuse to discriminate majorities or exploit the unaware. Decisions about the economy that weaken it. Turning from capitalism towards socialism or even communism. That’s not to say that capitalism is the best system out there. Yet it has proven itself to be the best out of the ones we know and tried. That’s because it reflects natural processes — hierarchies of dominance and competition. Which might lead to the conclusion that it is the best.

From a moral point of view only ~16% of people make decisions based on the greatest good for the greatest amount of people or universal good. Which means they have little to do with what is happening. That aggravates problems of democracy even further.

We should take more care of our moral development and deepen our understanding of why morality is affecting our lives as a whole.

Many problems we face as humanity could be easier to understand or solve with proper use of moral judgment.

Morality if used properly, could make all of our lives better.

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