Undermining moral values
It used to be thought, bluntly, that children had no moral sense and had to be taught how to behave by instruction and punishment. Since the first half of the twentieth century research has been crediting them with more and more moral ideas of their own.
In 1943 R. F. Peck and R. J. Havighurst, two American psychologists, did some important research with a group of 120 children who were born in a small town in the Midwest of the United States in 1933, and who were still living there ten years later. Their tests included sentence completion and the interpretation of pictures showing ambiguous social situations. They also consulted the children's teachers and later they interviewed the children and got to know them well.
They found five types of moral behaviour:
amoral, when you seek only direct personal gratification,
expedient, when moral behaviour occurs because you perceive some consequent advantage,
conforming, when all that matters is not to stand out from the crowd,
irrational-conscientious, when you have accepted some moral code and stand by it however absurd it may be,
and rational-altruistic, when you are concerned for the welfare of others and take proper measures to achieve it.
Peck and Havighurst thought the first two types – amoral and expedient – were consecutive stages of development occurring in infancy and early childhood, the next two – conforming and irrational-conscientious – were parallel stages appropriate in later childhood. Most adults, they believed, remained at one or the other of these two middle stages; the final type – rational-altruistic – was rare.
In 1969 the American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg produced a different theory of moral development. He found six stages which he believed to be consecutive. These came in three subdivisions – pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. The pre-conventional stage corresponds broadly to Peck and Havighurst's amoral and expedient stages, and the conventional, as the name implies, to their conformist stage. However, the third group, post-conventional, does not correspond to rational altruism; people who are considered to have reached this level relate moral decisions to absolute standards rather than to the conventions of society, but intuitive concern for the welfare of others is not taken into account.
Kohlberg considered morality to be something that could only be appreciated intellectually, a matter of the distribution of rights and duties according to principles of equality and reciprocity.
Then in 1980 the American philosopher Lawrence Blum published his book Friendship, Altruism and Morality, in which he argued that altruistic emotion could actually be a more valuable guide to behaviour than any system of rules.
At about the same time Carol Gilligan, who was collaborating with Kohlberg in some of his research, noticed that women discussed moral questions in a different way from men. This led her to new perceptions, and her important book, In a Different Voice, was published in 1982. Women, she pointed out, were more likely to base their moral views on care for the welfare of others than on Kohlberg's rules.
Carol Gilligan found the reason for the neglect of the women's point of view when she looked again at earlier research. When Piaget had written about account of the moral judgment of the child in 1932, he had based his theories on interviews with boys. Girls had only appeared in four entries in his index. In the research from which Kohlberg derived his theory, females simply do not exist. Kohlberg's six stages that purported to describe the development of moral judgment from childhood to adulthood were based entirely on the study of eight-four boys. He did not include any girls at all.
Gilligan distinguished two approaches to moral questions that she called the justice approach and the caring approach. Kohlberg had been concerned only with the justice approach, which is typically male. Gilligan was interested in both approaches, and found that the caring approach, ignored by Kohlberg, was the more important approach for women.
The descriptive terms are clear. The justice approach is based on fairness, personal rights, rules and set standards of behaviour; individual welfare is a secondary consideration. The caring approach is simply a concern for the welfare of other people, regardless of rules.
Gilligan and the others working with her have found over and over again that, though neither sex is limited to one type of response, males are more likely to make justice responses and females are more likely to make caring responses.
Children, too, are more likely to make caring responses than justice responses. Kohlberg's analysis of what he saw as the moral development of children was actually an analysis of the movement of a group of boys from a care-based morality to a rule-based morality. This is surely not so much a development as a decline.
Peck and Havighurst's highest category, rational altruism, is clearly an aspect of a morality of care, and more recently research has shown that this is often understood by the very young. As the American psychologists Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, reported in their book, How Babies Think, published in 1999:
Systematic studies indicate that two-year-olds begin to show genuine empathy toward other people for the first time. Even younger babies will become upset in response to the distress of others (we all know the disturbing way the baby will suddenly begin to howl when a marital argument starts). They don't just feel your pain, they try to allay it.
The very young have a natural altruism, but then they go to school. Traditional schools are usually rule-based, and encourage conformity and irrational conscientiousness to the exclusion of other moral considerations. They are dominated by a masculine way of thinking. A child's natural altruism is crushed rather than developed.
In a traditional school the children have very little chance of making moral judgements. There are rules to govern their behaviour from the moment they enter the school gates in the morning until the moment they leave in the evening. There are rules about how they dress, how they speak, how they move and when they go to the toilet. If they fight or play truant they are simply breaking rules. There may be lessons in religion or citizenship, but in practice the moral decisions are all made by the adults in charge.
This is curious. Everyone accepts that in order to develop a healthy body you need to take physical exercise, but it is not generally agreed that in order to develop healthy moral perceptions you need to have practice in making moral decisions. If you are told what to do all the time at school you have no chance of making decisions of your own. You are vigorously trained to be a conformist, a follower of rules, so you can only maintain your identity as a normally rational individual if you rebel, either openly or in the secret depths of your mind.
If you obediently accept the authority of your school and allow it to completely govern your life, your own innate altruism is suppressed. When you leave school you may well be at a loss because you have no pattern of rules to guide you. It is only too likely that your own innate principles will have been wiped away. You will look for another framework to take the place of the school's, and probably fall back on either conformism or irrational conscientiousness. You may even descend Peck and Havighurst's scale as far as expedience or amorality.
Rational altruism will no longer be an option. It will have been educated out of you.