Sunday, November 19, 2006

Dan of tdaxp, who is deep into grad studies on the genetic factors involved in education, socialization and politics, launched a lightning bolt at the theory of the stages of moral development advocated by the late social psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg . Personally, I like Kohlberg as an instrument for inspiring critical thinking and Dan has been provoked to do a critical appraisal of that instrument itself:

"Confusing morality with rationalization is insane.

For quite a while I've felt that Kohlberg's stages of moral development are balderdash. The more I learn, the more skeptical I become. Kohlbergism is the bastard offspring of a rape of naive Piagetianism by blithering Vygotskianism.

...One way to attack Kohlberg is to argue him to absurdity by demonstrating situations where a higher "moral" stage of development leads to actions considered immoral. (That we even have to confuse normative ideals and substantive facts like this is demonstrates another Kohlbergian absurdity, but that would be a post for another time)."

For those unfamiliar with Kohlberg, his theory was based on an effort of decades collecting cross-cultural examples of moral reasoning, from which he constructed his six stages of moral develpment. The sixth stage is representing ( as I interpret Kohlberg) self-actualized moral exemplars like Mohandas Gandhi or the Dalai Lama ( or whomever) who articulate an appeal to "higher" or " universal" moral truths that superceded their society's - actually, all societies - conventional morality. This is what appears to be ticking off Dan, as one could just as easily argue for including Nietzsche's Ubermensch in the sixth stage, as we could for the Mahatma.

Effectively, Kohlberg's theory is a reified example of pattern recognition, a set of categories known as a taxonomy. Taxonomies are extremely useful and powerful cognitive tools, indeed having been used formally for at least two thousand years. They are the basis of natural history but can be found to some extent in almost all disciplines. Their explanatory power has definite limits however.

First, a taxonomy defines a phenomena organizationally and in terms of relative value. It does not automatically grant insight into the mechanics of the interrelationships. Indeed, Kohlberg's theory is weakest in explaining the specific nature of the dynamic psychological transition between stages and relies on an uncertain arbitrariness of the authority (Kohlberg) who is constructing the taxonomy.

4GW theory suffers from the same defects as Kohlberg's stages of moral development, being essentially, a taxonomy of warfare. 1GW did not have to begin where it did. Lind and his co-authors could have began with the advent of ancient tyrannies and metal weaponry or Roman logistics or whatever point they felt was the best historical benchmark. The choice was, to an extent, arbitrary, if reasoned. PNM theory too has been criticized on the grounds of where does the Core really and truly separate from the Gap ? Taxonomies by their nature cannot avoid such criticisms.

Secondly, taxonomies impose entirely artificial " borders" separating the phenomena, isolating and fracturing it unnaturally from the rest of the complex adaptive system that comprises the known universe. The real world is always far more connected, linked, paralleled, networked and wired for feedback than in our neatly demarcated mental models. Reality is messy and taxonomies help bring cognitive clarity to at least a fraction of it. That clarity will always come at a cost of inaccuracy or holistic myopia but great taxonomies represent launching pads for further investigation.

They are the " shoulders of giants" for the rest of us mortals to stand upon.


Dan presses his critique of Kohlberg's theory in light of evolutionary psych research:

"I think Mark's criticism of the Stages as a taxonomy are right on, but my distaste goes deeper. If anything, Kohlberg is measuring amoral or immoral rationalization ability. Kohlberg is measuring a social derivitive of linguistic intelligence. Kohlberg is measuring an ability to please.

Kohlberg talks about laws, but in the general way that people have who do not know them. Laws were created and could be erased at any time. They typically were created incompetently and the whole reason for my parents' profession was that cleverness counted more than wisdom. One could find evidence in the Law for nearly anything. What counted was the fashions of the time for some words on some texts.

It's clear that instead of a universal moral development, the change in answers Kohlberg observed are an interaction between a basic drive for fairness and rhetorical dexterity. The first is widespread among the most popular human phenotype of “wary cooperators” or “strong reciprocators.” Berk adequately covers a genetic predisposition to fairness on pages 476-477, so instead I will focus on the role of practice.

Read the rest here.

I'm admittedly out of touch with what is happening in Ed journals these days, but I'm inclined to believe that Dan has in his post, a good start on writing something really provocative for publication.
Hey Mark,

Thanks for this post. I respondeded over at tdaxp, but I'll post some thoughts on Lind here.

I think that the idea of dialectical quality shifts, with all its Hegelian baggage, is the weakest part of Lind's theory. 4GW has existed at least for thousands of years, and I'm sure you can find ancient examples of all other "generations" in the distant past as well.

Similarly, if Kohlberg had said "here are the types of moral reasoning I've observed" then there would be little to argue with. But Kohlberg is arguing for a clean category-by-category progress, and by using the term "moral development" he further baselessly implies a normative progression.
"But Kohlberg is arguing for a clean category-by-category progress, and by using the term "moral development" he further baselessly implies a normative progression."

Kohlberg's earlier, " no regression" position was problematic for me -though I believe he was modifying that stance prior to his death.
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