Monday, September 24, 2007
On Moral Development and Law
I find my plunge into Lutheranism has acquainted me more with law than I have been previously. I think that law is important to Episcopalians but less so than to the Lutherans. I must admit that Paul’s understanding of law as no longer binding for the Christian resonates in me. The idea that Christ liberates us from the law underlies much of my thinking. But I have also been much shaped by the works of Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan in the area of moral development.
The formation of conscience and the development of a society in which moral values are not only recognized but lived-out have been important to me since I taught in Catholic schools in my younger days.
Kohlberg said that there were 6 stages in the moral development in children could be outlined as:
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
2. Self-interest orientation
( What's in it for me?)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
( The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
( Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
( Principled conscience)
Kohlberg’s findings were based upon the behavior of boys and Carol Gilligan’s work with girls brought a whole different set of premises of what brought one to a moral state in which one developed an understanding of right and wrong. Gilligan's work showed how girls were not about a hierarchical way to moral development, but that girls were more inclined to determine what was right and wrong by how acts affected the whole of the group. Gilligan’s work, as was much of the work of feminists, was panned by the mainly male establishment of the ‘80’s. But as one who read her work and found my own experience in what she wrote in In a Different Voice, I found her work appealing. And rather than setting the principles of moral development against each other, I found that both systems seemed to be in evidence in the moral development of the students I taught.
Moral development is how humans arrive at what is important and what is right and wrong. We sometimes call it the formation of a conscience. We, as a species, do not have fully-formed consciences at birth. We do progress. And as any mother of a two-year old who has tried to teach her child to share will tell you, learning right from wrong is not an easy task. The development of a set of values by which we know right from wrong is often a life-long proposition. I do know that as a younger person I needed to test those values to find my own set of values.
I knew that I needed to test what others thought were “universal laws” to make sure they were truly social values. To grow up in the South of the 1950’s brought me face to face with societal norms that to me were wrong from both my personal sense of justice and in the Christian sense of justice that was being touted in the Bible Belt. And I think that it is the chore of every generation to challenge the norms of any society to see if there is coherence in what a society teaches as right and wrong and how it lives out those values.
Neither Kohlberg’s nor Gilligan’s works outlined what was right and wrong. But they outlined how one came to develop those values. What is right and wrong is often determined less on faith values than by what a certain environment classifies as right and wrong. For the girls in Gilligan’s study, what allowed them to work together in their groups was the primary value for them. For Kohlberg’s boys, there were principles to be followed, but in many cases the values themselves were the same.
Universal values are NOT. There is not a set of principles of behavior that constitute right and wrong for all societies. I used to get into trouble when I challenged the concept of “natural law” in Catholic circles. But I do believe there is no one concept of what is right and wrong that is inherent in humanity. Even murder or suicide are condoned in some cultures. What is right in some areas or for some people is outrageously wrong for others. And major clashes come when those cultures come up against each other.
Last night I watched a portion of The War, Ken Burn’s documentary of World War II. I have watched those news clips all of my life and it reminded me of what a clash of culture it was for Japan and the US in the 40’s. The cultural differences in the value of life, the value of honor, the value of so many different things and how it was only through the occupation after the war that we began to understand the deeply held values that each culture had that we came to respect one another. I wonder if the Middle-Eastern (Islamic fundamentalist culture) and western clashes of today are not the same kind of cultural disconnect.
Law whether it is part of the social contract of self-governing bodies or the principles set down from an autocratic power is merely the way that people can live together with some semblance of order. But law in its simplest form is humanly conceived, not divine.
Christian moral law, if you will, comes not from principles taught by Jesus. It comes from being in relationship with God. And it is here that I have to turn to Gilligan’s method. It is from my intimacy with Christ, allowing him to be a part of the discussions about what is right and wrong that I can come to any sense of what is God’s desire for me. Do I live by the Ten Commandments simply because it says it in the Bible? Or do I live by those rules because my God has loved me in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? I believe it is the latter. I do not covet my neighbor’s things because God has given me all that I need. I do not lie because God loves me with his truth in Christ Jesus. I honor my parents because God loved them even as he has loved me all my life. And so the moral development goes on.
Is this approach to moral development fluid? Yes. Law that is not fluid becomes rigid and incapable of proclaiming the kind of love Christ proclaimed. Law cannot be cast in stone. When it is, it loses its ability to support the social community in bringing about justice.
So where am I when I am faced with the Germanic penchant to put law above all things? I fall back on what I know to be God’s grace in the law. Luther was clear that what manifests Christ is grace. Grace is when we know that God loves us and that we can love others in the face of whatever befalls us. How do we know right from wrong? It is when we understand that Christ can be manifested to the greatest group without harm coming to others. In Christ I am above the law; I am beyond the law, so Paul tells me. The law can only give the minimum, while God’s grace is the maximum of God’s love.
Christian moral development is not really clear. It never will be. Christian morality will always be messy and fraught with “what ifs?” It will always confront us, just as Christ confronts us with every action with love. And we need to prepare ourselves to be willing to accept that the Christian life is not simple; we cannot merely look to our faith for answers. We must be willing to be part of the question.