Stages Of Moral Development by John N. McCall (November 1999)

Claims that religious skeptics, atheists, and the like are less moral than true believers have no factual basis. To the contrary, prisons contain very few atheists but are filled with Christians who broke the commandments. Did their religious training amount to much? Were their characters weak to begin with? Or were they victims of bad environments, racist laws, or what? Surely, we know very little about a person’s moral capacity from knowing his or her religious beliefs.

Until recent times, the study of human morality was dominated by theologians and philosophers who used scriptural authority, personal anecdotes, and armchair speculation. A refreshingly different empirical approach was recently suggested by the Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson (“The Biological Basis Of Morality,” Atlantic Monthly, April, 1998). He suggests we take an evolutionary perspective and look for factual evidence that altruism and other moral values had biological advantage. That is, one might test the hypothesis that evolving human groups in the past lived longer or reproduced themselves more successfully if they held to particular moral values. Such research promises to be difficult since behavioral records from the distant past are even less available than the material, fossil record.

Too few individuals, including Wilson, seem aware of the several decades of empirical research on the so-called stages of moral development. Taking a developmental approach, interviewers posed ethical dilemmas to individuals of widely different ages and asked them to explain why they chose one solution or another. An example might be the temptation to steal medicine in order to save a dying relative when one has no money. Based on their reasons for choosing to steal, or not, the interviewers concluded there exist predictable stages of moral judgment. These stages ranged from clearly less mature to more mature. The five general stages, or levels, that resulted from these interviews seemed to hold up across different cultures although more evidence is needed.

This general finding suggests a biological basis for moral development. Through the maturation process the growing child displays a higher quality of moral judgment. Of course, psychological and social experiences are expected to affect the individual’s rate and final level of moral development. Some correlation of moral maturity with general intelligence was found but this relationship was modest.

With much oversimplification, these five stages might be described by the principle reason given for choosing one moral action over another.

The earliest stage typifies the young infant who is good in order to insure mother’s love. More generally, one is good because one depends on external rewards.
At the second stage, one is good in order to avoid punishment. Examples are the child who obeys just to avoid spankings and the church-goer who is good only to escape the everlasting torments of hell.
The primary motive at the third stage is social approval within one’s primary group. The teenager who conforms to his or her own peer group standards of behavior makes an obvious example. Not much progress is achieved if this individual switches allegiance to specific adult groups at a later age.
The fourth stage shows a concern for social order or community stability. One might refrain from cheating on an income tax return because chaos would result if everyone cheated.
At the highest stage of moral development, individuals choose right actions because these satisfy intrinsic ideals of justice. An example might be the Buddhist saying: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence suggests another example. Noteworthy at this stage is the fact that standards are held whether or not other people sit in judgment.
Critics of this maturational approach point to difficulties defining each stage and with measuring the specific stage at which an individual operates. Neither is it clear how much one person vacillates from one stage to another. Also, reasons given under laboratory or test conditions don’t always predict real life choices. Rather than review this ongoing research, my purpose is to explain this developmental approach. It suggests how individuals differ widely in their moral judgment, just as people differ in general intelligence or in other, more specific talents.

We might expect some amount of regression to lower levels of morality under stressful conditions. And we might expect some individuals to remain fixed at levels below their potential, perhaps due to highly controlling environments. Examples of the latter might be overly strict parents and rigid church doctrines, which stress little more than sin and salvation. Soldiers with high moral standards might regress to lower levels under battlefield stress. Perhaps those with internalized, more mature moral values are more resistant to such pressures.

In short, it can be useful to judge moral standards as ranging in quality or maturity. Just which standards we live by differs from person to person and the same individual might change standards under certain life conditions. Persons living in identical environments should be expected to differ in their moral development due partly to differences in their innate potential.

Religious indoctrination, or any fixed body of instruction, is unlikely to raise everyone to a common level of moral maturity. Finally, those doctrines that focus on sin and salvation seem especially prone to keep an individual fixed at low levels of moral reasoning. Perhaps it is this person who reasons that if the threat of everlasting damnation is removed, a license to be immoral is thereby granted.

John N. McCall, Ph.D., is a Foundation member who lives in Illinois.

Freedom From Religion Foundation