[Politics] "The President is always right!" - Stages of Moral Development

by Sean Cribbs

I recently read Don’t Think of an Elephant, a collection of essays about how progressives can frame and address the political debate in the face of pervasive conservative ideology and language. One of the primary themes that it touches on is the fundamental differences between conservatives and progressives—their world-views.

To summarize, the world-view of conservative ideology is patriarchal. Values are handed down from an authority who is to be unquestioned, be it a parent, a God, or a political leader, or an institution. Along with this is the implication that violating those values will incur punishment. In contrast, the world-view of progressive ideology is closer to matriarchal. Values are instilled through nurture and encouragement rather than edict. The “Iron Fist” vs. “Guiding Hand”. Everyone has some of each model in him, which is why people respond to politicians in widely varying ways and why they don’t vote exactly the same each time.

Brewing in my mind lately has been the connection between the contrasting ideologies and Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development that I learned about in high school Psychology class. His theory is essentially this: A SUMMARY OF LAWRENCE KOHLBERGw’S STAGES OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT

In order to test individuals’ stages of development, Kohlberg would present them with moral dilemmas and gauge their responses to determine what model they used. One of the more infamous dilemmas (given by Kohlberg or someone testing his theory) involves a controlled environment where two individuals were brought into a room together but unable to see each other during the test. One subject acted as the tester, one as the testee. The testee was required to answer some multiple choice problems by pressing a button. If the answer was wrong, the tester was directed to press a button which would give the testee an electric shock. Each time a wrong answer was given, the voltage was increased.

In reality, the testee was never shocked, but sounds of someone in pain were played each time the tester was “shocked”. The psychologist found participants in each level of development, although the Principled Conscience participants were rare to none.

The basic responses were reflective of the archetypes of each stage:

So how does this all relate to the political debate between progressives and conservatives?

Recently, an Assistant Attorney General appeared in a hearing before Congress and said, essentially, “The President is always right.” This is an excellent example of how a patriarchal ideology influences moral development. The attorney was operating in either a Pre-conventional or Conventional stage of development (either Obedience or Good Boy/Nice Girl, but probably the former). Right and wrong is handed down in a patriarchal ideology, thus the Assistant Attorney General had to belong to one of those lower stages to accept the President’s word blindly.

One criticism coming from the Right at progressives is that they are unpatriotic, un-American, snobbish, effete, wishy-washy, and lack morals. The author of Don’t Think of an Elephant counters that progressive ideals and values are the same ideals and values that founded our nation: freedom of expression and self-determination, equality of opportunity, protection from wanton government intrusion, the Bill of Rights. Essentially, these are the values of Social Contract: the general welfare and care of all. In a sense, progressive ideology encourages the public to develop beyond simply the Conventional.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am sure there are members of the Right who have developed to a stage of Social Contract or Principled Conscience. The difference is how those people expect others to respond. Framing the moral debate in terms of obedience (“the President is always right”), affirmation (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”), or law and order (“I’ll give up some rights for security” or “It’s our duty as citizens”) makes it difficult for those further developed to have a voice. In contrast, consider the words of JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you,” (Instrumentalism) “but what you can do for your country.” (Social Contract)

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