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Chapter 3: Conscience: Knowledge of Moral Truth

Appendix 1: Three levels in the development of conscience

Conscience does develop. The meaning of “right,” “wrong,” and “permissible” changes as a child grows up. The levels of this development can be distinguished in various ways, but at least three levels must be recognized.

First, the physical environment conditions small children; for example, they learn quickly by experience not to touch hot radiators. The social environment, usually principally the parents, also teaches children, not simply conditions them. Their relationship with other persons is interpersonal; the child feels the importance of the bond. Imitating and conforming to others wins their reassuring approval. To behave in a way which brings a negative reaction from persons to whom the child is strongly bonded is to experience not-being-loved, insecurity, aloneness, being cut off, being bad.

In effect, the child experiences something of the reality of the evil which is disharmony in the existential domain. Even at an infantile level, interpersonal disharmony sets up inner conflict. The child quickly learns that misbehavior engenders this experience of inner conflict—an experience obviously much more repugnant to the child than many other negative experiences which it begins to accept in order to avoid this one. This initial level is called “superego,” since the authority of good and bad is interiorized in the child as a personal authority overseeing the child’s own desiring and scheming ego.

Second, growing children meet and mingle and begin to interact with one another. For each other they constitute a new type of social environment. Here the relationships are more on a par; the children need one another. They have certain common interests and begin to form a voluntary association to pursue them. In doing this, they learn the necessity of a certain level of norms centered in fairness and the control of impulses necessary to attain desired ends. To behave in a way the group disapproves both threatens participation and elicits criticism.

At a new and more articulate level, the child experiences disharmony in the existential domain. Interpersonal disharmony and inner conflict again are linked, but since the relationships are shaped by discourse, the child experiences the stupidity of its own wrongdoing. To avoid this sort of stupidity, to maintain solidarity with the peer group, the child once more must limit its impulses, accept certain objectives as its own, and affirm its identity as a member of society. This second level of conscience can be called “social convention,” since the authority of good and evil is located in the group and in those who speak and act for it.

Third, if all goes well, the young person in adolescence begins more and more to understand basic human goods and the principles of responsibility. These are not tied to existing interpersonal relationships, but they open up the possibility of new and deeper relationships. There arises a desire to share in commitment to a worthy cause; to love and be loved in ways which go deeper than the rather superficial relationships of most groups formed by accident (children in a neighborhood, in a school class, and so on). The model of persons who are or were dedicated to human goods and lived heroic lives has vibrant appeal.

Once more, the young person experiences disharmony in the existential domain, but only now in its full depth and reality. One finds one’s inner self torn, with feelings at odds with reason. One realizes that one’s ideals are not expressed in one’s life. One often is disappointed in love and disillusioned with the imperfections of one’s heroes. One knows one must come to terms with reality and is reluctant to do so.

The preceding summary of the distinction between the superego and conventional morality finds support in common observation of the difference between the self-control of infants and that of children who understand and more or less follow rules to balance their own desires and the demands of others. The summary of the distinction between conventional morality and the morality of truth is supported by the philosophical and religious tradition which has sought objective grounds to criticize accepted standards. This three-level structure also finds some support in the work of psychologists, such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, who hold a cognitive-developmental view of the awareness of right and wrong.27

The implications for moral education of the development of conscience cannot be treated here. But the following points should be noted. Chapter four will make it clear that a cognitive-developmental view of the awareness of right and wrong is defensible against those psychological and sociological theories which reduce conscience to principles below the level of reason and leave no room for the conception of conscience as awareness of moral truth. Still, work done along this line is subject to certain limitations which need to be taken into account.

First, a definite conception of moral truth is assumed. For instance, Kohlberg maintains a formalistic theory of justice, along the lines of Kant’s and Rawls’ theories. Sometimes he suggests that moral goodness is simply cognitive maturity: “He who knows the good chooses the good.”28 This view would reduce moral evil to inevitable immaturity, exclude free choice, and thus undermine moral responsibility. At other times he suggests that ultimately moral principles are in force because they are self-chosen—a position similar to R. M. Hare’s prescriptivism, which will be criticized (4‑C).29 An ethics combining the elements Kohlberg’s does can be criticized in many ways. Justice surely is a requirement of morality, but it is not the only nor even the highest requirement of Christian morality, as will be explained in chapters seven and twenty-six. But even more important than theoretical criticisms is the fact that the limits of Kohlberg’s ethical theory limit the questions he asks, thus shaping and limiting the value of his conclusions.

Second, a further limitation arises from the experimental approach itself. Piaget, for example, assumed that morality is a matter of rules, for this assumption permitted him to investigate an empirical question: What reasons can children state for following rules?30 Similarly, Kohlberg’s work makes use of standardized problems or stories.31 Such methodological limitations mean that what actually is investigated is children’s verbal behavior expressing their thinking about theoretical moral questions, not their practical thinking forming their own present choices. To know when children become morally responsible in a full sense, one would like to know when they themselves begin to understand that they ought to obey, not because disobedience is naughty or might be risky, but because parental knowledge, love, and care deserve a willing response. But Kohlberg’s results can at most reveal what children can say about obedience, and what children can say is limited by what adults do say.

Third, Kohlberg’s elaboration of stages and his conclusions about their relationships depend on evidence which is hardly conclusive and which has been subjected to severe criticisms from a scientific viewpoint.32

Thus, while the distinction between three levels of conscience—preconventional, conventional, and post-conventional or principled—is well-grounded, beyond this, one can at present only say that there is some evidence (which is disputed) concerning the ability to talk theoretically (not the ability to think practically) about certain areas of morality, especially questions of justice (but not about questions even more critical to the emergence of Christian moral responsibility).

27. See Jean Piaget et al., The Moral Judgment of the Child (New York: Free Press, 1965); Lawrence Kohlberg, “Stage and Sequence: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Socialization,” in Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, ed. David A. Goslin (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969), 347–480; “Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education,” in Moral Education: Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. C. M. Beck et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 23–92; “Moral Stages and Moralization,” in Moral Development and Behavior, ed. Thomas Lickona (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 31–53; “The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Moral Education,” in Readings in Moral Education, ed. Peter Scharf (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1978), 36–51.

28. Lawrence Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development, vol. 1, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 189.

29. See Kohlberg in Beck et al., eds., op. cit., 31–53; in Scharf, ed., op. cit., 50–51; in Lickona, ed., op. cit., 34–35.

30. See Piaget, op. cit., 13–15 and 361.

31. See Kohlberg, in Scharf, ed., op. cit., 38–47.

32. See “Part V: Criticism and Controversy,” ibid., 248–307 (and note especially the concessions of those who defend Kohlberg’s work); William Kurtines and Esther B. Greif, “The Development of Moral Thought: Review and Evaluation of Kohlberg’s Approach,” Psychological Bulletin, 81 (1974), 453–70; Robert T. Hall and John U. Davis, Moral Education in Theory and Practice (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1975), 98–106.