Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Morality

This one isn’t mine; this is Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, which I first became aware of in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), page 624, and later recalled when I reread E.O. Wilson’s foundational On Human Nature (1980; reread 2019).

These are stages of moral development that exist across cultures. It’s not true that for people to be moral you need to post a list of ancient tribal rules on courthouse walls.

I’ll paraphrase Wilson with comments of my own. Again, this is a hierarchy from the simplest and most simplistic, to the most cosmopolitan and complex.

  1. Simple obedience to rules and authority to avoid punishment. [e.g. Biblical threats of hell for disobedience to The Rules];
  2. Self-interest orientation (what’s in it for me?); conformity to group behavior to obtain rewards and exchange favors;
  3. Interpersonal accord and conformity; social norms; good-boy orientation, conformity to avoid dislike and rejection by others;
  4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation: law and order morality;
  5. Social contract orientation; laws are recognized as social contracts for the common good rather than universal rules;
  6. Universal ethical principles; principled conscience [e.g. Kant’s categorical imperative]; [Wilson:] primary allegiance to principles of choice, which can overrule law in cases the law is judged to do more harm than good. [Thus, protesters, who are not lawbreakers, throughout time.]

Individuals, as Wilson notes, can stop at any rung on the ladder. The Biblical fundamentalists stop at stage 1.

In my hypothetical book I’ll be inclined to appeal to this hierarchy, because in science fiction writers imagine future or alternate societies that span this entire range. The easiest is the first; the default authoritarian society that appeals to a set of rules put down by the ancients, always presumed to be wiser than modern people, that must be followed. (Star Trek TOS did this hilariously, in an episode called “A Piece of the Action,” about a planet visited earlier by an Earth ship that left behind a book about the Chicago gang culture; and so when the Enterprise arrives, they find the entire culture modeled after that Chicago gang culture. The Book! the head boss yells in defense. It must be followed!)

Some recent writers, Michael Shermer, Peter Singer, and Sam Harris among them, have tracked the expansion of humanity’s moral universe, or tried to identify first principles that lead to a morality not derived from ancient superstitions. (Harris’ is basically, policies that lead to the maximum health and happiness of as many people as possible.) But Singer and Harris especially have their critics.

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