Years ago I taught high school courses on “Ethical Issues in Decision-Making.” Based on Lawrence Kohlberg’s research, the course presented students with a series of moral/ethical dilemmas and was designed to explore how student’s reasoned to come to their conclusions about the resolution of the dilemmas. The dilemmas involved classic problems: should a man steal a drug he can’t afford to save his wife? Two brothers are in trouble and decide to skip town. Bob steals money from a local store while Mike convinces an older man known for his charity that he is sick and needs to “borrow” money (saying he will pay it back once he “recovers” from his illness). The old man “lends” Mike the money. Which is worse, the stealing or the cheating? Any good dilemma has no solution and the purpose of the course was to consider how people reach their conclusions, revealing a “stage” of moral development (according to Kohlberg and, later, other researchers).
Kohlberg had adapted Jean Piaget’s “stages of cognitive development,” which mapped how human thinking evolves. Piaget’s (now widely accepted) theory mapped humans developing from a “sensorimotor” stage (birth to 2 years), to a “pre-operational” stage (2 to 7 years), to a “concrete operational” stage (7 to 11) to a “formal operational stage (adolescence through adulthood). This theory illustrated how humans progressed from simply interacting physically with the world to slowly understanding that “others” have a point of view, to beginning to comprehend abstract ideas and think systematically, considering the future. Kohlberg’s adaptation, to study moral/ethical development considered three levels and six stages:
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
(How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation
(What's in it for me?)
(Paying for a benefit)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
(The good boy/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
Applying this system to reasoning might go as follows. Regarding the man who stole a drug to save his wife’s life we need to listen to why student’s decided this was “right” or “wrong” to do. There is a great difference in saying he shouldn’t do it because he will be punished if caught (Level 2), versus he shouldn’t do it because it’s against the law (level 4) versus he shouldn’t do it because the scientist worked long and hard to develop the drug and deserves the money (Level 5), versus he should do it because it will save a life (Level 6). So, while the first three answers all said he shouldn’t do it, the reasoning that led to their conclusions were based on different stages of moral/ethical reasoning.
Why this treatise on moral/ethical reasoning and development? Because our current headlines demand that we understand that our President is a “pre-conventional” moral/ethical reasoner. His decision making is totally based on “obedience and punishment” and “self-interest.” When he is defending the Saudi Crown Prince implicated in the brutal murder of a journalist we need to understand that the 500 rooms rented in the Trump hotel (for over a quarter million dollars) and a lucrative arms deal with the House of Saud (self-interest/money-making) are more important to him than “principled conscience” --- or even “law and order!”
When he is crying “no collusion” despite evidence that Russia meddled in our 2016 election and he defends Putin and rails against Russian sanctions we need to see the wheeling dealing for a Trump Tower Moscow working in the background. Stage Two, in Kohlberg’s stages, is often short-handed as “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” and if you’ve ever “negotiated” with a three year old you know how that works.
While the President is claiming he’s struck another “great deal” with China, we can’t forget about Ivanka’s seven new trademarks in that nation. Soybeans are on “hold” but the Trump brand plows ahead in Asia, another example of “self-interest orientation.”
None of this is news, of course, but it provides a well-researched psychological explanation of what, exactly, we’re dealing with as regards the occupant of the White House. There have been accusations, time and again, that Trump is a “toddler.” If we apply Kohlberg’s “stages of cognitive/moral development” we actually have proof that he is, indeed, a toddler. His reasoning is “pre-conventional” and his reasoning is based on “obedience and punishment” and “self-interest.” No surprise, just more proof. It probably won’t be used by Robert Mueller --- but it could be.
Coming Attraction: A History Lesson