Executive Summary: The arguments between citizens regarding the presidential election result from differing levels of moral development. If enough people recognize this, experience a paradigm shift, and move forward, then real change might be possible…even in this election.
This post is a bit of a departure from the main purpose of this site, but with all that is happening in regard to the election and the plethora of opinions about it that have likely been vomited all over your newsfeed, I thought it might be wise to consider some of the differing viewpoints and their likely source. OK, that sounds all well and good, but here’s the real reason I’m writing. I’m perplexed. I keep seeing people whose viewpoints I normally value saying things that just seem outrageous, not only to me, but to others as well. So, like a good academic, I started to wonder why that is happening, and I think I may have stumbled onto the answer.
Different people have different viewpoints on the election based on their level of moral reasoning.
Groundbreaking, I know. Hear me out.
Ask any college student who has taken a Human Growth and Development course about moral development, and they are pretty quickly come up with the name Lawrence Kohlberg (at least I hope it’s quick if they were in my class). Kohlberg, by presenting moral dilemmas to students and then asking questions and analyzing their answers, came up with a series of 3 levels of moral development. Each level is divided into 2 stages giving us 6 total stages. Of all the dilemmas Kohlberg used, the most famous is called the Heinz dilemma.
To steal or not to steal: That’s not the only question. Kohlberg would ask questions to determine why the student made the decision they did. Based on that information, Kohlberg established his levels of development: Preconventional, Conventional, and Postconventional. The stages are summarized below.
Preconventional – A basis in law and order
In stage 1, people respond based on the concepts of fear of punishment. In other words, Might Makes Right. If I’m going to be punished, then it’s wrong and shouldn’t be done. Stage 2 involves satisfying self and others. In other words, what is right involves equal exchange: Quid Pro Quo. Bottom line: It’s all about the law, which is the lowest form of ethics. So for Heinz, he shouldn’t steal the drug, because stealing is wrong.
Conventional – Societal foundations
Where preconventional reasoning focuses on self, conventional reasoning accounts for societal views. Stage 3 starts with the cronyism side of society and says it’s all about loyalty. Stage 4 has moral judgments based on the current social order. Heinz should steal the drug, but he should go to jail because that is the way we do things around here. In fact, he should go willingly because he knows it was wrong.
Postconventional – It’s the principle of the thing
The postconventional thinker comes from the principle perspective. At stage 5, there is a recognition that the law is based on certain principles and values and that those principles and values are bigger than the law. In other words, while stealing the drug is wrong,
Big Pharma is more wrong for price gouging on their med. The individual at stage 6 has come to the place where moral judgments are based on universal human rights. According to Kohlberg, most people don’t get to this last stage. It’s reserved for Gandhi and Mother Teresa.
Now, there are some extras that go with these stages. For example, people don’t usually go backwards. It’s forward only, with stage 6 being the hard-to-reach target. Also, people don’t usually skip stages, and they might pause at any one of them for a lifetime.
Follow all that? OK, then process this moral dilemma with me for a moment.
A country has two candidates running for President. The first candidate is a morally reprehensible person who has employed bigoted remarks calling the other candidates constituency a ‘basket of deplorables,’ has been involved in numerous scandals over the years (Whitewater), suppressed her husband’s sexual assault victims from telling the truth, defended at least one rapist by demeaning a child victim, cost the lives of her country’s soldiers through callous disregard, is likely to pass legislation that will further allow the deaths of millions of unborn babies, and is a narcissistic bully who runs other people down to make herself look better.
Her opponent has made racist and bigoted remarks about entire people groups, is at least part owner of casinos and strip clubs, has bragged about sexually assaulting women using incredibly vulgar language to do so, has leveraged his opponent’s spouse’s sexual assault victims for his own gain, has minimal plans and platform only describing his ideas as “the best” and “the very best” and his opponent’s achievements as “disasters”, and is a narcissistic bully who runs other people down to make himself look better.
Who should you vote for?
Still with me? Good. Let’s see if we can break down the potential responses to how to vote in a similar manner to the Heinz dilemma.
Preconventional – Well, _____ hasn’t been punished, so ______ didn’t do anything wrong! Hooray! I’m voting Trump/Clinton!
This is the argument of the HRC or Trump fan. These folks see nothing morally wrong with their own candidate and everything wrong with their opponent. I would argue that this is the highest moral level that a fan of either of them can be because Trump and HRC themselves are preconventional. You cannot be at a more advanced stage of moral development and feel comfortable voting for either of these two candidates. By the way, third party candidates are totally out of the picture at this point because that’s just not how we do things around here Buster! We are a two party system and that’s that!
Conventional – Well, I don’t really like either of them, but I have to vote for the lesser of two evils. I don’t agree with their values, but I am for ______’s platform and against ______’s platform. So I’m going to vote Trump/Clinton!
At this level of development, there is an understanding that both candidates are morally problematic, but a desire to “do the right thing” allows an individual to compromise their own ethics to vote for someone they don’t really like. And make no mistake, they have to find justification. They can’t go backward. They can’t slip back into a belief that they are great because they now know better. So they come up with some grand reasoning like, “Well, if she gets elected SHE’LL RUIN THE CONSTITUTION AND THE SUPREME COURT!!!” And let’s not forget, third party candidates are once again out at this level because “A vote for a third party is just a vote for (insert opponent’s name here)!” So not able to go backward, but not ready to move forward, conventional folks are just stuck in the middle and pretty easily angered at everyone else.
Postconventional – I have to abstain or vote for a third party candidate because voting for someone who is morally reprehensible is in-and-of-itself morally reprehensible.
Here’s where a whole lot of folks are this time around. This is the place a person arrives when they make the connection that both candidates are absolutely terrible and that they need to vote their conscience regardless of the consequences. It is this deep divide between the conventional folks and the postconventional folks that is causing most of the arguments that result in either entirely too much time on social media, or leaving social media until mid-November or later. Part of this argument happens because, as I said, people don’t slide backward in development. It also happens because conventional folks can’t see things from a postconventional perspective. They just aren’t there yet. If intelligence is a factor, as Kohlberg suggested (1984), then some might not be able to get there (This obviously isn’t universal. There are plenty of smart immoral people around). Unfortunately, it is also the reason that a third party candidate is not likely to win. The only people willing to go there are the people who see the false dichotomy of the broken system. They also happen to be the smallest group.
In all honesty, that might be OK with most of the postconventional folks. Because I believe many recognize that whichever direction this election goes, it’s going to leave a larger number of people unhappy than ever before, and that might springboard the nation to move forward in their reasoning. Specifically, I’m starting to see what looks like a generation gap in how the traditional parties are viewed. I think that is what led to so much support for Trump and Bernie Sanders in the first place. Clearly, some women are seeing it. Maybe others will start to recognize it too and the traditional 2 party system will be broken in favor of something new. It might happen after the election, which in the grand scheme of things is OK. Sometimes a thing has to be completely broken to recognize that it needs fixing. But, maybe it could even happen as soon as election time. Either way, as more people begin to recognize the problem, and as more idealistic young folks gain the opportunity to vote, it might just shake things up. It might just break the system, and once the system breaks, it leads to one inevitable result.