Arrested moral development.

By Ken Perrott 04/10/2010

I came across this intriguing statement about religious ethics in the book I am currently reading:

“religious ethics is similar to the attitude of the child between 5 and 9 years old. It is far too concerned with rules that are experienced as sacrosanct, as deontological commands coming from above, instead of with rules as a product that should be justified and amended as necessary.”

This struck a chord because  of two article I also read recently:

Why young adults change their religious beliefs where Tom Rees remarked on the observation that one’s religious beliefs “tend to crystalline in your late teens and early adulthood.”


Five Good Things about Atheism where R. Joseph Hoffmann claims that atheism is an ethical position and raises the question of “whether it is possible to be good with God.”

But first the book – which I highly recommend. It’s The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur. Just published, it is really relevant to today’s society and is a thorough discussion of the subjects indicated by its title. I promise to have a review of the book posted in a few weeks.

Human development and belief

I have a clear memory of my own thoughts on religion, morality and society having suddenly “clarified” at around the age of 12 years. And I know that was not just me. I have found the same experience related in  the biographies of well known people like Francis Crick and Albert Einstein and am sure it is common.

My memory is not that I suddenly knew everything. Just that I didn’t have to mindlessly accept other people’s word for things. That I could make my own decisions. Beliefs, morality and views on society were no longer “god-given” – to be accepted without question or consideration.

I have always put this down to hormones. But apparently its a recognised part of human development. Cliteur describes this in his discussion of Jean Piaget‘s ideas on cognitive development.  In effect Cliteur describes three stages of moral development:

  1. Orientation to punishment and reward and an instrumental view of human relations (“You scratch my back and I”ll scratch yours”).
  2. Orientation to authority, law, duty. Accepting of social and religious order. Interested in maintaining approval of peers.
  3. Orientation to one’s conscience. Highest value placed on human life, equality and dignity. Uses logic and appreciates universality. See value in social contract and democratically established order.

I see that stage 3 as starting to happen about age 12 and hopefully developing until the description is characteristic of the mature adult. At this stage the individual has moral autonomy. Has integrated a moral outlook into her own conscience. Is able to respond independently without instruction from an authority, a government, political or religious leader, or a holy book.

On the other hand individuals can have their moral development restricted by reliance on, or imposition of, authority. Typically this happens in cults and strict traditional religions. But of course it can also happen in the absence of religion if the environment is dictatorial, authoritative and imposed. (Remember the “Red Guards” in China’s Maoist “Cultural Revolution”).

In such cases an individual’s moral development may be arrested at stage 2 – effectively at the stage of a 5 to 9 year old. Have a look at Psychological abuse of children for a video interview with Jill Mytton. She is is a therapist specialising in the  problems suffered by adults who have escaped from religious cults, and those suffering from religious abuse as children. Apparently failure to integrate a personal morality is common with such survivors.

Is religious morality infantile

One could also see different ethical structures as representing different stages of development. I personally see secular ethics as requiring moral autonomy, capable of logical consideration and based on universal human values such as human life, equality and dignity. Stage 3. On the other hand religious meta-ethics (not the ethical content, which can be good, but the form or structure) is really stuck at stage 2. It relies very much on authority, law and duty, and their acceptance.

So the claim made by Patrick Nowell-Smith (quoted in this book) “that religious morality is infantile,” while provocative, is largely accurate. And it is even expressed in the question religionists sometimes pose of non-believers: “Where do you get your morals from?” It is usually clear from the context that the questioner really means “what or who is your authority for your morals?” In other words moral autonomy is not really considered an option.

Even quite intelligent theologians seem not to appreciate the mature position of moral autonomy. Ideas like divine command theory are sometimes presented as explanations for human morality. This is the idea that moral propositions are “good” because God commands them. Huge flaws in this of course – as can be seen in the satirical comment from “Everybody knows that morality is whatever God says. And God says, whatever me, my best friends, and my hierarchical coalition say that God says.’

Can you be good with God?

So the question posed by R. Joseph Hoffmann actually seems very sensible. Quite apart from the nice reversal of the billboard slogan “You can be good without God.”

How can you be good, have a mature moral attitude, if you accept your moral positions purely on authority? And that authority also determines it moral teaching on authority? How can one be good without a personal moral autonomy?

I think it is worth posing this question. But I don’t think it is correct to claim that all religious people, or all Christians, are immoral, or don’t have moral autonomy, purely because of their religious beliefs. We need to recognise that people can mature to a position of moral autonomy naturally even while professing religious beliefs. Researchers have found people will respond to situations instinctively. Their moral responses are intuitive. However, after the event they may rationalise those responses. And their rationalisations may bear little relationship to their actual response – after all they are not able to access the unconscious processes involved in that response.

So, I don’t find it surprising that a morally autonomous person, who has accepted human values and logical consideration of important ethical questions, can nevertheless resort to religious or theological explanations, really rationalisations, of their moral actions.

Holy dangers

On the other hand I don’t think there is any doubt that some members of society can, for one reason or another, have their moral development arrested. This can be dangerous. When  children are raised in an environment imposing a strict dogma, including moral instruction, they may sometimes not be able to develop full moral autonomy. They may be stuck at stage 2.

Maybe not a big threat to society if it means some people are saving themselves sexually until married. But there are far more dangerous moral instructions coming out of the pages of “Holy” scriptures and the mouths of “Holy” men (yes, usually men). Ideas that religious beliefs are more important the human liberties and rights. That religious instructions are more important than national laws. That, for instance, the pronouncements of an Imam in an Afghani cave is more important that the laws and lives of the person in the street in Europe, America or Pakistan. Even if the innocent is attending a mosque or church.

Or that the teachings of a fanatical American religious leader are more important than the lives of workers at an abortion clinic and their patients. That one’s god’s commands have overriding importance even when they call for the most inhumane actions. And they must be their god’s commands because they are in a “Holy” book or come out of the mouths of “Holy” men.

In these situations one must find it really difficult to be good with God.

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0 Responses to “Arrested moral development.”

  • Upon reflection, the transition into the morally autonomous mode happened sometime in my teens. I’ve always put it down to reading to much sci-fi and fantasy where the protagonists usually end up doing “the right thing”, often in opposition to established authority.

    I think you’re right with the morally autonomous people can still couch their morality in religious authoritarian terms. There was a snippet from Dennett via Jerry Coyne this morning about not really believing the tenets of a religion or religious mindset while still maintaining loyalty to it. While not talking about morality, I think it still supports your idea. Then again, people rationalizing things to fit in with a pre-conceived world view isn’t anything new or shocking I suppose.

  • Yes, I think reading is important. I certainly feel I got a lot of my moral concepts and thinking out of books at the formative age. Just as well I was keen on reading because my family would not have been very helpful in some areas (race, for example).

    I was interested to hear in the Edge seminar discussions that some of the participants placed a lot of emphasis on cultural factors like books, television, etc., in establishing and changing moral views.

  • This is very interesting. In ‘Moral Politics’, George Lakoff argues for something similar. He is not looking at religion, but at conservatism in psychological sense (which usually aligns well with one’s political, ideological and religious affiliations as well). What he thinks is that authoritarian parenting style and growing up in an authoritarian society (small, rural, religious, etc.) arrests moral development at an early stage, preventing one to move from External Locus of moral authority (behaving well in fear of consequences from the outside) to the Internal Locus of moral authority (behaving well because it is integral to one’s person and bad behavior is repugnant instead of tantalizing but scary). Early in my blogging career I wrote a lot about it, now deep in my archives, but you can search for stuff like “locus of moral authority” etc.