Friday, 26 April 2013


Scaling Morality

     Toddler Shiva was forbidden from biting his brother as his mother said it hurts him very much. Well, thought Shiva, why else would I bite him if I didn’t want it to hurt?! So his mother tried another tactic. She would emit a shrill, frightening shout when he attempted an assault on his brother. If this doesn’t succeed in stopping him, his mother’s palm would meet his backside in a loud thwack. This did the trick.

     The fear of punishment and threats of an all seeing God who will poke our eyes if we did anything wrong was the first ever moral code of conduct we learned. Our morality then was something external to ourselves and not an integral part of how we lived our lives. This is described by Lawrence Kohlberg as the first level of moral development.

     The second stage is when we begin to understand there is no absolute right and wrong. We have the freedom to act in ways that meet our interests. Ria might fight for her friend’s cycle as they had decided to ride it in turns and her friend doesn’t want to share. A smaller child might reason that since the cycle is her friend’s, Ria shouldn’t fight for it but an older child recognises that it is not quite so simple as the friend is not being fair.

     The third stage is when we want to live up to the expectations of those whom we respect such as the elders in the family and figures of authority like our teachers. Our moral reasoning now goes beyond fear of punishment to holding good intentions and operating out of concern and empathy for others. This may be why we celebrate the idea of modern day Robin Hoods who act in questionable ways for the larger good of the poor and underprivileged. 

     If you believe staunchly that no matter what, one shouldn’t step over the law for the good of society as a whole, you are in the fourth stage. Staying on the good side of the law isn’t to avoid punishment but to preserve social harmony. The idea here is, if everyone starts to live by his own rules then the society will be ruled by chaos.

     In stage five, our morality expands to respect individual values and rights of people in the society and this can lead to revision of laws that are unfair to certain sections of society. For example, legal Acts were amended declaring that daughters should also benefit from parent’s property and not just the sons.

     It is important to not just understand which stage we are at but to aspire to the next level too. As your social circle expands, you will come across a variety of people who have their own ideas of morality and many times this will differ greatly from yours. The most important responsibility as a citizen of this world is that we don’t exclude or condemn a particular person or group because of their moral codes. A non-judgmental and inclusive mindset driven towards justice and equality for all is the true sign of moral growth.