Loss of a universal moral framework

Kohlberg and other twentieth-century educational theorists had to work out notions of moral development against a dark backdrop, namely the loss of a universally agreed-upon framework for posing and answering ethical questions. Although the dissolution of what had been the Western moral consensus was noticeable enough to disturb some observers as early as the eighteenth century, the process accelerated with increasing rapidity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Charles Taylor has described this sense of loss as follows:

What Weber called "disenchantment," the dissipation of our sense of the cosmos as a meaningful order, has allegedly destroyed the horizons in which people previously lived their spiritual lives. . . . What is common [at present] is the sense that no framework is shared by everyone . . .

Taylor goes on to say that the defining moral predicament for contemporary people is not a sense of guilt based on failing to meet an unchallengeable set of moral demands, but rather a feeling of meaninglessness resulting from the sheer variety of competing religious as well as nonreligious traditions and philosophies.

Kohlberg's theories about moral education can be regarded from Taylor's perspective as a search for a method of moral education that would maintain a core of objective ethical principles while excluding traditional methods of moral education that relied on indoctrination. This search was particularly important to Kohlberg because of interviews he conducted with survivors of the Holocaust in 1945. Carol Gilligan remarked that much of Kohlberg's resistance to her questioning of the universal adequacy of his stage theory was rooted in his fear of the consequences of widespread moral collapse. ". . . to him, to let go of the notion that there was a universal, objective moral truth was to fall into a stance of moral relativism, or even worse, moral nihilism, and therefore to have no place to stand against moral outrages such as genocide, the Holocaust, slavery."

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