Nature of virtue

Main points Kohlberg's approach to human moral development was shaped by his studies of the classical Western philosophers as an undergraduate; his remarks on the nature of virtue and the goals of moral education often took the form of a dialogue with the tradition that began with Plato and Aristotle. The English words "virtue" and "morals" are derived from classical Latin rather than Greek: "virtue" from virtus, which originally meant "manliness" in the sense of adult moral excellence, and "morals" from mores, which is a plural noun meaning "customs" or "usages." Kohlberg was swimming against the current of mainstream academic psychology by beginning with Plato rather than Freud or Skinner as his "most relevant source," as he put it in a book chapter that was published in 1970. He continued, " ... as I have tried to trace the stages of development of morality and to use these stages as the basis of a moral education program, I have realized more and more that its implication was the reassertion of the Platonic faith in the power of the rational good."

Kohlberg's reference to "good" in the singular was not accidental, as one of his objections to moral education as it had been traditionally practiced was the "bag of virtues," his term for the notion that personality can be divided up into "cognitive abilities, passions or motives, and traits of character. Moral character [in the older view] consists of a bag of virtues and vices." Kohlberg then went on to point out that a major problem with the traditional account of virtue is that no two observers agreed on the contents of the bag. He began with Hartshorne and May, the authors of a landmark study of American character in the 1920s.

Their bag of virtues included honesty, service, and self-control. . . . Havighurst and Taba added responsibility, friendliness, and moral courage to the Hartshorne and May bag. Aristotle's original bag included temperance, liberality, pride, good temper, truthfulness, and justice. The Boy Scout bag is well known, a Scout should be honest, loyal, reverent, clean, brave.

Kohlberg did not, however, suggest throwing out the concept of virtue along with the bag metaphor. He argued instead, "like Plato, that virtue is not many, but one, and its name is justice." Kohlberg then proceeded to point out that justice is neither a character trait nor a concrete rule of action. He described justice in words that echo German philosopher Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: "Justice is not a rule or a set of rules, it is a moral principle. By a moral principle we mean a mode of choosing which is universal, a rule of choosing which we want all people to adopt always in all situations. . . . Because morally mature men [sic] are governed by the principle of justice rather than by a set of rules, there are not many moral virtues but one."

Explanation Kohlberg's search for a unitary definition of virtue was intended to address several concerns. First, it was a protest against so-called "value-free" psychology, or the notion that virtues and vices are no more than "labels by which people award praise or blame to others." Kohlberg did not want the history of disagreements over the content of the "bag of virtues" to end in the establishment of value neutrality, which he defined as "the view that all value systems are equally sound," in public education.

The school is no more committed to value neutrality than is the government or the law. The school . . . is an institution with a basic function of maintaining and transmitting some, but not all, of the consensual values of society. The most fundamental values of a society are termed moral, and the major moral values in our society are the values of justice.

Second, Kohlberg maintained that his concept of justice as a moral principle was applicable across the full range of human societies, thus answering the question of moral relativism raised by some cultural anthropologists. He referred to research carried out by his students on adult as well as child subjects in Mexico, Turkey, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, as proof that "in all cultures we find the same forms of moral thinking . . . concepts of the good are culturally universal." In a later article on religious education, he repeated his contention that ". . . liberty and justice are not the particular values of the American culture but culturally universal moral values which develop regardless of religious membership, education, or belief."

Third, Kohlberg's emphasis on a foundational moral principle, identified as justice, rather than on sets of rules to be followed or character traits to be cultivated, was inseparable from his method of moral education. What is important to state at this point, however, is that Kohlberg saw moral education as a process in which the ethical formation of individuals leads to a higher level of justice in the society as a whole. "... while the bag of virtues [approach] encapsulated the need for moral improvement in the child, a genuine concern about the growth of justice in the child implies a similar concern for the growth of justice in the society." Otherwise put, Kohlberg maintained that his concept of virtue had a corporate as well as a personal or individual dimension.

Fourth, Kohlberg's emphasis on justice reflected his belief that moral standards and principles are independent of other fields of thought, and cannot be reduced to purely religious (or political) attitudes or principles. He stated in 1981,

The starting point of rational discourse about the relation of morality and religion, then, is the recognition in some degree of the autonomy of morality and moral discourse from any other form of discourse, whether religious, scientific, or political.

One consequence of his notion that morality is independent of religious beliefs is that he considered moral education to be the province of the schools rather than of churches or synagogues. Kohlberg based his position on the claim that his cross-cultural research showed that "a morality of justice evolves in every society or religious group . . . [and] cannot be said to represent the beliefs of a religious sect . . . or even to represent the 'Judeo-Christian tradition.'" He concluded that religious education has at best a "very limited influence" on moral development.

I am not attempting to argue that that religious education may not be capable of playing a role in moral development. I am arguing that religious education has no specifically important or unique role to play in moral development as opposed to the role of the public school and the family. . . . the mark of success of [religious] teaching is that it helps the child to make his religious and his moral beliefs and sentiments an integrated whole, not that it leads to the formulation of basic moral values not found elsewhere.

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