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Cultural invariance and the denial of moral regression:
A critique of Piaget and Kohlberg

by :Geoffrey Partington

Last update Wednesday, July 03, 2002

(1997) in International Journal of Social Education, 11 (2), pp. 105-119.

  • Introduction
  • Piaget's Stage Theory
  • The Modern Child & Primitive Society
  • Piaget's Modern Regression
  • Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development
  • Kohlberg's Invariable Universality
  • Kohlberg & Ideology
  • Footnotes & References



    This paper examines claims made by Piaget and Kohlbergthat the stages they identified in the development of moral reasoning are universal, culturally invariant and non-regressive.It looks in particular atsimilarities and dissimilarities in the moral development of modern children and ofboth children and adults in early 'closed' societies, and at the refusal of both Piaget and Kohlberg to accept that moral regression is not only possible, but very common.It offers some explanations forinadequacies intheories which have become so influential in education in many countries, together with some suggestions for further investigations.


    Piaget's stage theory

    Piaget considered cognitive development to be a process that takes place naturally as children mature and interact with their environment.He claimed there are distinct stages of development which are cumulative and sequential.In other words no stage can be skipped. Each stage involvesa fundamental change in the child's thinking, althoughhe conceded that a child may be at different stages in respect of different tasks.He developed on the basis of research with Swiss children a three- or four-stage theory: sensori-motor, usually lasting until about two years old, preoperational,lasting usually from about two to seven, concrete operational, lasting usually from about seven to eleven, and formal operational,taking place after eleven and likely to be completed, if at all, by fifteen.Piaget noted that manychildrendo not reach the highest stage of formal operations, whilst historicallymany, perhaps most peoples,scarcely moved beyond the concrete operational stage.To explain progression from one stage to another Piaget frequently used the biological metaphor of assimilation and accommodation.A new experience is 'assimilated' into the existing conceptual structure and at a critical moment the conceptual structure has to transform itself in order to 'accommodate'the various experiences assimilated.The idea derives from Hegel's dialectical conception of the transformation of quantity into quality and had also been employed by Marx.

    Piaget applied his general theory to moral development.The pre-operational period was defined as a blind-obedience stage, in which the children base right and wrong on their perceptions of what parents and other authority figures require. The concrete operational period was defined as an interpretation-of rules stage, in which childrenseek to interpretand follow rules and conventions in the society around them. The formal operations period was defined as a stage in which children displayautonomous moral judgment based on their own consciously considered values.Sometimes Piaget offered a simpler stage theory, in whichthere are just two contrasting periods: the heterogeneous or the morality of constraint and the autonomous or the morality of cooperation.

    Piagetfailed to distinguish sufficiently between learning from natural consequences and moral learning.We may learn not to touch fire twice for fear of being burned again, but if caught stealing we may resolve to be more cunning and careful next time we thieve.Yet he had genuinephilosophical interests, especially in Kantwho is mentioned inThe Moral Judgment of the Child. more than all other philosophersadded together.He defended, againstcriticismsby Durkheim and Bovet, Kant's views on moral autonomy gained through the exercise of reason.[1]Like Kant, Piaget was less interested in the specifics of conduct thanin ways in which people thinkandgrounds they offer for their conduct, althoughinformation he gave of children's conduct is detailed and fascinating, thus contributing greatly tothe success of his generaltheory.


    The modern child and primitive society

    Piaget concurred withDurkheim and Paul Fauconnet thata key differencein basic moral conceptions between 'older or non-civilized' societies and civilized ones is thatin the latterintention is normally an essential condition of moral responsibility, whereas the former is concerned only with 'purely objective responsibility'.[2]Objective responsibility in this context means that

    responsibility is ascribed even to involuntary acts, accidents, acts committed without either negligence or imprudence. In short, primitive responsibility is above all objective and communicable (sic), ours is subjective and strictlyindividual'.[3]

    This 'objective' standpoint lasted well into many early civilizations, as is shown by the Laws of Hammurabi, the Babylonian ruler of the second millennium B.C.In these lawsit is objective consequences which determine guilt, not intention, and a, to us,innocent party may suffer the consequences of another's action: a builder's son may be condemned to lose a leg if his father built a house which collapsed and led to the loss of a leg of the house owner’s son.This 'objective attitude'persists strongly among many peoples now modishly described as members of the Third or Fourth Worlds, such as Australian Aborigines,many of whose customs conflict sharplywith the general law of Australia, which is based on the English common law, not on 'objective' tribal retribution.The 'objective attitude' is alsoat the root of the Sicilian vendetta and other ritualised systems of kinship revenge inparts of the contemporary western world.Durkheim's view was that every society consists at heart of a series of deeply held views which must be defended against breaches, however and by whoever and with whatever intention, if the integrity of the society is to be sustained.He argued that in primitive societies such a defence required appropriate punishment for the offence and noted that if the actual offender cannot be identified, another member of the group will suffice to expiate it.Piaget accepted that this 'scapegoat' systemoperated in primitive societies, but regarded it as an erroneous mode of thought, to be transcended as quickly and thoroughly as possible, whereas Durkheim viewedits persistence in modern societies with considerable complacency.In this matter the more reactionary Durkheimis more politically correct in the 1990s than the more progressive Piaget.

    Piaget saw clearly that this notion of 'objective' guilt was merely one facet of the wider 'morality of constraint', which he contrasted with his preferred 'morality of cooperation'.His experimental work confirmed his view that the 'morality of constraint' was a necessary stage in the development of each individual child.He found thatyoung children at the heterogeneous stage considered a boy who made a big stain on a tablecloth when trying to be helpful by filling his father's ink-pot more culpable than his brother who made a small stain whenjust playing around, and thatbreaking fifteen cups on a tray (mother must have been quite an entertainer)by pure accident was a more serious offence than breaking one cup whentrying to get food out of a cupboard when mother was out.Piaget found that, irrespective of cultural context, very young children judge acts in terms of actual physical consequences, not of intentions.In like manner they adopt rules associated with authority figures and regard these rules as sacred and unalterable.To use another Piagetian phrase,theyhave a unilateral respect for authority, to which they are ready to conform, but which will ultimately be succeeded by mutual respect in respect of authority figures such as parents and of the peer group.At the stage of unilateral respect or the morality of constraint childrensupport the inflicting of punishment sufficiently severe to expiate the apparent objective severity of an offence, as did adults as well as children in 'closed' societies.

    Piagetalso found that the children he studied usually emerged from the necessary stage of the morality of constraint to the higher stage morality of cooperation without too much difficultybetween the ages of six and nine.He argued that 'the unilateral respect belonging to constraint is not a stable system, and the equilibrium towards which it tends is no other than mutual respect'.He attributed this tendency to 'a sort of inner logic that the more evolved follow upon the more primitive forms, though the former differ qualitatively from the latter'.[4]Piaget pondered on the generalsignificance of this characteristic of child development.Heconcluded that

    .....the human being submits to certain commands because he respects his

    his elders. Society is nothing but a series (or rather many intersecting series) of

    generations, each exercising pressure upon the one which follows it...Now when

    we think of the part played by gerontocracy in primitive communities, when we think

    of the decreasing power of the family in the course of social evolution, and of all

    the features that characterize modern civilizations, we cannot help seeing in the

    history of societies a sort of gradual emancipation of individuals; in other words, a

    levelling up of the generations in relation to each other.[5]

    But if moral judgment naturally tends towards anequilibrium based on'mutual respect', 'the morality of cooperation' or moral autonomy, call it what we will, why were so many societies arrested at the stage of 'unilateral respect', 'the morality of constraint' or heteronymous morality?Or, to use Popper's terms, why did not all 'closed' societies become 'open ones'?[6]

    Piaget agreed with Durkheim thatmovement from the enforced conformity of what the latter termed 'segmented' societies to the 'organic solidarity' of differentiated modern societies cannot be explained without 'invoking the diminished supervision of the group over the individual as a fundamental psychological factor'.Piaget added

    The 'denser' the community, the sooner will the adolescent escape from the direct

    constraint of his relations and, coming under a number of fresh influences, acquire his

    spiritual independence by comparing them with one another. The more complex the

    society, the more autonomous is the personality and the more important are the relations

    between equal individuals.[7]

    Here Piaget confused potentiality withnecessary direction, yet he was surely right in welcoming the great progress towards autonomy represented by modern open societies, as against Durkheims's hankerings for a lost society of sacred authority.Piaget also understood the dangers in Durkheim's tendency 'to attribute moral value to prevalent opinion by the mere fact that it is prevalent',[8] the tendency Stanislaus Andreski tellingly described as 'promiscuous crypto-conservatism'.[9]Piaget perceived the inadequacy of Durkheim's claim that

    It has been objected to this view that it subjects the mind to the prevailing moral opinion.but this is not so, for the society which morally tells us to desire is not societyas it appears to itself but society as it really is or tends to be. And it may happen that society's own consciousness of itself, acquired in and through opinion, may be an inadequate reflection of the underlying reality.Public opinion may be full of anachronisms which make it lag behind the actual state of society'.[10]

    The general theoretical incoherence of Durkheim's system of reification is well displayed in this passage.The blatancy of his equivocation is more precisely revealed in the specific claim, which Piaget alsocited, that 'Socrates expressed more faithfully than his judges the morally that suitedthe society of his time'.[11]To his credit Piaget dismissed as an 'enormity' Durkheim's attempt to 'assimilate to one another constraint and cooperation' and actually identified 'the two most antithetical conceptions of obligation - the heterogeneous submission of reason to the "higher entity" and the necessity residing within reason herself'.[12]

    The basic historical weakness in Piaget's analysis of earlier societies was that he did not examine sufficiently why it was that someever managed to transcend the limitations of the morality of constraint, or, indeed, why all did not do so, given that some did.He surmised that 'the outstanding features of "primitive morality" can be explained by a conjunction of the childish mentality with the effects of constraint exercised by one generation upon the other',[13] but in his own theoretical scheme this conjunction is experienced by each child in each generation, so it provides no explanation for the critical differentiation of open societies from the matrix of closure.He recognised that 'in primitive communities the opposition is almost complete between the whole set of legal prohibitions and taboos laid down by the morality of duty and the rules of justice and reciprocity which grow up without always being codified' and that 'it is only in differentiated societies that, as ritual obligations diminish along with conformity, the morality of good wins against the morality of duty...'.[14]Yet the more fundamental question of why ritual obligations diminished along with conformity in some places but not others did not appear to concern him!Piaget frequently placed great emphasis on the importance of social relations children form among themselves and on the rules they construct in their games,[15] but he provided no linkage between this characteristic of children, important as it is, and the emergence of open societies and moralities of cooperation.


    Piaget and moral regression

    One of the strangest aspects of Piaget's thought is that he denied the possibility of moral regression, once an advance had been made from one cognitive stage to another.Yet in the Europe of his own daysome of the most massive moral regressions in human history were taking place. Piaget failed to understand why people in open societies subjected to extreme pressures might seek to revert to simple authoritarian structures.He also seems to have failed completely to take account of two powerful ideologies, one from the 'right-wing' of politics, the other from the 'left', which had already gained great influenceand which were instrumental in bringing major moral regressions from the Conventional, not advances beyond it.Nietzsche had sought to demonstrate that conventional morality is merely an attempt by the weak and mediocre, the Undermensch, to hold down people superior to them, the Ubermensch.Nietzsche applied his doctrine only to individuals, but Hitler and the National Socialist movement in Germany applied it to races, with devastating consequences for European and world morality and security.Hitler's movement was 'socialist' in origin as well as 'nationalist', and Marx's brand of socialism had by the 1930s undermined conventional morality than had the works of Nietzsche, or those of Freud who was wrongly considered by many to have demonstrated thatconventional morality was an unnecessary inhibition on natural human sexual impulses.

    Marx held that law and morality were merely part of an ideological superstructure designed to protect the interests of a ruling class, in modern industrial societies the 'capitalists'.The task of the revolutionary intellectual was to 'unmask' this deception and to reveal the naked realities of selfish power.George Lukacs, the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and literary critic, put it clearly in his History and Class-Consciousness: 'Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to accept the necessity to act wickedly', adding with a crocodile tear, this is the greatest sacrifice revolution asks of us'.Lukacs held that 'it is not possible to be human inbourgeois society' and that 'the bourgeoisie possesses only a semblance of a human existence'.[16]People armed with such doctrines had little difficulty in persuading themselves of the moral necessity to exterminate bourgeoisie, aristocracy and later the richer peasants in Russia and then in other countries.They also provided the blueprint for Hitler's assault on the Jews and othernationalities, instead of social classes.The gulags of Siberia preceded the concentration and death camps of Hitler's Reich.How those who suffered or perished in them must have wished that Conventional Morality had prevailed in Russia and Germany, instead of disappearing in this barbaric regression.Severe moral regression may take place among peoples only recently emerging from closed societies. Turnbull's study of the atavistic direction taken by the Ik people of Uganda after they encountered misfortunes is frequently cited by anthropologists,[17] whilst moral catastrophes in Rwanda andBosnia show the potential ubiquity ofmassive regression.Piaget did not live to witness all these horrors, butLawrence Kohlberg lived through most of them, yet also learned little from them.


    Kohlberg's theory of moral development

    Kohlberg elaborated Piaget's stages of moral development.Basicallyhe converted Piaget's first blind-obedience stage into the Preconventional Level, divided into two stages: stage one is based on obedience aimed at avoiding punishment and stage two on self-interest and what others will do for us in exchange for our actions.Self, not society, is the key to the Preconventional Level.Piaget's second stage became Kohlberg's Conventional Level, divided intostage three,Interpersonal concordance, based on gaining social approval for being a good boy or a nice girl, and stage four, the 'Law-and-order' orientation stage. The key to the Conventional Level is thatthe requirements of society, embodied first in family or peer group, and then inpublic law, are taken to be absolute.Piaget's third autonomous stage became Kohlberg'sPostconventional Level, divided into a fifth stage based on seeking new contractual agreements to improve the laws or social morality, and a sixth stage based on individuals pursuing free moral choices madeon universal ethical principles.The key idea of the Postconventional level is that laws and conventionsmay be deemed unjust and rejected by theindividual conscience.[18]

    Kohlberg claimed his stages of moral reasoning have an 'inner logical order'.In so far as they were based on the simple Piagetian contrast between heteronomyand autonomy this is true: it is logically necessary and amply confirmed empirically that dependence on the authority of others must precede personal decision-making, although it is by no means necessary that dependence on the authority of others will always be transcended.John Wilson wasdisingenuous whenhe claimed he did not understand 'what the stages are stage of, what counts asstage, what is meant to be saying that the stages need) or need not) to follow each other in a certain order and so forth'. [19]Yet Kohlberg's elaborations are far from being logically necessary, just as they are from having received reliable empirical confirmation.

    Wilson was certainly right in claiming that there was deep confusion and obfuscation in the elaborated Kohlberg system.Whether in terms of practicalities such as the scoring system for deducing stages from responses to moral dilemmas, or of clear definitions and examples of the higher stages, much is left to be desired.Stage six remains particularly elusive, despite three hints given by Kohlberg. The first was that stage 6 is based on'the intrinsic value of life' yet, asDon Locke noted, the principle that human life is sacred is invoked by supporters and opponents of capital punishment for murder, a position Kohlberg considers incompatible with stage six thinking.[20]The second hint was that stage 6 concerns reversible universal moral values, as argued in somewhat different ways by Kant and Hare.[21] Yet willingness to universalise a principle may be a necessary condition of moral consistency, but is no guarantee of moral sense.This is considered further in the next section.A third hint was that stage 6 corresponds with John Rawls' principle of distributive justice based on the 'blind' original position,yet Rawls' refusal to consider moralclaims based on desert and rights has raised as many problems as it has settled and does little to clarify the state 6 position.Despite his earlier implications that stage thinking was content free and no answers to moral dilemmas necessarily correct, Kohlberg claimed that all Stage 6 thinkers agree on the answers, but, as Locke noted,[22] 'this is presumably because only those who came up with the right solutions will be classified in Stage 6 in the first place.

    Kohlberg built into his system the defensive device which could be called the tailors'defence, after the tailors in Hans Anderson's 'The Emperor's clothes'.Just as anyone who cannot see the non-existent clothes is stupid, so those who cannot, say, understand what is required of stage six moral thinking must be beneath that type of thought by more than one stage at least.Naturally the academic courtiers classify themselves as stage 6 thinkers, even though they have difficulty in explaining to others what this represents.John Wilsonwas right in challenging Kohlberg's claim that people cannot understand moral reasons which affect the conduct of those more than one stage above them.[23]Many children who, although no doubt far from the Kohlberg stages 5 or 6, understand pretty well what altruism and self-sacrifice mean when they are told the stories of the deaths of the Spartans at Thermopylae, Socrates,Captain Oates or Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities,to mix real and fictional examples.Wilson is also right in his claim that, leaving out the very youngest, manychildren understand higher stage as well as lower stage reasons for conduct: they understand 'She wants a turn, too' and 'How would you like it if someone did that to you' as well as 'Because I say so'.[24]


    Kohlberg, invariance and universality

    Like Piaget,Kohlberg held thatthe sequences he postulated held for all cultures in respect of the formsof moral belief, irrespective of their specific content, even though the rate of development is very different in different cultures, in many of which no one achieves stage 5,let alone 6.He also followed Piaget in holdingthat the stages identifiedare irreversible. Kohlberg had more philosophical pretensions than Piaget, but less philosophical understanding. Kohlberg was always fearful of accusations of moral relativism, butpersuaded himself that in his identification ofcultural universals he had proved himself its principled and perhaps even its principal antagonist.He asserted, 'not only is there a universal moral form, but the basic content principles of morality are also universal' and that his evidence 'supports the following conclusions: There is a universal set of moral principles held by people in various cultures'.

    These pronouncements seem unambiguous, yetwithin the same pages he also maintained that his findings led him 'to conclude that there are differences in fundamental moral principles between individuals or between groups, differences in stage....' and that 'our two highest stages are absent in preliterate or semi-literate cultures'.[25]Kohlberg was right in one set of statements: either there is or there is not a universal set of moral principles, but which set of claims is the right one apparentlyremained a matter of uncertainly to him.The only way to reconcile his statementson principles would be to allow that peoples reasoning in totally different ways are merely at differentcognitive stages and would ultimately reach the universal realm, but such a sophistication would undermine his whole system, since form rather than content is the determinant of moral judgment.Ifone simply examinesmoral rules, it is obvious thatuniversality is no way applies, nor is it conceivable that conflicting rules are merely different ways of interpreting fundamentally identical principles.Suttee and no-fault divorce are not merely two ways of interpreting a common moral principle, nor are Hitler and Nelson Mandela examples of alternative interpreters ofa universal rule or principle.

    Kohlbergmade an inadequate distinction between principles which are universally accepted, those which are universally applicable, and those which are universalisable and reversible in respects of different parties to a situation.In any case it is far from obvious thata willingness to universalise is a sufficient condition for high moral status.A religious fanatic might well be willing to universalise the principle that all heretics be put to death,Hitler's followers that Jews should be exterminated, or Leninists that members of 'exploiting classes' and their 'hangers-on' should be eliminated, even if those passing judgment were members of the endangered groups.


    Kohlberg and ideology

    Why did Kohlberg fall into such confusion?One basic explanation lies in his determination to maintain political correctness.This concern was certainly a rational one from the standpoint of sustaining and expanding his own intellectual empire, even though such motives were hardly those of the stage 6 moral thinker.The initial attraction of the Kohlberg system to many teachers and to large parts of the wider education industry was that, like Values Clarification, it appeared to offer a way of discussing controversial moral and political issues with students without being accused of indoctrination.Kohlberg was concerned to avoid the charges of moral relativism so justly levelled against the Values Clarifiers, butfurther assaults on many fronts during the 1980s by post-modernists and counter-culturalists made him equally fearful of accusations of moral absolutism and of ethnocentric support for 'western values', a term gaining considerable opprobrium in advanced academic circles.The new moral dignity of the 'Third World' and the 'Fourth World' became of ever greater importance in the progressive rhetoric from which Kohlberg dared not dissociate himself.Even though his own researchers found considerable evidence that moral judgment may be stimulated byincreased contact with a diversity of personal and cultural values, a condition by definition absent in closed societies, and by experience ofschooling, Kohlberg felt threatened by suggestions he considered closed societies morally inferior to open ones.He felt able to write

    "We do not believe that the comparison of one culture to another in terms of moral

    development is a theoretically useful strategy for the growth of scientific knowledge.."

    .".It is difficult to understand what a valid concept of comparative moral worth might be,

    but in any case such a concept could not be established on the basis of a comparison of
    means on our moral judgment assessment scale."[26]

    It might be helpful to substitute 'politically' or 'financially' for 'theoretically' in line 2 of this quotation.If Kohlberg really found it difficult to understand what a valid concept of comparative moral worth might be, it seems amazing that he considered himself qualified to write in the field of morality and ethics at all.For a start he might have pondered whether his own stages mightcast even a little light on the concept of comparative moral worth.He might thenhave considered a few substantive cases: were Hitler's Germany, Bismarck's Germany and Benes' Czechoslovakia of comparable moral worth?Should we just the apartheid regime and the post-apartheid regime of equal moral value, and if not, why not?He might have studied a 'League Table' of countries in terms of their respect for human rights and asked himself whether that offered some insight into how to effect comparisons.If such a concept 'could not be established on the basis of a comparison of means on (Kohlberg's) moral judgment assessment scale', so much the worse for his scale, not for the possibility and necessity of making moral comparisons within and between countries.No wonder those who had looked to Kohlberg for a defence against moral relativism finished up more confused than they began.

    At heart Kohlberg was a doctrinaireof the left.He argued that the form of moral argument is much more important than specific content and his moral dilemmas were supposedlyconstructed on the basis that there is no 'correct' answer to them, only better or worse justifications for decisions.Yet on matters related to his own convictions, as distinct from invented situations,he was as concerned as anyone else that some answers should be forthcoming rather than others.Kohlberg asserted'the logical priority of life over property'.Apart from the inappropriateness of the term 'logical' here, since logic as such does not come into the matter,[27] there are many situations in which moral duty may require one to place property before life.If an invading army seems to annex my country, mere 'property' as it may be, my moral duty is toput my life on the line to keep them out.In some cases my willingness to take lives may save a larger number of other lives, as in the case ofthe continued resistance in 1940 of Britain and most of the then British Empire to German expansion.Had Britain capitulated there would have been even more moral dilemmas concerning whether Jews and others should be betrayed to occupying authorities who would have exterminated them.However, that is a consequentialist argument and I take itto be my moral duty to resist such an invasion, even if more lives are lost than if the invasion were not resisted.Kohlberg was very unsympathetic to such moral stances.

    Dangers of indoctrination are by no means avoided byusingKohlberg's methodandsome of his most cherished moral dilemmas are ideologically loaded.The most cited dilemma concernsahusband unable to buythe medicine which would cure hissick wife because the druggist or pharmacist is charging an extortionate price for it.The husband's dilemma is whether he should steal the drug or let his wife die.The druggist, standing for the market economy and capitalism, appears a demonic figure in this dilemma.Had the dilemma concerned, say, a trade union threatening a strike which would incapacitate a hospital and perhaps lead to the deaths of newly born infants unlessa 300 per cent increase in weekend wage rates were granted, its ideological bias would quickly have been denounced. Similarly, it seems a matter of ideology as well asmorality that Kohlberg chose as an exemplar of stage 6 an American soldier who refused orders to take part in a retaliatory massacre of Vietnamese villagers during the Vietnam War.It seems unlikely he would nominate for stage 6 a person who went to prison rather than refuse to try to blockthe killing of unborn babies in an abortion clinic.



    Kohlberg and regression

    Kohlberg was unconvinced by Piaget that maturation and socialization alone would sufficient to enable moral judgment to develop beyond the conventional stage and he was surely right in this respect, since otherwise many more societies would have advanced to higher levels of moral reasoning.Kohlberg's emphasis on dilemmas was very one-sided, but at least itpicks out the truth that prima-facieor first order moral principles do clash and that reliance on authority is seldom sufficient when such clashes occur.Kohlberg agreed with Piaget that the cognitive dimension of moral progression may be strengthened by some types of interaction between children and theirenvironments, buthe offered an additional insight when he argued thatconflicts which cannot be resolved by traditional means maylead tonew ways of thinking.Yet, although Kohlberg perceived more clearly than Piaget the importance of conflict of ideas in moral development,he failed to explore whyso many closed societies remained closed and why the conventional stage of moral reasoning was not transcended in them.Kohlberg made pooruse of Piaget's concepts of assimilation and accommodation as tools to investigate whether some challenges might be too severe for assimilation and accommodation to take place, in an analogous way to the inability of many peoples on contact with Europeans to withstand for several generations new diseases such as small pox and measles, until some immunity had been acquired and transmitted by survivors.In similar fashion Spanish and other explorers in the Americas brought a virulent strain of syphilis to Europe, which caused devastating mortality and helped to change morality into more puritanical channels.Given his very strong support for Piaget's thesis of cultural invariance in the sequence of the stages, it seems particularly strange that Kohlberg neglected historical and sociological approaches in favour of a narrowly psychological emphasis, further limited by an excessive reliance pedagogically on moral dilemmas.

    If my claim is right that moral regression from a higher to a lower stage in Piagetian or Kohlbergian terms, far from being impossible, is a common process, educators will need to consider how, if it is possible, to safeguard against regression, as well as to stimulate cognitive moral development.This is likely to be possible only if there is in additional a strong inculcation of good moral habits, along Aristotelian, Judaeo-Christian or other lines.Habit by itself may not be enough, particularly if there are big changes in circumstances of life.The ancient Spartans were as habituated into some virtues as thoroughly as is achievable, yet it was notorious that they easily slipped into gross vices once away from the strict discipline of their own city.Equally true is the lack of correspondence betweenhigh competence in moral reasoning and virtuous conduct, whether in the ancient world or in twentieth century universities.The unpalatable truth is that nothing is in itself sufficient for virtuous conduct, whether formation of good moral habits ordeveloped moral reasoning.Taken togetherthey may also be insufficient, but in combination they provide our main hope of moral improvement.

    Without habituation into virtuous conduct it is particularly unlikely thatthere will be stability if advance along Kohlberg's stagesdoes occur.The characteristics of the higher stages have much in common with those of the lower ones.Stage 6 reliance on individual conscience can easily transpose, Nietzsche-like, intoegotism.Stage 4 reliance concern with the public law and communal consensus can easily regress, perhaps via Marxism,into heteronymous acceptance of new forms of closed societies.Lutz Eckensberger suggested thatthe fourth, fifth and sixth stages in the Kohlberg system were in essence more sophisticated versions of stages one, two and three.[28]



    Possible ways forward

    A recurrent theme in this paper has been the relationship between the moral development of modern children and of whole peoples in early closed societies.Despite the lack of attention given by both Piaget and Kohlberg to this question, their work offers some possible ways forward.Put in the simplest terms we may say that in primitive societies there is adequate, indeed more than adequate, habituation into moral beliefs, even though these are unreflective and oftenrepugnant in their substance to the modern mind.On the other hand the typical modern child receives sufficient variation of experience and viewpoint to be able to escape without too much difficulty from the morality of constraint, in Piaget's terms, or the Preconventional Level, in Kohlberg's,but has little habituation into good moral habits.

    Piaget recognised that children may be introducedto knowledge and skills too early, but other psychologists such as Mervyn Donald subsequently noted that excessive delay may be even more disadvantageous. Even optimumlearning conditionsmay come too late becausemodes of thoughtincompatible with the new ideas aretoo firmly set in place. The brains of the very young are sufficiently adaptable todevelop in many ways, butwithin aspecific culture only those potentialities actually utilised have the opportunity of realisation. Experiences in the most formative years may well reconfigure the sensory cortexes of individualsand enhance certain capacities. There is unlikely to bedirect inheritability of such specific adaptations, although natural selection may favour some developments in fairly long-termstable situations, but groups with well-nigh uniform experiences may develop common belief systems which are highly resistant to the new ideas and concepts.Donaldarguedthat: 'Cultures restructure the mind, not only in terms of its specific contents, which are obviously culture-bound, but also in terms of its fundamental neurological organisation'.[29]In rigidly closed societies the obediencegiven to tradition and authority may be impressed so deeply on the mind of the child, and alternative perceptions may be so completely absent, that potential cognitive and moral development towards Piaget's higher stagesis stultified. The more that a particular society has become fixated insuch a mould,the greater is likely to be the culture shock when very different ways of life are encountered.On the other hand the over-rapid introduction of new ideas which utterly conflict with established and ways of life is likely to destabilise and demoralise, as with the Australian Aborigines, theIk or many European peoples devastated by the first World War, rather than to stimulate moral development.

    Something comparable has taken place inmost western societiesover the last quarter of a century in the form of massive challenges to traditional moral values.In many schools Values Clarification and the Kohlberg system formed part of this challenge.It has been a two-stage process: the first stage was antinomianand anti-indoctrinative, and students were assured that there are no moral absolutes.Once former moral certainties were ousted, there was a vacuum into which the new absolutes of political correctness could enter and stage two began.To take the central example, within less than thirty yearsthere has been a massivechange in most English-speaking countriesfrom teaching in schoolswhich presented the two-parent ‘bourgeois’ family as normative and a major defence against anomieto firsta denial that anytypes of family are normative and others deviant and secondly to an attack on the ‘traditional’ family as the main transmitter of sexual domination of women by men and subjection of children by parents.

    One majorproblem for moral educatorsis to consider what is the optimum degree of challenge to established ideas, whether those of children or those of communities, in specific cultural contexts, and also what is the most effective type of non-indoctrinative habituation into good moral habits.Althoughcultures vary immensely and although many embedded moral beliefs and practices are incompatible with each other and some should be challenged in such ways as may be most constructive, we should receive some encouragement from the public stance of almost every regime in support of universalhuman rights, a recent concept derived almost exclusively from the western moral and political traditions.This gives some leverage for converting some 'oughts' into 'is'.There are surely sufficient moral principles, which even the most flagrant fear to challenge openly, on which to base the formation of many good moral habits, with provision ofreasoned justifications of them.There may well be a place for moral dilemmas of the Kohlberg type, or preferably those drawn from history and literature, but there must first be attachment to virtues and moral principles before it makes much sense to make children, or adults, puzzle about what they should do when these virtues or principles clash with each other.

    This seems to be a matter well worth pursuing and one in which inter-disciplinary cooperation would be valuable between anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and others.For students and intellectuals in the South Pacific, where I wrote this paper, and comparable societies this matter is one of particular importance, because they face the dilemma of deciding which parts of their cultural traditions to maintain and develop further and which to discard.Features which should be discarded should surely include those which inhibited the development of the open society and the higher stages of moral judgment.Features which should be retained should surely include respect for those virtues which enabled their societies to survive adverse circumstances and to produce families and individuals of high worth and integrity.


    Footnotes & References
    [1] Piaget, 1932, pp. 357; 374-5
    [2] Piaget, J. (with the assistance of seven collaborators).(19 32 ). The Moral Judgment of the Child.London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. 328.His references given in this sentence are toFauconnet, P. (1920). La Responsibilite, Etude de Sociologie.Alcan,
    [3] Piaget, 1932, p. 328.I believe 'communicable' here is a mistranslation and that 'communal' should be substituted.
    [4] Piaget, 1932, p. 335.
    [5] Piaget, 1932, pp. 335-6.
    [6]Popper, K. R. (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies.London: Routledge, 2 vols.
    [7] Piaget, 1932, p. 336.
    [8]Piaget, 1932, p. 344.
    [9]Andreski, S. (1972). Social Science as Sorcery. London: Andre Deutsch, ch. 5.
    [10]Durkheim, E. Sociologie et Philosophie, p. 51, cited in Piaget, 1932, p. 346.
    [11] Piaget, 1932, p. 346.
    [12] Piaget, 1932, p. 373.
    [13] Piaget, 1932, p. 349.
    [14] Piaget, 1932, p. 354.
    [15] e. g. Piaget, 1932, p. 364.
    [16] Cited in Scruton, R. (1994). Modern Philosophy: An Introduction And Survey.London: Sinclair-Stevenson, pp. 461-2.
    [17] Turnbull, C.M. (1973). The Mountain People.London: Jonathan cape.
    [18] Kohlberg, L. (1966). 'Moral education in schools' in School Review,Spring, p. 7, as paraphrased by me.
    [19] Wilson, J. (1985). 'Understanding and Using Reason' inModgil and .Modgil, p. 224.
    [20] Locke, 1985, p. 23.
    [21] See Hare. R. (1952). The Language of Morals.Oxford: Clarendon Press, and (1963). Freedom and Reason.Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    [22] Locke, 1985, p. 33.
    [23] Wilson, 1985, p. 225.
    [24] Wilson, 1985, p. 229.
    [25] Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on Moral Development. Vol. 1: the Philosophy of Moral Development.San Francisco: Harper and Row, pp. 126-8.
    [26] Kohlberg, L., Levine, C. and Hewer, A. (1983). Moral Stages: A Current Formulation and a Response to Critics. New York, p. 113.
    [27] Locke, D. (1985). 'A Psychologist among the Philosophers' in Lawrence Kohlberg: Consensus and Controversy (ed. S, Modgil and C. Modgil).London: Falmer Press, p. 22.
    [28] Cited in Locke, 1983, p. 23.
    [29] Donald, M.(1991). Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Pres, p. 14.