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The Responsibility of the Individual
in an Irresponsible World

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

He didn't rat
During the battle over Nixon's impeachment, many of Nixon's appointees and civil servants testified against him. G. Gordon Liddy, a consultant to the Committee to Re-elect the President, never did. Liddy, one of the Watergate "burglars," had proposed kidnapping delegates to the Democratic Convention, tempting delegates with prostitutes, and other "dirty tricks," but he was arrested before the Convention. Unlike many of his fellow conspirators, Liddy never "ratted," never "squealed." He served a term in prison, proud to the end that he had refused to testify against his boss. Many Americans admired his rock-solid loyalty.

Kohlberg's stages of moral development
Lawrence Kohlberg, a Harvard psychologist, wrote that we go through a number of stages of moral development. In the first stage we do what our authority figures (our parents) tell us to do because they give us food and may punish us if we unwind an entire roll of toilet paper and put it in the toilet. It doesn't occur to us to question the authority.

By the time we get to elementary school, we usually start to value the opinion of our peers, often more than the authority figures. If a classmate writes "teacher is a poopy face" on the white board, no one "tattles." A student who continuously tattles on fellow classmates is not normal, and the teacher may express concern to the parents.

As we grow older we change the object of our loyalty from our immediate peer group (the guys we hang with, our platoon, our fellow cops) to wider groups and institutions, such as the people of our town, or our constituents, or our country. If you see your fellow cop beating a suspect, your loyalty is not to your partner, but to the people you are supposed to serve and protect.

The highest stage of morality, according to Kohlberg, is when our loyalty centers on an abstract principle like fairness or justice. Martin Luther King explained this concept in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" after he was criticized by a group of ministers for breaking laws that mandated racial segregation. King made the obvious point that after living under unjust laws for hundreds of years, justice demanded those laws be broken.

Problems with Kohlberg's theory
Kohlberg's stages have come in for some criticism. First of all, he only studied boys. Here's a Kohlberg test for you. A father has a dying child. The medicine to cure the child is in a drugstore, but the father has no money. Is the father justified in breaking into the store to steal the medicine? If you say no, he shouldn't, because stealing is wrong, you are on a lower level of moral development than if you thought saving a life was more important than a law against stealing.

Psychologist Carol Gilligan thought girls might see things differently. When she questioned girls about the dying child scenario, a typical response was "Why doesn't the father explain the problem to the pharmacist? Maybe the pharmacist would be willing to give the medicine or let the father pay later?"

Another issue relates to that "higher ideal" and who decides. Martin Luther King or Gandhi may be good authorities, but what about the guy who burns down the family planning clinic because he regards abortion as murder and wants to save the lives of "innocent babies"?

Exposing evil
Criticisms aside, Kohlberg is correct on the broader issue of stages of moral behavior. We may admire the students who don't "rat" on the classmate who drew a naughty picture, but if a kid is on the floor with a knife in his back, we expect those students to tell the teacher who killed Johnny.

Unfortunately, people who expose evil are often maligned by those stuck in junior high levels of moral behavior. The "whistle blower," the cop who exposes corruption, the government employee who alerts the press to wrongdoing, and the Navy Seals who report a fellow Seal for murder are all criticized and castigated, often by people in high positions of authority who are forever stuck in sixth grade.

~ Roy Christman































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