Saturday, 20 January 2007

Stages of moral development and political correctness

Consider, for a moment, Kohlberg's theory of moral development. I have several arguments with it, but I think it does capture a few important truths, and I think it's a useful tool for conceptualising why people adopt their moral stances.

Now, consider the way (mainly American) conservatism has framed the concept of "Political Correctness" to mean a type of group-think hewing to the party line on progressive issues.

They're right - it exists.

The fatal flaw with their argument, of course, is that this does not invalidate the stances labelled "Politically Correct", nor does it mean that everyone agreeing with those stances does so because of group-think. In terms of Kohlberg's theory, people can follow the same ethic whether they do so because of stage two moral development ("I get something out of it"), stage three development ("it's what all of us good boys and girls believe") or stage six ("It's consistent with that which is right").

Consider a possible analogy - the abolitionist movement in the States. Someone might have been an abolitionist because their spouse was one and they sought domestic harmony, because everyone in their circle thought it was a good idea and they went along with the crowd, or because they had intellectually considerd a set of ethics from which human equality genuinely derived. But pointing out that abolition was "politically correct" didn't justify slavery.

The test for these positions would be dissent, especially dissent within the ranks. Consider someone who stated that slaves were trained to be subservient and therefore very few of them could every really be freed. If you were an abolitionist for post-conventional reasons - because it was right based on your system of ethics regardless of what other people said - you might consider this proposition on its own merits and engage with it. If you were an abolitionist for conventional reasons - because it's what all good people believed, or because it's what your peer group believed in, and you were obliged to go along - then you might consider this proposition a threat and attack the person who made it or their motives for doing so.

Indeed, in the latter case, we would expect to see a certain dynamic showing up. The person making such a proposition would be vilified, and their right to speak would be questioned. If possible, it would be taken away from them (*). Their actual argument would be distorted as people reacted to what they thought he or she was standing for, rather than what he or she was actually saying. And people would engage in Two Minute Hate sessions against them to reinforce group bonds around what was Correct.

These, I submit, would be clear signs that a position was held because it was conventional for the group the person identified with rather than due to actual moral consideration, regardless of the validity of the position.

These are obvious behaviours on the wingnut sites. But the wingnuts are right - you don't have to go too far to find the same on progressive sites either.

(*) I've gone through three copies of James Carse's "Finite and Infinite Games", and now I can't find that third copy! I suspect a certain goth friend is sitting on my third copy - if he isn't, I'm going to have to go shell out another twenty or thirty bucks for yet another copy. Read up on what Carse has to say about "Evil" if you can. Hell, read the whole goddammned thing - it's an excellent book.


Anonymous said...

"...pointing out that abolition was 'politically correct' didn't justify slavery."

I love a good analogy.

I just discovered your blog via a link in a posting on Echidne of the Snakes, and your URL has been added to my ever-growing list in Excel.

Mark H. Foxwell said...

No, I don't think you've uncovered a straighforward test for the moral level of the reasons for alligience to a particular cause or position. It could be that persons who are allied with a given cause, such as the abolitionism you offer as example, for the most elevated reasons of abstract ethics, might also go along with the low-level crowd mentality types. Suppose for instance that a particular dissident from a putative Abolitionist party line seemed disingenous to the ethically perceptive? Suppose that the dissident persisted, during and after refined and nuanced debate with the moral giants of the movement, in holding views that these generally agreed were illogical and incompatible with the cause, but quite understandable coming from the mouth of someone actually trying to wreck the enterprise, or at least limit its impact in favor of the movement's opponents. Then, after giving the dissident a hearing, they might decide that it was quite appropriate to turn their backs on this person, to shut him out of their meetings, to re-examine all of his prior statements for evidence of a hidden hostile agenda and to perhaps do him injustices in their suspicion. All of this might look like mere participation in an irrational mob attack, and indeed it would politically be easier to just endorse the mob reaction and simply join it--if in sober and reflected judgement, it seems that the low-functioning mob has in fact pretty much guessed the basic truth of the matter.

The judgement whether a particular dissident actually did advance a difficult conundrum for the ethically advanced does not rest with the dissident. It rests with the community he submits it to. It may be that this or that community is operating at a low level--if so you won't determine it by any single case, but by a pattern.

Kohlberg, of course, is just a theorist, and his theory is hardly unquestioned.