Stages of Moral Development

In the spirit of answering my own questions from last weeks Kierkegaard discussion I noticed this interesting article on the cross-cultural similarities in moral development.

Researchers have been conducting studies of moral development across cultures. The summary by Bruce Bower at Science News suggests that there are universal themes to moral development across cultures. This contradicts the arguments of some scholars that Eastern and Western cultures have different values about the role of individuals, family, institutions, women, etc.

Children everywhere stew in the same pot of family conflict, with different cultural seasonings added for flavor, in Helwig’s view. When parents restrict behaviors that children regard as personal choices, such as what clothes to wear or which friends to hang out with, disputes inevitably arise. Parental restrictions on behavior that kids view as morally wrong or as a violation of conventional social rules are often accepted, even if grudgingly.

During the teen years, kids in Asian and Western cultures alike gravitate toward a broader class of moral imperatives, including rights to privacy, education and freedom of speech, Helwig and colleagues find in another new study published in the August Social Development. Adolescents also appeal to democratic notions, such as majority rule, to justify a preference for representative forms of government — even if they live in a communist or authoritarian society.

Helwig’s conclusions trigger skepticism from some psychologists, including Shinobu Kitayama of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who contend that moral reasoning fundamentally differs in Eastern and Western cultures. In Kitayama’s view, only individualistic Westerners put a premium on personal freedoms and rights. Asians steeped in responsibilities to family and society guard the moral integrity of their assigned roles and duties.

Kierkegaard proposed a three-stage theory of psychological development: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. As far as I know he was one of the earlier stage-based theorists of individual development. In the twentieth century the action switched to psychology and the big names of Piaget, Kohlberg, Turiel, and Gilligan. The studies summarized by Bower suggest that whatever type of development occurs during childhood it is similar across cultures.

I wonder how Kierkegaard’s highly individualistic explanation of faith would be received by Eastern cultures. To me Kierkegaard’s individual relation to God parallels a lot of the mystical experiences described in many religious traditions. It’s been a long time since I read about mysticism East or West, but one of the things I remember in the Western tradition is the role of paradox and individual experience.

If there is a God I’ve always been attracted to apophatic or negative theology as a route to belief or understanding. God cannot be described by human expressions, just as Abraham cannot be explained by Johannes de Silentio. We can only approach the divine asymptotically.