He had influenced her as well. Five years earlier, she’d advised him to plead guilty to a lesser charge, but answers to questions about right and wrong no longer seemed starkly evident to her. Laws were not always just and rulers throughout history had done horrendous things to people. Patriotic citizens readily believed that an “evil empire” lurked somewhere “out there” but they remained dangerously ignorant about the duplicity of their own government.
Chapter 19, A Moment of Time*
An acquaintance showed up at a gathering a few days ago and mentioned that after she parked her car and opened the door, the force of the wind slammed her door into another (unoccupied) vehicle and left a small dent. She left a note with her phone number, but she was concerned that the wind might blow the paper away.
“That was conscientious of you,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I asked myself, ‘What kind of world do I want to live in?’”
In contrast, a close friend of mine recently discovered a large dent in the side of her parked car when she returned from shopping. No note was left, and the repair cost was estimated at over $1,000. The value of her car is now diminished, and she is, understandably, furious.
“I can’t believe the driver wasn’t aware that this happened,” she said.
In this case, awareness probably was not the problem. A licensed driver knows the rules of the road. Whether he chooses to obey them or not is another matter.
Make a Mess, Clean It Up
As part of the socialization process, we are taught to measure our conduct, and the conduct of those we engage with, against agreed-upon standards. Parents must decide how they will teach their children about right and wrong behavior. Is spanking effective or does it teach a child that hitting is an appropriate response? Based on personal philosophy, experience and education–and levels of patience, tolerance, and restraint—each parent develops a unique style of parenting. Some parents are permissive; others, authoritarian. People who themselves have little self-control are more likely to lash out at others in reaction to even minor missteps.
We all seek to increase pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant ones. For most of us, punishment is unpleasant. Children learn that they will be punished if they break the rules. They may lie to avoid punishment. Sometimes they test limits to see how much they can get away with before they are caught. Some adults never advance very far beyond this stage. They attempt to hide their mistakes and avoid responsibility. Confession may be good for the soul, but when faced with the possibility of retaliation, punishment, shame, loss of job, position, spouse, money, time or freedom, less scrupulous individuals may consider the honest course an option best left to fools and saints.
Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg studied the development of moral reasoning and suggested that moral judgment and behavior can be described as belonging to one of three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. (Kohlberg subdivided the three levels into six main stages.) As an individual enters a new stage, his perspective shifts. He retains the abilities of the previous stage, but his view encompasses greater complexity; he is able to consider different interests and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different potential outcomes. Thus, the child (pre-conventional) cannot understand all of the reasons for the rules imposed by her parents, but the parents can understand the reasoning abilities of the child (and can usually tell when she is lying!). A child may comprehend that “stealing is bad” (because she will be punished if she steals) but she has not yet developed the cognitive framework to recognize that rules have exceptions, or to understand the larger purposes that rules serve.
Kohlberg was a pioneer in the field of moral development and education. His theory has limitations but, like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it has spawned research and discussion.
The idea that stages have identifiable features and characteristics–even if the stages are not as fixed as Kohlberg envisioned–makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint as well as for individual development. As people adapt to greater complexity in advanced civilizations, new skills are required to function and thrive. In a democratic society, people are given greater freedom of movement and choice than in more restrictive cultures. They are faced with new problems to solve as they learn to handle the responsibilities that accompany free will.
Kohlberg’s theory focuses on the reasoning process; how an individual behaves in practice may not always be consistent with his or her beliefs and stated intentions. Still, the behavior of individuals with highly evolved codes of ethics may be more consistent than individuals whose moral reasoning is less well-developed.
Thou Shalt . . .
For as long as people have been gathering into organized groups, rules have been developed–whether those rules are consensual or imposed. Often, laws have been seen as coming from a divine source (Moses’s Ten Commandments); other times, the ruler and his advisors determined what laws were necessary to promote and maintain order and prosperity (Hammurabi’s Code).
Modern life in Western civilizations is highly regulated–you are required to wear a seatbelt when you drive a vehicle on a public road, to pay taxes on your income, to obtain a prescription from a licensed professional if you wish to order eyeglasses, to clean up your dog’s poop if you take him for a walk. At the same time, you have freedom to wear whatever clothing you choose, to marry a person from another race, religion, or culture, to choose your profession or occupation, and to speak your mind without fear that the authorities will show up at your door. (Hmm, well, this last freedom seems to be endangered but that’s another topic. . . )
As a member of a group, you are accorded certain rights and responsibilities and you are expected to follow the standards of your community. Your early experiences at home and at school shape many of your ideas and attitudes, expectations and beliefs–about yourself and the world around you, about what is “good” or “bad.” You begin developing a system of values. Later, you will encounter new rules and expectations at your job and within the larger community in which you live and participate. Perhaps you interact with people from very different backgrounds and cultures. Soon, you realize that people have very different ideas and expectations about etiquette and protocol. People who live in the spotlight cannot walk down a city street without attracting attention; their every move, hairstyle, fashion and relationship choice is scrutinized and evaluated according to someone’s standard of what’s right and good and proper–or, perhaps, fun, creative and outrageous.
Accountability, the notion that an individual must answer to others for the consequences of his choices and actions, requires some standard against which outcomes are measured. Sometimes standards are set out in formal agreements. Public officials take oaths when they enter office; vows are publicly recited during weddings and other ceremonies. Boards that oversee licensed professionals censure members who violate standards of professional conduct. Other times the rules are unwritten; we learn what our parents and teachers expect from us based on their praise and reprobation. Gangs and other subcultures develop their own codes of conduct. Depending upon the culture, violation of the rules can result in expulsion from the group, loss of reputation or position–and far worse.
Crime and Punishment
In the US, state governments have police powers to promote and maintain the health, safety, morality, and general welfare of the public. Offenders who violate the law may enter the criminal justice system. If convicted, the individual may be imprisoned or fined, or he may be ordered to perform community service or make reparations to the victim(s). He is held accountable for intentional acts (and sometimes for negligent acts).
As an undergraduate student studying psychology, sociology, and the criminal justice system, I learned about different theories that justify punitive interventions–deterrence (impressing upon would-be offenders that the consequences of being caught and sentenced are not worth the risk), retribution (imposing a penalty commensurate with the severity of the act), incapacitation (isolating the individual to prevent further wrongful acts), and rehabilitation (teaching the offender to behave differently in the future). Determination of a proper sentence is often left to judges, who must weigh various factors, but some mandatory sentencing procedures impose specific penalties for certain violations (“an eye for an eye”); the offender’s potential for rehabilitation, or the likelihood that future acts will be committed, is not even considered.
Codes that attempt to regulate behavior–governmental safety requirements that must be followed by workers in dangerous occupations or the dictates of religious authorities about what can and cannot be done or eaten or worn at particular times–are specific in their application. Constitutions express principles and ideals and state broad rights and responsibilities of citizens and governments. General ideas about “freedom of speech” or “the right to privacy” must be tailored to specific instances as questions arise with the development of new technologies and situations that could not have been anticipated when an organization or government came into being. (Do employers have a right to read emails sent by employees on company time using company computers?)
Weighing the Interests at Stake
Throughout our lives, we are faced with ethical dilemmas, and we make choices. (Should you tell your unsuspecting spouse about an affair that has ended?) In some cases, whatever choice you make is going to cause problems for you or for someone else. Let’s say one of your relatives commits a crime and comes to your house seeking refuge. If you help her, you are an accomplice. You know that what she did was wrong, but she has her reasons and refuses to turn herself in. Do you betray her trust in you and report her to the authorities, or do you help her–or turn her away? You want to “do the right thing”–but where do your loyalties lie?
Some people are sincere in their efforts to ascertain and follow righteous standards of conduct–but others are just as sincere in their efforts to get away with all they can and prey on innocent (“gullible” in their minds) victims. (“There’s a sucker born every minute.”) The selfish choice considers only personal interests. As people evolve, they become capable of considering the needs and interests of others as well as their own.
Individuals functioning at Kohlberg’s conventional stage evaluate situations on the basis of group norms. Approval is contingent upon obedience, and punishment is considered necessary and appropriate when laws are violated.
Legislators balance competing interests when they formulate policies; judges often must weigh different interests when applying laws to particular cases. History has shown us that not all laws are just, and not all decision-makers possess the wisdom of Solomon. Must an honest person obey all laws?
States exercise parens patriae (“parent of the country”) powers when authorities intervene on behalf of those who cannot act for themselves in matters of public concern. Under this doctrine, states have authority to bring suit for many threats to public health, safety, and welfare (e.g., threats to natural resources) and children may be removed from their natural parents if abuse is found.
If the prevailing belief among public health officials supports immunization as the preventive measure of choice in combating disease, governments might attempt to force vaccines upon children over the objection of their parents on the basis that the parents are risking the child’s health and the health of the community. What happens, then, if the child suffers an adverse reaction to a vaccine? If the basis of the parens patriae doctrine is that states must care for those who cannot care for themselves, are state governments obliged to provide care and treatment when harms result from a procedure the government required–or will available resources be devoted to denying culpability because of fear that other, similar suits will drain funds and mar efforts to obtain compliance with immunization programs and policies? What happens when, years later, standards change and the hazardous effect of some common additive is shown to cause long-term disability in susceptible individuals–will the government (or the manufacturers who profited from lucrative contracts) be held accountable? (Or the scientists who developed the vaccine formulas or the bureaucrats who approved them?) Will the victims be offered damages?
If your child has a sensitive immune system and you strongly believe that introducing a vaccine will cause irreparable harm, do you risk violating a law requiring immunization, or do you risk your child’s health? (A third option may be relocating to an area with less restrictive laws, but that choice may be not be practical for most people.)
Post-conventional moral reasoning requires the capacity for abstract thought. People functioning at this level see laws as social contracts that can be changed; they recognize that rules have exceptions. Justice may require civil disobedience to challenge an unjust system. A person who is willing to put his own interests at risk in order to advance a cause that he believes will benefit the greater good must often defy conventional thinking about what is right and wrong.
Ordinary people are ruled by their desires–and being thought of as a “good” or “kind” or “generous” person can be part of personal ambition as much as sporting a shiny new car or owning a mansion that could house a small village. Selfless individuals seek to help others and contribute to the greater good.
Carl Jung posited the existence of a “collective unconscious” that unites us all–beyond beliefs, differences, and national boundaries. What if a collective field surrounds all of humanity, and influences each one of us? Like the weakest link in a chain, lower-level consciousness drags down the potential of the whole. When we add to the suffering of another, the field becomes denser, heavier. When a person achieves enlightenment, the field becomes brighter, lighter. When the field is clear, advances are possible for all people and we all benefit. When human suffering is widespread, we all are affected–sometimes in very direct ways (e.g., someone who needs money to survive steals from you).
In some Buddhist traditions, the commitment of the bodhisattva is to work for the benefit of “all sentient beings.” Recognizing the essential unity of all, and the transient nature of physical life, these individuals seek enlightenment and aim to lead others there as well. (A Christian parallel might be the idea that the spirit of Christ resides within each of us, and so by providing aid and charity to “the least” among us, we serve Christ as well. See Matthew 25:31-46.) In the hierarchy of ideas, religions that teach compassion, forgiveness, and unity contribute to the evolution of humanity more than belief systems that encourage “holy wars” and revenge.
When an individual shifts from thinking in terms of “us” and “them” to seeing all people as worthy of respect and fair treatment, values and behaviors change. When a shift in consciousness occurs for a large segment of the population, laws, institutions, practices and policies also change. When the tipping point of critical mass is reached, enough people realize that slavery is wrong, that women are entitled to the same rights as men, that homosexual orientation is not a form of mental illness–and laws and customs change. For an individual and for a society, the progression of ideas leads toward greater freedom, compassion, health, and wholeness. Once the shift has been accomplished, people can see that their earlier beliefs were limited, incomplete, inferior, or immature.
We can only hold people accountable when their behavior can be measured against a standard. And if someone attempts to impose a standard upon us that we think is unreasonable or inapplicable, we probably will not admit to any wrongdoing.
If you break an expensive ornament while you are a guest in someone’s home, do you let your host know and offer to pay for the damage–or hope she won’t notice until long after you are gone?
When codes of ethics become internalized, individuals are guided by an innate sense of propriety and have less need for the imposition of external punishments. They know when they have harmed someone, and they know that harming another harms the integrity of the entire group. They understand that each individual plays a role, and that others rely upon the fulfillment of that role. If someone’s behavior falls short of acceptable standards, others suffer–and the individual feels remorse and desires to make amends, to the best of her ability.
The willingness to be held accountable requires caring about something or someone other than oneself–a partner, an organization, a community–or our planet. Maintaining secrecy and refusing to acknowledge that a problem exists can hamper efforts to remedy the situation–and when a large-scale disaster such as the radiation leaks from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan is involved, the entire global village may be affected.
The willingness of an offender to cooperate–the ready acceptance of blame, the willingness to report a problem before it is discovered–may be taken into consideration by a wronged party (or authorities acting on behalf of the public interest in the case of a crime) when determining how to respond (e.g., plea bargaining).
Twelve-step programs for recovery from addiction recognize the importance of taking a “moral inventory” and making amends to those whom the addict has wronged. (And these negative emotional states do often lead to addictive behaviors, as the person attempts to numb pain and escape from self-loathing; these approaches are doomed to failure and often worsen feelings of unworthiness and despair. Embarking on a healing path and embracing a higher standard of behavior is the only way to move toward a healthy and sustainable life.) Unfinished business blocks the ability to experience sublime states such as bliss. Anger and resentment poison relationships, further diminishing the person’s enjoyment of life. When an individual harbors resentment and blame, or guilt and shame, she has no peace.
When seeking to hold another accountable, we must ask what outcome we seek. In some cases, a sincere apology may be enough; other times, we want an assurance that the behavior will not recur. Sometimes a bad decision indicates poor judgment, casting doubt on the person’s fitness for a job or violating trust. Rebuilding a relationship or reputation requires demonstrated change.
When you take responsibility for your role and behavior, the faults of others are not relevant. The circumstances of why you did what you did may or may not be relevant, but attempts to minimize or justify your actions defeat the purpose.
If we know we have behaved in the best way possible under the circumstances, our conscience is clear. When we behave poorly, we know it, and we do what we can to make the situation right. Doing so contributes to feelings of self-worth, and it may restore our relationships with others to good health–but we cannot assume that others will forgive us. When it comes, we welcome forgiveness, and our hearts are glad. But each of us heals in our own time, and the process cannot be forced. (This is an important point to consider when making amends–if the person wronged is not ready to accept an apology or aid from you, forcing the issue is further evidence of your attempt to control the situation.) Your focus must shift to the well being of the person wronged–your desire to relieve your conscience and be forgiven must be secondary, or you are not truly making amends.
Forgive Us Our Debts
People differ in their readiness to forgive harms caused to them; some people have a more forgiving nature while others won’t rest until they “see justice done.” Usually, that means they want to see the offender suffer, just as the victim has suffered. Harsh, punitive environments may help maintain order, but as an individual and as a society, we need to consider long-term objectives as well as short-term needs and considerations. Incarceration to keep an offender off the street serves its purpose–the person is no longer at liberty to commit another offense. However, unless the individual will be locked up for life, the costs of this approach must be considered, both in monetary and human terms. Will warehousing him with other criminals teach him how to live a better life?
When we aspire to move forward and nurture our relationships, we learn from our mistakes. As part of a collective, we also learn from the mistakes of others. By creating conditions that foster open dialogue, we encourage acknowledgment of problems before they become crises. (Are you more likely to confess your faults and mistakes to a superior whom you view as fair and reasonable, or a person you know to be vindictive, spiteful and greedy?) In a marriage, this might mean agreeing to stop bringing up an event from the past as evidence that your partner is imperfect or a reason why you are suspicious. A problem-solving approach is solution-oriented, not blame-oriented. Consequences can be imposed without sermons and condemnation, which may result in feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem. When we are committed to making our relationships strong and healthy, we learn to work through difficulties. Rebuilding trust requires the willingness to give another the chance to improve.
In our personal relationships, we learn to forgive others because we understand that the toxic load we are carrying around harms us far more than it harms them. We recognize that we must allow people the freedom to come and go, to make their own choices and mistakes–even when they choose to leave us; even when their mistakes affect us.
Groups, too, sustain hatred and bitterness for wrongs (or perceived wrongs) done to them (or their “people,” however they define that) by enemies. Turf wars develop between rival gangs; nations go to war over scarce resources. One can hope that as humanity evolves and awakens, greater numbers of people will embrace peaceful methods of resolving differences and will actively practice the ideals that the followers of many religions recite but do not achieve.
Some nations have mechanisms in place to forgive personal debts (bankruptcy proceedings; student loans) –an advance over debtors’ prisons and other punitive means of extracting repayment or punishing people for their inability to pay. Similarly, the debts of poor countries are sometimes canceled (World Bank, International Monetary Fund loans).
Mistakes are part of the learning process. Our failures are part of our experiences; if we learn from them, they need not and should not determine our futures. Our lives, however, are rapidly becoming more transparent. Our actions, remarks, and embarrassing moments may have been forgiven, but they are not forgotten. They are recorded in pictures, videos, and online posts.
We must be willing to overlook past transgressions when a person makes efforts to change. People should be encouraged to improve their lives, and sometimes need guidance to know how to begin, as well as opportunities to practice healthy new behaviors.
When an individual undergoes a paradigm shift, his thinking changes in a way that causes changes in behavior. With new understandings, he makes new choices. He cannot pretend to be something he is not; he cannot deny that problems exist. He seeks greater authenticity and congruency in thought and action.
As I use the term, a paradigm shift is always evolutionary–it moves us in an expansive direction, toward greater wholeness and integration. Traumas, tragedies, and disappointments also change people. Some people become withdrawn, fearful, bitter. That is not a paradigm shift.
When we move to a new level, we may understand principles and concepts at a deeper level and become more tolerant. We are able to encompass more points of view. We feel at-one with life.
*In A Moment Of Time, Caitlin Rose becomes disillusioned with her career as an attorney for an elite branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. After being assigned a case concerning the safety of a vaccine preservative (thimerosal), Caitlin must decide whether to follow her corrupt boss’s demands that she seek dismissal of the case–or the dictates of her conscience.
1. Kohlberg’s work spawned a new field within psychology. He served as director of the Center for Moral Education at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, which he founded.
2. “Cruel and unusual” punishment is outlawed in some legal systems, though methods that are considered cruel or unusual may vary by time and place.
3. Martin Luther King Jr. is an example of a person functioning at Stage Six.
4. I’m oversimplifying here, of course; giving someone another chance is not always the wisest choice. However, if you have chosen to stay in a relationship or situation, continuing to punish someone indefinitely keeps you both stuck.
5. Kohlberg proposed a seventh stage of development that few people attain with any degree of consistency. An experience of mystical union or “cosmic” spirituality is characteristic of this stage. I submit that such a state is not another stage, but another level, one unrelated to “convention” or society or ephemeral desires. This state is soul-centered, not ego-centered (and arguably falls outside the realm of psychology, which is concerned with the development of the personality). When viewed from a higher perspective, the events in our lives take on different significance, and choices are made from a place of knowing, rather than cognitive reasoning. We see what is, and we accept our role in a larger scheme of unfolding that exceeds an individual lifetime.