In teaching, I’ve learned any number of life lessons. Teaching journalism ethics, for example, taught me the universal utility of developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.
Kohlberg divides human moral and ethical development broadly into three stages. Stage one is pre-conventional, the moral level of a child. A child’s moral view is that he wants whatever he wants and he doesn’t want to get punished for getting it. He’s amoral or sub-moral. That’s to be expected in a child, but adults stuck at that level are invariably trouble, often dangerous to themselves and those around them — people like Benito Mussolini and Donald J. Trump.
Stage two is the conventional level, and describes the bulk of humanity. They obey the laws, they go along to get along. Generally good people as far it goes, they are nevertheless subject to what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil.” If they happen to look around and see that everybody else supports slavery or the murder of Jews or torture, then so will they.
Stage three is the post-conventional level, those who recognize and stand up against injustice even if that injustice is backed by authorities, and even at some risk to themselves. This is the level of our heroes from popular culture and history. They’re Marshal Will Kane and attorney Atticus Finch and Captain Kirk and Captain America. They’re Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Ida B. Wells and Edward R. Murrow.
The Milgram experiment demonstrated that the post-conventional people are vastly outnumbered by the conventional people. But it’s always the post-conventional people who count, who move the morality of the world. “Those who doggedly challenge the orthodoxy of belief, who question the reigning political passions, who refuse to sacrifice their integrity to serve the cult of power, are pushed to the margins,” Chris Hedges noted. “They are denounced by the very people who, years later, will often claim these moral battles as their own.”