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human nature, morality, philosophy

Moral Development and Owning Emotions

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about moral development, and it’s led me to a place that’s uncharacteristically Zen for me.  Let me walk you through the process that’s been at work in my head.

If you’re not familiar with Kohlberg‘s scale of moral development, here’s a basic overview, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

1. Obedience and punishment orientation

(How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation

(What’s in it for me?)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity

(Social norms)
(The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation

(Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles

(Principled conscience)

While ethicists may quibble over aspects of this scale, it’s a pretty good working model of how most people develop into fully sentient moral agents.  It also illustrates all too clearly how some people can get stuck somewhere in the middle.  Many fundamentalists, extreme conservatives, and authoritarians are stuck in the latter stages of conventional morality.  That is, they view the world as clear-cut, with things that are right and things that are wrong.  No wiggle room.

I’ve been thinking about this mind-set and recalling my own conventional phase when I was a teenager and young adult.  I was surprised to realize that my time in this worldview was marked by extreme emotions.  I hated people who didn’t toe the appropriate moral line.  I was prideful when I did what was right.  I felt indignant when someone dared to suggest that things weren’t as cut and dried as I thought.  I was insulted when my elders suggested that I might not be as wise as I thought.

Digging deeper into my developing psyche, I discovered issues with ownership as well.  That is, I believed I had certain rights where others were concerned.  I had the right to be heard and understood.  The right to get my way.  The right to be loved.  I believed I had the right to be viewed by others the same way that I perceived myself.  Each of these beliefs constituted a feeling of ownership.

It went further.  I felt as if I owned my lovers.  They had obligations to me.  Their life was part of my life, and therefore belonged to me.  I had a horrible time dealing with my first major breakup.  When I saw her several weeks later with another man, I was filled with rage.  (As I recall, I threw a chair through a sheet rock wall.  Luckily, the bar owner was a friend and didn’t have me arrested.)

The Post-Conventional stage of development features the insertion of empathy and reason into moral decisions.  It is within this framework that we can begin to temper our own emotions with the knowledge that others have equally strong emotions, and perhaps more importantly, to feel the emotions of others even as we experience our own emotions.  We can thus begin to separate our emotions from our morality and make intelligent decisions, weighing our self interest against other individual’s interests and society’s interests.

It is in stage six that we can reach a state of Zen-like separation from our emotions.  We can experience them without being owned by them.  In Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune, there is a “Litany against Fear.”  It reads:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

This kind of attitude can be applied just as well to other emotions.  We could also call it the Litany against Jealousy, or Hate, or even Love.  With the realization that emotion is nature’s way of getting us to do irrational things comes the rational imperative to do the right thing even when it is contradicted by our emotions.  For me, the Zen comes through experiencing the emotion without being owned by it.  Telling ourselves not to experience emotion is fruitless.  We are human and we do have emotions.  But we are rational beings and can allow ourselves to experience an emotion and leave it at that.  In effect, we can learn to empathize with ourselves while reasoning as a removed observer.

I call this state of existence living without lies.  To live without lies is to acknowledge everything that happens both internally and externally and to experience emotions without attempting to mask them, suppress them, or wish them out of existence.  It is looking ourselves in the eye and saying, “I feel this way, and I have applied reason to what is causing the emotion.  I will act this way because it is the right thing to do.”  Emotions become separate from moral reasoning.  They are concurrent with but not in control of my actions.

This kind of existence was impossible for me when I was in my conventional stage.  It would have been incomprehensible to me, in fact.  I suppose the real question (and I don’t know the answer) is how much — if at all — we can change our environment in ways which encourage others to make the leap from Conventional to Post-Conventional.  I hope so.



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