The state of American politics

This story got me thinking about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and what it might have to say about terrorists of all kind – those who perpetrate and incite violence against doctors who perform abortions, and those who perpetrate and incite suicide/homicide bombings. 

Obviously, I find understanding the psychology and ethics of a terrorist very difficult to do.  It is easier, on many levels, to understand a sociopathic who murders or rapes people, because then they are clearly acting at the stage 1, egocentric view of the world: It is all about their needs, and their desires.  It isn’t pretty, but it’s easier to grasp.

I find it a lot harder to understand someone who seems to operate from a higher level of moral reasoning, yet commits acts of violence as repulsive and disturbing as any sociopath. 

Wikipedia summarizes Stage 4 of Kohlberg’s theory as such:

“A central ideal or ideals often prescribe what is right and wrong, such as in the case of fundamentalism.  If one person violates a law, perhaps everyone would – thus there is an obligation and a duty to uphold laws and rules. When someone does violate a law, it is morally wrong; culpability  is thus a significant factor in this stage as it separates the bad domains from the good ones.”

And in contrast, it summarizes Stage 5 as such:

“In Stage five (social contract driven), individuals are viewed as holding different opinions and values. Along a similar vein, laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid dictums. Those that do not promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet
the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is attained through majority decision, and inevitably compromise. In this way democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.”

It would seem that this is the fundamental difference between a terrorist’s ethical stance and the ethical stance of someone who believes in a democratic community.  And the problem is that if someone is at an entirely different stage of development, if their whole moral framework for looking at the world is completely different, how can we even have a dialogue, or hope to find a compromise?  Democracy only works if everyone is at Stage 5 in Kohlberg’s moral development. 

To make matters worse, I don’t think it’s just the “extremists” who are at Stage 4 in their moral development. That is, it’s not just people who blow up busses in the name of Islam, people who commit violence against doctors who provide abortions.  It certainly includes people who feel self-righteous enough to picket someone’s funeral because they were killed because they are gay. It certainly includes people who used to say that AIDS was punishment for being gay or being a drug addict.  This argument didn’t go out of fashion because people didn’t think that way – it went out of fashion because it got a lot harder to prove medically that it was the case, when more and more straight people were contracting HIV, and plenty of IV drug users did not.

So the question I pose is this: How can we ever have a democracy, if people are at so fundamentally different places in their development?  It’s like asking a 16-year-old and a 4-year-old to play together as equals.  It’s not possible. 

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~ by realsupergirl on November 9, 2007.

5 Responses to “The state of American politics”

  1. I thought I’d respond to this entry. I actually don’t quite buy this argument: the whole frame of extremists being at a different moral stage than non-extremists. I’ve never been a terrorist, but I remember when 9/11 happened and everyone was asking “Why?” thinking (but hardly saying aloud) that actually it’s quite easy to get swept into a group mindset that includes actions that people outside the group find distasteful or even immoral. The formula goes something like: put together people who have nothing much to lose, all in a situation that they find untenable, who all agree that violence or extremist action is the only path to change. It also helps if they feel that resolution to the untenable situation Will Make Everything All Right. When I belonged to Queer Nation and took care of people with AIDS (before the new drugs, so the obituaries were invariably people I knew) I didn’t have much to lose and believed the times called for radical action. I took part in one demonstration which disrupted a speech by an anti-choice homophobe who also happened to be a Roman Catholic Cardinal, and the folks who had come to hear him speak hated us for what we had done. If the people I had been around then felt that making bombs was the solution I’m not so sure I would’ve quit the group. I wasn’t a victim of brainwashing, but I was pretty desperate to change the course of events. I’m not in a different stage, morally anyway, than I was then. I’m just not in the same situation nor am I around the same people (who of course are not the same people at all now).

  2. Fair enough… good points.

    I do think there is a pretty big difference between killing for your beliefs and being disruptive, being rude, being a nuisance for you your belief. And maybe it is just all a matter of situation – but that doesn’t really explain the anti-abortion activists who think it is OK to call for the murder of doctors and publish their names and addresses, or to actually murder them. Those people aren’t in desperate situations – most of them come from well-off families. Yet, they believe they are acting out of some moral principle. To me, that still puts them at Kohlberg’s Stage 4. It is entirely possible however, that Kohlberg’s theory doesn’t work as well in a different cultural context.

  3. The anti-choice wingnuts are actually much more on message than anyone I’ve ever done activism with. “Abortion is murder,” is their slogan. If they truly believe those words then everyone who helps a woman get an abortion is an accessory to murder. In order to prevent mass-murder (many abortions) it’s morally acceptable to kill one person (who would perform those abortions). As long as anti-choice activists, even the ones who are supposedly not violent, insist abortion equals murder doctors who perform abortions will continue to be stalked and killed by men the anti-choice movement can disavow with a wink and a nod.

    The feeling of having nothing left to lose has very little to do with money or circumstances. Osama Bin Laden grew up in the lap of privilege, and the men responsible for 9/11 weren’t poverty-stricken either. There are plenty of people who come from much humbler backgrounds who are much less likely to risk the little they do have. “Nothing left to lose” is a story that an individual tells him or herself to be free from worry about consequences, the future and what other people outside the group might think.

  4. The anti-choice wingnuts are actually much more on message than anyone I’ve ever done activism with. “Abortion is murder,” is their slogan. If they truly believe those words then everyone who helps a woman get an abortion is an accessory to murder. In order to prevent mass-murder (many abortions) it’s morally acceptable to kill one person (who would perform those abortions). As long as anti-choice activists, even the ones who are supposedly not violent, insist abortion equals murder doctors who perform abortions will continue to be stalked and killed by men the anti-choice movement can disavow with a wink and a nod.

    The feeling of having nothing left to lose has very little to do with money or circumstances. Osama Bin Laden grew up in the lap of privilege, and the men responsible for 9/11 weren’t poverty-stricken either. There are plenty of people who come from much humbler backgrounds who are much less likely to risk the little they do have. “Nothing left to lose” is a story that an individual tells him or herself to be free from worry about consequences, the future and what other people outside the group might think.

  5. Oops, that last comment was me.

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