This Discussion is feature more Psychology Babble. So if you think you're heads going to explode from too many technical terms, feel free to tune out. lol

 

Psychology has a "superstar" who made a HUGE impact on the psychological study of the development of human morality. His name was Kohlberg. Kohlberg's Theory sets out three levels of development in human morality... advancement indicates higher moral maturity. Let me say this now: I DO NOT agree with Kohlberg on some parts of his theory, but, in general I think he was fairly accurate.

 

The reason most atheists have a higher developmental level of morality is because we are [most of us] in the "last stage" - Postconventional Morality Reasoning. Whereas, the majority of traditional theists [esp. monotheists] fall into either the first or the secong stage. You will see this for yourself in a moment.

 

STAGE 1: PRE-CONVENTIONAL MORALITY REASONING

This stage is most often found in childhood, although it is not uncommon to find it in adolescents and even adults. This level of thinking is highly primitive in cognition development. At this stage the person [usually the child] bases their moral reasoning and decision making on rewards and punishments.

Among children, the most familiar of these is "should I take that cookie even though mom says 'no."

For many children this is a choice between being punished for taking one... or not being punished.

When it applies to logical reasoning, Pre-Conventional Moralizers base their distinction of right and wrong on this: If I am rewarded for action X, then action X is Right. If I am punished for action X, then action X is wrong.


Among Religious Adults this level of moral reasoning is common in those who ascribe to the doctrine of Hell.

 

How does this subscibe to this level?

Well...

The basic level of thinking of those who believe in Hell is...

"I should do what God asks because if I do, I will be rewarded in Heaven."

 

"If I don't do what God asks, then I will be punished in Hell... so therefore... I should do what God asks."

People who reason morality on this level do not think of whether what "God says" is consistent, or causes other people pain and suffering. To be perfectly honest, they don't think about or don't care about other people's suffering or injustice. They just want to be rewarded for their actions and not punished for disobedience. I don't know of ANY atheists that base morality on this... because if we did, we most likely wouldn't be atheists. lol.


 

STAGE 2: CONVENTIONAL MORAL REASONING

Let it be noted that few adults get past this stage of moral reasoning.

At this stage the person bases moral judgements and actions on "what others think is right or wrong" and/ or upon what an AUTHORITY thinks is "right or wrong." Basicaly the thought process of this individual is like this: "If Authority Y thinks X is right, then X is right. If authority Y thinks X is wrong, then X is wrong."  Like Pre-Conventional thinking. These people are characterized by being unable to think for themselves.

 

Few atheists are at this level either because we tend to DEFY religious authority.

 

When it comes to religious morality, the Christian [or Muslim or Jew] is likely to base what is right and wrong on "what God says" but their reasoning has more to do with "what is written in the Bible" then "whether they get to heaven or hell." - although they still may try to use the doctrine of hell to convert people to believers.

 

They may quote the "Ten Commandments" as a basis for moral judgments.... and in this stage there is NO EXCEPTION TO THE RULES! The rules are viewed as absolute, so anyone who breaks them is wrong no matter what.

 

 

STAGE 3: POST-CONVENTIONAL MORALITY

As said before, few adults ever reach this level.

This is the HIGHEST level of developmental moral reasoning.

The individual in this level bases moral judgements and reasoning on an internal moral compass. They are willing to break not only religious rules, but also government laws... if they deem that necessary to do the right thing. They are characterized by the ability to think for themselves and are more able to "put themselves in the other person's shoes." Also, some individuals at this level demonstrate a will to rebel against authority if authority members step out of line of what they consider "moral."

 

The individual at this stage tends to think like this: "If action X causes less suffering/ is more important then action Y, then it is right. If action X causes more suffering/ is less important then action Y, then it is wrong."

IT IS MY BELIEF THAT MOST ATHIESTS FUNCTION ON THE POST-CONVENTIONAL MORALITY LEVEL... WHILE MOST THEISTS DO NOT. AND THOSE THAT DO, FACE IMMENSE CHALLENGES TO THEIR FAITH WHEN FACED WITH AN AUTHORITARIAN RELIGION THAT CLASHES VIOLENTLY WITH THEIR INTERNAL MORAL COMPASS.


 

Tags: Levels of Moral development, atheist morality, moral levels, morality, morality and religion, psychology, psychology and morality

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I'd never previously seen 1& 2 as distinct - thanks for posting!

"put themselves in the other person's shoes." - It's sad how many people can't do this, just looking at the picture at the bottom I think how many Christians ever thought how they would feel if they were gay. Then again, maybe they believe Jesus would 'cure' them or some such stupidity.
The really sad thing is that many Christian are gay and fight it every day of their life. Ted Haggard is a good example of someone who lives a lie... and an extreme lie at that. You can almost see the pain he's in, and it's all self-induced. He does believe Jesus can cure him, but what accounts for his "relapses"? Sin? The Bible says people are no longer "slaves to sin" if they believe in Jesus, yet believers struggle just as much, if not more so, than unbelievers. Unbelievers just accept their self the way they are and make the best of it... embrace it even, which is I think why homosexuals decided to call themselves "gay". They wanted people to know they were happy the way they are.
I would agree with you to a point. I believe that in the western democratic world, where the majority of people are religious, that atheists are often (although not always) more moral, and that this most likely relates to their moral development. What I question is whether this same pattern would hold in a largely non-religious society.

The reality is that there will always be some portion of the population stuck in level 1, and a larger part stuck in level 2. As a result, there will always be a need for laws and law enforcement (to deal with those in level 1) as well as leaders (to deal with those in level 2). The problem comes in with who becomes the leaders, and sadly, often those who wish to become leaders are exactly those who should not be leaders.
Just because an atheist doesn't follow standard religious authorities doesn't mean he's made it past stage two.

I recall the Punk Rock movement of the 70's; a group that embraced anarchist anti-authoritarian ideals.

And yet some of these people were incredibly conformist, basing their definition of right and wrong entirely on the opinion of the group leader.
You make very good points. I fear for people that actually perform good acts out of want to go to Heaven or fear of Hell. This type of thinking isn't needed....
Great discussion
I really get annoyed when I hear theists stating that morality comes from "God". But then again I ask them," how about me, I don't beleive in God am I always acting immoral to you? "
Morality is a difficult concept to hang a hat on. For Christians it is based on Pascal's Wager. They are, also, like the wretched, self-serving, creatures in the novel, 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' by H.G. Wells. They believe they are moral beings, pretend to be, but are merely animals attempting to please their insane master.

Those of us who survive in a secular world also base our morality on self-serving reasons. We find as we mature that we are interdependent on others for our survival, so we adopt compatible methods of behavior [morals] and a system of rewards and punishments that will insure co-operation. Through associations formed with others over a long period of time we sublimate our true motives for co-operating with an idealized belief in something we call 'fellowship', 'love' or 'morality'. But it is merely a survival technique.
I think it is more than a survival technique. In modern society the most efficient survivors are those that have the most resources. Looking at those people i would say a complete lack of moral code is the best survival technique.

I would say that higher morality is the result of the higher intellect allowing a rise above base survival instinct to the point where it actually can impede survival. Failing to follow orders you consider immoral can result in death. Standing up for a minority against a government or society can very dangerous and so on.

I feel it has nothing to do with survival and everything to do with intelligence and the capacity for empathy.
"...i would say a complete lack of moral code is the best survival technique." Well, yes, Keith, that is the point, isn't it? The person who internalizes a moral code will be at a disadvantage to those who don't.
Why oh why did I not become a psychopath in my teen years. I would be so rich now, or running a country or even better I would be the Catholic Pope!
Here's an interesting E-book by Bob Altemeyer.. The Authoritarians. Its a very interesting read if you can get past the numbers and surveys. http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

Its worth a look.
I think its overgeneralizing to say all religious people are stage one or stage two- As a child I attended catholic school. I remember the primary rule and behavior guidance was "do un to others" Heaven and hell were seldom if ever mentioned. We were encouraged to empathize with the plight of others and as long as I can remember that as always been the basis for my moral compass.

Interestingly though I would say roughly 60% of the people who attended with me are now also atheist or agnostic. I wonder if that had anything to do with the moral code that was taught?

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