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Perspective on Morality

All Bad or All Good? Neither

When normal human failings are seen as signs of 'evil,' the line between religion and psychology is blurred.

September 20, 1998|CAROL TAVRIS | Carol Tavris is a social psychologist who writes frequently on behavioral research

The other day a friend told me, in tears, that her therapist said her father was "evil" and she should completely sever her relationship with him for her own good. "Do you think your father is 100% bad?" I asked. "No," she said, "I think he's a normal guy who made some mistakes."

My friend's therapist is not only completely ignorant of psychology--I doubt she passed Psych 101--but she's practicing religion without a license. These days the line between the psychological and religious assessment of a person's behavior is increasingly blurry. That's why many people aren't sure whether to judge Bill Clinton as a sinner or a narcissist, a man guilty of a few deadly sins or suffering from a few psychological disorders. When one columnist, a religious fundamentalist, recently wrote that "Clinton needs a man of the couch more than men of the cloth," and when therapists are diagnosing normal human failings as signs of "evil," it's clear how fuzzy the line has become.

Whether we are judging fathers, friends or presidents, it is appropriate to make moral judgments about behavior we find unethical or reprehensible. We are the moralizing species; we can't help it. But we can resist the impulse to assume that a person's moral lapse--or moral greatness--in one sphere inevitably tells us about his or her behavior in another. No human being is 100% moral or, that stupid therapist notwithstanding, 100% evil.

Religion and psychology, in different ways and for different reasons, both have perpetuated the mistaken idea that moral reasoning and behavior cohere in a person across dilemmas, situations and relationships. In psychology, for example, in the 1960s, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed that people go through predictable stages of moral reasoning as they mature. At the lowest stage, he said, young children obey rules because they fear being punished if they disobey. At the next stage, moral reasoning is hedonistic and self-centered; what is "right" is what feels good.

At about ages 10 or 11, according to Kohlberg, children make moral decisions based on conformity and loyalty to others: "Don't hurt others; don't rock the boat." Most people then advance to a "law-and-order orientation," making moral decisions based on an understanding of the social order, law, justice and duty. This is where most of us remain, Kohlberg said.

However, Kohlberg believed, a few great individuals--Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among them--achieve the highest levels of "principled" morality. They realize that some laws--those legitimizing apartheid or the systematic mistreatment of minorities--are themselves immoral. When faced with a conflict between law and conscience, such people follow conscience, even at personal risk.

In the early 1980s, psychologist Carol Gilligan countered Kohlberg's stage theory of moral reasoning with a gender-based approach. She argued that men tend to base their moral choices on abstract principles of law and justice, asking questions such as "Whose rights should take precedence here?," whereas women tend to base their moral decisions on principles of compassion and care, asking questions such as "Who will be hurt least?"

These theories of moral reasoning are still popular, and many people enjoy speculating about which stage their enemies are ("Clinton's a stage 2 hedonist") and whether the sexes differ in how they think about moral problems ("Ken Starr's a typical male, caring not at all about anyone's feelings in his ruthless pursuit of an abstract idea of justice"). But all efforts to generalize about moral reasoning--by age, stage or gender--are flawed, as studies have shown repeatedly.

The first problem is that people's reasoning about moral dilemmas, like their moral behavior itself, is specific to given situations. Women and men don't have inherently different ways of making moral decisions. Both sexes tend to use "justice" reasoning when they are thinking about highly abstract ethical dilemmas, and "care" reasoning when they are thinking about intimate dilemmas in their own lives, such as whether to reveal an illicit affair. Likewise, once people reach a "higher" level they don't usually stay there in all situations. By college, for example, most students reveal a sophisticated ability to assess a complex moral dilemma in terms of moral duty, of the importance of law and of how the larger society would be affected. Yet about a third of college men, in various studies, say they would force a woman into sexual acts if they could "get away with it." This reveals the lowest form of moral reasoning--an act is bad only if you get caught).

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