Friday, April 24, 2009

Religion and Moral Development

I wanted to share with all of you this theory I came up with while doing the most recent homework assignment (overview of each section of the course).

At some point in the discussion we have mentioned whether or not religion promotes morality or not. As Wolfe claims, "Both morality and religion are far too dynamic for any one-to-one relationship between them to remain stable for any long period of time" (Wolfe 128).

I believe that religion does serve a purpose in spreading morality. Specifically, religion gives a motivation for people who are not yet developed enough to do good for the sake of doing good. This is not to say that religion is only for such people, but that it does provide alternative motivations for obeying moral law. My justification for this stance is as follows:

Lawrence Kohlberg outlined six stages of moral development (check this link):
Basically broken down into:

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)

A person with stage 4,5, or 6 morality will attempt to seek morality in order to maintain social order, maintain a social contract, or because their sense of universal morality guides them to (respectively). Obviously, nothing about religion is prohibitive of these stages and there is nothing about reaching these stages that would inherently drive a person away from religion.

However, for those majority of the populous who fall into stages 1, 2, or 3 of moral development, religion offers reasons to act within a set of moral boundaries that a person with that level of morality would be unlikely to develop autonomously.

For those at stage 1: "Do what is right or God(s) will punish you!" There is no escaping His (or their) judgement, so the "its only wrong if I get caught" mentality of the Stage 1 person does not apply.

For those at stage 2: "What's in it for you? Salvation! When you die (which is inevitable) you will go to a wonderful place as long as you follow all of the rules right now."

For those at stage 3: "Why should you do it? Because everyone else in the community/society do also." Even if you are on the lower end of the moral totem pole you can still hold yourself up by mimic-ing the superior moral behavior outlined by a figurehead such as Christ, Buddha, or other religious figure.

Thus, I believe that religion can serve as a powerful motivating force for the portions of the population that have not yet developed higher level morality.

Once again I must stress that this does not indicate that religious people are somehow lagged in moral development or anything of the sort. I just wanted to provide a potential explanation for how religion can assist in spreading morality to those who might not otherwise have found it.

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  1. I think it's interesting that there is a possible broken down explanation of how morality is achieved. Once someone reaches this standard of higher moral development, they've moved from individual interests to more of a social interest in terms of morality. But my question is what specific actions constitute this moral development? What physically, mentally, or spiritually causes one to 'develop' morally?

  2. I think it could be argued that morality varies according to each individual and develops depending on each individual, therefore, it could also be argued that moral decisions depend more on a person's natural ability to stay true to themselves rather than to god or god fearing people.