Empathy and Moral Development

Ranges of Understanding

Empathy I love discussing issues such as empathy and moral development. Where others might spend hours talking about the latest episode of a reality TV show, I'd much rather discuss these kinds of esoteric concepts. Yes, I'm strange :).

It seems the concepts of empathy and moral development come up fairly often, perhaps of this quick-reaction world we now live in. Person A makes a post. Person B fires off a response without giving it much thought. Accusations fly about people understanding or mis-understanding each other. People wonder if the other person really "gets" what they feel.

In many cases, the person should be able to understand and simply isn't investing the time to do so.

In some cases, the person is honestly unable to understand. And they don't even realize it.

Why is that?

Levels of Empathy and Moral Development
These sorts of issues have been debated since the Greeks and the Romans, but let's just go back to the 1950s. It's during this time that many researchers began to seriously study the idea that different people had a different basis for viewing the world. A founding member was Lawrence Kohlberg, drawing from work done by Jean Piaget. Kohlberg's theory was generally this: humans are trained by culture to slowly, as they grow up, understand more and more complex levels of morality and empathy. And the progression is not automatic. A person can get "settled" at a given level without continuing to grow, depending on their circumstances.

Some of this can be seen by most of us. For example, newborn babies cry when other babies cry. The newborn doesn't understand the concept of "someone is in pain" vs "I am in pain." It takes the baby weeks before it comes to realize that its body is separate from other bodies.

So, similarly, Kohlberg studied how children learn about morality and how to "be" as a member of a society. After much research he came up with six stages that are possible. As you might expect, these are enormous oversimplications of life, but they are a starting point.

1) Avoiding Punishment. A young child makes choices in order not to be punished. They really want that cookie but they'll have their toys taken away from them if they take it. So, for that reason, they resist the cookie.

2) Self-Interest. As the child grows, they learn to think logically. If they wait for dessert to have the cookie, they'll get to watch their favorite movie. Now it's not the fear of punishment that motivates them. It's the thought of a future reward. Something that will help them.

3) Social norms. Now we get into the world of peer pressure, which is an amazingly powerful force. So many decisions made by teens are based on what their group expects. Everyone else is smoking pot. The teen knows they might be punished. They know it isn't necessarily in their best self-interest. But everyone else is doing it and staring at them. They need to conform. The power of that desire is stunningly high.

4) Authority / Law and Order. As a person grows up and matures they often have far more to "lose" if they violate society's myriad of rules. If they drink and drive they could lose their license. Now their boss will fire them, they'll lose their apartment, and their girlfriend will leave them. Laws have a wide range of consequences. Making sure to stay within the laws that affect them becomes a strong reason for a choice.

So far this makes sense to most of us and we can see how the stages tend to progress in most children as they grow up to become adults. But it's important to note that this progression doesn't necessarily happen. If someone came from an abusive household where they were beaten all the time, it could easily be that the fear of punishment remains their overriding concern even in adulthood. It was such a powerful force in their formative years that it overwhelmed all other thought. Similarly, someone who had poor experiences with social groups or with police might firmly embrace self-interest. They don't care what others are doing. They don't care what the cops say. They need to look out for themselves.

It's sometimes easy to judge that behavior as "childish" or "immature" - but they are doing what their life experiences taught them works best. If they had lived a different life they might have come to a far different conclusion.

So then we get into the next stages. According to Kohlberg's research, only 13% of people consider moving to this next stage.

5) Social Contract. This one is trickier because, as mentioned, most people don't get to the stage of considering this view of the world. This goes beyond local laws or even national laws. It begins to look at our Earth as a large, interrelated community made up of billions of people of different cultures, beliefs, and points of view. A law is just one viewpoint of one group, just as with peer pressure that pressure is just the leaning of one small group of people. So, with this stage, an individual has a responsibility to look at their decisions from that larger world view. If a law says something that the individual feels goes against the sense of what would be good in a global sense, that person can rise above the law. Yes, there might be a punishment - but the person no longer is motivated by a fear of punishment. Yes, there might be peer pressure to just go with the flow, but this person is no longer motivated by the desire to please those peers. They have a "higher" voice they answer to - that which is healthy in a moral sense.

So an example of this would be Rosa Parks quietly refusing to obey the law of discrimination. She did not fear the punishment. She was definitely going against the social norm of her society and knew there would be backlash. She was violating the law. She did so for a higher reason.

This level is also about actively talking to legislators and taking action to help change poor laws.

6) Universal Ethics. We get even more esoteric here. This is about being able, consistently, to see life through other peoples' eyes. To consider their point of view. When choices are made, it's not just about one's self-interest or social group or the current laws. It's about honestly viewing how the others in the situation are impacted and coming to the ethical, right choice for that situation. Punishment isn't key. Outcry from family or friends isn't key. Even laws aren't key. What's key is that the solution benefits everyone in the situation. Not just you - everyone.

While some people might occasionally glimpse #6, most are driven by social norms and existing laws, and bring those into consideration in the vast number of situations.

An immense challenge with levels 5 and 6 is that it requires the person to be able to truly "put themselves into the other's shoes" and see the situation from another vantage. Some people can only do that if the other person is similar to them. Perhaps the same skin color and background. Many people have great trouble truly understanding what someone from a different skin color in a different social class views the world like. Add in religions, sexual orientations, and cultures and the problem compounds.

And, interestingly, our modern world of quick-fix social networking seems to be exacerbating the issue. One study found that between the year 2000 and 2010, levels of empathy in college students dropped by an amazing 40%.

College Students Losing Empathy

There are many guesses as to why this is happening, but many feel it's the disassociation from community that the internet has caused. People now quick-chat with virtual friends rather than sit down and have long talks in person. The human brain is wired to process situations it directly senses as different from ones it only conceptualizes. In short, an in-person long talk with a person is handled as being more "real." The person builds their empathic skills.

If humans are being conditioned by modern society to simply be less empathetic then it would make sense that reaching level 5 of "truly understanding where another person is coming from" might simply be impossible. The person does not have the experience to be able to do that. So they remain stuck / settled at a simpler level where their choices are modulated based on what their social group thinks and what those in authority around them tell them to do. They don't even realize there's another way. They are content following the rules and being rewarded for their obedience. And in cases where they've become trained to think of "others" as "wrong" or "bad" or "dangerous," they pull in on themselves and take comfort in those rules.

They live life in a cave, never realizing that there is a world of light and beauty just a few steps away.

I also have a separate article on Empathy

About Lisa Shea