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Conscience: Developmental Perspectives from Rogers and Kohlberg

  • Paul J. Philibert (a1) (a2)


Theories of personal development can contribute to the understanding of conscience and conscience formation. (I) Clinical psychologist Carl Rogers has formulated a description of stages in the process of personal growth. While Rogers' stages run parallel to Kohlberg's stages of moral development, they contribute a more sensitive appreciation of some aspects of moral conscience. (II) Kohlberg's idea of conscience appears to be a postconventional phenomenon characterized by moral rationalism. This fact raises certain questions about the value of Kohlberg's work as a paradigm for Christian conscience formation. (III) Both Rogers and Kohlberg contribute to an understanding of conscience. In Christian theology, however, conscience is a multifaceted reality which represents a plurality of moral dimensions. While stage advance describes some characteristics of mature conscience, conscience is a broader reality than either Rogers' or Kohlberg's stages will satisfy to describe.



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1 I will focus on the problem of conscience as a postconventional phenomenon in Kohlberg's theory. However, Simpson, E. L., “Moral Development Research: A Case Study of Scientific Cultural Bias,” Human Development 17 (1974), pp. 81106, complains that Kohlberg's conceptualization of his stages is ethnocentric and culturally biased. And Sullivan, E. V., Kohlberg's Structuralism: A Critical Appraisal (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1977) criticizes Kohlberg's stages as being effectively an ideology of political liberalism. Both these authors are unhappy about the theory-derived moral philosophy of Kohlberg's later stages.

2 Blatt, M. M. ant Kohlberg, L., “The Effect of Classroom Moral Discussion Upon Children's Level of Moral Judgment,” in Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education (Cambridge: Moral Devel, and Research Foundation, 1973).

3 Peters, R. S., “A Reply to Kohlberg,” Phi Delta Kappan 56, 10 (June, 1975), p. 678. See also articles of Peters, and Alston, in Mischel, T. (ed.), Cognitive Development and Epistemology (New York: Academic Press, 1971).

4 Aronfreed, J., “Moral Development from the Standpoint of a General Psychological Theory,” in Lickona, T. (ed.). Moral Development and Behavior (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), p. 56.

5 See Rogers, Carl R., On Becoming a Person (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), pp. 125159. Simpson, Elizabeth L., “A Holistic Approach to Moral Development,” in Lickona's, Collection (pp. 159170), suggests a correlation similar to the one I am making. Simpson parallels motivational aspects in Maslow's psychology of being with Kohlberg's stages. These motivational aspects correlate in general with the dynamics of Rogers' stages which I propose here.

6 Rogers, Carl R. and Stevens, Barry, Person to Person (New York: Pocket Books, 1971), p. 40. The developmental picture Rogers portrays here is clearly the same as the one I use for my correlation, taken from On Becoming a Person. In Person to Person, however, it is more evident that Rogers' focus is not exclusively therapeutic (in the sense of moving from dysfunction to functionality), but broad enough to represent stages of normal development. This is a matter of principle with Rogers anyway, as he indicates in the following text: ‘… it has seemed that if our views of therapy have any validity they have application in all those fields of human experience and endeavor which involve (a) interpersonal relationships and (b) the aim or potentiality of development or change in personality and behavior.” A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, as Developed in the Client-Centered Framework,” in Psychology: A Study of a Science; Study I. Conceptual and Systematic, Vol. 3, Formulations of the Person and the Social Context, ed. by Koch, S. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959), p. 193.

7 The presentation of Kohlberg's stages has been published frequently. For a recent example, see Kohlberg, L., “The Implications of Moral Stages for Adult Education,” Religious Education 72, 2 (MarchApril, 1977), pp. 183201. For a treatment of stage 4½, see Continuities and Discontinuities in Childhood and Adult Moral Development Revisited,” in Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Moral Education & Research Foundation, 1973); and Kohlberg, L. and Gilligan, C., “The Adolescent as Philosopher,” Daedalus 100 (Fall, 1971), p. 1074.

Ibid., p. 138.

8 On Becoming a Person, pp. 130–131.

9 Ibid., p. 135.

10 Ibid., p. 136.

11 Ibid., p. 138.

12 Ibid., p. 140.

13 Ibid., p. 147. Rogers allows a Sartrean motif here:—the self as existence constructs the self as essence.

14 Ibid., pp. 147–148.

l5 Ibid., p. 151.

16 See Kohlberg, L., “Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education,” in Beck, C. al. (eds.), Moral Education (New York: Newman Press, 1971), esp. pp. 70ff.; and Kohlberg, L., “The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Moral Education,” Phi Delta Kappan 56, 10 (June, 1975), pp. 670677. Cf. n. 6 above.

17 Kohlberg, L., “From Is to Ought,” in Mischel, T. (ed.), Cognitive Development and Epistemology, p. 17.

18 “A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships,” in Koch (ed.), op. cit., p. 213.

19 Person to Person, p. 48.

20 Ibid., p. 49.

21 “The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Moral Education,” p. 676.

22 See Shostrom, E. L., “A Test for the Measurement of Self-Actualization,” Educational and Psychological Measurement 24 (1964), pp. 207218; and Shostrom, E. L., Personal Orientation Dimensions (San Diego: Educ. and Indus. Testing Service, 1976). Some readers will be interested in Jane Loevinger's correlation between her stages of ego development and the Rogers' Stages mentioned here. See Loevinger, J., Ego Development (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1976), pp. 151156.

23 Kohlberg, , “From Is to Ought,” p. 220: “Psychologically, both welfare concerns (role taking, empathy) and justice concerns, are present at the birth of morality and at every succeeding stage, and take on more differentiated, integrated, and universalized forms at each step of development. … Of the two, however, only justice takes on the character of a principle at the highest stage of development. …” Kohlberg himself calls stage 6 a “Conscience or principle orientation” in Moral Education in the Schools,” The School Review 71, 1 (Spring, 1966), p. 7; and in Understanding the Hidden Curriculum,” Learning (Dec., 1972), p. 12; elsewhere he calls stage 6 an “Orientation toward the decisions of conscience” in The Child as a Moral Philosopher,” Psych. Today (Sept., 1968), p. 26; or the “Morality of individual principles of conscience” in the much cited The Development of Children's Orientations Toward a Moral Order,” Vita Humana 6 (1963), p. 14.

24 See these typical presentations: Kohlberg, “Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education,” op. cit., and “Moral Stages and Moralization” in the Lickona collection, cit. supra.

25 “The Implications of Moral Stages for Adult Education,” op. cit., p. 194.

26 “From Is to Ought,” in Mischel, op. cit., p. 219.

27 “Denial that justice is the central principle of morality … tends to coincide with a refusal to accept a formal deontological concept of morality, but is not backed by an alternative positive definition of morality.” Ibid., p. 221.

28 Kohlberg, L., “Moral Development and Identification,” in Child Psychology, 62nd Yearbook of the Natl. Soc. for the Study of Educ., Part I, ed. Stevenson, H. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 321. In “Moral Stages and Moralization” in Lickona's collection, Kohlberg for the first time uses the category “conscience” at stage 4 (“… the imperatives of conscience to meet one's defined obligations”). See Table 2.1 on pp. 34-35. This is done without indicating why he has made such a shift in his theoretical formulation and without modifying the articulation of his theory—a procedure which is most unhelpful to those who are striving to understand his position. Thus the material in the Lickona collection succeeds in confusing Kohlberg's position on what he means by “conscience” without invalidating the points developed in my present critique. More characteristic of Kohlberg's statements is the following: “We shall, however, claim that only Stage-6 thinking or language is fully moral …” (“Stages of Moral Development” in Beck et al., p. 54).

29 See, e.g., Stevens, E., The Morals Game (New York: Paulist Press, 1974), whose chap. 2 is entitled “Your Moral IQ.” Kohlberg, , “From Is to Ought,” p. 215, says, “our mature stages of judgment are more moral (in the formalist sense, more morally adequate) than less mature stages.”

30 Cf. Erikson, Erik, “The Life Cycle: Epigenesis of Identity,” in Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: Norton, 1968), pp. 91141. For the cognitive developmental theory of Piaget, see Piaget, J. and Inhelder, B., The Psychology of the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

31 Baier, K., “Individual Moral Development and Social Moral Advance,” The Journol of Philosophy 70, 18 (1973), p. 647.

32 “From Is to Ought,” p. 215.

33 “The Implications of Moral Stages for Adult Education,” op. cit., p. 194.

34 Ibid., italics added.

35 Piaget, , commenting on Durkheim, in The Moral Judgment of the Child (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932; Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1948), p. 343. See Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), p. 253: “For by a categorical imperative Kant understands a principle of conduct that applies to a person in virtue of his nature as a free and equal rational being. The validity of the principle does not presuppose that one has a particular desire or aim.”

36 “From the point of view of cognitive-developmental theory, the relationship of the development of justice to action is something to be studied and theoretically concep-tualized; the issue is not one of ‘validating’ a judgment test by a quantitative correlation with behavior.” Kohlberg, , “Moral Stages and Moralization,” p. 46.

37 Grisez, G. G., “The First Principle of Practical Reason,” in Kenny, A. (ed.), Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays (Notre Dame. Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), p. 356.

38 Kohlberg says: “Moral judgments are judgments about the good and right of actions,” in Development of Moral Character,” in Hoffmann, and Hoffmann, (eds.), Review of Child Development Research (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1964), p. 405.

39 Grisez, op. cit., p. 365. See Gustafson, J. M., Christian Ethics and the Community (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971), p. 37: “[Responsible Christians] are to respond in the way that is morally fitting in the particular network of interaction. A new stress is brought to bear by the ethics of responsibility; namely, the necessity to know what is going on in the world, for moral life is no longer defined by a single end to be achieved, or by particular propositions to be obeyed or applied.” My position in this article is coherent with the ‘ethics of responsibility’ which Gustafson here describes. Gustafson's text helps to nuance the values adduced in the body of this paper by affirming that intermediate purposes are by no means insignificant or altogether overshadowed by theological ultimacy in a hierarchical community of purposes.

40 Clarke, W. Norris, “The Mature Conscience in Philosophical Perspective,” in Bier, W. C. (ed.), Conscience: Its Freedom and Limitations (New York: Fordham University Press, 1971), p. 363. Ibid.: “I am well aware of all the controversies, theoretical and practical, one can get into if he tries to defend this rule rigidly and literally, since no two persons or situations are ever exactly alike.”

41 Macquarrie, J., Three Issues in Ethics (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 115.

42 Ibid., p. 117.

43 Walter Conn, in a recent article, concludes: “whether we look to Kohlberg's analysis of the development of moral reasoning, or whether we examine the more fundamental development of cognitive structures as explicated by Piaget and of psychosocial patterns of affectivity as described by Erikson, we find in each of them one central and dynamic reality: self-transcendence … as the normative direction of fully human development and therefore the key criterion of personal maturity.” Conn, W. E., “Moral Development as Self-Transcendence,” Horizons 4, 2 (Fall, 1977), p. 205. Conn's position suggests that “reaching maturity” is “self-transcendence,” but argues to this through the suggestion that normal maturation of human potential, talents, and skills is reaching maturity. This position seems to share the difficulties of Kohlberg's position, viz., of reserving the integrity of conscience until the postconventional period or of denying to conscience the resonance of particular divine initiatives. My argument will be that a genuinely transcendent dimension, perduring through all stages of psychological growth, is integral to the Christian understanding of graced existence and that the individual is led into that dimension by “alert listening for the voice of a Creator whose world is not finished.” (See p. 20.)

44 Tillich, P., The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 145.

45 Ibid., p. 149. In my estimation, one of the chief weaknesses of Kohlberg's structuralism is its inability to give significance to the dark side of moral experience: striving against obstacles, depression, loneliness, and grief.

46 Neumann, E., Depth Psychology and a New Ethic (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 117. Ibid.: “This control of all partial processes from an invisible centre is the most obvious phenomenon which differentiates the living from the inorganic.”

47 It would be tedious to go on at further length about this point within the present context. I will remark, however, how suggestive is the relationship between “obedience” (from the latin ob-audire, listen) and “absurdity” (from the Latin ab-surdus, deaf) when conscience is thought of, on the part of the Creator, as “Voice” and, on the part of the creature, as “Listening.”

48 Some catechetical literature and film strips have popularized superficial statements of Kohlberg's stages, but have shown no indication that they have consulted relevant psychological critiques, such as: Kurtines, W. and Greif, E. B., “The Development of Moral Thought: Review and Evaluation of Kohlberg's Approach,” Psych. Bulletin 81, 8 (1974), pp. 453470; also Simpson and Sullivan, cited above in n. 1.

49 Philibert, P. J., “Kohlberg's Use of Virtue,” International Philosophical Quarterly 15, 4 (1975), pp. 455479.

50 I interpret these elements as representative of the agenda of conscience—the concerns to which the practical reason of the agent adjusts and responds. For an explanation of conscience with many similarities to this, see Hofmann, R., “Conscience,” Rahner, K. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Theology (New York: Seabury, 1975), pp. 283288.

51 C. Ellis Nelson seems about that dubious work in his latest book entitled, Don't Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). Paulist Press touts his text with the explanation, “Nelson feels that if man follows his conscience he will make the moral choices his family taught or his society approves.” Note Neumann's use of “conscience” above.

52 See Nelson, G. Ellis. Where Faith Begins (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1971), forsome useful lessons on a socialization theory of moral and religious learning. See also Winter, Gibson, Elements for a Social Ethic (New York: Macmillan, 1968). for an exposition of G. H. Mead's theory of social and personal self.

53 Sullivan's, E. V. critique of Kohlberg in Mural Reasoning (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), makes this complaint in terms of the reluctance of postconventional subjects to interact in groups. See esp. pp. 88–90.

54 See my Some Cautions on Kohlberg,” The Living Light 12, 4 (1975), esp. pp. 528534.

55 It should he evident, I think, that Kohlberg himself doesn't and wouldn't use the word “conscience” in this sense.

56 Walgrave, J.-H., “Religious Experience through Conscience,” Louvain Studies 4 (1972), p. 114. See also Walgrave, J.-H., “La conscience morale et la spécificité dela morale chrétienne selon J. H. Newman,” Studia Moralia XIV, pp. 105119.

57 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes),” in Abbott, W. M. (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966). pp. 213214, para. 16.

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