From pre-school to kindergarten to elementary school to middle school to high school to college and beyond, life is filled with tests. Growing up, we are tested by the educational system. As adults, we are tested by the marketplace. And as we get older, we are tested by the medical community. I told a friend it was a good thing we retired when we did so we’d have time to go to all our doctors’ appointments.
Most of those tests are on paper — or now on computer — but the most important tests in life are on neither paper nor computer. Those are the tests we face when we have a choice between what is expedient or profitable and what is right. One of my seminary degrees was in the area of moral development and I remember someone saying, “If the reward is high enough and the risks are low enough, anybody is capable of doing anything!”
Yet, from childhood to old age, the most important tests are ethical and moral. Jean Piaget said we begin life knowing adults are bigger and so their rules ought to be followed or there would be consequences. As we move into middle and high school and beyond, we realize there is a reason behind the rules; Piaget called it a “morality of cooperation.” The “rules” help us live together.
Later, Lawrence Kohlberg proposed three levels and six stages of moral development. The first level was pre-conventional morality, and included the first stage, punishment (children do what is expected to avoid punishment) and the second stage, exchange of favors (children do what is expected to receive something in return).
The second level is conventional morality and includes the third stage, good boy/good girl (older children do what is expected to win the favor of those around them) and the fourth stage, law and order (people do what is expected because it’s a rule or law). This fourth stage is the most common in our American society.
The third level and fifth stage is post-conventional morality (people believe we have a social contract to behave in a way that holds society together). And the sixth and final stage is universal principles (people do what is right simply because it’s right).
Kohlberg also imagined there might be a seventh stage of absolutely pure morality. He didn’t think it existed, but if it did, he’d call it God.
Pastor’s viewpoint is written by Charles ‘Buddy’ Whatley, a retired United Methodist pastor and, with Mary Ella, a missionary to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.